The specter of depression accompanied me in my prison experience from the very beginning. It was always there, just over my shoulder, at the edge of my consciousness, a black hole of despair and darkness. There were times in the county jail, awaiting trial and then sentencing, when I just wanted to lie down and die. The moment I received a 30-year no-parole sentence, my knees buckled. My lawyer had to hold me up. It was surreal. I could hear the prosecution celebrating, just as they’d done when the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts. I experienced my life ending right there on the spot. The reality of losing my son, my family, and my entire life as I knew it hit me with a pain and devastation I’d never known. My mind was spinning. I could barely focus on my surroundings. The only thought I could hold on to was Don’t let the bastards see you cry.
I had witnessed the U.S. Marshals making fun of prisoners’ reactions to their sentencing while sitting in the holding cell at the courthouse during breaks in my trial. I had promised myself I wouldn’t give them the pleasure of seeing me break down.
Somehow I violently studied down the pain at that moment. Later that night, alone in my cell when I desperately wanted to cry, I couldn’t. They put me in an isolation cell in an otherwise empty wing of a county jail with a camera on me. I assumed I was under suicide watch. It was a long, dark, mostly sleepless night, sitting at the edge of an abyss. At the darkest moment, something rose up in me, and I made a decision to live and to survive. The darkness remained with me, though, always inviting me—as if the possibility of giving up would be an escape from my pain.
In prison, there’s an edge of depression that you deal with all the time, especially when you have a long sentence. The time felt endless. Sometimes I felt I’d been in prison for so long I couldn’t see the end. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and I didn’t know if I would get out of there alive. In our hospice program, I worked with men all the time who were my age and younger, who came down with cancer and never got out—dying alone in prison. I also thought about the violence. If you kept your head down, you could avoid most of it, but you just never knew.
Ultimately my years in prison became a powerfully transformative and deeply liberating experience for me. But inside, the feelings of pain, loss, and hopelessness still arose frequently. Most of the time I managed not to dwell on the fact of my time, the years, months, and days I had left; or it would have driven me nuts. Sometimes it was just unavoidable, though, and I would find myself staring my sentence of 25 years straight in the face (reduced from 30 upon appeal some three years into my prison journey), with nothing to take away the pain. I’d see and feel the reality of never going home. I’d think of my son growing up without his dad. It would bring me to the most acute edge of pain, beyond what I imagined I could bear. I’d find myself at the point of screaming, or beating my head on the concrete wall of my cell, or just collapsing into a black hole of despair and darkness.
After years of training my mind through daily meditation and intensive retreat practice in prison, my experience of this pain and darkness began to shift dramatically. I would find myself in the midst of this intense hopelessness and pain, burning with an agony that was almost blinding, and my awareness or practice would just stay with the direct experience without going into a lot of thoughts about it. When this happened, I then experienced that awareness as a spaciousness growing around the intense pain. Then the pain would dissolve into space, leaving me in a state of joy, almost a kind of bliss. This was a bizarre and unsettling experience the first time it happened; but with time I came to accept it and appreciate that my meditation practice had given me a way to work with and transform my pain and despair.
The experience of letting go, of seeing and feeling the pain acutely, and then experiencing it dissolve into spaciousness and joy was the supreme gift. It gave me a profound confidence about life, my spiritual path and meditation practice, and the workability of any situation, no matter how frightening or painful.
These transformative experiences arising from my meditation practice in the midst of the pain and despair of longterm incarceration led to an overall experience of basic cheerfulness that wasn’t based on anything. In ordinary terms, there was absolutely no reason to be cheerful in prison. There was nothing in my environment or daily life at that point to be particularly happy about—quite the contrary. My life was a disaster by any conventional measure. Nonetheless, at that edge of depression, I found a joy that was not based on anything going on outside, leading to an unshakable confidence in something good and trustworthy at the core of my being. My own direct experience of this transformation of pain and depression into joy and cheerfulness is one of the main reasons why I believe deeply in the power of meditation to change our prisons from the inside out.
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