Volunteer Spotlight: West Lebanon Woman Leads Prison Meditation Group

West Lebanon — At the forefront of many volunteers’ minds is the idea that the people they serve are worthy of their time and attention.

Landon Hall, of West Lebanon, shares that sentiment. In her case, however, the concept of “worthiness” is complicated by the fact that she volunteers for a population that, she says, “is normally dismissed as not deserving.”

That’s because Hall, age 58, is among a handful of Buddhist practitioners with Valley Insight Meditation Society who travel to Berlin, N.H., once a month to run a meditation workshop for incarcerated male felons.

In a recent email exchange with the Valley News, Hall discussed the history of her own meditation practice and how she came to embrace her role as a group leader at the Northern NH Correctional Facility. An English teacher and an ordained interfaith minister, Hall has worked with the prisoners for close to eight years. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Valley News: How long have you been associated with Valley Insight Mediation?

Landon Hall: I’ve been practicing meditation, or “sitting with,” Valley Insight for about 10 years. I first learned to meditate in college, during my junior year abroad in England. … Since then, I’ve enjoyed learning from a broad range of Asian spiritual traditions.

VN: How would you describe the theravadan Buddhist tradition, which is the form of mediation that Valley Insight follows?

LH: Very broadly speaking, two major schools of Buddhism are the theravadan and mahayana traditions (or streams). Zen falls under the mahayana tradition, vipassana meditation under the theravadan tradition. The word “vipassana” means “insight” or “clear seeing.” Practicing vipassana meditation is a method used to foster moment-to-moment mindfulness: an immediate, real-time awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and the surrounding environment.

VN: What led you to become a prison volunteer?

LH: While working on my master’s in English, I had known some writing teachers who were running writing groups in prisons. … They put me onto a documentary — What I Want My Words To Do To You: Voices From Inside A Women’s Maximum Security Prison — about a writing workshop run by (playwright) Eve Ensler at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women (in New York). Seeing that was incredibly moving.

I think the program (at Valley Insight) began about 10 years ago, when Doreen Schweizer, the guiding teacher at Valley Insight Meditation Society, and a handful of others, received the volunteer training and began going up. When I learned about the program, I was pretty excited and eager to take the training.

In 2006, with Doreen’s invitation, I made my first trip to Berlin in the spring of that year.

VN: How does working with inmates differ from working with people who are not incarcerated?

LH: The biggest difference is … shaped by the environment. … As volunteers, we can’t discuss with prisoners the sorts of things that might naturally come up in a group in the Upper Valley — the challenges of family, work and social life as they relate to meditation practice, for example.

We are instructed not to share information about our lives with prisoners ... and we’re strongly directed, also, not to engage in any specific way around the trials of being in prison. Educational materials are not easily shared and exchanged; prisoners can use practice handouts while we meet, but special permission must be received for them to take anything back to their cells. It’s an atmosphere of proscribed trust and sharing, which is a bit of a different vibe from a regular sangha (a Buddhist practice group).

On the other hand, much of our interaction transcends the situational issues. We all struggle with the challenges of maintaining a practice in the midst of everyday life, and questions regarding the content of the teachings — the four noble truths, the application of the eightfold path — are as richly explored in the prison environment as elsewhere.

VN: What makes the practice of meditation helpful to men in prison?

LH: A major emphasis in the Buddhist tradition is cultivating an understanding of the role of suffering in human life. Men in prison are deeply interested … in understanding the different components of suffering — the mental, physical, and emotional kinds they’ve both experienced and caused in their lives outside of prison, as well as the suffering they struggle with behind bars.

Most of them have not had the opportunity to explore these concepts before; those who choose to sit with us are therefore embarked on a sort of crash-course on spiritual and emotional life. From what they tell us, practicing meditation has been immensely helpful in cultivating inner resources of patience and calm, so that when confronted by stressful situations they cope more effectively.

VN: What do you find most rewarding about this work?

LH: For me, the rewards are twofold: the enjoyment of traveling with my fellow volunteers, and the richness of our sharing with the guys. Their dedication to study and practice deepens and enriches my own — this stuff really matters to them, and in such an immediate way. … They also readily express genuine appreciation for being a part of our sangha, which is really gratifying. In how many places during a life does a person feel so concretely valued — where what’s being given is of such direct and visible benefit?

VN: What do you want readers to understand about these incarcerated men?

LH: That in spite of their crimes, they still matter. … Redemption, for some, is truly possible — and these men are the living proof.

Editor’s Note: For additional information about Valley Insight Meditation Society, visit www.valleyinsight.org. Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-737-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.

Do you know an Upper Valley volunteer whose efforts deserve to be recognized in a Volunteer Spotlight story? Send suggestions by email to Volunteers@vnews.com, or by mail to Volunteer Spotlight, Valley News, P.O. Box 877, White River Junction, Vt. 05001. Be sure to include your name and a daytime telephone number. For more information, call 603-727-3221 during regular business hours.