Vipassana and the Trinity
Coming to know the Inner Beauty
of the Relational Self while in Prison
A Reflection by Teri Daily
A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group on the topic of “inner beauty.” As I prepared for the talk, I thought of some people who are, for me, icons of inner beauty: Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I also thought of the Dhamma brothers. The Dhamma brothers were a group of inmates at Donaldson Prison in Alabama. (1) Donaldson is a maximum security prison, housing those who have committed violent and often heinous crimes; not surprisingly, it’s a breeding ground for continued violence.
More than a decade ago, the psychologist at Donaldson heard about a prison in India where a meditative practice called Vipassana had a healing effect on the prison environment, and he wondered if the practice could have the same effect at Donaldson. It was worth a try. In 2002, two teachers from a Vipassana Meditation Center were brought in to Donaldson to lead an intensive, ten-day retreat for a group of inmates—the first nine days of the retreat were spent in silence, meditating for 10 hours/day. It was an overwhelming experience for many in the group.
Vipassana is about paying attention to your breathing; it puts you in touch with your body’s sensations and feelings, so that you come to realize what it is that’s driving your behavior. The thing about this kind of meditation, especially when practiced intensely for ten straight days, is that no one is telling you how to change—the healing transformation comes from within. Sometimes this process can be difficult. After all, Vipassana means—“to see things as they really are.” And often that’s not a pleasant experience, especially initially.
The teachers warned the group that there would be a time during the retreat when a deep sense of anger, fear, or depression would come up to the surface, and they would be forced to face it. As one inmate who stabbed a woman during a robbery said, “You get to a point that you don’t feel. You have a place inside you where things aren’t real. It continues that way until you’re at a place where things stop, and then you have to deal with them.” This group of men definitely had a lot to deal with inside themselves.
Grady was one such inmate. When Grady was young, his mother took him along with his brother to an old deserted farmhouse, told them to be good, hugged them both, and then got into the car and drove off. Later he found out that she hadn’t thought she could raise them. He didn’t hear from her again until he arrived on death row for his involvement in a homicide.
The meditation retreat was, for Grady, the worst experience he’d ever been through—including the years on death row. He had always justified his behavior during the crime. But on day 5 of the retreat he couldn’t hide from reality anymore. Even though he didn’t stab, cut, or beat the victim, his behavior still contributed to the situation; he had to come face to face with that fact. But according to Grady, the retreat struck other places deep inside, too—places he didn’t even know were still there. “Like when your child says I love you” Grady explained, “and for the first time you know that he knows what he’s saying and that he really means it. Those kinds of places. After 16 years of being locked up in here, I wasn’t sure there were any places like that in me anymore.”
And this brings me to the link with inner beauty. These men, who committed what we would consider violent and horrible crimes, still had inside themselves those kinds of places. Deep down and hidden beneath the things they’d done, they still knew who they were at the core of their being; they still knew themselves to be loved and to be in relationship. Within all of us there is such a place. As Christians, we say it’s the part of us deep down that knows we are a child of God, created to be in relationship with God and one another. It is our truest self—the image of God within us. It is that part of us from which the Spirit cries, “Abba, Father.” Maybe it is the imprint of the Trinity.
