Someone recommended a book, “A Buddhist on Death Row” on reddit – I was immediately drawn to the title, but something in me was hugely skeptical. I am personally uncomfortable when religion is used as a means of escape, or when there is a dangerous narrative that suffering is meaningful (guess it shows that I am jumping to conclusions about the title). I did save it on a list, and after being reminded of “Eat, Sleep, Sit” in my last post, I decided that I was still curious about people experiencing the effects of what Buddhism can bring to them, so I finally decided to read it.
I ended up reading the book in two long sittings, and all I can say for now is that the book disturbed me on many levels. I may review the book in full later, but I wanted to write about how I related to it since it is still relatively fresh in my memory.
The author writes about Jarvis Masters, who has been in prison since he was 19, and on the death row. He stumbled into Buddhism almost accidentally: someone told him to meditate and even with huge skepticism he tried, and slowly he went deeper and deeper, in that process he had a Tibetan monk and Pema Chodron visting him in prison, developing close relationships with both.
Apparently he is now 58, so that is 39 years in prison. As of now he is still on the death row. Within that time he wrote poems, published a couple of books, made a ton of friends (many Buddhist ones), stopped a few violent events from happening, got married, etc. One could say he’s actually more alive than the average person while being imprisoned and on the death row, an irony that is not lost on him:
By then Jarvis had learned that Buddhism was filled with paradoxes and contradictions that messed with his mind. Sometimes it seemed as if those paradoxes were beyond his comprehension, but the mind is much more capacious than we think. He reveled in a fresh paradox: the death sentence that could kill him had given him life.
I think similarly about my chronic illness sometimes. Obviously I am not comparing myself to someone on the death row, but I can relate even at some remote level. I resent my illness, I grieve for my old self, but at some profound level I know it gave me a new lease of life. Without the conditions and limitations of my illness, I would have never learned to slow down, to cherish, to be present, to ride a bicycle, to cook, to discover so many dimensions of myself that was previously non-existent.
Since the virus situation unfolded, I have gradually found myself living in a different dimension than before. Initially I was frustrated. It took away so much I used to take for granted, but so many of the things I used to do were perhaps distractions – distractions from the uncomfortable anxiety and emotions that were chronic in me. I always felt like something was wrong with me, and it was not unusual for me to wake up having a deep pervasive anger and sadness about life. Like many others I sought a lot of external experiences in hope that these experiences can compensate for the chronic deficiency I feel in my body every moment.
But being in lockdown meant I could no longer do a lot of those, so I sought to compensate in other ways: ordering food delivery from different restaurants, cycling long distances. My body didn’t like those, my health issues worsened during the lockdown.
I have learned a lot about my body in the meantime. I am still experimenting, but for now I realised my body doesn’t like to be sedentary, but that doesn’t mean I can compensate that with intense bouts of exercises. I do the best when I am able to be in low-intensity movement throughout the day, not just a bout of 2-hour morning exercise followed by sitting the rest of the day. Because I am chronically inflamed, a problem made worse by eating outside food all the time, I was forced to cook and I ended up learning to enjoy not only the experience itself, but the slowing down of time.
Like being on a meditation retreat, I can no longer depend on external factors to temporarily lift my spirits, so for the first few months perhaps I was having low-grade existential depression (yet again) with bouts of extreme despair and suicidal tendencies, especially around my period.
Recently I observed an internal shift. I think being forced to go slow on so many things sort of made my brain gradually detox itself from dopamine addiction, and I no longer feel anxious and frustrated on a day to day basis. I no longer feel like I am perpetually missing out on something, and I spend a lot less time on social media. I spend a lot of time thinking about what to cook, or seeing other people cook. I know it sounds weird, but I used to feel like I have to “turn up” on social media every day so people won’t forget me. Or I’ll feel like I have to make my friends feel like I didn’t forget them, so I try to react to their posts to let them know I am still around, and I still care about what they are up to.
Now, I am just living on my own rhythm. For years I was very reluctant to let go of the network and friendships I have built up while working, I wanted to feel like I was still relevant. But it has been five years since I left my last full-time tech job, three years since I left my last part-time tech job, a couple of years since I wrote my last tech-focused post. It has been a long goodbye for me, especially so since I have abandonment issues. I don’t like being abandoned, neither do I like abandoning if I can help it.
