Peace of Mind: Spirituality from a Cell

Millions of people meditate daily, but can meditative practices really make us ‘better’ people?

prison meditation

In this excerpt from "The Buddha Pill," we explore whether the imprisonment of one's body can spur an emancipation of the soul.

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An Ashram in a Prison Cell

The Buddha Pill (Watkins, 2015), offers a compelling examination of research on transcendental meditation to recent studies on the effects of mindfulness and yoga. With fascinating contributions from spiritual teachers and therapists, Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm weave together a unique story about the science and the delusions of personal change. This particular passage deals with one woman’s quest to help inmates connect with and further their spirituality while serving their time, so that their minds may be freed while their bodies wait to be.

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If we forget that in every criminal there is a potential saint, we are dishonouring all of the great spiritual traditions. Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before becoming Saint Paul, author of much of the New Testament. Valmiki, the revealer of the Ramayana, was a highwayman, a robber, and a murderer. Milarepa, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist gurus, killed 37 people before he became a saint … We must remember that even the worst of us can change.’ Bo Lozoff (American prison reform activist and founder of the Prison Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation)

Knocking on the door of a house in a quiet street in Oxfordshire, notepad and pen in hand, I stood and waited on the front step. A minute later the door opened. A smartly dressed, elderly lady smiled at me from inside.

‘Tigger?’ I asked.

‘Yes, do come in,’ she replied.

Still full of life at ninety years old, Tigger Ramsey-Brown was a pleasure to interview. I was there to find out from her more about the story of her late younger sister, who had founded the Prison Phoenix Trust. Over cups of tea in her sunny conservatory, Tigger began vividly to recount the story of her sister and how she had started the Trust around thirty years previously.

In the beginning

Tigger pointed out that if we were going to go right to the start, this story actually begins somewhat earlier, with the marine biologist and committed Darwinist Sir Alister Hardy. At one time a Professor of Zoology at Oxford University, Hardy had happened to teach Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist. Knighted for his work in biology, Hardy had a strong interest in the evolution of humankind, developing novel theories such as the aquatic ape hypothesis (which proposes that humans went through an aquatic or semi-aquatic stage in our evolution). But he was also particularly interested in the evolution of religion and religious experience. Hardy viewed humans as spiritual animals, theorizing that spirituality was a natural part of our human consciousness. He mooted that our awareness of something ‘other’ or ‘beyond’ had arisen through exploration of our environment and he wanted to explore this further.

However, aware that fellow scientists and academics were likely to consider his interest in researching spirituality unorthodox, he waited until he retired from Oxford University before he delved deeper and founded the then-called Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU) at Manchester College, Oxford. (It is now the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre and is based in Wales.) The goal of Hardy’s research was to discover if people today still had the same kind of mystical experiences they seemed to have had in the past. He began his study by placing adverts in newspapers, asking people to write in with their mystical experiences, in response to what became known as ‘The Hardy Question’: ‘Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’

‘Thousands of people replied to the adverts, writing about their dreams and spiritual experiences. These responses were compiled into a database to enable researchers to analyze the different natures and functions of people’s religious and spiritual experiences. This is where Ann came in,’ Tigger told me. And so it was that in the mid-1980s in Oxfordshire, a woman named Ann Wetherall spent her days collecting and categorizing people’s dreams, visions and other spiritual experiences.

Looking for a link

Over time, as she examined the letters, Ann began to wonder if there was a common denominator in the accounts. She noticed that it didn’t seem to matter whether someone was religious or atheist, but, more often than not, it was people who were feeling hopeless or helpless who reported a direct experience of spirituality. Ann hypothesized that imprisonment might be a context that particularly inspired such despondent feelings and that it therefore might also trigger spiritual experiences. She got in touch with convicted murderer-turned-sculptor Jimmy Boyle, one of Scotland’s most famous reformed criminals. Boyle helped her to get an advert published in prison newspapers, asking for prisoners to write in about their religious or spiritual episodes. She got quite a response – prisoners in their dozens wrote in to her describing their unusual experiences. Many of them had never mentioned these to anyone before and had wondered if they were going mad.

‘Ann wanted to write back and reassure them that they weren’t, and that these were valid spiritual experiences, which could be built on – but the Alister Hardy Foundation did not reply to letters,’ Tigger explained. ‘That’s why Ann broke away from the research, so that she could start corresponding with the prisoners who were writing in, and offer support. Because of their confinement in cells and separation from the outside world, Ann thought that prisoners’ experience was perhaps rather similar to that of monks. While for prisoners this withdrawal from society was not voluntary, she believed that they too could use their cell as a space for spiritual growth.’

‘What was her interpretation of spiritual growth?’ I asked.

‘Not only becoming more in touch with a greater power, but also becoming more aware of inner feelings and thoughts, as well as more connected and sensitive to other people’s needs,’ Tigger explained.

‘And the means of bringing about this kind of change?’ I asked, already pre-empting the answer…

‘Through meditation, of course.’

From spiritual experience to spiritual development

Tigger explained that she and Ann had spent their childhoods in India, growing up among Buddhist monasteries. Because of this upbringing, Ann had had a lifelong involvement with meditation, and believed that prisoners could benefit from learning it. In her letters back and forth to prisoners, she began sharing with them what she knew about meditation, in order to encourage and support their spiritual development.

