Prison Dharma

Some people have a moment of desperation followed by spiritual revelation.  Some people have near death experiences and see their lives flash before their eyes. I had neither of those.

Instead, I had a long, succession of moments, all desperate, but none of them followed by any sort of instantaneous, download of spiritual wisdom. Instead, I had a near life-in-prison experience and my entire life played before my eyes, not in a flash, but in a painful, drawn-out spectacle that haunted my days and tormented my nights, over and over again. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

I choked on regret. I drowned in shame. I dreaded everything about my future, hated everything about my past, and wanted nothing to do with my present. One of my closest friends was dead, my wife was leaving me, I was in the county jail, and I was about to get multiple life sentences to the penitentiary. Life sucked.  Longing for death, I sought oblivion in the only thing available to me. Buddhism.

I was first introduced to Buddhism while taking an Eastern Philosophy course at a local community college. I didn’t adopt Buddhism at the time, but I had been attracted to its nontheistic approach to spirituality and the practical way in which it outlines a path to realization.  The Four Noble Truths were cool and they made perfect sense to me, but, at that juncture in my life, I just wasn’t suffering enough for me to think that I needed to embark on any sort of spiritual journey.

Circumstances had changed significantly since then. Sometime within the first six months in the county jail, I read St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night Of The Soul, which offered me an alternative perspective upon the suicidal abyss in which I found myself lurking. Perhaps, just perhaps, this suffering I was experiencing could be used as fuel for transformation. St. John’s particular theological bent wasn’t attractive to me, but the spiritual principle he presented provided me with hope nonetheless. It was around this time that I remembered Buddhism’s First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, and immediately started upon reading books on the subject and began meditating.

I will be the first to admit that I completely misused meditation during the beginning of my practice. It was an escape from reality rather than a method of contending with it. In this way, meditation was a substitute for the drugs I no longer had access to. It was a way of checking out, and check out I did.

Very few beginners to meditation can start by sitting for more than an hour at a time, but that’s exactly what I did. I sat in half lotus on my bunk and completely left the miserable world I was living in. I was not practicing mindfulness and I certainly didn’t bring myself back to the present moment when I would notice my thoughts wandering. I definitely noticed my thoughts wandering but I let them do it. For some reason I have yet to understand, the thoughts I had while doing this sort of meditating were not unpleasant and stressful like the space in my head before and after sitting. I was temporarily oblivious to both my outside and inside circumstances and, for that, I was very grateful.

This was how I meditated during my first year of Buddhist practice. I continued to read Buddhist literature, and though I did not focus on any particular school of thought, I nonetheless started to realize that I had not been meditating at all. This is not say that my checking out meditations weren’t useful, but I had finally come to a place, after a year of such practice, in which I was ready to start taking a closer look at the present moment. It was around this time that I found out that I was no longer facing life in prison and that I would be taking a 14-year term instead.

When I got to Folsom State Prison, I was finally able to meditate with other people. On Monday nights, there was a group called The Contemplative Fellowship that met in Greystone Chapel. Though the group meditated using Thomas Keating-style Centering Prayer, it was an eclectic bunch and members were free to sit however they saw fit. It was there that I met a man from the free world, Ray, who would serve as a mentor on my spiritual path during my time at Folsom. On Tuesday nights, also in Greystone Chapel, a Buddhist group met that was not dissimilar from the Buddhist groups I take part in today. Zafus and zabutans were arranged in a circular fashion around one of the many Buddhist practitioners who came in from the free world to lead us in meditation and deliver a dharma talk. Finally, I was getting instruction in meditation. Finally, I had a sangha. Finally, I had teachers.

My meditation changed dramatically. No longer was it a method of escape; instead, it became a method of inquiry. In the beginning, it was simple. What was it like to breathe? What was it like to sit on a rolled-up blanket on the floor of my cell? What was the nature of the sounds in my cell block?

Of course, my mind would wander, but, rather than seeing where my thoughts went, I practiced letting them go. As Herb Blake, a fellow member of the Contemplative Fellowship used to say, “Treat your thoughts like mail call. You hear your name, you get your mail, you look at the envelope, you see who it is from, but you don’t have to open it. You can just let it be for now.” With this practice, I started to see that the present moment wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. In fact, the present moment, when I wasn’t actually thinking about it, was mostly neutral and oftentimes pleasant. This was a bit of a breakthrough for me. Up until that point, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t supposed to actually like anything about the present because I was in prison and I wasn’t supposed to like prison.

Noticing that my suffering came from my reaction to the present led me to investigate the nature of my reactions. Rather than just taking note of sensory inputs, I started to look at my relationship to them. How did I respond to the sounds in the cell block? Did certain noises elicit a different reaction than others? What happened if I opened my eyes? How did I feel about the gunner each time I saw him walk by on the catwalk? When people came up to my cell, which always seemed to happen when I was meditating, did I react differently to different types of people? Where did that come from?

I started to see that I had a personal narrative that informed every moment of every day of my life. What had happened in the past and what I envisioned for the future obscured the present. Stories about me, stories about you, stories about family, stories about friends, stories about enemies, so many stories, all intertwined in such a way that when I encountered any event I didn’t encounter the event at all. Rather, I encountered a story. My story.

After seeing that my story came to play in everything, I thought that I might be able to somehow uncover all of my story and then – voila – it would suddenly disappear. What remained after that was a metaphysical question that I didn’t need to get into. With persistent meditative practice, I started to see that, like the layers of that damn proverbial onion, one story begat another story which, in turn, begat yet another story. It was quite disappointing, but it pointed in a new direction.

