Prisoners of Our Own Mind: The Powerful Effects of Meditation as a Tool for Rehabilitation
The inability to cope efficiently with anxiety and negative emotions may lead to various physical and psychological problems. The primary purpose of this paper was to examine the effects of Vipassana Meditation (VM) and X Meditation (TM) on the psychological health and rehabilitation of inmates. The most common physiological and psychological effects of meditation are: lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, decreased breathing, decreased metabolism, increased mental alertness, improved cognitive and affective performance, enhanced well-being, reduced pain and stress, reduced anxiety, reduced depression, and modification of EEG patterns. Some of the previous findings have highlighted the plasticity of the brain and its adaptive capacity to stressful situations. With the attainment of heightened awareness and better coping capabilities through meditation, inmates possess a self-empowering tool to maintain good mental health. Furthermore, with the regular practice of meditation, inmates are better able to cope with their anger and frustrations, and violence rates as well as recidivism can be lowered.
Positive psychology, a new trend in the field of psychology, was pioneered by Martin Seligman in 1998. The purpose was to challenge the focus of current forms of therapy on negative aspects of the human condition, and rethink the positive characteristics of human nature that promote greater well-being. Positive psychology claims that people possess a wide range of psychological strengths and qualities which are essential for dealing with the challenges encountered in life. According to Seligman, prior to WWI, psychology had three goals: cure mental illness, make life productive and more fulfilling, and identify and nurture high talent (Seligman, 2005). The latter two of these goals were apparently forgotten as psychology shifted to focus on curing the mental illnesses of veterans and traumatized citizens. Today, the field is shifting back to focus on the prevention of mental illness and the promotion of better quality of life.
The primary goal of positive psychology is to help patients, and in this specific case, inmates, develop their strengths in order to lead more fulfilling lives and better cope with stress and aggression. Specific coping approaches are particular coping mechanisms designed to help people better deal and overcome the hardships of life. Of these coping mechanisms, there has been an increased interest in the application of the Asian techniques of meditation as a way of rehabilitation for the prison population.
The aim of meditation is to understand our true nature and be freed from the illusion that causes our suffering. From a psychological growth perspective, it is essential for individuals to be able to free themselves from the imaginary boundaries that limit their worldviews and consciousnesses. By realizing the true fleeting nature of emotions and sensations, one learns not to feel attached to physical or psychological pain, and to let go. The regular practice of meditation teaches one about the impermanence of mental and physical states, helping the person not to react emotionally and to experience more detachment. As a result, meditation induces a state of deep relaxation, inner harmony and heightened consciousness. Diverse techniques can be used during meditation, but all of them imply concentration on a particular object or activity and the elimination of all forms of internal or external distractions.
The first type of meditation presented in this paper is Vipassana Meditation (VM). The origins of mindfulness go back to the teachings of Siddharta Gautama (563 BCE – 483 BCE), the Buddha. The Buddha emphasized the notion of mindfulness of speech, thought and action in order to attain relief from suffering and ignorance. Being mindful means being fully aware of the present moment. The teaching of mindfulness or “insight” meditation focuses on a deep, penetrative nonconceptual seeing into the nature of the mind and the world and continuity of awareness in all daily activities. Vipassana Meditation is referred to as an opening up meditation, where one is to attend to all internal and external stimuli non-judgmentally. This type of meditation requires an ability to focus and to be open. By analyzing one’s thoughts or cognitions, VM focuses on a greater understanding through the systematic cultivation of inquiry and insight. Like cognitive behavioral therapy, VM involves the use of introspection or insight, where cognitions can be observed non-judgmentally and better understood. Hence, the path to better physical and psychological health comprises a better understanding of one’s reactions to all emotions. The main cause of human suffering stems from the way we interpret the world surrounding us. By understanding and changing our cognitions, we can lead more fulfilling lives and experience an increase in well-being.
Relaxation is a bi-product of this type of meditation, but it is not an objective of the process. Vipassana Meditation is taught during intensive 10-day retreats, where one is to remain silent for the duration of the retreat and meditate all day. The schedule is very strict and meditators must begin their daily sittings before sunrise, not eat after midday, refrain from any intoxicants, from killing, from sexual activity, from lying, singing, dancing and talking. Furthermore, in order to turn one’s full attention inward; eye contact with other participants is to be avoided, as well as reading, watching television, listening to the radio, and engaging in strenuous exercise.
