“Hey! Dr. Boz!”
I turn around to see the smiling face of a woman calling at me from behind a barred window. It takes me a moment to recognize who she is.
“Kelly? Is that you?”
“Yes! Would you tell someone that I’m in here?”
She’s standing inside the building that I’m walking by. I try the external door. It’s locked of course, and I don’t have a key. I know that the door on the other side of her is locked too.
“Yes, I’ll let them know. Are you stuck? Have you been in there long?”
She laughs and tells me not to worry. “It’s okay. I’m used to it! Someone will get me out of here eventually.”
“I’ll tell one of the officers you’re in there,” I say, and she thanks me.
I feel bad leaving her there, locked in a cage. But there’s nothing I can do. I walk on.
Many people who have taught in prison will tell you that it’s one of the most powerful, rewarding, and informative experiences a teacher can have. That’s certainly been true for me.
In this essay, I share my journey teaching meditation courses, and later helping to set up a higher education program, at a women’s prison in Georgia over the course of five years. It’s a journey of learning that continues to this day. It’s been a humbling one, and it has profoundly changed the way I understand pedagogy, meditation, the body, and trauma. For that, I have many people to thank, most of all my students.
I started teaching regularly at Lee Arrendale State Prison in 2012. It was part of a program set up by my friend, mentor, and colleague Elizabeth Bounds, a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, together with Chaplain Susan Bishop. Faculty and graduate students at Emory went out to the prison to teach in the Theology Certificate Program once a week. Mine was a course in Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT1), a program developed by another friend and mentor at Emory, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi. Geshe Lobsang drew from the Tibetan Buddhist “mind training” (lojong) tradition to design a secular protocol combining focused attention and analytical meditation techniques to nurture and expand compassion and self-compassion.
By 2012, I had already been teaching CBCT for seven years, so I thought I knew what I was doing. With me were two PhD students, Amanda and Jordan, who were on their way to being certified as CBCT instructors.
Lee Arrendale wasn’t built to be a prison. It was originally a tuberculosis ward. So if you overlook the gates, the barbed wire fence, and the lookout tower, which were all added later, it doesn’t look like such an inhospitable facility. And we had a great group of students who made us feel at home. The women ranged in age from late twenties to fifties. They were friendly, relaxed, and appreciative of our presence. They put us at ease right from the start. According to prison regulations they weren’t supposed to call us by our first names, so they came to call me by the abbreviated “Dr. Boz.”
One of the women I knew was on death row. For the first time, Kelly Gissendaner was being allowed to take a class alongside others like a normal student. Previously, instructors had to visit her at her cell and teach her one-on-one. Moreover, although she would be walked over to the class and back in handcuffs, her handcuffs would be removed for the duration of the class. Kelly was a larger-than-life character. I remember her always smiling, always full of life. She was like a mother to many of the younger women.
A few classes in, I was less sure that the standard way we were teaching CBCT—the way I’d taught it since 2005—was as useful as it could be. Typically, we would give a brief talk about meditation, and then settle in for some seated meditation practice. The women would go silent, most of them would close their eyes, and we’d instruct them to focus on their breath. But during one session, one of our students, a woman I’ll call by the pseudonym Hannah, suddenly got up and rushed out of the room, clearly agitated.
“A few classes in, I was less sure that the standard way we were teaching CBCT—the way I’d taught it since 2005—was as useful as it could be.”
Hannah had started the course excited. She had told us she had obtained several books on Buddhism and meditation and was going to study them closely. We joked that, at this rate, she was going to quickly overtake our own expertise.
“What happened? Did you hate the meditation so much?” I asked her when she returned, half-joking.
“No,” she said earnestly. “I want to learn to meditate. I desperately want to experience inner peace and calm. But I don’t feel that way when I sit down. Soon after we started, I just had to get up. I couldn’t sit there one second longer. It’s frustrating because I want to do it.”
I nodded. But I didn’t understand.
Later that day I went home and got on my computer. It’s generally recommended not to look up the case files of anyone you are teaching who is incarcerated. You could discover something about them that would prejudice you against them, making it harder to be their teacher. This is very sound advice.
But I wanted to know if there was something—anything—I could learn that would help me teach meditation for these specific students.
Of the first five cases I checked, four involved convictions of murder. This did surprise me, and it took a while to process. I had never knowingly met anyone convicted of murder before. But it didn’t make me feel any less for the women; if anything, I felt for them more.
One of the cases was Hannah’s. She had gotten into a fight with her landlady, who was also her lover. The woman told Hannah she was going to bed, but in the morning Hannah would have to leave. Hannah went and got the gun that was in the house, put it to the head of the sleeping woman, and pulled the trigger.