Over the next couple of years, Ann’s correspondence with convicts came to strengthen her belief that prisoners had real potential for spiritual development. ‘She thought they had a terrific spirituality, a hunger that wasn’t being met,’ Tigger explained, as our conversation moved onto Ann’s decision to set up a charitable trust, the Prison Ashram Project (now the Prison Phoenix Trust). Founded in 1988, the organization was at first very small, comprising just Ann and three other volunteers, who wrote to prisoners, encouraging them to use their spiritual experiences as a springboard for future spiritual development. ‘You are more than you think you are’ was the project’s frequent message.

As the name suggests the Prison Ashram Project had the central premise that a prison cell can be used as an ashram – a Hindi word that refers to a spiritual hermitage, a place to develop deeper spiritual understanding through quiet contemplation or ascetic devotion. Hermitage is not only an Eastern practice – in Western Christian tradition, a monastery is a place of hermitage, too, because it is partially removed from the world.

Furthermore, the word ‘cell’ is used in monasteries as well as in prisons, and there are a surprising number of similarities between the living conditions of monks and prisoners. Both live ascetic lives filled with restriction and limitation. Both monks and prisoners are able to meet their basic needs (but little more), both desist from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of wealth, and both follow a strict daily schedule. Despite these parallels, however, there is undeniably a big difference in how monks and prisoners come to live in their respective cells. For monks living communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone, living ascetically is an intentional choice, aimed at enabling them to better focus on spiritual goals. But for prisoners withdrawing from the world is not their choice; rather, it is imposed upon them as punishment. Which leads to the question: can involuntary confinement really open a door to inner freedom and personal change?

Ann Wetherall believed so. Being confined to a cell for much of the day, even against free will, could be a catalyst for spiritual development. The conditions were conducive; all that anyone needed was a radical shift in thinking. Rather than punishment, incarceration could be reconceived of as an opportunity for positive transformative experience. Prisoners had lost their physical liberty, but they could nevertheless gain spiritual freedom. Ann thought that meditation was the ideal tool with which prisoners could build spiritual growth, requiring only body, mind and breath.

So far, so good. But as Tigger talked something seemed to me to be a distinct obstacle to peaceful meditation behind bars: the undeniable fact that prisons are busy, noisy places. Granted, there might be some similarities between prisons, monasteries and spiritual retreats, I thought, but surely finding peace and quiet in a prison would be a bit of a mission impossible. Wouldn’t that render any attempt to meditate a bit futile?

‘No.’ Tigger smiled. ‘Ann believed this actually increased the importance and worth of meditation practice; the practice would enable prisoners to find a sense of peace despite their surroundings.’

Crossing continents

As it turned out Ann was not the first to think of encouraging prisoners’ spiritual development through in-cell meditation. A couple of years after setting up the Prison Ashram Project, she heard about Bo Lozoff, a spiritual leader and prison reform activist doing similar work in the USA. Curiously, his organization was also called the Prison Ashram Project. Bo first had the idea that a prison cell could be a kind of ashram when his brother-in-law was sentenced to prison for drug smuggling. At the time Bo and his wife Sita were living at an ashram in North Carolina. There, their daily routine involved waking early, wearing all white, working all day without getting paid, abstaining from sex and eating communally. Visiting his brother-in-law in prison, Bo realized there were remarkable parallels between their day-to-day lives. Around the same time he came across a book by renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass, entitled Be Here Now. The combination of these two events inspired Bo and Sita to set up their own Prison Ashram Project in 1973, in co-operation with Ram Dass. Just like Ann, they had begun corresponding with prisoners, offering encouragement and instruction in meditation and also in yoga. They also sent prisoners copies of Ram Dass’s book, along with the book that Bo himself went on to write: We’re All Doing Time – A Guide for Getting Free4. The central concept of this book is that it’s not only prisoners who are imprisoned, but that we are all ‘doing time’ because we allow ourselves to be so restricted by hang-ups, blocks and tensions. The message is that through meditation and yoga we can all learn to become free.

The birth of the Prison Phoenix Trust

Not long after meeting Bo, Ann changed her charity’s name to the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT), in part because she was concerned that the word ‘ashram’ might prove an obstacle for the prison service. She was keen to step things up a notch from written correspondence and start setting up meditation and yoga workshops in prisons themselves. However, even with the new name, prison governors and officers were wary of the charity’s efforts. The Trust tried to get into prisons through the chaplaincy; however, here too there was a surprising amount of resistance. It’s worth remembering that in the late 1980s, prison chaplains were almost all Anglican. At that time the Anglican Church was still suspicious of practices such as meditation, which when compared with contemplation or silent prayer seemed ‘unChristian’. Many ministers thought that meditation centred on a spirituality that might be Hindu, Buddhist or even evil (stemming from the notion that to silence the mind also means making it available for the devil). A 2011 article in the Daily Telegraph highlighted an extreme example of Christian opposition to yoga and meditation, reporting how a Catholic priest named Father Gabriele Amorth – appointed the Vatican’s chief exorcist in 1986 – had publicly denounced yoga at a film festival where he had been invited to introduce The Rite (a film about exorcism, starring Anthony Hopkins): ‘Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,’ the priest is reported as stating, to an audience of bemused film fans.

Of course, not all devout Christians share such concerns that Christianity and Eastern spiritual practices are incompatible. Offering me another biscuit Tigger revealed the next chapter of her sister’s tale, wherein Ann would join forces with ‘a very forceful and very amazing character’.


Reprinted with permission from The Buddha Pill by Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm and published by Watkins, 2015.