Friday, June 20, 2008

The Dhamma Brothers

I saw a movie a few nights ago called 'The Dhamma Brothers'. It's about a meditation program at Donaldson correctional facility in Alabama, one of the most violent prisons in the country. Two Bhuddist teachers of Vipassana meditation led a 10-day silent retreat for a volunteer group of inmates. They got up at dawn and meditated for several hours each day. Some of the inmates went through an amazing transformation.

They were forced to confront and accept the horrible crimes they had committed. When you aren't allowed to talk for 10 days, and all you have are your thoughts to keep you company, it's hard to ignore your feelings. Many of them had breakdowns as they felt the full force of their own suffering for the first time.

At first, the warden was skeptical that the prisoners were just acting to get parole; "fake it 'til you make it". Then he started noticing major changes in the inmates' behavior. They became less violent and easier to deal with. Some of them left their gangs. Even after the program was discontinued thanks to an overzealous chaplain, many of the "Dhamma brothers" continued meditating on their own.

It's hard to doubt a grown man's sincerity when you see tears running down his cheeks. These men were hardened criminals, most of them serving life sentences for murder, who rediscovered perspective and humanity simply by spending focused time with themselves.

Meditation is a powerful tool. There are two types of knowledge: intellectual and visceral. You can read books until you're cross-eyed and you will never connect with the fundamental, animal, visceral side of living.
We like to think of ourselves as rational, conscious beings. It's reassuring to us. We're in control of our minds and therefore our lives. But that's more illusion than reality.

Neuroscience and meditation have shown us that the human mind is like a monkey riding an elephant. The monkey is our conscious and the elephant is our subconscious. The monkey can tell the elephant where to go, but ultimately the elephant is going to do what it wants. The monkey likes to be in charge however, so it retroactively decides it was the one that chose the direction.

To illustrate the point, imagine doing a simple algebra problem. Do you have to go over everything you ever learned about algebra in your head to solve that problem? No, your subconscious navigates the strata of accumulated knowledge and practically hands you the answer. What happens when you decide on an entree at a restaurant? Do you make a pro/con list for each item and weigh them accordingly? Or do you decide based on a feeling? Where does that feeling come from?

Meditation is plugging back into the vastness of human experience. It's acknowledging that your conscious, declarative mind is only a small slice of the pie.


Anonymous said...

I've been through the course several times (not in the US, and not in prison!). It is a very tough course, and I'm not surprised it causes breakdowns among some inmates.
One cavil: "all you have are your thoughts to keep you company" isn't quite what happens, as you are well occupied focusing and experiencing your existence on a much more elemental level during these 10 days. It really is a form of deep surgery on the mind.

Stan Bleszynski said...

Hi Stephan,

I saw the trailer on Youtube. You have a knack for stumbling upon fascinating subjects 8-:)

I can 100% subscribe to your views about subconscious and perhaps enhance your "elephant/monkey" model based on my personal experience. I think the elephant is actually running the show while the "monkey" is just a tool a co-processor to perform some specific logical calculations in sequential time. There are so many details that are poorly known or unknown. For the example, the structure of the "elephant" itself seems to be dual: it has a physical part that can be associated with specific portions of our brain (you are probably studying it), and a "non-physical" part (whatever way one can put it, meaning not-associated with any identifiable physical part of our bodies).

I found very early on in my teens that I could not solve complex mathematical problems using my "monkey" mind (logic) alone, I had to use intuition and I had to encourage my intuition to act upon it as the primary mover, not just a helper. It was and is the same with any problem-solving activity I do right now in my work to this day (I am sensor design consultant, a physicist). When one does that consistently, i.e allows and encourages the "elephant" do its job, then one discovers that other things begin happening in a surprizing positive way. It makes one question our commom concepts about time and space, causality etc.

Intuition is not the same as emotions, this is the most common mistake people make. Emotions are not helpful at all (just like logic isn't) in engaging our intuitive mind - the "elephant" to take its due place in our lives.

