Books Changed My Life
(this article is by my longtime prison pen pal and friend Tommy M. who is serving a 25-life sentence)
“During my time in prison, like most prisoners, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on my life. Like anyone else, in prison or out, I’ve had high and low points, pleasure and pain. But one thing that’s remained constant since my teens is loneliness.
I can’t say I’ve been completely without friends here in prison. But I only need to look at the books here in my cell to realize that I do have friends, and for that I feel a deep sense of gratitude. Not just toward those who sent me these books, but also to the authors of these books who have shared their wisdom with me.
I’ve gained a completely different perspective on life through reading these books. Particularly Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I consider my teacher, although I have never met him. The effect his books have had on me is nothing less than transformational. To illustrate this, I will explain part of my past, and how I got to where I’m at now.
Sometime during my teens I gave up on life. I stopped caring. I was in a constant state of loneliness, confusion, pain and anger. A rage was developing in me that drowned out any compassion or conscience. I eventually found an outlet for all these negative emotions in the barrel of a gun. At the age of 16, I lost my humanity and killed two young men.
My first few years in the dog-eat-dog world of prison were violent ones, and my heart became colder. It actually scares me to look back at who I was then and the state of mind I was in. In 1996, during one of several periods I spent in the box (punitive confinement), I realized that I seriously needed to get a grip on myself. Pain, anger, and rage overwhelmed me daily. I had no control and felt both like a victim and an animal. I simply did not want to continue living that way.
I didn’t know what to do or where to begin. I had no visitors and no one to confide in. Then one day I came across an address in the back of a magazine offering a free book on meditation. All I knew about meditation was that it was a way to develop mental discipline and self-control. So I wrote for the book.
About three weeks later I received We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff. The sections on self-control and karma spoke directly to me, and I began practicing the meditation techniques and hatha yoga every morning. In those beginning stages of my practice, I didn’t notice an immediate effect on my lack of self-control, and the meditation was at times frustrating. What kept me going were the brief moments of peace and clarity that I experienced. The yoga gave me a calm, relaxed feeling both mentally and physically. These feelings were totally foreign to me, and very much needed. The practice brought joy to my mornings, and it felt very real and tangible.
From that time on, I try to read everything I can get my hands on about meditation and yoga. I discovered the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. His words went right through my defenses and became a part of me, like rain entering soil. I began to practice as he instructed in his books, and I am slowly developing the practice of mindfulness.
It’s as though I’m taking baby steps, but they add up quickly and the effects manifest as small miracles in my life now. Through mindfulness practice, I’ve learned to become more aware of how anger and other negative emotions arise, exist, and dissipate. This awareness slows the process down. Because of this, I’m no longer overwhelmed by anger and rage. When the process slows down, I can see it developing, which allows me to have choice in how I respond (or not) to these feelings. I’m no longer a victim because I am finally developing the self-control that has eluded me for so long.
As I develop mindfulness in thought and action, I find that compassion and responsibility arise simultaneously. I really don’t believe it can be otherwise, and I’m glad for this change in my life. It took me a long time to really accept responsibility for killing those two young men. I’m not the volatile, violent person I was in my youth, and never will be again. At the same time, I’m also very aware that I can never change the past. I can never bring back the lives that I brought to an end. I can never take away the pain and suffering I brought to the families of the people I killed and for that I feel remorse.
Now what I can do is practice and develop mindful awareness of how my thoughts, words, and actions positively or negatively affect other people’s lives now and in the future. Meditation and mindfulness practice have been the most effective way for me to understand myself, take control of my life, and become a more compassionate and responsible person. I have regained my sense of humanity. I hope to continue developing through my practice so that I may step lightly throughout life, causing no harm to anyone or the environment. I look forward to the day that I can practice with the support of a sangha. It can sometimes be tough to practice alone. But then again, I can always look at my stack of books and I see that I have friends helping me along the path and reminding me that I’m not alone.
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