Freedom Behind Bars

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Episode #134: Liv Gaborit, a Danish social scientist with a background in psychology, conducted a groundbreaking study about intensive vipassana meditation retreats offered in the tradition of S. N. Goenka in notorious, overcrowded, Insein prison.

Gaborit was told a story about a high-level military figure who regretted his bloody actions in suppressing the 1988 democratic uprising. Seeking spiritual salvation, he traveled to India, where he took a course in the Goenka tradition and was determined to bring it back to the prison system in Myanmar.

Gaborit’s study centered on the experience of hearing voices in solitary confinement versus during a meditation retreat. Solitary confinement can lead to a range of hallucinations and mental disorders; while during intensive meditation, seeing and hearing from invisible beings can be understood as a deepening practice. Another important factor that Gaborit points to is the presence of metta, or loving-kindness. When political prisoners hear voices on meditation courses, metta is in the environment and cushions the experience, while in solitary, it is quite a different story. For the political prisoners on the prison course, Gaborit says that the result of that positive energy was remarkable, while for the monk, the lack of being able to receive or practice metta no doubt contributed to his mental imbalance.

What began as a research project has transformed into something far larger for Gaborit: her own life trajectory has been radically altered. After the coup, Gaborit left her position in academia to become a full-time activist, and co-founded Myanmar Action Group Denmark.

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