A prison inmate transforms a punishment lockdown into a spiritual retreat.

By R. Becker

In March, 2014, Danville Correctional Center, my current home away from home, was placed in a high security state of Lock Down for nine days. This meant we were not allowed out of our cells for any activities, and even our meals were brought to us in disposable trays. The institution was besieged by the Orange Crush, which is the tactical/paramilitary arm of the Illinois Department of Corrections, dressed in riot gear, consisting of their hallmark orange fatigues tucked into their black combat boots, helmets with face shields, and wielding blonde, wooden batons. As the company of 80 storm troopers surged onto the cell block, they loudly marched in lockstep and chanted in unison, establishing their ominous presence. The first phase of securing the institution necessitated strip searching and removing us from our cells and then storing us in the gym. Handcuffed behind our backs, we stood for two awkward hours tilting forward, with only our foreheads touching the wall, while they systematically and comprehensively ransacked our cells and personal belongings. Imagine my returning from this field trip to find my cellmate's dirty laundry rolled into my sheets and strewn upon my pillow. My cosmetic effects were on the floor and I eventually found my toothbrush in a dusty corner under the bed. The psychological methodologies and intimidation techniques employed during this shakedown process, and my reactions to them, are rich topics to examine in another essay. Yet, in this description of my 9 days of "cool boredom" I choose to relate the adventures I faced while confined to the cell, apart from this short expedition to the gym.

During this unsought and idle time, I did not engross myself in my usual activities of past lockdowns, some of which lasted up to 27 days at higher security institutions where I have been warehoused. For example, I did not "catch up" on my reading or correspondence. Nor did I watch TV or obsess over crosswords and similar puzzles. Instead, for six, one-hour periods each day I sat in meditation atop my iron bunk in the 7'x9’ cell I share with another man: my "cellie." Between these sitting periods I would spend 60 to 90 minutes in alternative mindfulness exercises such as stretching, performing a body scan, mantra recitation, three-part diaphragmatic yogic breathing, listening to the subtle inner sounds, or gazing at the galaxy of tiny craters in my cement ceiling.

Throughout these nine days of lockdown, I honored a noble silence and offered my mind no entertainments or distractions. I simply observed, without feeding, its latent tendency toward discursiveness. In addition, I enjoyed no diversions or amusements for my ego to situate itself amid sensory judgments and discriminations. Having no new inputs sent my sense of self fishing for material with which to establish and maintain its otherness and separation. The days unfolded and my concept of individuality became more nebulous. Though at times my ego would strenuously set about rebuilding a framework within which to define itself. The habit of obsessive contextualizing of "me” is hard to identify and dismiss. Eventually, the scaffolding for this continual reconstructing effort collapsed, and I tumbled into a queasy sense of groundlessness.

The initial unease of this groundlessness seemed like my being a penniless orphan in a foreign land with nothing to hold on to for security or familiarity. All I was left with was the patient confidence of presence, undifferentiated from thought yet not dependent upon it. At the same time, nothing to cling to meant nothing to be defined by. I was experiencing the loosening of my sense of a specific and independent self.   While there was no mystical sensation of transcendence as a component of my realization, I certainly perceived being porous and untethered from the familiar bindings and boundaries of my small identity. It took a modest degree of perseverance to refrain from fulfilling my conventional responsibility of perpetuating this false identity.

 As the afternoons wore on, each day became less onerous and lighter to bear. Yet, old mind traps, like zombies, arose and goaded me to take action to fill the sensory void. My mind raced between memories and plans, trying in vain to amuse itself with split-screen sequences of misgivings and expectations. Emotional woes and physical pains pestered and persisted as I simply watched impulses to make a cup of tea, wash my face, or clean the cell yet again, come and go without acting upon them. My witness awareness was clear that this restlessness was merely my mind squawking for acknowledgement and that I had no real need to perform any of these functions. In this witness seat of observation, I also noticed that the only thing I could trust was my intuition that the mind could not be trusted, absorbed as it was in self rather than in Self. The usual, conditioned and contingent reasoning processes gave way to an innate state of knowing the unified and harmonious beneath the particular and separate. This state of inner mental silence was not reached through effort but through vulnerable relinquishment of the intellect and sublime surrender of "I-me-mine" to the elemental familiarity of an intrinsic similarity in all things. I then temporarily encountered a de-constructed space where the mind entertains no expectations or critiques and it became okay not to maintain responsibility for myriad opinions. Thought was consequently exposed as futile and unnecessary.

As my witness awareness settled into the role from which the mind and ego incrementally and reluctantly resigned, I also observed the stories that became associated with seemingly everything that passed through my consciousness. Manufactured histories and justifications attached themselves to support my judgments and evaluations. Repetitive, inane and self-referential complaints and comparisons plagued me. I continued contriving and contorting artificial fabrications to shore up egoistic facades. Gradually, my discerning observation short-circuited this all-about-me perspective and the stories became transparently less compelling and persuasive. They became holographic and then reliably evaporated back into the inconsequential nothingness from which they arose. Without being drawn into them, I became acutely aware of their arising before they developed into temptations to weave intricate tapestries of fantastic narratives. Silencing this trivial voice enabled the continual dismantling of structural supports for my delusional mind. Boundless and soundless, the consequent immensity revealed the untenable nature of the dramas, conflicts, grievances, ambitions, and obstacles I dreamt up to distract myself from this inner realm. There emerged within me not a freedom from the barrage of these mirages but a freedom amidst them; in spite of their relentless insistence.

The enormity of this unstructured, quiescent space gave rise to some intuitive inquiries: what is the discontent and disconnected feeling of disquietude that so often consumes me with anxiety? What drives the mind's incessant activity to entertain and distract itself, striving to keep me from this abysmal anxiety? This abyss is not synonymous with annihilation; it is merely a sovereign empire unknown to the ego. But what if there never was an ego? Then why am I running in fear from this unknown autonomy? What confinement of unhealthy traps am I striving toward and what types of familiar solace or protection do I hope to find there?

Having negotiated the first seven days of lock down with an inquisitive mien, I sailed into a second week of curious repose. Stationary in my cell, savoring no new sights or personal interactions, few sounds and smells, my ego was stripped of material it uses to reify itself. From embedded within this disintegration of identity emerged a genuine disenchantment with sensory stimuli. As my corporeal appetites and attachments ebbed and subsided, inherent waves of contentment crested within me. This is enough. This present moment. This going nowhere. This doing nothing. This being.

Now that the lockdown has been lifted, it dawns on me that my previous unfamiliarity with this integral satisfaction seems to have been at the root of ray disquietude Ironically, when I feel I am missing something essential, it turns out, upon deeper investigation, that I am missing nothing but the knowledge of being already complete. The illusion of disconnection is the product of my lack of awareness of fundamental inseparability from my Buddha nature. Perceptively acknowledging this imaginary gulf, I desist from furthering duality between subject and object and humbly recognize their quintessentially self-less unity. Sensations of disquietude dissipate one breath at a time.

Presently, weeks after this retreat. I continue to be less obsessed with the process of becoming. I enjoy a sustained sense of inner stability and sufficiency with an appreciation for the inevitable vicissitudes of life; especially in prison. Being locked down while already locked up can be used as a pass-key to liberate myself from shackles of delusion and ignorance. This is the security of inner wisdom I gained from my unsolicited time of meditative immersion. For nine days of "cool boredom," my two-man prison cell revealed itself to be my sanguine sanitarium in disguise offering me a profound peace in pri-zen.