Life 101: Prison is not Just a Place

¡Hola! Everybody…

Ever notice how your perception of the passage of time changes? There are times, for example, when “time flies,” usually when we’re busy doing something. We look up and eight hours flashed by! Other times, when we “feel bored” (feeling bored should be considered a cardinal sin, btw), time drags on forever. The minutes feel like hours. Then there are times, mostly when we’re involved in doing something creative, that time seems to “disappear.” You’re so involved in what you’re doing, so in tune with the moment and your creative energy, that time ceases to be and you’re caught in a flow state where you’re fully conscious, fully present, yet fully at one with everything.

That state, that experience of flow, is the key. It’s your access to healing and everything else.

* * *

John Lennon Tribute

Life 101: Applied Philosophy

What good is book learning? Or rather, what good or practical purpose is there in an academic discipline such as psychology or philosophy? It’s all bullshit, right?

Of course not.

The irony is that even those who put down formal education — philosophy, psychology, or reading in general or what some call “book learning — make assumptions and form opinions and worldviews that guide their actions. The difference being is that those who fully explore knowledge live life in a conscious manner. Those who pursue knowledge are aware of the past and its application to the present. Those who deny knowledge live as pawns.

And my response to those who question the practicality of an academic discipline such as philosophy is that it is useless if it isn’t being applied. Contrary to popular notions, thinking is an action, critical thinking is a subversive action and it is here where philosophy can help us live in a meaningful manner.

So what good is philosophy? Well, let’s take as a starting point the philosophy of nonviolence. Many great men and women over the centuries have expounded on the importance of nonviolence. You wouldn’t believe it by the way they advocate war, but even fundamentalist Christians have to admit that at the very foundation of Jesus’ teaching is the notion of nonviolence.

How does this teaching look when applied? More importantly, can it be applied to contemporary life? Is being nonviolent in a violent world even possible? Can ordinary people practice nonviolence as a way of life? I submit that if a teaching isn’t relevant, if it can no longer be applied to life, then it is no longer worthy. If a philosophy has no practical value, then it is obsolete (or bullshit) and should be discarded.

I was once incarcerated for a while at the maximum-security prison known as Sing Sing. My security clearance was deemed minimum, but because I scored high on intelligence tests, I was sent to Sing Sing because they needed someone smart with a minimum-security clearance to work with the civilian personnel in administration.

Great.

I cannot think of a more humiliating, more internally and externally violent experience than prison. The prison environment is structured in a way that it exacerbates unwholesome states of mind, perpetuates inhumane treatment, and foments violence. If you were fucked up to begin with, prison will make you worse. In fact, you could be the most well adjusted person and just a few days in prison will change that. Physical and psychological violence was a reality and everyday possibility in Sing Sing. People often ask me, “How did you survive prison,” and I laugh because I know what they’re really asking is how I avoided being raped. After all, I’m not a physically imposing figure: I stand at 5’7″ and at the time of my incarceration, I weighed maybe 130lbs.

The fact is I survived prison the way I survived anything else in my life: by using my intelligence. It was at Sing Sing where I learned to be a free man. I broke out of my inner mental prison at Sing Sing. That’s why I have hard time when people assume that I advocate and attempt to live nonviolently because I am naïve, that I don’t understand, that it was easy for me, but that their lives and problems are unique, somehow.

Bullshit. If I could do it (be free) in prison, you can do it out here. My cell was my sanctuary and it is there where I first began a regular meditation practice. My first “meditation retreat” was in solitary confinement, where the oatmeal I was served had maggots in it. Sing Sing was also where I took the basic Buddhist precepts, one of which was non-harming. Yeah, if you know me you might be saying about now: Leave it to Eddie to take a vow of peace in one of the most violent places. What can I say? I’m dense.

One day, I got into a disagreement with another incarcerated person over a game of dominoes. It was a silly argument, but as I stated before, everything in prison is magnified, intensified. We were separated before it escalated, but his last words to me were that it wasn’t over and that we were going to fix this in the yard.

This was challenging because in prison, appearances are extremely important. Losing face, or even the appearance of being disrespected has huge consequences. I didn’t want to fight because I abhor violence, always have. I also wanted to live differently. I wanted to apply these new principles — principles I felt were necessary for true freedom — in my life. But I was faced with the reality that being in prison meant that I did not have the luxury of giving the impression of “being soft” because then I would become prey to anyone else looking to establish a reputation. Put simply, the reality of being in prison meant that I had to man-up and fight this motherfucker because if I refused then I would become everybody’s bitch. At least this was the common thought process when I was incarcerated.

As the day progressed, everything seemed to get quiet and no one would talk to me. There was a sense of danger in the air, everyone knew we were going to square off as soon as we were let out for recreation in the prison yard. The tension was palpable. One acquaintance came by my and slipped me a shank (a homemade knife), telling me to watch out for the other guy because he had one too.

Geez!

