Max’s Article In Mindful Youth’s Website

Check out my article posted in MindfulYouth.org, a non-profit where I have been co-facilitating meditation activities with at-risk youth and kids in Cincinnati, OH. This article talks in particular about my experiences doing sessions with incarcerated youth at Cincinnati’s Juvenile Detention Center, where I have learned a lot.
Click Here for the link to the article on the site!
Text of article is also below. Thanks for checking it out :)

Finding Freedom Within

In many ways, you could say that the topics and values of Mindful Youth are most relevant in Cincinnati’s juvenile detention center. It’s known formally as The Hamilton County Juvenile Court Youth Center, but more often it is called “2020,” after its street number on Auburn Avenue. It is a destination for Mindful Youth every Friday afternoon, which conducts a voluntary group that includes mindfulness meditation, discussions and games.

It’s through assisting with this workshop that I first became involved with Mindful Youth, in August, 2012. I have helped facilitate the group since then, and have gotten to see just how important the practices of mindfulness can be, through conversing and learning with dozens of teens incarcerated there. Many of the youth we see are living through some of their most turbulent times, juggling issues and emotions that carry great hardship, disorder, and uncertainty. The topics we discuss, of managing stress, identifying emotions such as anger, and bringing one’s mind into the present and out of the past or future, all have a heightened relevancy within the confines of 2020.

For those of us not incarcerated, and perhaps especially those of us who never have been, we might tend to regard those in jail as “getting what they deserve.” It can be easy to think in terms of “I told you so” when witnessing the cycle of many individuals who continually end up in 2020, from their pre-teen years all the way through their young adulthood. However, the nonjudgmental approach that we maintain at Mindful Youth proves to be all the more illuminating in a setting such as this. Engaging the youth in a manner that is human-to-human, we see the annals of human suffering we all share—yet under a magnifying glass, emphasized by the context of their present circumstances. When we can look past their charges, we see teenagers with minds tested to their limits, often coerced from a place of reason and cornered into survival mode. Here, the work of Mindful Youth would seem all too essential, as we aim to bring an alternative to impulse, and show a way to accept oneself. To do this, we use mindfulness of breath, thoughts, and body, to “tune into” ourselves. In slowing down their minds, teens might find more choice in how they respond to their lives, and less impulse to react to different situations and people.

In many ways, the topics that come up in our groups at 2020 are shared by all of humanity—only they are highlighted quite well by their immediacy.

One such topic came up during our first session in 2013, after coming out of a body scan meditation. The exercise was explained as a way to “slow your mind down to a place of acceptance, and find freedom within yourself.” Without hesitation, one of the youth looked at me and said, very plainly, “freedom is where y’all are going to, once our group is done, while we’ll still be locked up in here.”

We acknowledged his sentiment, which was certainly shared by the other seven young men in the group. A few others then asserted that their clothes, environment, and meals were constant reminders of where they were. “How could we possibly feel free?”, they would ask. We expressed that we respected their experiences, and that our aim is not to disprove them, only to offer a way to embrace them with less judgment. A couple of youth nodded their heads, while the first teen gazed our way earnestly, without blinking.

I felt this exchange at first to be satisfactory, that we had reached a point of mutual understanding with the teens. But this short dialog would replay in my mind throughout the following week. Just how do you convince someone incarcerated that they are free? In my mind, I know it is possible. I have witnessed it during our groups on numerous occasions, such as right after playing a mindful walking game with the youth, when multiple teens blurted out “I completely forgot about my court date just now.” Another day, following a 15-minute body scan meditation; a participant said with amazement, “you helped me find peace in 2020.”

Still, this young man’s earnest look stayed in my memory. I thought of his peers that day, who lamented about not being at home, not being free, not being able to make choices for themselves. I thought of the lives they would indeed return to when they would finally be released. How stable were these lives? Are they not also replete with struggle, rules, and unpleasant circumstances?

My mind then turned to the lucid writings of writer, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. To the apparent dreariness and barrenness of winter, he shares his own truth:

In April we cannot see sunflowers in France,
so we say the sunflowers do not exist.

But the local farmers have already planted
thousands of seeds, and when they look
at the bare hills they may be able to see the sunflowers already.

The sunflowers are there.

They lack only the conditions of sun, heat, rain, and July.

Just because we cannot see them
does not mean they do not exist.

Just as the seeds of hope and peace can exist latent within us, so can seeds of conflict and recklessness. For some of the youth, I would assert that if they look more deeply, the seeds of incarceration were, in some ways, perhaps already present even before they were ever taken into jail; it could be the renouncement of freedom amidst peer pressure; yielding to the impulse to make an easy buck or two; the resignation that “I’m already ‘bad’ … what difference would it make?”
Surely, in small, cumulative ways, some of these youth had experienced that same lack of freedom before ever arriving in jail. Without the sort of insight awareness that mindfulness brings, one may not see just what seeds are being watered by certain habits and choices.

My reflection on this issue then came full circle: we all at times might be reinforcing our own sense of imprisonment, however lightly than those actually serving time in jail. Even in small, seemingly harmless ways, we might be watering unhelpful seeds within ourselves.

The techniques of mindfulness we explore are not just for those with a record; they’re relevant for each of us; to help us find ourselves where we are, so that we might be the kind of people we want to be—more often. The approach of Mindful Youth, as “humans talking with humans,” shows me just how practical and unique the approach of mindfulness is as a way of engaging ourselves. By looking deeply, we can see the humanity we all share, and how the struggles of the incarcerated youth we visit are those we all face at one time. How do our actions and thoughts make us feel less free at times, and how can we refresh our outlook to find that internal sense of freedom, equanimity, and peace? Even for those serving time, that refreshment may be just one breath away.

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