You might ask yourself why a psychiatric nurse from a middle class American family would decide to make a movie about people in one of the most violent maximum security prisons in the nation, at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham Alabama.
Or you might wonder what would make a group of Vipassana meditation teachers be willing to move in with the prisoners, to eat their fare and sleep in hard beds like theirs. After all, is there anything that we have to give to murderers and people on death row? And is there anything a man serving a life sentence can teach us? The answers might surprise you.
Jenny Phillips’s movie, The Dhamma Brothers, proves to be quite enlightening on these accounts and I think you will find our conversation stimulating and provocative.
The typical prison is a shrine to “othering,” as evidenced by the constant state of fear and mistrust between prisoners and guards, all the way down to the violence and forced prostitution of the inmates.
There are those who think this is just how it has to be, but, of course, if we look at it through New Paradigm thinking, it leads us to ask, what would happen if we brought in the energy that was focused on wholeness, unification, integration instead of disintegration and differentiation? What if we brought in those who could teach the age old wisdom – shared values, love, self-respect -they’d probably been denied or unable to see during their growing up?
Jenny will supply an important part of the answer in our conversation.
My own interest in the prison-industrial complex stems from my observation that this system represents one of the most extreme examples of what Old Paradigm polarity thinking can produce. And it was this interest that led to my creating, along with Kate Morganstein, the Freedom From Within CD program. On it, numerous ex cons described their experiences and what they learned, followed by a series of meditative and guided imagery experiences.
My own awareness of the kinds of miracles that could be produced in such a setting came soon after I received a note from a woman who was serving a life sentence asking for one of my tapes. If I remember correctly, it was Accepting Change and Moving On – Loss and Letting Go. She wrote to me on several occasions, describing how she had used the meditative experiences on this particular program to fully accept her current situation and to ask her deeper self what good could come of it. She began to see herself as kind of like a monk living in a cell and focusing on staying present. Soon she learned that she found within great gifts that she could give to the traumatized new inmates coming in, fellow prisoners who had received devastating news from their families on the outside, etc.
The last time she wrote me she said she had found a deep sense of peace because she knew what her life’s work was going to be! So who’s free and who’s in jail?
Jenny’s movie, The Dhamma Brothers tells a very important story, although it is the very first time she’s ever made a film.
In our conversation, we’ll learn more about Jenny Phillips, what inspired her to become a meditation teacher for incarcerated personnel, etc., all the way down to how it is that she happened to be rescuing Ernest Hemmingway’s library. Along the way we will get a glimpse into the important secret that incarcerated, violent criminals have to teach us, and tweak our imagination to consider what might be possible if entire populations in our prisons were to undergo a process such as this. A very important show. Don’t miss it.
Jenny Phillips is a cultural anthropologist, writer, and psychiatric nurse. For over fifteen years, Phillips has provided services in the mental health department of a large medical center in Concord, MA. Her specialties include crisis intervention, family therapy, behavioral medicine, and hypnotherapy.
Over the past ten years, she has worked with men in both state and county prisons, teaching courses on emotional literacy skills. Based upon her experiences working with prisoners and recording their lives behind bars, Phillips wrote an article, Cultural Construction of Manhood in Prison, which was published in 2002 by the American Psychological Association journal, Psychology of Men and Masculinity.
In 2008, Phillips released The Dhamma Brothers into movie theatres. While working on the film, she received more than 200 letters from the Alabama prisoners documenting their lives in prison and their quest for inner peace. These collected letters were published in 2008 by Pariyatti Press as Letters From the Dhamma Brothers.