Here I was, at a maximum security prison, about to go hand-to-hand with an individual who was serving a 25-life sentence for a murder. Great going Eddie, you sure know how to fuck shit up, I thought to myself. People, don’t ever tell me that I don’t understand, that my life isn’t or wasn’t as hard or difficult as yours.

What to do? What would a Buddhist, or a Jesus, or anybody else do? On the one hand, I felt I had no choice, that I had to fight, there was no way of backing out and still manage to survive prison. On the other hand, if I hurt this man in a fight, I could be convicted of new crime and end up in prison for a long time. Or, he could cut my face and I would be scarred for life. I was actually more fearful of losing my looks than anything else, truth be told. I mean, I may not be the prettiest man, but I had grown accustomed to my face and I liked it the way it was. But more importantly, what I wanted more than anything else was to live life in a principled way. I wanted to stand for something. Engaging in violence meant betraying what I believed, or wanted desperately to believe.

Without knowing what else to do, I sat down in meditation — practicing the age-old technique of vipassana or insight meditation. The technique of vipassana uses mindfulness to note our mental and physical experience from moment-to-moment, with an unbiased attitude. According to Buddhism, by practicing mindfulness meditation we can see and eventually remove the causes of suffering, which are within ourselves.

As I sat in this way, I noticed the shifting tides within me. I saw how anger morphed to fear and fear morphed self-righteous indignation and watched the whole thing cycle through again. I realized that the fear within me was irrational. I saw that the danger I was about to face was real, but if I faced it by allowing the fear to control me, I was not truly free. And I had choices. I could react from a fear-based perspective as I had been doing all my life or I could choose to respond in a different way. The problem being I didn’t know what that response would look like. Finally, the time came to leave for the yard. I looked at the shank and I decided right then to leave it. I made a commitment to live by the principle of nonviolence (even if it killed me) and I was going to stick to that commitment. At that moment, I didn’t know how I would do it, or if I would even survive. The only certainty I had was that I was going to do it. I remembered hearing somewhere that freedom is facing death and still committing to live.

I walked out in the yard and my former friend, who was now my “enemy” was across the yard, playing handball against the far wall. One of his friends tapped him on the shoulder and pointed my way and he put on his shirt and started walking along the wall toward me. He had a hand in his pocket.

Everyone was watching.

I took a deep breath and walked along the wall toward him. My mind was racing and now I felt like an idiot for leaving the shank because two things were obvious: 1) he definitely had a shank and, 2) I had no plan. I just kept walking. He was maybe 100 yards away from me and I could see the determination in his eyes. But I also saw something else. I saw another human being who was probably just as scared and conflicted as I was. We had been friends. We had broken bread together and kept each other company, playing dominoes and playing the dozens with one another. Yet here we were, ready to maim or even kill each other. Well, I wasn’t going to do it.

What happened was that when we finally came face-to-face, I refused to fight him. Just like that… I’m saying, Fuck it, I ain’t fighting you, this is stupid. Why are we doing this? And he’s looking around because everyone is looking at us, hoping for some recreation, and we’re standing there like two fools. He tells me to fight, that he will fight regardless. He says I made him lose face and now I had to pay for it. I tell him that I’ not going to fight and as I tell him this, I begin talking to him, asking him why we’re doing this. I ask him if it’s cool to be entertainment for these other motherfuckers who don’t have anything else to do. I offer my apology and I ask if he could find it within himself, as a man, for us to resolve this differently.

Truth be told, I really don’t remember everything I said that day, all I know is that we didn’t fight. I refused to fight. I know I told him if he really wanted to stab me to go ahead and for a moment, I thought he was.

But he didn’t.

He cursed me and I told him to fuck himself, but that whatever was going to happen that moment, the one thing I knew was that I wasn’t fighting him. I think he was actually really taken by surprise by my refusal. I think he expected anything else but that from me. I believe that my meeting his anger with reason rather than more anger, it took some of the fire away. But I really can’t say. He just shook his head in disbelief and walked away. I stood there and looked around and checked out the reactions. Some laughed, others didn’t know what to make of it. Shit, I didn’t know what to make of it.

Later, a group of mutual friends invited us both to the dominoes table and eventually we became good friends. I even taught him to meditate, but he said that shit was crazy. The day I left prison for the last time, that man was my friend. Years later, I returned to Sing Sing to tell the story of life on the outside to the men I left behind, many of who will never see the light of a free day.

When I stood up there in Sing Sing to tell my story as a free man, many of the men I did time with, hardened men — men who had harmed and been harmed — cried openly. My friend came up to me after and told me these words, “Today we live freedom through you, Eddie. We used to laugh at you because you liked to say you escaped from prison when you were here. But you have gone out there and shown us that freedom is something in here,” he said as he pointed to his heart. “You’re repping for all of us here who may never be free and that’s your responsibility because you have been given another chance.”

Prison is not just a place and freedom — true freedom — is a state of mind.

Today, his words are just as powerful and they serve to remind me that freedom begins here in this very moment. Philosophy is not merely for college kids debating in class, it has practical value. It’s what separates us from being animals ruled by mere instincts.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization

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