The second type of meditation to be studied is X Meditation (TM). TM has its foundation in the Indian Vedanta philosophy and is practiced for at least 20 minutes twice daily while sitting with the eyes closed. The technique comprises the silent mental repetition of a mantra, which is a word or phrase used as a focus for the attention. The goal of this meditation is to attain pure consciousness: Samadhi. This technique became very popular in the early 1970s and scientists soon began to research the therapeutic effects of meditation.
In the United States, although sentencing is severe, recidivism rates are alarmingly high and many offenders fail to be rehabilitated into society. In order to improve a failing system, some facilities have considered rehabilitation as a viable alternative to punishment and opened their doors to promising, but non-conventional interventions such as meditation.
Beginning in 1997, Vipassana Meditation courses have been held in North American correctional facilities and researchers have demonstrated that such a technique has beneficial effects on lowering recidivism rates and improving inmate behavior and coping skills. Because of its very nature, the practice of Vipassana leads to a systematic process of self-observation that increases awareness, self-control, and inner balance, thus helping inmates make wiser decisions.
According the North American Vipassana Prison Project, to this day, only three research studies have been conducted on the effects of Vipassana Meditation (VM) courses on inmates in North America.
In 2002, a study conducted at the North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) in Seattle, Washington, demonstrated that inmates participating in VM courses were 20% less likely to return to jail than the general inmate population who did not complete a course. Furthermore, Parks and Marlatt (2006) evaluated the effects of VM courses on substance use, recidivism, and psychological outcomes in an incarcerated population. According to the authors, previous findings in India suggested that VM courses are correlated to lowered levels of recidivism, depression, anxiety, hostility, and increased cooperation with prison authorities. The first Vipassana courses offered in a North American correctional facility were conducted at the North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF), a minimum-security adult jail in Seattle, Washington, with male and female inmates. Five men’s courses and four women’s courses were evaluated during a 15-month period. Study participants completed baseline measures 1 week prior to the start of the course, and a post-course assessment within 1 week of the end of the course. Follow-up assessments were administered 3 and 6 months after release from NRF. The total number of participants who volunteered for the Vipassana course was 79.2% men and 20.8% women, ranging in age from 19 to 58 years. Results indicated a significant relationship between participation in the VM course and post incarceration substance use, as well as improved psychosocial functioning. Thus, participants reported lower levels of psychiatric symptoms, more internal alcohol-related locus of control, and higher levels of optimism.
Unfortunately, very little research has been conducted on the effects of VM courses in prisons. The preliminary results are very encouraging, but not many facilities are open to trying alternative treatments for rehabilitation. Furthermore, unlike X Meditation (TM), VM courses are very demanding and require strong commitment. Sitting for 10 days in absolute silence and meditating 10 or more hours each day is very challenging. Also, one of the possible reasons for the lack of research is probably a lack of funding. Vipassana courses, as taught by S.N. Goenka, are entirely free. Participants are encouraged to make a donation only if they complete the course and no donations are accepted by people who have not completed a retreat. Also, unlike TM teachers, Vipassana teachers worldwide work as volunteers and are not remunerated. Thus, the money that is donated helps maintain or open new retreat centers, but does not fund research.
Unlike VM, X Meditation (TM) has generated an extensive amount of research in many different areas. TM has become famous in the 1960s when the Beatles introduced the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to the West. Since then, many paying courses have been held worldwide and a university has been created. Thus, the majority of the research on TM has been conducted and sponsored by the Maharishi University.