I found that the common religious concepts such as "forgivness of sins", "love of God", "fear of God", "repentance for sins", "feeling thankful for somebody's dying for our sins" are false concepts that do not lead us (well not me anyway) in the right diretion - towards reconnecting with our intuitive superconscious. In other words and in myhumble opinion, monoteistic religions are not helpful in this respect and may even do more harm than good. What is helpful are meditation, dreamwork and often looking inwards with no preconceived ideas and preconceived emotions or structures.

Based on that I can very well believe that the Dharma Brother story may actually be possible. I have the nagging feeling that we all would have been better off if we cultivated more choices in our selection of things to believe in, including Buddhism.


Debs said...

Oh, I saw that listing in my email and totally forgot I wanted to see it! Will check it out on DVD. What a cool testament to the power of meditation.

It reminds me of a story
I heard on This American Life, about men in prison putting on a production of Hamlet and being transformed by the experience. For anyone in a hardened, hurt place in their lives like that (I see this with at risk youth through work), a program that touches you on an elemental level -- and then lets you reflect -- can be incredibly transformative.

I do think there are other types of knowledge between intellectual and visceral, or at least different kinds of each. It's more complex rather than binary. I also agree with Stan about the subtle difference between emotion and intuition.

Meditation has helped me realize that where the intellect is useful is not in taking credit for the elephant's path, but in having insights about why the elephant goes where it does. Sometimes this changes the elephant's path, sometimes it doesn't, but that's not why you try. Meditation is about awareness on all levels.

A recent and bizarre example: I had a visceral negative reaction to a friend's friend one day. I could have just said my intuition knows best and followed it. I could have let my monkey mind convince me the person was perfectly nice and I was off-base. But instead, I let my intellect and my visceral side have a frank conversation (which is hard) and my intellect actually figured out that I was not reacting to the person but... his sunglasses. He was wearing the same sunglasses as someone violent I'd known a long time ago. The second time we hung out, he lent the sunglasses to our mutual friend for a while and I suddenly had the same reaction to her. My intellect found this and the awareness ended up changing my visceral reaction after a little while (but importantly, I didn't ask it to do that). I was able to become his friend, and the sunglasses were no longer an issue at all because I'd identified them. A nice collaboration of intellect and intuition.

It sounds like program in the prison was successful with that as well; if the men got to reflect after the meditation experience, that experience of articulating insight was probably helpful on top of the meditation. It doesn't change the elephant, but it may help redirect the elephant down the road.

Violent youth who go through programs where they can do something that connects with their visceral side (performance, visual art, and backpacking programs stand out), and then reflect on their experiences individually and as a group, go through powerful transformations. They get in touch with something at their core, and their minds become freed somewhat from whatever was justifying their problematic behavior before.

I wonder if anyone's brought meditation into programs for at-risk youth in this country. I'll have to look into that.

Food Is Love

Stephan Guyenet said...


Thanks, I like your "co-processor" idea. It makes sense. After all, the monkey is there to do more than just irritate us.

The only part I differ on is I don't believe there's a non-physical part of our mind. I think there's room in the complexity of our brains to explain every subtlety of our thoughts and behavior. Not that we are anywhere near understanding how it all works, but it's hypothetically possible that the brain itself is doing everything. It's a fantastically complex structure.

I don't think that has any implications for Buddhist thought though, because the idea of interconnectedness doesn't require a supernatural element.

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Unknown said...

I was interested to read the reactions to The Dhamma Brothers documentary film. It had such a profound effect on me that I immediately signed up for a 10-day Vipassana course in Colorado and sat down and wrote a letter to one of the maximum-security prison inmates featured in the film, Grady Bankhead. Both the Vipassana course and getting to know Grady have transformed my experience of myself and everyone else in my life.
In order to give Grady a "voice" in the free world, I designed a web site that presents his journey from death row to dharma- the path of enlightenment. If it is true that Vipassana is experiental and not something that can be read or learned from lectures, then surely to appreciate the life of a prison inmate, one must reach beyond known experiences and grow in compassion.
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