April 23, 2014

Greater Freedom In Prison

From Mindful In Bedlam by Daniel Labbe (author's profile)


Mindfully Incarcerated
Greater Freedom in Prison
By: Daniel Labbe

There exists a prison far more confining than the physical one surrounding me. It is the prison of my mind, the prison of fears and desires, ignorance and conditioning, beliefs and ideologies. When living in this prison I live in disconnection, I live in a shadow world of my own creation. Whatever I do, I do in relation to this artificial construct... cut off from the truth of BEING, cut off from life as it manifests in the moment. When grounded in such delusion how can I, or any of us, live in healthy relation to the world and life that surrounds us? How can we live in healthy relation to ourselves?

The truth is that most of us live in such a prison, and when we do find moments of freedom- moments of presence, clarity, and intimate connection- it is like coming home after a long, arduous journey through an extremely foreign and hostile land. Yet it is only when we come home that we are able to live with any kind of authenticity and make SANE choices in harmony with the reality around and within us.

This is what my Zen practice is all about; recognizing when I'm absorbed in this projection and returning Home, progressively increasing the length of time I'm able to spend free from the prison of my mind. Once Home, the work becomes the work of saving all beings. This is the work of the Bodhisattva in Buddhist lore, and it is the way of personal responsibility and how we exist in relation to others. This "saving" is not the saving of salvation in common tradition; it is the work of saving people from my OWN judgments and delusions so I can engage them in a way that promotes healing and awakening for all.

The physical prison I live in is not nearly as restrictive on my freedom as the prison of my mind is. To realize this is the first step in awakening to a life of greater freedom, peace, and joy, a life that reflects who I truly am. It is difficult for any of us to realize that our current experience of life and the suffering it involves has more to do with our thoughts and interpretations, our own way of BEING in this world, than it does with the circumstances and people we find ourselves involved with. This is a key realization of Zen practice, and it is GOOD news. Why? Because if our experience of peace and joy, pain and suffering.. is solely determined by events outside of us, then we have no hope of being able to do something about it. But Zen teaches us practices that allow us to experience a profound and life-altering truth: The greatest contributor to any of our experiences is OUR OWN MIND. How we think, view, interpret, and respond to situations has the greatest impact on how we experience them.

Unfortunately, this is not a truth our popular cultures teach. Instead, most of us are taught to build our own prison walls in a variety of insidious ways. We are taught to seek happiness in social status, sensual pleasures, material success, financial security, power, and identity. We try to buy, consume, and achieve our way to happiness, and when things go wrong we tend to look for someone or something outside ourselves to blame; If only our government was more wise, if only my partner loved me more, if only this group of people or that group of people would smarten up- and the biggest lie- if only I were luckier, smarter, better, or more beautiful and talented..THEN I could be happy. What prisons we build for ourselves!

Think of all the false worlds we create though our ideologies and agendas; Pro-life, pro-choice, tough on crime, eco-friendly, Christian conservative, liberal, and on and on. These systems of thoughts and beliefs create imaginary worlds and it is in these imaginary worlds we tend to ground ourselves in, to find our way of BEING in. Mindfulness practices help us to recognize these false worlds for what they are so we can wake up to the reality of being as it is, as it manifests in the moment. Rather than reacting to a world that only exists in our minds, a world of phantoms and dissonance with reality, we can make choices that are in closer harmony with what actually IS. Isn't our absence from this wakefulness the REAL source of all of our, all of the worlds, problems?

There are a variety of PORTALS that help us gain entrance to this ground of being; Nature, art, love, meditation, mindfulness, and service, are just a few of the ways we can pierce the veil of illusions we most often find ourselves in. In this state of awareness and connection we tend to RECEIVE the offerings of life as they manifest in the ever-present NOW rather than forcing our own constructions on to it. We settle down, open up, and RECEIVE the Song of the Rolling Earth, as Walt Whitman once proclaimed. We RECEIVE the Eternal Sermon of the Mountains and Rivers as Dogen taught centuries ago. In this RECEIVING our thoughts and beliefs, our desires and fears and ideologies are not so important for they become the cotton in our ears, deafening us to the Universal Song of Life, to the truth of who we really are and what we are capable of.


Although prison is a horrendous place to live, and a direct reflection of our cultural deficits, I am grateful to have found a practice that has helped me turn the abuse, violence, and dysfunction endemic to such places into the grinding stones that hone my skills, the skills I use for healing, awakening, and service. In more pleasant circumstances I wouldn't have the opportunity to continually push the boundaries of my practice; I wouldn't have the chance to uncover the hidden pockets of greed, anger and delusion the way I do here. Trying to practice compassion, forgiveness, kindness, patience and equanimity in this environment will certainly build resilience and reveal ones weaknesses.

The irony is, that I'm experiencing a TRUER and greater freedom now that I am locked up than I did before my incarceration. Of course, I'm looking forward to my release in 2016, but my hope is that by sharing my experience with the "free" public, I will be able to reach someone who is suffering in the prison of his or her own mind, so that person can know that greater freedom and peace IS available. I languished in just such a prison for years, slowly being poisoned by my own woundedness and ignorance. In such a state I not only caused myself great suffering, but I also caused those around me and those I love, much pain.

If you find yourself living in a world filled with beliefs and ideologies, fears and desires, views and opinions and blame...I want you to know there is a greater reality available to you. A reality of greater freedom, clarity, and authenticity, and I was able to discover this reality here in the harsh world of prison. I'm not ALWAYS able to inhabit it, but I do find myself there (HERE) more often and that my life today manifests greater peace, joy, love, and freedom, than I have ever known before. If this has been my experience here, in prison, certainly you can discover this truth in your world, whatever it may hold, and if more of us are able to discover this awakening there may come a day when we start making choices that reflect the best of our human values, creating a saner, more compassionate, world for everyone.



Replies (3) Replies feed

Rachel Posted 8 years, 7 months ago. ✓ Mailed 8 years, 7 months ago   Favorite
Dear Daniel,

Thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful and beautiful posts. I have enjoyed reading them over the past few months. My name is Rachel and I am a graduate student at Harvard University. I am currently working on a ethnographic research paper for a sociology class on transformative programs and practices in prison. For that project, I have been interviewing previously incarcerated individuals who have participated in such programs/practices, as well as individuals who lead these sorts of programs. I think your essays speak beautifully to the importance of mindfulness, meditation, and emotional literacy programs in prisons--would you mind if I used quotes from your writing in my paper? I would keep your identity anonymous by using a pseudonym (let me know if you have any name preferences!) and I would also love to share the finished product with you, if you are interested!

Let me know what you think and thanks again for your important work; it is truly inspirational!


P.S. You speak of many programs in your writing (AVP, Toastmasters, Prison Mindfulness Institute, etc.) but have you ever done the Houses of Healing emotional literacy program?? A lot of what you write about seems to reflect the teachings from this book/program, which is why I was wondering!

Daniel Labbe Posted 8 years, 6 months ago.   Favorite
(scanned reply – view as blog post)

Aimee Lee Posted 8 years, 3 months ago. ✓ Mailed 8 years, 2 months ago   Favorite
Thanks for writing! I finished the transcription for your post.

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