Meditation as Centering Prayer

Waiting for prisoners to be brought to the chapel from their cell units can be a test of patience on those days when it is difficult for the guards to locate the people on their lists. But I have found it can also be an opportunity to compose myself and meditate on my expectations for the program. Normally I arrive minimally prepared—that is to say, with only a few resources to serve as fire starters for discussion. To arrive overloaded with ideas before I actually know who the participants will be often proves to be self-defeating.

Sometimes I distribute flyers containing a New Zealand version of the Quaker Peace Testimony. I still like that one because of its clear and life-affirming sentiments. Asking one of the early arrivals to read it aloud helps to capture the attention of the group and engage them in some light conversation while anticipating late arrivals. After everyone arrives, I introduce myself and the mandate of the Quaker program, which is to provide a forum for discussion on spirituality and restorative justice—two themes which are of immediate interest to prisoners—as well as an opportunity for silent worship.

The latter objective is appealing to the men, who have often chosen to participate in this particular program to get away from the noise and distraction of their units. But at what point I introduce worship depends on the number of participants and the level of ambient noise in the background (loud voices in the corridors, clanging doors, alerts, and other programs in adjacent rooms, for example). Sometimes a lively discussion about restorative (as opposed to punitive) justice can prepare the ground for a more centered experience. At other times, a few minutes of silent or guided meditation can help bring the group to a place where a more open sharing of experiences and insights becomes possible.

A preparatory exercise can be introduced directly by asking the men to share a few minutes of silence. It may be an awkward request to make, but I have usually found them willing to comply if only to humor the facilitator. This short, unguided and often unexpected interruption of their daily activity often has a calming effect. After a few minutes, I ask them what the silence meant to them—if anything. And I have learned never to underestimate the depth of their responses to this simple direct query.

When silent worship seems to fit in more comfortably after a lively discussion, I try a little more meditative technique—to explore how we can collectively experience inner peace through worship. To begin, I ask them to try dismissing all distractions from their minds by focusing on breath: inhaling slowly, holding the breath for increasingly longer intervals, and then letting it out gently. As they continue to focus on their own breathing, I may suggest that they expand their attention to become aware of the breathing of the others in the room, and to try breathing in harmony with them. After another interval, a brief reflection may be in order. As air passes into and through the body, we may also become aware of how the air we breathe passes from person to person. We experience what it means to be interconnected—both physically and spiritually.

At the conclusion of this exercise, which may take as long as a quarter of an hour if not rushed, a short spiritual reading may help the participants distill some essence of the experience to take away with them. At this point, an invitation can also be extended to the participants to share Bible verses, impromptu prayers, or simply appreciative remarks before dispersing. They take their leave of me with warm handshakes and good will, having shared in an experience of centering prayer.