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.