June 30, 2014

Spirituality Behind Bars

For most of my life I’ve considered “spirituality” to be a dirty word. I suppose you could call it my own little rebellion. My parents were ex-hippies, seekers and health-food nuts so once I became an adult I rebelled by focusing on cold hard facts and eating Twinkies. Just as before me they had rebelled against their parents by becoming seekers and health food nuts. I shudder to think how my children might rebel.

In any event, in my case I raised rationalism to a religion and sought solace in news and current events and logical thinking. It was only partly happenstance that I became a lawyer: deductive reasoning focused on ‘just the facts ma’am’ fit my own self-imposed predilections. No room for spirituality in my worldview. In the process, I lost site of myself, who I am, what I value.

Regular readers of my blogs may have noticed that finally, now, after all that has happened, after all the pain and heartbreak I have caused, I’m beginning to belatedly wonder whether my way was the wrong way and, if so, what way is the right way. I would have to be a complete idiot to claim that all was well with my mind and my actions. Something clearly wasn’t working. Not only was I an out of shape, delusional, addictive punk before coming to this place but my beliefs, my ways of thinking, had clearly led me astray. With all the resulting self destructive urges as I flailed about, I did not value what I had or properly consider my path. Where had all my logical thinking, my rationalism gotten me? Nowhere that I wanted to go, that’s for sure. The biggest shame is not that I led myself down the wrong path but that I dragged so many others along with me.

That questioning – admitting that something was wrong – made me open to new ideas but it did not show me a new path. Suspecting that you have erred does not mean that you then realize what that error is. But the questioning did make me come to this camp intent on taking advantage of this “opportunity” (more on that below) to discover myself at what is, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of a very basic and no-frills two-year retreat, the kind of thing you do – like trekking across the Australian outback – once and never want to repeat.

What I did first was focus first on the obvious: my flabby muscles and overall lack of fitness. To rectify that I began to walk, jog and do yoga. A few months in and the benefits are clear: I feel so much better and can even do a headstand. The other yogis and I joke that out there in the real world it will be funny to joke at yoga class about where we learned our asanas.

But running around the track did not really address my spiritual void. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with a bunkie who’s used his very long time behind bars (over 10 years) to better himself in many ways: to become a true yogi, a master of philosophy and an expert in meditation and ancient Eastern religions. He’s my Buddha and when I start to complain and grumble about this place and life behind bars he sets me straight. Your job, he said, your only task, is to discover yourself and take as much as you can from this opportunity afforded to you.

Opportunity? Prison? Yes, that’s how he sees it. Where many have become bitter and resentful as they flail at the government and their unfair sentence, he has used his time to look inside himself, to discover who he really is. Where else, he asks, do you have this much time to focus on what is important to you, to meditate, to follow your whims, to read, to seek. It would be easy to waste it all away, as many do, watching TV, but he reminds me that that would be a shame. And he’s right.

I won’t go off (yet) on my newfound discoveries in meditation or spirituality behind bars – I’m just starting to read about the dharmas and the chakras and the Zen. Suffice it to say that I have a newfound appreciation for these ancient ways of looking at the world and the motivation to explore my innermost thoughts and desires in order to avoid making the same mistake again that led me here. I see others doing the same – not necessarily through Zen or Buddhism but through discovering who they are. They are a minority, to be sure, but quite a few men here use this time to better themselves and discover their inner direction. I’m not saying my way is the right way. Many pass over spirituality for organized religion. Some are “born again” behind bars. Others focus on education or journaling or writing letters. There are many ways to find your path in prison. The most important thing is to seek it, as no one here will hold your hand and lead you to the promised land. You have to take the initiative and do it yourself.

Leigh Sprague

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