The Art of Living

The Art of Living

The Art of Living

Two years into my prison sentence at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, I began attending The Art of Living program. The teachers, David, Beth, and Dar came in every week and taught a breathing and mediation program. The breathing program, Sudarshan Kriya, S.K.Y. is a powerful breathing technique by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It incorporates specific natural rhythms of the breath. Psychiatrists at the India School of Mental Health found that the levels of the stress hormone Cortisol are significantly lower in practitioners of the Sky breath technique and is found to eliminate stress, fatigue, and negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and depression. This allows one to be calm, energized, focused, and relaxed. Even in a women’s prison! 

After the SKY breathing program, our class was led in meditation. I remember the first session as if it were yesterday. The prison had a set of yoga mats, and we were seated around David. His voice was soothing, and he smiled with his eyes. But the women were not the sort to sit quietly. They were restless, giggling and poking at one another. David had his work cut out for him. 

David still smiled. “Everyone is having their own experience. Let’s sit comfortably and close our eyes. Observe the breath,” he said. 

I sat cross legged and followed the teacher. Inhale/exhale That lady’s nose is whistling…inhale/exhale…I need to move my leg…inhale/exhale. And so it went at first. David said to put 100% into the SKY breath and I began drop into meditation more easily. The thoughts stopped racing. I felt the sensation of being underwater. I was still connected to the voices on land yet floating without wanting or needing anything. 

Two more teachers Beth and Dar came to the prison or led the class. Dar played the guitar and we chanted call and response. The inmate group grew and had committed followers including Sinful, Amiga and me. Amiga openly admitted to having an anger problem. After several months in the Art of Living program, the unit officer noticed her improvements in anger management and offered to open her cell door at anytime so she could go breathe. The Art of Living was a pathway to peace inside the prison walls and it followed us right out the gate. 

I Stand for Peace

Eleven years after release, I received a phone call during the COVID lockdown. It was David, Beth, and Dar. They had read my book and were following my website. David invited me to join the virtual SKY group. I was still a seeker, but I had to admit my breathing practice, mediation, and prayers were sporadic. I threw myself forward. David gathered us together using the same cassette recording of Sri Sri leading the SKY breath. Why on earth did I stop? My body took over, and I let go. I knew the way. I hear David’s silky voice in my head every time I do the practice. He has been with me for fifteen years. 

David contacted me again and tossed out another challenge: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was touring the USA: I Stand for Peace: Art of Living campaign. 

“Beth, and another Art of Living teacher, Donna and I are going! The closest city is Seattle, can you come?”

Seattle. Do-able. 

David kept in touch as we approached the date. After all these years, I would be sitting amongst the free people of the world and see Sri Sri live and in person. Just days before we left, David sent me a message: He had reached out to Bhushan, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s right-hand man. David told him about my book Falling which included The Art of Living. He hoped that we could meet Sri Sri and bring him a book. It was a bold request. There are so many thousands of people who follow him. And yet, an audience was granted.  Here was David’s message: ❤️🌈😃🙏We are very lucky and very blessed. David was devoted to The Art of Living and served many years. I was so happy for him.

On the day of the I Stand for Peace event, we met at the hotel and gathered in a waiting room with many others, hoping for an audience. Then, a tap on David’s shoulder, an elevator ride to the top of the building. Doors open, we walk into a large room with windows overlooking the city, and there he was. 

He was wearing white and sitting on a white couch. We took off our shoes and approached. He was smiling, his eyes twinkling. Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar waved his open palm to the seats. I turned to David, Beth, and Donna. They were beautiful.

Another group was in the room. It was a young man, a success story of the Art of Living Prison SMART program. Sri Sri sat alert, listening to their story with wise eyes. Then it was our turn.

David and I stood together. I held my book.

“This is Karen. We met at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon. She wrote a book about her experience. She attended The Art of Living group and has written about it in her book.” 

The Art of Living Karen Campbell Writes It took a nudge from David for me to speak and offer the book to him. I stared into his eyes. I saw kindness and so much more. He looked at the cover: a woman falling through the sky into prison. He opened the book. I sputtered a few phrases about the women in prison Then, by divine wisdom, I stopped talking. Sri Sri continued to page through the book, reading passages, smiling. I watched this world leader, the scientist, the humanitarian, and the teacher absorb the words. Minutes went by. When he reached the end of the book, he closed it. He looked into my eyes, to the very nature of my soul. 

“It is genuine,” he said softly. I melted.

David, Beth, Donna, and I palms together, bowed out and made our way to the auditorium. We were floating. We heard the buzz of voices as we turned into the auditorium. It was a sea of colors. There was at least two thousand men and women, many of Asian Indian origin. They dressed in silks, the colors of mangoes and eggplants, all ages, from babies to grandmothers. We settled into our seats.

The program began with welcome greetings, singing, and chanting. Then Sri Sri took the stage. He spoke about the I Stand for Peace campaign, his vision: a stress-free, violence-free world beginning with each one of us, people coming together “If each person makes an intention to stand up for peace and attends to their mental health, we can make world peace a reality. Global peace is not possible without individual peace.” Then he paused.

“Where is the woman who wrote the book?” My heart dropped.

“That’s you!” David hissed. It can’t be, it’s another book, another woman.

Sri Sri scanned the crowd, twisting and smiling. “Hmm? Where is the woman I met today who wrote the book?”

“He’s looking for you! Stand up!” I rose from my chair and raised a timid paw. Shocked faces turned to stare.

“Ah! There! Come.” He motioned me forward, smiling. “Come!”

David nudged me forward out of the row. My heart! I felt wild tingling in my legs and arms, blood in my face. I willed myself to stand tall and straight. I thought of the women inmates I wrote about in Falling. I represent these women! I walked forward like a bride. I stood before the stage. He was beaming. He opened his palm and motioned to an open chair in the front row:  Reserved.

