I read about mindfulness for the first time in a Jon Kabat-Zinn book while sitting on the bunk in my prison cell. People yelling and slamming dominoes on a table created noise that clattered in the background. What the heck does mindfulness actually mean? I thought to myself. Kabat-Zinn succinctly answers that question in part one of his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, when he says, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Then I wondered what good would come from paying attention to my present moments behind bars. If allowed, prison life will tattoo a person with stress. My goal up to that point was to escape my prison (not literally). Nevertheless, I gave mindfulness a try, and now I want to share with you what it means to me.
You may have heard the story of The Buddha sitting under a Bodhi tree for a few weeks, meditating and fending off a demon. After this epic demon-fighting tree sitting, The Buddha walked into a village, glowing like a mini-star. A man from the village scuttled up to him and said, “Hey, are you a god”?
“No,” The Buddha said. “I’m not a god.”
The man in the village thought for a few seconds. “Are you a man?” he said.
“No, I’m not a man.”
The villager stopped and looked at The Buddha. “Then what are you?”
“I’m awake,” The Buddha said.
I’m not a Buddhist, nor do I think mindfulness is exclusive to Buddhism, but I do believe Buddhism has articulated mindfulness very well. When The Buddha said he was “awake,” he didn’t mean awake as opposed to sleeping. He meant awake as in a profound awareness of his own reality just the way it was. The “demon”—or perhaps more likely his own self-delusion—no longer obscured his view of himself. This didn’t make him better or worse, but it did make him awake to his true self.
Like The Buddha, I have my own demon to fight off. Not a literal demon, I don’t believe in literal, supernatural demons. My demon is metaphorical (I want to clarify that in case someone from the prison’s Mental Health department reads this). Really, it’s the lies and stories I tell myself about myself and the I’m-not-good-enough feelings that come with it. Part of why I’m in prison is I never sat under a Bodhi tree, or anywhere for that matter, and confronted my reality. 2009 was an especially difficult year for me. Three years into a prison sentence and a lifetime of anger, resentment, guilt, shame, despair, and unresolved trauma had collapsed into a supernova inside my mind, exploding and dispersing elements throughout my inner galaxy. All I really wanted to do was run away from myself, as I always had, but I knew I couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to find a Bodhi tree, and I did. I discovered mindfulness meditation. My Bodhi tree was a prison cell and the ground I sat on was made of concrete.
I sat in my spot without a meditation pillow and I focused on my breath. When my mind wandered off—which it did like a rabbit on cocaine—I gently returned my focus to my breath. I grounded myself by tuning into the pulses, sensations, and aches going on within my body. (I passed on the practice of mindful eating. Since I eat prison food, I prefer mindless eating.) After a while, I gained an awareness of my own thought processes the way an astronomer might better understand a star by simply observing it through the lens of a telescope.
I can’t say I became awake like The Buddha—I never glowed—but I could at least deal with my supernova mindfully, not mindlessly like I had in the past.
Mindfulness also taught me self-compassion. I had always disliked myself, and I didn’t believe I had much value as a human being, especially after my conviction. In my self-observation, I could see that this self-loathing only fueled the insane cycles of addiction I had ridden into prison. When I began to view myself with compassion and understanding, I could see that I did have value, and I could more clearly see the good in me. My newfound awareness striped away many of my self-deceptions, and I didn’t like some of what I saw, but I could then look at those things with compassion. The critical, judgmental troll that lives in my psyche still wags its giant index finger and calls me a moron, but now I can look at it and think: That’s interesting. This troll thinks I’m a moron. Maybe it’s had a bad day. Ruby Wax, in her book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, puts it this way: “When you’re in observer mode, just witnessing your thoughts, they lose their power and sting as you begin to realize that you aren’t your thoughts. If thoughts were who you are, how would you be able to observe them?” This is incredibly humanizing. And I reside in a place where I’m often treated as less than human.
Mindfulness to me also means acceptance, but not a passive resigned acceptance. I think if we’ve experienced trauma or if our lives are just crappy for whatever reasons, the idea that we should accept it seems absurd. What do you mean accept it? Are you crazy? I’m in prison. My life sucks. I have a rash on my ass. You accept it! This is how I felt when I was first introduced to this idea, but the more I looked at myself the more I could see that not accepting my life gave me a warped, unbalanced perspective. I’ve always been a dreamer, so a million and one plays have been enacted on the stage in my head, mostly with the theme of what my life could be and what I wish it were. But all the while I missed those moments of my life. I didn’t face my life intentionally because I didn’t accept it. The acceptance that these mindfulness guru guys talk about isn’t a wimpy acceptance like, “Okay life, do whatever you want to me. I’ll just lie here and take it.” It’s a bold acceptance, as in “Okay life, this is what you gave me. It is what it is. But I’m going to go through this mindfully and with dignity. If you hurt me then you hurt me. I’m not running away. I’m going to sit here and confront it.” As painful as my circumstances are—loss of freedom, loss of family, constant reminder of my worst mistake—I need to accept it so I can move forward and face the rest of my life with purpose and attention.
As you might expect, prison is a stressful place. People yell at you because your shirt is not tucked in. They yell at you if you dare to walk in the middle of the walkway. They yell at you for not wolfing down your food in two minutes. Sometimes they yell at you because they enjoy yelling. In 2008, I made the egregious mistake of rushing back into the cell house after chow and letting the door shut behind me. A few minutes later, while I stood in my cell with my back turned to the door, someone squirreled me by punching me in the jaw. I lost my balance and fell to the floor. When the guy stood over me, I kicked him in his cojones. Then his buddy charged in with a shank. That’s when he mistook my face for a punching bag. And this was not the last time I had a shank pulled on me. Fortunately, these experiences are no longer common for me, but I often run into people who don’t epitomize compassion and understanding, to put it diplomatically. While I’m getting yelled at or sucker punched or dealing with difficult people, I’m missing my family and worrying about their finances, health, well-being. I could go on but I think you get my point. The weird thing is when I ran away from my stress it would eventually catch up with me, but when I sat under my Bodhi tree made of cinder-blocks and concrete, I could let much of that stress breeze through the branches on my tree.
As much as anything, mindfulness to me means letting go. I remember one shakedown where we were forced to take all our meager belongings to the gym to be rummaged by guards with gloves. The female guard assigned to my property proceeded to take some of my stuff from the table and throw it in a trash bag. I don’t think I cried, at least I hope not, but I said, “That’s all I have,” and I snapped at her. I didn’t disrespect her, but I did snap. I felt like George Carlin, “This is my stuff.” Fortunately, the guard felt sorry for me and took my stuff out of the garbage bag and put it back on the table. She saw the Deputy Warden of Security close by so she told me to put it away. I appreciate her kindness, but this experience showed me how much I cling to stuff. I don’t even remember what that stuff was! And I didn’t just cling to physical objects. I clung to my resentments, un-forgiveness, unhealthy attitudes, self-loathing, shame, self-pity, you name it. Mindfulness practice gave me the space to begin to let go of that stuff, too.
When I pay attention in a particular way to my present moments, even behind bars, it means compassionately confronting my naked reality; letting go of my stress, anxiety, self-delusion, and clinging; and boldly accepting my life.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hyperion Books, 1994.
Kornfield, Jack. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. Bantam Books, 2008.
Wax, Ruby. A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Penguin Random House UK, 2016.
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