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Geoff Waterhouse: meditation teacher, Wandsworth Prison

06 October 2017

‘For some prisoners it’s been life-changing, especially for those fighting addiction’

I’m a retired civil servant, having worked for 42 years in the Ministry of Justice. My last position was as a senior policy adviser in equality and diversity.


I’ve run what must be more than 300 meditation sessions in Wandsworth now. It’s an old Victorian prison, which looks grim outside and looks even grimmer inside. They’re under a huge amount of pres­­sure at the moment, and every­one’s working as hard as possible to make life better for the prisoners; but it’s very difficult. I think it’s the largest men’s prison in the country. There are one or two other prisons offering meditation, including Pen­tonville.


We recently celebrated 200 attendances at the prison, but for the past couple of years we’ve run two ses­­sions. I say “we” because my wife, Allison, who is a chaplain at the prison, assists me. There are various wings of the prison, and each one has a prisoner who is a chaplaincy rep and goes round telling the prisoners about the activities on offer. There’s usually a waiting list for the meditation sessions, because we’re not allowed more than 20 people.


I had to go through quite a long security process to get in, and then I was given a permanent pass. I can’t open prison cells, but I can move freely around the prisons. You obviously have to be on your guard, and we’re given training. There are certain things you shouldn’t do or say, and you mustn’t give information about your private life.


I’ve never felt afraid, though. I’ve always had the sense that other prisoners would help me if there was any trouble. We had a course on self-defence. It was very funny: I was paired off with a woman in her seventies who teaches the prisoners needlework, and we didn’t think we’d be very good at defending our­selves.


There are some difficulties about teaching meditation in a prison. The session time allowed at the prison is limited, and prisoners have to be collected and returned from their cells, which is very time-consuming. There is seldom more than 30 minutes with the prisoners, and this includes the 20 minutes of silence. There are nearly always some attending who have never med­­itated before; so I’ve had to learn the art of introducing meditation very succinctly.


The most surprising thing is the depth of stillness and silence while we’re meditating. I lead other groups outside the prison, but there is something special about the med­itation in the prison.


The positive feedback from the prisoners is the really encouraging thing. For some, it’s been life-changing, especially for those fighting addiction. Others have said that it is the first time that they’ve ac­­tually been able to sit down and be still. Some of the prisoners have been just so grateful that it has helped them sleep at night.


Our method is Christian meditation. We sit still with our backs straight, eyes lightly closed, and repeat a mantra, which is said interiorly and continuously. The suggested mantra is the Aramaic word maranatha — “Come, Lord”. We recite it in four syllables as “ma-ra-na-tha”. We listen to the mantra with our whole being, gently returning to it whenever we are distracted by thoughts or images.


I think everyone is following that method, although prisoners of other faiths are welcome, and can choose to use their own mantra. Most of those who come are Christians, and it’s advertised as a Christian meditation group. But we have prisoners of other faiths and none, and all are welcome if they believe that it will help them.


The prison officers have been sup­­portive, especially given the ex­­treme pressures that they are under. In fact, some officers have requested that a group be run for them; but this hasn’t been possible at present, owing to the difficulty of finding a time when this could take place.


Prison is a very stressful environment. Meditation helps prisoners to be calmer, to cope better, to take one day at a time, to be more positive. This then impacts positively in the prison, and the one-to-one relation-ships with the officers improve.


I was brought up in a Christian home, and attended a Methodist church, where I learnt that faith and action work together, one coming from the other. As I have grown in my faith, I’ve come to realise that action needs to come from the promptings of the heart, the Spirit within; so I’ve seen the need to spend time in regular and disciplined periods of meditation.


There are those who meditate for a while and experience certain fruits of peace and relaxation through meditation without really feeling they have had an encounter with God. But meditation is a discipline: it is work, and, over time, without seeking it, we do inevitably experience the stillness in which we know God.


I was born in Tottenham, in north London. My first day at senior school was memorable. The bigger boys forced us into the toilets, threw stink bombs in, and then kicked us as we came out. But, when I was 14, my parents moved to a village called Saltwood, in Kent, to run a grocer’s shop, and I attended a lovely school near by, with a farm on it and wonderful sporting facilities. It was life-changing for me. The shop didn’t work out; so I stayed a year with the Mayoress of Hythe to finish my GCEs, and then moved back to London, where I’ve lived ever since.


I’m a Methodist local preacher, and I’m also a trustee of a small charity called Umoyo Orphan Project, which works in Northern Malawi. I’m also South London and Prison Co-ordinator for the World Com-munity for Christian Meditation. I have a small allotment, and play competitive table tennis in the London Banks and Civil Service Table Tennis League.


I love being by the sea and listening to the waves splashing on to the shore.


Anthony De Mello’s Awareness, John Main’s The Way of Unknowing, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, and Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth are books that inspire and comfort me.


Many people in my life have as­­sisted me on my spiritual journey. But I remember, many years ago, on the last day of a silent retreat, watching a video in which the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello spoke about awareness. His message was that most of us — even though we don’t know it — are asleep, never truly understanding the loveliness and the beauty of human existence. He seemed to be speaking directly to me. It certainly woke me up.


I joined a meditation group 14 years ago. I was finding intercessory prayer in church very difficult — praying for all the hungry, all the wars, and so on — and it made my head spin. I had a spiritual director who suggested meditation. I found a local group in Clapham; it felt like coming home, praying with other people in silence. That was a good introduction into “word prayers”. Eventually, I set up my own ecumenical group.


What I love about it is that it goes beyond words. We get a real mix of people, and we don’t talk about what we believe: we just pray together. I’d call it a “Fresh Expression”, because some people come to church.


Meditating is, of course, praying, and it is often referred to as the prayer of the heart. But, when I use word prayers, my thoughts often turn to praying for more love, toler­ance, and peace in the world.


I believe that more and more people are seeking to live a spiritual life — many outside the structures of the existing institutionalised religions. This gives me assurance that God is still meeting people where they are, and guiding them towards trying to make the world a better place.


If I found myself locked in a church for a few hours, I’d like to have Anthony de Mello as my companion; and if I could spend a week on retreat with him, all the better.


Geoff Waterhouse was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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