My stories, however much they contributed to my suffering, were not actually the cause of it. I wasn’t going to stop suffering because I didn’t have stories bouncing around in my head, but I did have a shot at mitigating my suffering if I treated my stories the same way that I treated any other thoughts that might arise during meditation: by taking note and letting go.

Yes, living in prison sucked. Yes, being away from friends and family sucked. Yes, washing my clothes in the toilet sucked. Yes, skinheads totally sucked. Yes, being on lockdown and never leaving my cell and showering every three days sucked. But these things only sucked insofar as I found myself mesmerized by my narrative about them. With a little practice, I could let go of the narratives or, at the very least, see through them enough to formulate new ones.

Prison could also be a place of immense opportunity, for transformation, for introspection, for scholarly endeavors. Being away from friends and family afforded me the occasion to be grateful for the love in my life. Hatred for skinheads could be transformed into compassion for the circumstances that led them to make the choices they did. Washing clothes in the toilet, strange as it may sound, actually felt pleasant; the feel of the warm water, the smell of the detergent, the moments of not caring if I splashed water all over the cell. Lockdown provided time to catch up on reading, meditation, letters home, and college classes. Even the showers felt better when I hadn’t had one in a few days.

The greatest benefit of my meditation practice lied in this newfound ability to shift my perspective about the circumstances and events in which I was supposed to find cause for suffering. I am not saying that I stopped suffering, far from it. I had plenty of days when I would wake up alone in my cell, make a cup of coffee, stare through the bars that contained me, and quietly cry to myself because the pain was so great. But the tone of suffering had changed. No longer was I the victim of outside circumstances. Gone were the days when I felt the need to escape. Even though oblivion had been my friend for so many years, it had ceased being attractive. I welcomed the experience of prison because within the experience itself resided the solution to suffering.

Prison, I could not escape. There is no freedom from prison when one is living there. There is only freedom from my story about it. This insight carried me through the remainder of my sentence and into the outside world.

Now, if I only I could be as good a Buddhist as I was in prison.

{Also published as “Stories In My Cell” at my other website Dirty Hands, Clean Dharma.}

Photo Credit: CDCR

15 thoughts on “Prison Dharma

  1. I work in a prison as a psychologist. I would love to share this with the men. I can I have a copy?

  2. What an meaningful dharma piece on being fully present. Even though our live’s have very different narratives, I could relate to your story of how meditation evolved in your life. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Inmense thanks for sharing your experience in jail before and after practicing buddhistic way of meditation.its not only you but many human beings could find absolute solution of life from your experience.

  4. Hi Matt, This is powerful and meaningful. Even though one’s life experience might be different, I believe it speaks to how one may suffer and engage in a meaningful practice at the same time. Love how you differentiate between escapism and being in the present moment. I would love to share this with the chronic pain patients with whom I work as they find themselves suffering, long to escape and we encourage them to engage in meditation. If I credit you, would you mind if I shared this with them? I also speak with them a lot about “the story. ” I find your insight to be wise and inspiring.
    Thank you for your story.

  5. Matt. Rarely have I read such a precise unfolding of the remarkable spiritual transformation that’s possible when one begins to hold still and not run away from the pain of separation, abandonment, and betrayal. Whether the vehicle is Buddhist or Christian, the psyche is the same. It longs for release of the pain. As you point out so well it’s the narrative that we’ve been taught that fertilizes the pain into a full-fledged garden of misery. Thank you to telling the story so honestly. You make it accessible to the very folks who can benefit from your experience.

  6. Love this. I listened to your interview on S&S this morning and was drawn to check out your blog. Thank you for sharing your experience. Sometimes it is so easy to forget the humanity behind every person, to forget that we all have a story which led us each to where we are and where we will be.

    There is so much here that I could go on and on (yes ,yes–bad habit), but your last sentence really caught my eye. It reminded me how much easier it can be to be a good _____ when living under specific conditions or constraints. I love that you acknowledged that within yourself (I hope that’s not taking too much liberty) and to us.

    Thank you again for your realness. Real is my favorite.

    1. Thank you Matt!
      Your insights give me hope that I will get through my sentence, that I will have a way to deal with the suffering. The awareness of how my “story” colors reality. I also love the idea of reframing expectations and perspective.
      Thanks again!

  7. Hi Matt!
    I shared this with my Sangha tonight and they really got a lot of insight about it. Thank you so much for your share. The healing you’ve done for yourself is definitely helping to heal others 🙂

  8. Hi Matthew,
    I’m a volunteer with Buddhist Pathways Prison Project and have been facilitating a meditation group every Tuesday night in Greystone Chapel for almost 8 years. I think our sangha is a descendant of the one that you participated in when you were at Folsom.
    I just recently learned of your website and have been reading through your articles. They have given me some insights into life at Folsom that I didn’t have before.
    Our sangha is a racially integrated group of mostly older guys who have gained some wisdom during their years of incarceration. Occasionally we have younger guys check us out, but they don’t usually come back.
    Our evening consists of a period of mindful movements (yoga), incense lighting, sitting meditation and then a talk and discussion. We close with some Metta verses.
    I would like to tell the guys about your website and give them a copy of your Prison Dharma article from April 4 2017. We will use it as the basis for a talk/discussion on meditation. Please let me know if I have your permission to do so.
    Thank you for this well-designed, well-written and informative site.
    with Metta,
    p.s. I wanted to leave this on your Contact page, but it wouldn’t recognize my website.

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