What’s Past Jersey?
I have seen Jeffrey twice a week for the past three and a half months. He is one of sixteen young men who await their trials on D Hall at Horizon Juvenile Detention Facility in the South Bronx. I see the D Hall guys twice a week for ninety minutes. They live in a brand new multi-million dollar prison facility in Mott Haven, one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods and one of the four ‘hoods in the city that collectively comprise almost all youth arrests. (If you are underage and live elsewhere in the city, you are fairly safe from being arrested.)
Jeffrey is Dominican, 16, with big puppy dog eyes. His main man inside is Chris, a Puerto Rican kid with enough dignity and sincerity to be sainted. The two slide around the unit like cats. They slide, they smile, and they don’t say much. Today I slip into a chair next to Chris and Jeffrey. No class today, just some personal time with a couple young men.
“How many times we seen each other, man?” I ask Jeffrey. “How many classes you come to?”
“Your classes?” he counts by tapping his fingers on the arm rest of the massive wooden and plastic chair. Called bricks inside juvie, these chairs weigh well over a hundred pounds designed to make it impossible to pick one up and smash another kid over the head.
“I’d say 24. Yeah, 24 classes.”
I am surprised he knows with such accuracy. “What’s it done?”
He pauses a long time, smirking. He taps his fingers on the arm rest of the massive wood and plastic chair. “I guess, well…” He doesn’t seem to have anything to say to this.
“You can say nothing if that’s the truth,” I tell him. “You won’t hurt my feelings.”
“No…You know, it relaxes me. I’m more relaxed when I’m hype.” He pauses a while and we stare at the TV. “I been doing it in my room often.”
“What do you mean?”
“The breathing thing, I been doing it often. You know, rising and falling.” He makes a motion in front of his belly as if he was breathing deeply.
“What, every once in a while like once a week?”
“Yeah, like everyday.”
“Everyday?! You’re shitting me?”
“Nah, every night I go into my room and I read for a while. Then I turn out the light and do the breathing stuff you taught us. In, out, in, out. Fifteen, 20 minutes. Then I do my prayers and I go to sleep.” He nods his head, then looks back at the TV. “Every night.”
I am astounded. Jeffrey would show up each Monday and Thursday afternoon. He would sit in the back and rarely would he say anything. Only in the session on anger did he have lots to say. I never was quite sure if he was even doing the meditation or not.
He continues, “There’s this place I can get alone in my room. I get into the zone.” He puts his hand up between in his eyes like a knife and moves it forward, making a slight sound, like a ball hitting a wall. “It’s like duuuunh.” He gives me a glance. “You know what I mean?”
“Yeah. I get there. It’s real still. I can get there in my room and just hang out there for a while.” He is smiling now.
“However long I want. Well, sometimes I can, not always.”
He is silent for a while. “Reading, doing my prayers, the meditation, or just hanging out, its like I can have everything I want in there, total freedom. It is real strong like, like I was…well you know, like at peace.”
“That’s great, man.”
“Yeah, but they don’t let me stay in there. The staff kicks us out, they say we shouldn’t be all alone. All day we got to sit out here on the unit. It fucking sucks, you know. I can’t be happy out here. All this noise. All these assholes. The TV is blaring all the time, I don’t watch TV. I listen to the radio, but there ain’t no radio here. And people always coming up and bothering you, saying hey, what this, what that. No peace man. No way I can be in the zone out here.”
“That’s why it’s called a practice.”
“Inside your room you got it, man. And that is great, keep it up. But that isn’t the training. The training isn’t about finding a quiet place and escaping, that’s too easy. The real training is can you do it anywhere, anytime. Now that you have found it the real practice begins. You do it in your room to strengthen it, to develop it. You with me?”
“Yeah.” He looks away at the ceiling in the corner of the room above the supply closet.
“But then you come out here to practice so that eventually you can do it anywhere. The peace is within you, Jeffrey, not within your room.”
“Yeah,” says shaking his head and looking down. “You don’t understand.”
“Oh really? Let me tell you, I know just what you mean. All the noise, all the assholes, all the distractions. You remember when I started coming here? Well that was when I moved to New York City, just a few months ago. Before that I had never lived in a city before. In fact I lived out, really out, in the woods where it was totally peaceful and quiet and alone. I practiced out there and got real still, like you in your room. It was great. Then I came to New York, and it’s crowded and smelly and noisy, and sure are a lot of assholes.”
“Wow. You never lived in a city before?”
“Not really. I was living out in the woods where there are only trees and mountains in a little hut doing my meditation practice.”
“You mean like Jersey?!”
I had to laugh. “No. I mean way past Jersey.”
“Nah. What’s past Jersey?!”
It wouldn’t have been funny except he was serious. “You know,” I said, “when I tell those stories about the sacred mountain and crazy old men living in huts and caves?
“Wow. That is past Jersey.”
“But I’m not there now. I am here. And it is loud and smelly and no sky and no mountain except the hill in Central Park. But it isn’t like I give up and stop practicing or start being an asshole or put my head under the pillow. This is where the practice gets hard.”
“You and me. We are in the advance training. Do it in your room each night then come out and keep trying during the day.”
Jeffrey looks off at the ceiling. “Yep, enough assholes around here to keep me practicing a long time. Long time.”
Seth Castleman is also the founder and director of the Centerforce Meditation Project (CMP) based at San Quentin, California, sharing meditation and spiritual practice with incarcerated women, youth, and transgender men in California state penitentiaries. CMP focuses primarily on inmates with HIV and/or hepatitis and who are providing health care counseling and education for other inmates. Seth is presently working on a children's book and film of the life of the Buddha and a collection of stories from prison, rural Asia, and the World Trade Center tragedy. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org