The rationale behind the use of TM as a means for rehabilitation of prison inmates is the notion that people at different stages of self-development are at greater or lesser risk for committing crimes. Alexander, Walton, and Goodman (2003) have simplified Loevinger’s stages of ego development into three major levels: Preconventional, Conventional, and Postconventional. Each level contains several other stages of development, which vary along dimensions of impulse control, conscious concerns, and interpersonal and cognitive styles. Thus, people at lower levels of development are more likely to engage in basic coping mechanisms such as being impulsive or egocentric. Furthermore, people demonstrating a needs-gratification frame of reference tend to experience strenuous interpersonal relations and have little awareness of inner states. Therefore, such people might be unaware or have difficulty conforming to the conventions, rules, or laws of society and may engage in criminal behaviors. The next level is the Conventional level, in which the person can be described as conformist, self-aware, and conscientious. This level is typically attained by late adolescence. Finally, the last level is the Postconventional level, which is the most mature type of functioning in Loevinger’s framework. People at this level have a capacity for self-actualization, are autonomous, experience inner fulfillment, strong moral values and respect for others, and demonstrate flexibility in adapting to demands and coping with external or internal conflicts. Proponents of the TM method cite previous studies indicating that TM programs enhance self-development and self-actualization, thus suggesting that continued practice of this type of meditation facilitates advancement through the stages of self-development in adulthood. Therefore, by introducing TM programs as a means for rehabilitation, self-development can be accelerated in inmates, thus providing them with a technique that promotes a greater ability to function in a manner acceptable to society.
In their study, Alexander, Walton, and Goodman (2003) discuss the use of TM as a means for rehabilitation of repeat offenders. According to their research, the practice of TM reduces multiple factors such as anxiety, aggression, addictions, and other psychological as well as physiological factors linked to the likelihood of committing a crime. Therefore, they propose that the systematic practice of this type of meditation promotes the experience of transcendental consciousness, which in turn alleviates stress-induced imbalances including hypertension, psychopathology, as well as addictive behaviors. The purpose of their study was to demonstrate that the practice of TM by prison inmates would lead to more rapid self-development, increased experiences of major states of consciousness said to be higher than walking, sleeping, and dreaming, and the reduction of psychopathological conditions. The researchers hypothesized that, compared to control groups, inmates practicing the TM program would show decreased psychopathology, as indicated by questionnaire measures of psychoticism, hostility, aggression, depression, and psychopathic deviation; they would show enhanced personality development, particularly as indicated by measures of ego- or self-development, moral reasoning, and cognitive development; and finally, they would show increased reports of higher states of consciousness, as indicated by scores on the State of Consciousness Inventory. The subjects were 160 adult male inmates from the Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI), Walpole: a maximum-security institution. Results indicated that inmates who had practiced the TM program for a duration of 20 months had improved scores compared to the control group. Highly significant differences were found in development, consciousness, and psychopathology scores. Thus, the results confirmed the stated hypothesis that inmates practicing TM would demonstrate reduced levels of psychopathology, increased self-development, and increased experiences of higher states of consciousness.
In the second part of the Walpole Study, Alexander and Orme-Johnson (2003) studied longitudinal changes in self-development and psychopathology over a 15.7 month period in 271 maximum-security prisoners. For this study, four groups were compared: prisoners participating in the TM program, counseling, drug rehabilitation, or Muslim or Christian groups. The results indicated that only regular participants in the TM program changed significantly, moving from Loevinger’s Conformist level, which is characterized by an exploitative orientation, to the Self Aware level, which is characterized by a greater awareness of norms and goals. Furthermore, TM participants demonstrated significant reductions in aggression, schizophrenic symptoms, decreased trait-anxiety, and increased frequency of post-conceptual experience of higher states of consciousness. Thus, the results of the longitudinal follow-up corroborated the cross-sectional findings, showing that TM practice increases self-development.
In the third part of the Walpole Study, Alexander, Rainforth, Frank, Grant, Von Stade, and Walton (2003) conducted a retrospective investigation of recidivism among 286 inmates released from Walpole prison, by following them for 59 months. Results indicated that only 32% of inmates who practiced the TM technique returned to prison for a stay of 30 days or more, compared to 48% of inmates who participated in other prison programs. Therefore, the practice of TM correlated with a statistically significant reduction in recidivism of 33%. Again, those findings were consistent with the assumption that regular practice of TM would result in reduced psychopathology, accelerated psychological development, and reduced criminal behavior.
