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Practicing Mindfulness in Prison

Cliff Neuman L’73 and his wife Margot offer incarcerated people a radical perspective on their situation: Imprisonment is a choice.

“Being a prisoner is a place and not necessarily a state of mind,” Neuman said. “You’re only in prison to the extent you allow yourself to be. You have a choice. And there are some people who can get their minds settled down to a place where they can be incredibly productive and creative while in prison.”

The Neumans, early followers of Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, have practiced meditation for more than 40 years. They began the Mindfulness Peace Project in 2004, which aims to help incarcerated individuals not only cope but also transform their approach to life. Neuman, in addition to serving as the nonprofit’s CEO, is the semi-retired principal of his own corporate and securities practice.

The Mindfulness Peace Project comprises three programs for incarcerated people: The Ratna Peace Initiative, which offers a study of Buddhist texts and mindfulness; Veterans Peace of Mind; and Solitary Confinement, which the Neumans developed at the behest of the Colorado Department of Corrections because of the detrimental effects of solitary confinement on mental health. A fourth program, Fearless Victory, integrates equine therapy with mindfulness practice for traumatized veterans. The Neumans employ a full-time director of education at the nonprofit and manage a host of volunteers.

The course material is presented in a series of written chapters and correlating questions to ponder. Incarcerated individuals either correspond with Mindfulness Peace Project staff or discuss their answers at prison meditation instruction sessions. In-person visits have not taken place since the pandemic.

More than 400 incarcerated people have completed the programs, and Neuman said that at any given time, Mindfulness Peace Project staff is in correspondence with 500 incarcerated people.

“We don’t proselytize,” Neuman said. “We only offer instruction to people who ask for it.”

Neuman describes the role of meditation.

“One of my teachers said that meditation is the process of becoming familiar. Depending on what you’re getting familiar with, it’s either a helpful thing or not a helpful thing,” Neuman said. “For example, if you spend all your time angry, then you would be said to be meditating on anger and becoming very familiar with anger. In the case of disciplined meditation, what you’re becoming familiar with is the nature of your mind. You’re becoming familiar with how your mind works and how your mind affects you and your world, and how you perceive your world.”

Teaching mindfulness is beneficial because it slows mental chatter that can become consuming, he said.

“What we tend to teach is you don’t need to be sitting on a cushion or chair to be meditating,” Neuman said. “You can be meditating doing the dishes or brushing your teeth or doing your job because what you can do in your mind is regardless of what you’re doing physically. You can learn how to be awake and aware of what your mind is doing, and that is meditating. And the more you meditate, the stronger your mind becomes.”

The Neumans’ mindfulness courses are offered at prisons throughout the country, with concentrations in Colorado and Florida, as those are the states where the couple resides. The reception to the programs, which the pair mostly self-fund, has been mostly positive, Neuman said.

“With some prisoners it clicks and it becomes transformational, and for others, they don’t relate,” he said, adding that many prison administrations support the programs, but not all.

The courses, Neuman said, are secular and simply aimed at helping some of society’s most vulnerable to quiet and control their own minds.

“The program tells them they have a choice — that they actually have the tools and the ability to liberate themselves even though they’re inside four walls,” he said. “It’s an eye-opener for a lot of people.”