It’s not surprising that meditation could get someone in touch with this internal place. In fact, Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley argues that the doctrine of the Trinity came about at least in part from the Christian experience of prayer—especially the experience of contemplative prayer. (2) In contemplative prayer our words cease and our own agendas drop away. We simply show up, quiet our minds, and wait for God to open a path of healing and wholeness. As we pray this way, we may feel that it is not actually we who are praying, but the Holy Spirit who prays within us—answering the call of God the Father, and shaping us more and more into the likeness of God the Son. What we are experiencing is a kind of eternal relationship within God—a call and response, a giving and receiving, a sharing of love and self between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
If this perpetual giving and receiving is true of God, who is Being itself, then it is true of all existence. We have our being through an act of giving and receiving. Each and every moment we receive our existence, our very selves, from God; each and every moment we offer who we are back up to God. We do this every Sunday in the Eucharist: we come to the altar rail and we kneel with outstretched hands, offering up our lives only to receive them back again in the bread and the wine. What is true in that moment is true everywhere and always. And here is an irony: we want so very much to be with God, we seek God, we set out on a quest to find God as if doing so were an accomplishment. And yet we don’t realize that our very life is dependent at every moment upon this exchange with God. We don’t have to search for God—God is here. As Richard Rohr says, the very fact that we take the next breath is proof enough of that. (3)
This act of giving and receiving marks not only our relationship with God; at every moment we are receiving from and adding to the world around us, too. On the day we were married Dave said to me: “It’s because I believe in the Trinity that I can believe in our marriage; from this day on, no one will ever be able to tell my story apart from telling yours.” Being a church geek, I thought that was the most romantic thing ever. And I knew what he was trying to say. The events and feelings and actions that make me who I am would become, in large part, the building blocks of his life. And the same would be true of his life, for mine. Our own stories, who we would become, would inevitably be marked by this profound giving and receiving between us. Of course, this is true of all the relationships in our lives—our families, our friends, our co-workers, the people we interact with on the street or in the grocery store, our pets. It is true of our interactions with non-living things, too. The places we live become part of who we are, even as our presence changes, for good or for ill, the earth around us. At the core of our existence is this perpetual giving and receiving; it is a Trinitarian imprint on all that exists, indelibly stamped on the deepest part of who we are. And when this exchange plays out in our lives in ways that are true to who God is, it is loving, generous, and life-giving.
This is what it means to be fully alive—to recognize and embrace the giving and receiving that is the foundation of all life. It is to practice mutual hospitality and respect—major characteristics of both the kingdom of heaven in Christian scriptures, and the dream of “Shalom” in Hebrew scriptures. John Vernon Taylor, an Anglican missionary in Africa in the mid-twentieth century, put it this way:
"That was the kind of interrelationship that was held up as the ideal for the ancient Hebrews as the people of that living God. They never completely fulfilled the ideal patterns, and even the regulations in which the ideal was presented reflected the incomplete perceptions of those times, as any attempt to set down God’s way for a human community is bound to do. Nevertheless we can see in the details of their social laws the dream of ‘Shalom’, a community that was meant to reflect the exchange of care and respect between all creatures. The poor, the unfortunates, the aliens were to be remembered and room made for them in the scheme of things. When they reaped their harvests they were not to retrace their steps to gather what had been dropped or left uncut in the corners of the cornfields. Others would be glad of that. When vines or olive trees were picked they were not to be gone over a second time. If anyone came on a wild fowl sitting on eggs they must not take both bird and eggs for their larder. It was a principle of live and let live; of fitting oneself into the pattern of the whole; it pursued the ideals of ecology before that word was invented. And this was to be the way of it because that is what it means to be alive. These were the people who had said they had chosen life rather than death. They were the people who worshipped the living God. Then let them be alive, alive to the reality of others and of all creatures, aware of the whole for which they were to be answerable to that God." (4)
The Trinity reminds us that at the core of all that is lies the eternal action of giving and receiving, grounded in God’s love. This is true of the relationship that exists within the living God, of our relationship with God, and of our relationship with creation. In the end, maybe the Trinity isn’t so much a doctrine to be explained as it is a way to see and to live. For Grady, this new way of seeing meant coming to terms with the pain he had caused and with the even deeper reality that there is much more to him than any crime could ever eclipse. In the case of Nicodemus, Jesus called it being born again. For the Christians in Rome, Paul said it meant the freedom that comes from knowing we are children of God. For all of us, it is eternal life.
1. More information on the Vipassana program at Donaldson, the documentary, and the participants, go to www.dhammabrothers.com.
2. Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 55-56.
3. Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (New York: Crossroad, 1999) 29.
4. As quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, Eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 720.