In another study, Rainforth, Alexander, and Cavanaugh (2003) examined recidivism rates over a 15-year period among inmates trained in the TM method who had been released from a maximum security prison in California. From 1975 to 1982, a total of 153 inmates at Folsom Prison participated in the TM program. By 1982, all of them had been paroled. The researchers matched each TM participant to a non-meditating control subject from the Folsom Prison records, controlling for variables such as parole year, race, offence, prior commitment record, age, history of drug abuse, ethnicity, marital status, educational attainment, IQ, employment history, military service, age at first arrest and first commitment, age at parole, months served, and rule violations prior to entry into the study. Results were statistically significant and indicated that the TM group had a 46.7% recidivism rate during follow-up period compared to 66.7% for the controls. Furthermore, the results also indicated that the TM program demonstrated lasting rehabilitation effects.
In their pilot study, Orme-Johnson and Moore (2003) investigated the physiological and psychological effects of TM on 17 prison inmates who practiced the method for two months. Participants were male inmates of La Tuna Federal Penitentiary near El Paso, Texas, who had been incarcerated for narcotic-related crimes. Results indicated increased stability of the autonomic nervous system, as indicated by fewer spontaneous skin resistance responses (SSRR). Furthermore, reductions in rigidity, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors were observed on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI): decreased Psychastenia and Social Introversion. Also, it was noted that regularity of practice correlated significantly with the percentage decrease in SSRR, which in turn correlated with decreased Psychasthenia. As noted by the authors, previous studies have indicated electrodermal hyporeactivity of subjects with antisocial behavior. Thus, psychopathic, delinquent, hyperactive, and aggressive individuals show lower tonic levels of skin conductance, smaller amplitude autonomic responses to stimulation, slower recovery of the skin resistance response, and fewer SSRR. In light of such physiological responses, the authors discuss previous studies showing that antisocial individuals suffer from an unresponsive autonomic nervous system, and therefore exhibit little to no anxiety or criminal inhibition. Whereas psychopathic inmates demonstrate slow electrodermal recovery from stimulation or lack of electrodermal and heart rate responses, TM subjects demonstrated more rapid recovery and larger amplitude of electrodermal and heart rate responses. Therefore, Orme-Johnson and Moore (2003) propose that this type of meditation increases reactivity of feelings, spontaneity, capacity for warm interpersonal relations, affective maturity, integrated perspective on self and the world, and resilient sense of self. Such personality changes are associated with positive behavioral changes, including decrease recidivism and better rehabilitation of the inmate population.
Based on his review of the literature on TM, Hawkins (2003) also notes that incarcerated offenders show rapid positive changes in risk factors associated with criminal behavior. Hence, with the regular practice of TM, factors such as anxiety, aggression, hostility, moral judgment, in-prison rule infractions, and substance abuse are greatly improved. Furthermore, it is noted that the TM program significantly helps reduce substance use as well as the underlying factors that trigger substance dependence, such as anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and other forms of psychological distress. As a holistic approach, TM addresses psychological as well as physical issues. Thus, psychological health as well as autonomic functioning and neuroendocrine balance can be achieved. As a result, the practice of TM not only improves the current status of inmates, but also provides long-term outcomes such as lower recidivism rates for parolee practitioners and lower relapse rates for addicts.
In review of the above studies on the effects of X Meditation and Vipassana Meditation on prison inmates, it appears that similar results can be obtained with the practice of either form of meditation.
In contrast to the TM program which relies on the repetition of a given mantra, the VM program shares some similarities with cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy involves recognizing unhelpful patterns of thinking and modifying or replacing these patterns with more realistic or helpful ones. However, with Vipassana Meditation, the emphasis is on acknowledging thoughts and their impermanence, and learning to let go without identifying with them.
Perhaps, the Vipassana program has generated less research in the area of forensic psychology because of the strenuous conditions necessitated in order to complete a course. Thus, unless they are extremely motivated, inmates might demonstrate greater difficulty participating in such a program than they would with the TM program, which only requires two short 20-minute sessions per day.
Finally, based on the current research conducted at several maximum-security prisons, including Folsom and San Quentin in California, and Walpole in Massachusetts, Magill (2003) reports that up to 56% fewer inmates are convicted of new crimes after completing the TM program. Such results emphasize how beneficial the introduction of meditation programs in correctional facilities are. Thus, not only does meditation improve physical and psychological behaviors of inmates and reduces recidivism, it is also a cost-effective way to address rehabilitation.
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