Dr Tony Fernando pays it forward by teaching mindfulness to prisoners
Every Wednesday morning, Dr Tony Fernando, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist, would clear his busy schedule and spend an hour at the Mt Eden Corrections Facility in Auckland.
There, Tony would run a one-hour mindfulness and emotional balance programme for the inmates. This went on for nearly two years and stopped only when Covid prompted a national lockdown in New Zealand.
While he is sure the prisoners benefited from the sessions, “I got so much more from their stories and also from the concept of common humanity,” says Tony, a former senior lecturer at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland.
“Common humanity is a basis for compassion, it is a way of thinking that all of us are the same and not just theoretically,” says Tony, who is also a former ordained Buddhist monk.
“What the prisoners are experiencing in terms of feeling isolated or feeling neglected or feeling unliked, all of us feel that once in a while,” says Tony. “We actually all share the same mindsets but of course [with] different degrees."
Tony learned how the courses benefited the prisoners during his one-on-one conversations with them. “They don’t want to talk about it openly with others because as a prisoner, you do not want to show vulnerability to others.”
One inmate told him that he suffered from an anxiety attack every time he heard the slamming of steel doors. “This could happen several times a day, it’s like overkill,” says Tony, as there would be a steel door for the whole block and for each cell. The inmate said after doing very basic mindfulness practice, the anxiety attacks went away.
Tony says part of the training involved prisoners paying attention to their breath, body, thoughts and emotions.
“Knowing how the mind works is crucial,” says Tony. “Essentially, what I am telling a lot of the prisoners is we become prisoners of our minds. You can be in prison but if your mind is at peace, your quality of life will actually be better.”
Beyond giving back
Asked whether this project was his way of ‘giving back’ to the wider New Zealand community where he has had nearly three decades of a thriving medical and teaching career, Tony says this goes further.
“Giving back is good, the downside is it is like giving payments,” says Tony, who prefers the term ‘paying it forward’.
“Paying it forward is a specific way of expressing common humanity,” says Tony, who has just written a book on the topic, Life Hacks from the Buddha, that is scheduled to be published next year.
He states: “My attitude or motto is ‘to be of benefit’ which can be in speech, thought or action, regardless of potential payback. Paying it forward is one manifestation of this. This is not all altruistic as I definitely benefit from the good acts as well.”
“If you have given freely, you can be bitten by the generosity bug because it registers a good feeling in your brain. Our brain rewards us when we share.”
Generosity changes lives
Tony says one of the higher levels of generosity is giving without acknowledgement, and the highest form is giving teachings of the Dharma (a way of life that is aligned with the teaching of the Buddha) that actually change lives.
But even without these concepts, eventually people will discover that there are different types of generosity, and generosity actually makes people feel good, he says. “We are social primates, we are not snakes. Snakes are not bad creatures, but snakes evolved to be individuals. They did not evolve to help each other. Their brain will not get ‘feel good’ points if they help another snake.”
“When we give, we feel a connection and if we feel connected with another human being or another living creature, you experience joy.” This could be as simple as feeding leftover rice to the birds in the backyard, which Tony likes to do. “I am happy to see that the rice that would otherwise be thrown away actually helps with the continuation of new life.”
Paying it forward across geographies
Tony’s volunteer work at Mt Eden Prison came about from a discussion in his class at the University of Auckland. “I mentioned in one of my lectures that one of my dreams is to run meditation sessions in prison.”
One of his students used to volunteer at Mount Eden prison and so the two of them started the mindfulness sessions. While his classes at the Auckland prison have been stopped for now, he has started a similar endeavour, more than 5000 miles away.
Tony just came back from the Philippines, where he conducted the first ever mindfulness training at the Manila City Jail. It was a two-hour workshop for around 40 prison officers and inmates. He explains the city jail has around 5000 inmates in a facility that is designed for 1200 people.
He would have wanted to teach the course enmasse, so hundreds can learn mindfulness and meditation techniques but the prison has no facilities for this.
He just got a message from the warden as Tony informed him he wants to hold another workshop when he visits the Philippines later this year. “I told the warden that I will be very keen to carry on teaching the class each time I am in Manila.”
His focus on mindfulness comes at a critical time, with mental health in a constantly changing world remaining a top concern across societies.
“Learning mindfulness allows a person to see how our suffering arises from how the mind reacts to any situation,” says Tony. “We notice that we crave for happy situations to continue, which results in pain because nothing lasts. We notice that we push away unpleasant experiences which then cause suffering. With mindfulness, we learn to be at peace with whatever we cannot control. This brings peace.”
Lily pad by Joel C Paredes