Peace, hope and meditation – InsideTime (press release) (blog)

To mark the publication of their new book, Peace Inside: A prisoner’s guide to meditation – Director of the Prison Phoenix Trust and the book’s editor Sam Settle shares some of his journey and explains the value of Yoga and meditation with Inside Time readers

Born in Virginia in the United States, Sam Settle’s life took an interesting turn when, aged 21, he went to Thailand to undertake some international development work with the US Peace Corps. During the three years he worked with the Corps he did a couple of meditation retreats before ending up becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk. As a Buddhist master his time in the monastery entailed shaving his head, eating just one meal a day and practicing Yoga and meditation for five or six hours every day. “It was a great life,” he says, “and when I was there one of the things I heard about was the idea that people in prison were being helped to meditate. And I thought, this is a very powerful practice to learn and I can definitely see how someone who is locked up and may be struggling with all kinds of feelings, like shame and isolation and uncertainty – how this practice could really help them.”

Settle never visited any prisons in Thailand in relation to these ideas, but he never forgot the potential that he believed meditation had for prisoners. After five years he left the monastery and returned to the US. “I’d read about organisations around the world that were teaching meditation in prisons, and thought, ‘okay, so it exists, it’s something that can be done” he says. Back home he still had it in his mind to find a way of taking the meditation practice to prisoners. He moved to England and married his wife Julia in 2000. One day Julia returned to their Oxford home and said that she had heard about an organisation called the Prison Phoenix Trust. “’It sounds like something that would be right up your street. They teach Yoga and meditation in prison. You should get in touch with them,’ she said to me. And so I did.”

“I’m free for the first time in my life. This cell door doesn’t mean squat to me, and that is the purpose of this letter, because you told me 18 months ago I could become free through meditation and Yoga. I thought you were all obviously hippies with too much time on your hands. Lucky for me I was bored enough to give it a shot.”

Liam – HMP Wandsworth

Initially told to go away and train as a Yoga teacher, Settle, who had been practicing Yoga since he was 18, returned to the Trust after almost three years of training and began teaching Yoga in HMYOIs Feltham, Aylesbury and Reading and also HMP Grendon. That was in 2003. “Sometimes guys would come to the class and say, ‘I’ve got ADHT, there’s no way I can concentrate or sit still.’ But by the end of the class, by tuning them into their breath, getting them focused on their breathing and doing strong standing postures – it was quite challenging sometimes – but keeping the emphasis on the breath, which cuts through so many beliefs about what you can or cannot do. It just cuts through all of the chatter quite quickly. I’d get these guys who in the beginning were all jumpy and by the end of the class we’d be lying down in the relaxation pose, and they’d all be perfectly still. These young men surprised themselves. They had become used to being told that they can’t concentrate, or they’re no good at anything. You start to believe that if you’re told it enough times. So the Yoga class was really a chance for them to see that actually they really could do the things they thought they could not do.”

“I feel the actual sitting meditation needs to be done. It’s been enjoyable but also helped me through some difficult memories. I remember that meditation is not about feeling happy all the time. It’s about living in the moment.”

Baz – Rowanbank Clinic.

In 2010 Settle took over as Director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. “There is a hopefulness in what we do in prisons that people will learn these tools, using our books and CDs, that they will be encouraged to practice and to start seeing changes in their lives so they are able to live more harmoniously with themselves, with their fellow prisoners, with the staff and with the people on the outside, relatives and friends. We want to show there is an easier way of living that isn’t quite so fraught with self-created problems.”

Peace Inside is quite a beautiful book I tell him. What does he hope it will achieve? “It’s a book that we hope will encourage people in meditation. I wanted this to be a new book that would do two things – that offered people a slightly plainer, down to earth explanation of what meditation is and how to do it – and at the same time I wanted to include and show letters from prisoners over the years to the Prison Phoenix Trust about their meditation practice and the replies from our volunteers and staff back to those prisoners. The letters talk about how meditation has helped with addictions issues, traumas in early life and a whole lot of various stresses and struggles. I wanted to show these letters to inspire others. This is a book for everyone – it is a book that you can sink your mental teeth into, it will give you something to chew on, to reflect on – and to help with finding answers to why life can be problematic at times, and how we often generate those problems for ourselves. I include myself in that category by the way. The book is a tool for helping to get a bit freer from that. Everyone needs support and encouragement to make the best out of their lives. I hope this book will help people to come out of prison a little less damaged.”

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