Learning About Trauma
I met Roshi Joan Halifax in 2011 at a small conference on the science of compassion in Berlin. I remember asking a question about compassion fatigue during Roshi’s presentation, and her turning to me and saying, “You don’t know what compassion means.” Later, she apologized for confronting my ignorance so publicly. But I like people who are straightforward. For me, it builds trust.
I also recalled her talking about how she had taught meditation to men who were incarcerated for violent offenses at a maximum-security prison. She did this for six years.
So at this moment of teaching in prison, feeling confused, I emailed Roshi about my predicament. She called me right away. I shared with her how the class was structured, and our experiences. But before I was more than a few minutes in, she stopped me, clearly concerned.
“Brendan, everything you’re doing is wrong.”
“All right,” I said, relieved to finally be speaking with someone who could help me. “Tell me what to do.”
In our conversation, she emphasized that meditation on the breath was generally not helpful for people with trauma, and that instead we should check in with them more, create an atmosphere of trust, and help them create an inner place of security that they could return to. Do short bits of meditation—five minutes or so—and not breath meditation, she said. Pick something else to focus on—a sound, an image. Establish a space of safety. And don’t do the “Dharma download.” Later, some would be ready for meditation, and that could be deepened and a practice sangha could be created.
It sounds clear to me now. But at the time, as she spoke, I realized I didn’t know how to do what she was talking about. It was foreign to my way of teaching. What I learned from that exchange, and Roshi’s sage advice, was that I needed to learn.
The Body Has a Mind of Its Own
The next class we had after that conversation was completely different. Instead of starting with a teaching, a meditation, or a discussion of the readings, the opening prompt was just: “How has your past week been?”
For the first time, every single person in the class spoke. No one dominated the conversation. No one felt too shy to say something. I felt like the whole atmosphere shifted, including our relationship as “teachers” to the women. Now that we were listening, we were the ones learning from them.
And we learned a lot. They all had jobs—cooking, cleaning, painting, repairing. We learned about their food situation, their legal situations, and their children, along with the challenge, for some, of being a mother while incarcerated.
Many of them said they couldn’t meditate because of things happening in their lives or in prison. Kelly mentioned she was painting the prison rooms all the time because of an upcoming prison “audit.” Jordan said that you can meditate in anything you do—you can be aware of your thoughts and your mind as you are painting. Kelly laughed and said, “Oh, then I guess I was meditating!”
Despite the levity, there was always a serious context to our conversations. Hannah openly talked about how her past haunted her. She shared her frustration and sense of urgency. She said she shot her lover because she touched Hannah the wrong way. She talked about how her father told her that we all have triggers, and that she had to figure out how to deal with her triggers before she got out, or else it would happen all over again. Her father had been her source of hope and refuge.
But he died three years ago, and she’d been inside for 19 years now. She didn’t have anyone anymore. And she hadn’t managed to heed her father’s advice and figure out how to deal with her triggers. Her time to take classes like ours was running out, and she still didn’t know if she had the skills to control her mind and emotions. What would happen to her when she got out? She didn’t want to come back again. She cried as she spoke.
All that emotion, all that trauma, made it impossible for Hannah to meditate. The mind may want to meditate, want control, peace, happiness. But the body has a mind of its own.
In this podcast episode, Brendan shares more about trauma in the body, nervous system regulation, and experiential learning.
A few years later, a colleague at Emory, Professor Lindy Grabbe, invited me to attend a seminar with Elaine Miller-Karas, Director of the Trauma Resource Institute. Elaine opened my eyes to the power of interoception—our ability to notice sensations inside our bodies. Interoception is a tool that allows us to “track” the workings of our autonomic nervous system, which is constantly evaluating our inner and outer environment and responding accordingly. In the workshop, Elaine showed how we can use the power of interoception—through grounding, tracking, resourcing, and other strategies—to navigate our emotional and physiological responses and stay in our resilient zone2.
Incarceration is trauma, and trauma impacts our bodies, our nervous systems. It strikes at the core of our sense of safety and well-being at the most basic, visceral level. And for the many individuals whose traumas predate incarceration, their traumas are multiple, complex, and difficult to overcome. For example, when the autonomic nervous system has become dysregulated due to illness or trauma, focusing on the breath (so closely linked to the autonomic nervous system) can actually be dysregulating rather than regulating. In these cases, there is no “one size fits all” approach. We can’t assume that this yoga pose or that meditation technique is going to automatically lead to greater calmness and clarity. They have to learn to listen to their bodies and learn what practices actually prove helpful for them.
“Incarceration is trauma, and trauma impacts our bodies, our nervous systems.”
