Documentary Days: The Dhamma Brothers


This weekend I watched two more documentaries, making that 10 documentaries in 13 days – right on target for my goal of five documentaries per week. Yesterday I saw The Dhamma Brothers, a documentary that studies the effects of Vipassana meditation on a group of prisoners. This particular form of yoga is extremely strenuous, lasting for 10 days, during which the practitioners live in close quarters, meditating in place for hours on end and keeping a strict schedule of meditation, sleep and mealtimes, all in complete silence other than to listen to recorded chanting at certain points. The prison in question, Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama, houses roughly 1,500 violent criminals, and many of the men who enrolled in the Vipassana course were convicted murderers with no chance of parole.

This movie was quite touching for me for many reasons. As an empath, I pick up on people’s personal energies and feelings very well, and seem to have an easier time than many in realizing our shared collective as humankind. It’s not hard for me to imagine what it takes to be a murderer – or a saint. I will be neither, but I understand that the normal human is capable of mistakes, extreme emotions, and similarly extreme actions. At one point in the film, someone mentions that we have to understand that a thief is not ONLY a thief, a liar is not ONLY a liar, a murderer is not ONLY a murderer – we are all something more than our lowest action. The interviews with some of the practitioners really hit home for me that these are just men with a lot on their conscience, men who deserve a chance at receiving a helping hand, a friend to listen and help them sort through their tangled lives. But in prison, they were given nothing of the sort – not until they were introduced to Vipassana.

The changes were obvious, and immediate. Some of these men had never had the chance to just sit and reflect on the person they were inside, to try to work through their past actions, and the actions of others that had led them to become criminals. Those interviewed spoke of their crimes, and described what it was like to try to bury guilt, to live with pain without officially recognizing it, then to be forced to sit, just sit, and let all of these horrible things float to the surface to be dealt with once and for all. One man described it as the worst thing that had ever happened to him. Another used the time not only to reflect on the murders he had committed, on a future he had turned away from, but also on the death of his daughter, something that had hardened him and caused him intense pain for years. As he reflected on her loss, and her place in the cosmos, he felt his pain lift.

I loved this movie. It was simple, powerful, and poignant. It also makes me want to try Vipassana. To see men caged like animals, but taking full blame for their actions and making the most of their new life behind bars – shunning violence, embracing brotherhood – is a powerful thing. Besides the obvious story of watching these men go through meditation training, there’s also an interesting back story of how the prison officials encounter this program, considered quite controversial by the backwoods hicks in the area who believe that meditation is akin to witchcraft and devilry. The program is shut down for a time, for fear that these changed men have somehow been converted to Buddhism, a threat to the conservative Christians who run the joint. It’s years before the program returns, but it finally does. That kind of simplemindedness is rampant in the Southern U.S., unfortunately, but hopefully the results will help to dispel the crazy myths, and treatment programs like this will continue to grow in popularity. There’s no reason for these men to live in fear and pain for the rest of their lives, just because they made mistakes. Sure, some people are rotten to the core and deserve to be punished severely – but there are many, many more who have only ever needed a guiding hand, true friendship, and the encouragement and environment necessary to start contemplating their place in the world.

Isn’t that how it is for us all, though?

I’ll write about the other movie I watched soon (maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow).

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