Spending a day each week going into a large State Prison supported by a local meditation sangha. Theres are five groups within the Prison system and they vary in attendance depending on what type of security they are under, and the type of sentences individuals are serving. This activity gives me an ongoing sense of how Buddhist training appeared in my own life, in contradistinction to an imposed confinement setting.
I was moved recently when an inmate who attends one of the groups, was referencing the long amount of time he had already done in prison and had to look forward to another ten years, and that he hoped his mother and his only aunt would live long enough to see him free. He had talked about about being a 16 year old who came to prison as a crazy and violent criminal, but that time and the conditions he lived in helped to mold him into a person with a spiritual outlook. He also said that was not a universal experience within the system, but that he was fortunate and grateful it had been for him; he also happens to be a very important and powerful figure among the inmates and seems to wield a lot of power with confident authority.
Of course there is a substantial literature around the conversion type of experience or the spiritual growth factors that can arise from enforced confinement, but to encounter them personally and repeatedly is quite another thing.
We are all serving an indeterminate life sentence. We are all in some kind of setting wherein we have limited control, limited movement, limited resources and an unknown amount of time before we die, and no idea of how we will die.
A prisoner at the top of the prison food-chain may have a lot of seeming freedom and movement, power, treats and services available to him, but he can’t go anywhere he wants. He is confined.
A wealthy, smart, healthy and educated person outside of prison has many options as to what, where and when they can go too, or come from, get something or discard some aspect of their lives; yet they too are restricted by their own class and culture and connections, because they can only be comfortable around people similar to them. When they are around people unlike them it’s an adventure, and that too soon pales into discomfort; It’s called a vacation. Vacating lives for a moment into another setting feels like freedom, but one can’t stay there because soon enough it just becomes another place to vacate.
Prisoners, and free people, are bound by life, health, awareness, circumstance and result of a life of previous choices, and all are hemmed in by the Great Wall of death.
It may actually be easier for an incarcerated individual to attain freedom spiritually than someone in regular life who may have a seemingly endless variety of distractions to divert them from those big questions/options. That is one purpose of a monastery. a place of rules and schedules, prison-like when viewed from outside, except you can leave anytime.
There is nothin about the prison life or experience that is a metaphor to “real” life. It is a real life.
The spiritual yearning, quest, need or inquiry
Is not a metaphor (I never metaphor, I didn’t like.),
and doesn’t need a place or a special condition.
It is already a place and a condition within
every being; as in Every Being.