Moreover, trauma is ubiquitous in our society, requiring more comprehensive strategies aimed at prevention, healing, and helping those who suffer from trauma to pursue meaningful futures. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including China. We also have incredibly high recidivism rates. Within three years of being released, the rearrest rate is 70% and the reincarceration rate is between 30-40%. This is precisely what Hannah was afraid of. Several of the students I taught inside, who are now outside, still worry on a daily basis about returning to prison.
Higher education for people in prison cuts these recidivism rates dramatically. Those who get a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated recidivate at somewhere between 3-6%. The rate for those who get a master’s degree is effectively 0%.
As I continued teaching CBCT courses at Lee Arrendale, I kept hearing one thing over and over. “We love the classes you all are teaching, but they’re not for credit. We want a college degree program.”
The Chillon Project
In 2015, I was driving to Forsyth, Georgia with Gerry Clum, another of my mentors. At that point, I’d been teaching at Lee Arrendale for three years. I was also an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at Life University. Gerry was one of only four faculty members when Life University was founded in 1974. Originally a chiropractic college (and still the largest chiropractic college in the world) focused on maximizing the innate potential within individuals, Life University is now a fully accredited university with undergraduate and graduate courses located in the greater Atlanta area.
Less than a year prior, I was at a restaurant with Gerry when I told him that I was teaching in a prison. I mentioned the idea of establishing a degree program for incarcerated students and inquired whether he thought Life University would be interested. I shared how Dr. Rob Scott, the Provost at the time, had taken a group of us to see the eternal flame that burns in the center of the campus’s clock tower in memory of all the chiropractors who had been incarcerated for practicing medicine without a license—at a time when physicians at the American Medical Association saw chiropractors as a threat to their profession.
Tears came to Gerry’s eyes as I spoke. That evening he wrote an email to the university’s president, who wrote back right away to the effect of: “This would be my dream—let’s do it.”
Many months and many meetings later, the dream was coming true. Gerry had suggested calling the program “The Chillon Project3” after the Lord Byron poem about inner and outer freedom. But my own mind was not free. I was distracted.
I was part of a group leading a publicity campaign to try to save the life of Kelly Gissendaner, who had been in my very first class (and several subsequent ones) and who was on death row with her execution imminent. #kellyonmymind was the hashtag. The publicity campaign came after every legal recourse had been exhausted. It resulted in articles in major news outlets, including The New York Times, and coverage on CNN. It shifted the narrative around her case. But was it enough to shift the outcome?
Through Geshe Lobsang’s kindness, I had sponsored a puja (a ritual prayer ceremony) for Kelly at Drepung Loseling Monastery in India. The monks there, who number over 3,000, would do chants and prayers for her, recited over a hundred thousand times. Kelly said it brought her great comfort.
Kelly’s execution date came and went. There was something wrong with the poison—it was cloudy and they couldn’t proceed. The next time I saw Chaplain Bishop, she beamed at me, saying it was a miracle, and she was sure the monks and their prayers had something to do with it.
But the date had simply been rescheduled. We doubled down on efforts to launch the degree program. I knew Kelly wanted it to happen. She had been part of the inspiration for it.
Just as the degree program was due to launch, we learned that Kelly’s execution had been rescheduled to September 29, 2016. Kelly’s children testified on her behalf. Her previous warden Dr. Kathy Seabolt also testified, alongside chaplains, professors, and other supporters. By her own admission, Kelly felt she had been a monster when she committed her crime. But she wasn’t that monster anymore; she had become a beacon of compassion, kindness, and love. And for that reason, for many of us, including and especially her children, she was a hero.
Among Kelly’s many supporters was Pope Francis himself, who sent a letter pleading for a stay of execution. Despite that, the Board of Pardons and Paroles turned down her final appeal, which was that her death sentence be commuted to life in prison. The execution went forward. This time, the poison was clear.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I went down to the studio in my basement. I played music. I wrote a song for her. I prayed.
Social Emotional and Ethical Learning
Along with my wife, Chikako, two of my friends, Jen Knox and Teri Sivilli, attended Kelly’s memorial service with me. Having them there with me made me feel so supported. They held my hand. They cried. They comforted me when I cried.
In 2015, Jen and I were part of the group convened by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin to begin development of what became the SEE Learning4 program at Emory University. Its goal was to bring compassion, social emotional learning, and contemplative practice into k-12 schools and universities around the world.
As we were working on the initial program, Jen asked me whether it would be all right to develop a lesson around Kelly. She had noticed that as a result of the #kellyonmymind campaign, newspapers and other media had shifted from using Kelly’s mugshot to her graduation pictures from the Theology Certificate program, smiling in her blue cap and gown. Instead of just Kelly’s crime and final meal, they covered her correspondence and relationship with world renowned theologian Dr. Jürgen Moltmann. They included quotes from her children, friends, teachers, and advocates. This humanized her.
