It’s her voice you notice first — calm, resonant and just soft enough that you want to lean in to better hear what she’s saying. For the past 17 years, Patrice Koelsch has been using that voice to bring quiet to a chaotic world.
Twice a month, she heads to Stillwater Correctional Facility, where she leads mindfulness meditation sessions — a mix of guided and silent meditation.
Armed with a doctorate in philosophy, experience in philanthropy and an abiding faith in service, Koelsch offers the inmates a chance to experience something all too rare in their environment: a moment of silence, and maybe a moment of peace.
“Prisons are really noisy places all the time,” she said. “What we offer is a quiet place. That’s why some people come, and that’s OK. These are guys in difficult situations; still, they are trying to make themselves better.”
Koelsch, 66, is part of a loosely knit group of facilitators, called the Mindfulness Meditation Outreach Project, who volunteer to lead bimonthly meditation sessions in the prison chapel.
“Sometimes in a session, there will be a lot of wisdom and kindness. Other times, there will be a lot of disruption,” she said, “but I never doubt that doing this is the right thing.”
The Minneapolis woman, who’s married and has a grown son, began her meditation practice in the 1990s while regularly spending time with a friend’s son who was dying of AIDS. Sitting with him, she said, she “felt a presence, an OK-ness, and I thought, ‘I really need a practice.’ ”
But she quickly discovered she wanted more than a “cushion practice.” She wanted to serve.
She became a care partner at a facility for people living and dying with AIDS and later joined the Minneapolis AIDS Project. Despite her “hands on work,” she decided she needed to challenge herself — and her meditation practice — by working with people she would know little to nothing about.
“A lot of [meditation] practice is about letting go and not being invested in the outcome,” she said.
She found that at the prison. While the volunteer facilitators can learn about the crimes committed by the offenders who attend the sessions, they decided not to. Instead, “we meet them in the moment, where they are,” Koelsch said.
She knows the men only by their first names and only for as long as they choose to attend or are incarcerated at Stillwater. When they disappear, as they often do, she adds them to her daily loving kindness practice, in which she visualizes them as “free from harm and free from suffering.”
“People who come [to meditation] are trying to live a life of integrity,” she said. “They can work toward being the people they want to be and contribute to the harmony of their families, their partners. Just because they’re incarcerated doesn’t mean they can’t live a noble and peaceful life.”