But space must be made in the garden if we want to grow something new. Being connected online comes with its own anxiety, and it is time consuming. Even if I had spent my time offline I would feel anxious, like I’ve missed out on something. I guess this is the outcome of decades of living an ultra connected life. Social media had become a part of me, and cutting it off feels like carving into my own flesh. For so much of my life my online communities have been a source of comfort.
I feel like I need less comforting now. I don’t want to jinx myself of course, because I go through periods when I am feeling at peace like now followed by a period of intense despair. I don’t think we can ever avoid feeling despair, because life is complex, whole, and unpredictable:
Then he said, “I thought this Buddhist shit was supposed to protect you.” Pema looked at him and sighed. “Jarvis,” she said, “there’s no protection from pain and grief. It’s a fantasy to think we can be protected. You wouldn’t want to not feel grief when someone dies. What kind of person would that make you? A very coldhearted person.”
What matters I guess is building up the reservoir to face despair when it comes. I am not a Buddhist though I read a lot on it. I appreciate a lot of its philosophy and I don’t agree with all of it. But like psychotherapy, it can be an effective method to face suffering, though I don’t think there is one true/right way.
This was a passage I found especially poignant:
“People think as a Buddhist you want to transcend the everyday, transcend the past, transcend the pain. But the goal isn’t dangling above the messiness of life, it’s sitting in it; you don’t want to transcend the past but be there fully. When you fully connect with your past… that’s when it begins to lose its ability to harm you—to control you. What you do is go to the events; you don’t judge them as good or bad, and you sit with them even if they scare you.” She added, “Especially if they scare you.”
She offered a poignant example: “Let’s say your child is very ill. All you want to do is run away from the bad feelings. It feels as if they will kill you—that’s how afraid you are. You do anything not to feel them. But unless you feel them, they don’t go away. And here’s the thing: if you sit with those feelings, it doesn’t feel good, but it feels honest and true. When you stop running, you can be with your child who’s ill, which is where you want to be for yourself and for him.”
Different schools have different interpretations of Buddhism. Some of it can be off-putting, I generally dislike anything that tells me “this is X, so you must do Y”. I also don’t appreciate positive reframing of something bad. But I appreciate a philosophy that encourages us to open up our minds and look at things from different perspectives, and we could adopt that perspective only if we want to and it makes sense to us. So this is how I approach Buddhism or any metaphysical or philosophical learning. I use the texts to open up my mind and I takeaway lessons that are meaningful to me. Sometimes I don’t understand it until much later. Other times the meaning changes.
I like the idea of seeing reality as it is, developing the capacity to meet it, and respond meaningfully to it. There is no repackaging of the human suffering that exists, in its place it tells us to be compassionate precisely because we are all suffering.
Sometimes I get really angry at the conditions that exist in this world in the first place, it is like we’re set up to suffer (imagine a bunch of apes in the middle of nowhere fighting to survive) and then we get the blame for it. I disagree with Buddhism (and probably other religions) is that we suffer because we have desires. I think we have desires because we suffer. If we feel whole, what would we still desire?
Other times I think there’s no point getting angry with history because we’re living in the now, and if the suffering is current, what can we do to ease it?
I’ve asked myself this question a million times. Once in a while I would think if I am genuinely alone in this world I’ll stay sick, seething and mad just as an act of rebellion. I resent the idea that I should find meaning in suffering or try to seek happiness from these conditions when I specifically did not choose this scenario. Imagine feeding a child sand everyday and telling the child that they must imagine it to be delicious or that eating sand will make them grow stronger so they must learn to see the joy in eating sand. Yes, my convoluted mind thinks of such thoughts very often.
The redeeming factor is conscience I guess. I cannot in good conscience become poisonous to other people if I must live with them. So I try to let the poison seep out of me slowly. I still try to avoid interacting with people as much as possible, and as a consequence I am finding myself somewhat at home in the empty space left behind (with a partner who is as unsocial as I am).
What I seek is psychological freedom, not happiness – if I resent feeling trapped, then perhaps the only thing I can do is to learn how to feel free, even if if it is simply an illusion. And if and when I do feel free, would I still experience life as a prison?
We’re all doing time. We’re all in prison. We’re all on death row. And we can all free ourselves.