Jen thought this could be an important lesson tied to our consumption of media. She created a learning experience whereby students would be alternatively shown the two different media presentations of Kelly and would then discuss what impact each had on their empathy.
A few months later, Jen accompanied Geshe Lobsang to India to present the preliminary curricular materials to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The lesson she chose to showcase to His Holiness was the one on Kelly.
Fast forward to today and I’m back at Emory University, teaching a class of undergraduate students. Thanks to helpful administrators, my class “Compassion and Human Health” was relocated from a crowded computer lab with fixed desks and desktop computers to a spacious acting studio with a recessed pit. My students and I sit around the pit, on the floor. Each class begins with them stretching, grounding, and doing a centering practice, several of them lying on their backs.
By now, the SEE Learning program has been operating for four years. It’s used in over forty countries and offers free research-based curricula and trainings for educators in contemplative pedagogy, systems thinking, and secular ethics. Dr. Daniel Goleman, co-founder of the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) movement, has called it “SEL 2.0.” Just as teaching in prison opened my eyes to the importance of the nervous system and trauma in pedagogy, writing the SEE Learning curriculum alongside school teachers taught me the importance of constructivism, or creating opportunities for students to construct their own meaning, rather than giving them answers. This focus on engaged learning radically changed my approach to teaching.
We do activities in the pit. We act. We get into pairs and small groups. We play games.
At the beginning of class, two students share their personal stories: who they are, what brought them here, what their journey has been thus far. Some cry while speaking; many say, “Don’t be surprised if I cry.”
And when guest speakers come to join us, they sit in the pit with us. One of these, Dr. David Addis, a leading figure in global health, infectious disease, and the epidemiology of compassion, asks me, “Can I show my PowerPoint slides?”
“We’ve never had any PowerPoint presentations,” I reply. “Could you just have a conversation with us?”
The class is a chance to keep growing as a teacher and as a researcher. It’s an experiment in inductive learning, in which I violate many of the internal rules I’ve followed for many years. There’s no “take home message.” No lectures. No discussions of assigned readings. All the activities are oriented around cultivating social empathy. But when we do an activity that doesn’t have a clear message, a student asks, “Now you’re going to tell us why we did that, right?” The question makes me think for a moment. “No,” I say. “I don’t think so.” And for the rest of the semester, they try to figure out why did we do that?
I myself don’t fully know why I’m running the class the way I am. It’s half calculated risk, half instinct. But I’ve come to realize that it all goes back to what Roshi Joan taught me ten years ago. In a way, I am trying to put into practice—however imperfectly—everything I’ve come to learn about trauma-informed contemplative pedagogy. That teaching is always relational, and that relationships are built on listening, trust, and safety. That the body has a mind of its own. That we learn in ways that are not just cognitive. That we learn by doing things with and in our bodies. And for that, we need to create space. We need to create time—something so precious and yet so taken for granted in our world.
“…we need to create space. We need to create time—something so precious and yet so taken for granted in our world.”
Roshi’s lesson transformed my teaching in prison. Would it work now, here? Without standard assessments (there are no tests, quizzes, or papers in the class), how would I ever know?
The class ends. Summer comes and goes. Coming back to school, a senior colleague troubles me by sharing that imposter syndrome doesn’t necessarily get better with age and success; it could get worse. Another colleague mentions reading about my Spring class a few months ago in the student newspaper. I’m curious, so she sends me the link.
It’s an article5 written by one of the seniors who took the class right before she graduated, Annika Urban. In it, she writes, “In this last semester of my time at Emory, Dr. Brendan Ozawa-de Silva created the most meaningful course of my college career, using breathing to establish safety, community, and compassion in a classroom. His teaching and guidance, grounded in the power of the mind-body connection, fostered hope for a kind, compassionate and healthy world.”
It’s encouraging. The best thing about it is that it’s not what I did, but what happened—what emerged. When we nurture open, interactive, and safe spaces, I believe, we create opportunities for a different type of social, emotional, ethical, and embodied learning. Helping people cultivate their capacity for deep listening and connection offers one meaning-filled pathway toward building more compassionate communities overall.
For more information on Emory University’s Cognitively-Based Compassion Training Program: https://compassion.emory.edu
Miller-Karas, E. (2023). Building resilience to trauma: The trauma and community resiliency models. Taylor & Francis.
For more information on Life University’s Chillon Project: http://www.compassion.life.edu/chillon-project/
For more information on Emory University’s SEE Learning program: https://seelearning.emory.edu
Urban, A. (2023, May 13). Take a Breath. Emory Wheel. https://emorywheel.com/take-a-breath/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=take-a-breath