Sri Sri spoke, of the International Day of Peace: Peace lives within you. Peacefulness isn’t selfish it is your birthright. Peacefulness doesn’t mean complacency. Peace takes work. As he spoke he gestured and turned. He was playful and free. “There is a strength in peace, there is strength in calmness. There is a strength in love. You cannot win with guns, you can win with Love.”

Then the moment I had been waiting for. Sri Sri would lead us in Sudarshan Kriya and guided meditation, live, not an old cassette recording. I had seen photographs in National Geographic of collective mediation with thousands of people from all over the world, over centuries. I felt connected to the woman next to me. I felt connected to David, Beth and Donna in the rows behind me. I felt the presence of the others in the room. I closed my eyes, knowing that Sri Sri was sitting before me. I was a part of a living, breathing experience. There was shimmering energy in the room. When we opened our eyes the room had changed. I was caught up in a ripple effect of peace.

Sri Sri made a request,

“I would like to walk amongst you and see your faces.” 

He stepped down from the stage and began. It was a slow circle, crowded with the faces who longed to be close to him. Almost out of hearing, I heard him say,

“Where is the woman who wrote the book?”

Bhushan headed in my direction.

“He wants you to talk about the book to the audience, come.” I stammered a word of weak protest.

“Come.” He was already on the stairs. I followed him up to the stage. I searched for my teachers but they were lost in humanity. I tapped the mic and began. I introduced myself and told the story of the honor it was to give him my book. Then I concluded and turned to go.

“He wants you to talk about your book,” Bhushan held my gaze.

Still swept up in the cocoon of peace and joy of meditation, I spoke my truth. When I replay the speech, I hear the voices of the audience sighing and laughing. I spent years in isolation, shame, and guilt. What senseless self-absorption. Finally, writing unafraid, I finished the book. I let go, and I was freed. I Stand for Peace.

PS – The Director of Oregon Department of Corrections, Colette Peters, has read the book and requested that Falling be in every prison library in the state. 


big buck Karen Campbell writes

Big Buck

Big Buck

The Law Librarian at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility called me. (Once a felon, always find-able). But it was good news. She read my book, Falling, and wanted to do a book group for the women in the Medium/Max side who have borne the brunt of COVID with very few outside services. Big Buck

I told her that writing the book about broke me. “I had to open a very black door of my past. Originally, I was terrified of the women. But many were kind to me and I learned to love the unloveable, including myself. I promised the women inmates I would write about their tragic histories, I would humanize them. I need to ask you, did I humanize the staff of DOC as well?” 

big buck Karen Campbell writesLong story short, the law librarian put it in the hands of Colette Peters, the Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. After reading Falling, she told the law librarian that she wanted the book in every library in the Oregon Prison system. 

My partner, Tom, (yes, another Tom, which makes it easier for my Senior moments), packed up 70 books and we went North to Coffee Creek. I was thrilled and nervous. As we approached the Grahams Ferry Road exit, I might have requested four pit stops. Alas, the mind paroles on but the crushing misery of prison lingers in the body. 

We pulled into a space near the front of the visiting center. The door opened, and out came the Law Librarian with an assistant and a cart. She was smiling. It was happening. The book would be on the library shelf. 

I wrote the book for the staff of DOC as well: Chappie, the prison chaplain, Tammy, Instructor of the Hair Design Program and Good Cop who was kind to my children. But there was one person who I wished to read the book, more than any other. It was Big Buck. If I could somehow get it into his hands he would learn what a difference he made!

Big Buck was my Maintenance Supervisor. During the winter months, the crew cleaned tools and propagated seeds around the table. Big Buck peered over his glasses listening to our chatter, and once in a while, he tossed out a question for the table:  “Who has a bank account? Who has been saving money?” There was dead silence around the table. “Who has a place to live? “Who has a substance abuse problem? 

He simply asked a question and let us work things out. The questions lingered in our heads and we began to talk about it among ourselves, eventually with our family and friends. NO ONE else from the Department of Corrections had done that. 

It falls on each parolee to educate herself and prepare to follow through with the simple skills of living in the community. But let’s face it, the women I was incarcerated with lacked the upbringing that included those skills. On parole day, we were given our medical records, a box for any prison possessions worth keeping, and three condoms. If you did not have friends or family waiting for you, you were issued a gray sweat suit and a bus pass so you would be driven off of the property. At least those of us who worked with Big Buck had done some thinking that could lead to some solid planning. Could I ask the law librarian to give him a copy? 

big buck Karen Campbell writesI looked around the parking lot, the set of Minimum Custody buildings, and the seven lines of barbwire fencing surrounding the Medium/Maximum cell block that housed Sinful and Angel. Wait a minute. Who is that by the flagpole? It couldn’t be! Is it Big Buck? I turned to Tom, my eyes swimming with tears. 

“I think that’s him! It can’t be, could it?” Tom’s green eyes were shiny. “I have to go see!” The tall man fixing the flagpole kept working but swiveled his head and peered over his glasses. I wept and stumbled over. 

“It’s really you.” I blubbered.

“I read your book, he said, still twisting the rope on the flagpole. Then he turned to me, “I read your book twice.”

“Then you know,” I managed. He was nodding, misty. 

“For all of us, Kalik, Tizzy, Blondie, Hippie Chick. What would we have done without you?” The big man shook his head. 

“Do you know now, what a difference you made for all of us? Your work mattered to all of us. You changed our lives.” I was a puddle.

“I do,” He nodded, lost in his own emotions. Perhaps he lived through years of doubt and futility, but now he knew. And he believed it. 

“Thank you,” I said. He nodded and went back to his work, doing the right thing. The book was in the right hands. I could take a day off.