How to Meditate in Jail

In 2008, during my lovely summer spent in Macguire County Correctional for a crime I absolutely did commit, I had a great deal of free time to think about what I had done.

Men can go crazy in lockup, the effect it has on warping your reality is begins happening immediately. Being confined to an area, to a room, with a high degree of order, it does make everyone a bit crazy. Jail is an angry place. If you’ve ever watched any kind of show on being locked up, guards often describe it as “anything can happen”. I understood why when I was there. People are on edge on the time, you cannot hide from yourself in jail. Or you can, but the act of doing so creates a downward spiral. There is a reason lifetime criminals go in and out of prison. You cannot handle living in the real world, your sense of consequence and cause and effect is skewed. But there I was, and I had to learn to calm myself down. Not an easy place to do this. Thankfully, there was a book I read while I was there. My most favorite book Ive ever read to this day.

Shogun, by James Clavell

The book is an East-meets-West story of the clash between two different ways and means of thinking and living, along with a romance, a power struggle, a lot of battles, and an overall epic tale of adventure. Meditation figured prominently into the book, Zen Buddhism specifically. its a very good book.

The book ironically was recommended to me by a career criminal who went by the name of Pops. Pops had been in and out of jail his entire life. He had 5 sons, all of whom were career criminals like him. He might sound like a bad guy, but Pops was very good natured. Unlike many there, he felt very at ease wherever he was. He was the first person I talked to when I got assigned to my cell, and he was famous for holding dialogues on all manner of subjects; Women, law, how to game the system, how to hustle, how to network, how to use your time productively Pops and I talked often, and after about two weeks there, a bookcart came by one day. It was a mini library, it had maybe 50 books on it, and you could pick two and read them.

Pops saw “Shogun” on the cart, and told me I should read it. “You’ll love this book Spider! It got me through being here years ago, way back the first time I was in here. I was swinging swords and thinkin Im in japan, I loved that book”

So I picked it up, and I read it. He was not wrong. There was a lesson in that book, among many others, one that I never forgot.

There’s a point in the story, when an assassination attempt is made on the protagonist and his band of allies. They all barely survive this attempt on their lives, and escape at the last minute, fleeing on a ship out to the sea. The Primary protagonist, he’s a Western Gentleman, an English naval officer. The entire ordeal leaves him stressed, and panicked. His companions though, they begin to laugh as soon as they realize they are out of danger. He is taken aback by this, and lambasts them for their reaction. Why are they laughing when they almost died??

Their response is sublime (and I paraphrase)

“We did not die. And we are still alive. So why would death not be something to laugh at?”

I reread that passage over and over. You are still alive. You are still alive. You are still alive. I was not dead, I would not be dying anytime soon, I had a date when I knew I would be leaving. I was still alive. And my mind and my thoughts were my own so long as I was.

That may not sound like meditation, but it was a revelation. I had total control over my mental state. If someone could laugh at dying, what was there that a man could not handle? If one man can, so can another. That book, that passage, it was responsible for the inception of my “Physicality=Mentality” approach to living.

I was nicknamed Spider because I spent all day doing calisthenics. If I could train my body, could I not do the same to my mentality? And what better place to practice than incarceration?

For the time I was in there, I had all the time in the world. Jailhouse meditation, if you can be calm, collected while locked up, there is nothing stopping you from being calm and content anywhere else in the world.

Make of that what you will.

Originally published at alexanderjuanantoniocortes.com.