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Transforming Prison Into a Refuge

Perhaps we feel that the world is spinning uncontrollably and we have no power to stop it and reverse its direction. We may feel overwhelmed by the global pandemic, and that we are losing our comfortable life and predictable future. In the short term, we do not know for how long that distancing or lockdown conditions will last, and when the danger and fear will be over … and we can feel safe again. We have no control.

But we need to be comforted by knowing that our Master has prepared us for just this kind of situation.

Hasn’t he told us that this world is not perfect nor will it ever be! That we shouldn’t expect conditions to suit us – we have to adjust to changes in circumstance. (We just didn’t expect them to be so stark or extreme!) He has told us to be positive, and we have to find ways to be so; to experience all these changes in a positive light. He used to say that if the terrain we are walking through is rough, we just need to wear strong boots. Those strong boots will protect us. Those strong boots are our meditation, seva, and satsang. He has encouraged us to take a positive view of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. This kind of positive thinking is no small thing. It can transform any fearful situation into one of love and freedom.

And if we feel anxious about our future, we can sublimate that anxiety into helping others. And then we will be able to maintain our equilibrium. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

We often encounter stories of people overcoming insurmountable odds and finding a way forward. An inspiring example was recently published in The Guardian newspaper –

A 41-year-old woman, who had been in prison for 20 years, wrote about how her period of incarceration changed her for the better. After a long inner struggle, she was able to adjust to her circumstances and change her outlook.

At first she felt that the walls of her cell were closing in on her, and that she was cut off without choices. But after some time she realized that with a change in her attitude, and using her time in jail productively, prison could become a refuge from all the problems of the outer world – all the temptations and weaknesses that had once driven her to commit the crimes in the first place, for which she had been imprisoned. Once she was able to see the prison walls as a refuge, she felt liberated, that she had been given freedom. She learned to live “in the now” and appreciate every moment of her life.

Finally she was granted parole. But just as she was about to enjoy her first taste of life outside the prison walls, the Covid-19 lockdown began. How ironic! Yet because of her experience in prison (even having been in solitary confinement for some time), she came to appreciate her solitude and once again saw this period as a refuge from the problems of the world. She wrote:

I sometimes fear there’s nothing meaningful I can contribute to society, but with a global pandemic forcing much of the world into lockdown, I have an unexpected opportunity: to share the lessons from my prison experience that might help others to adjust.…

In prison, I found myself believing that walls were all that existed. They stood unsympathetic to my suffering and closed in a little bit more each day.…I often thought that I would lose my mind from the feeling of slowly being entombed and cut off from the world, but then something happened.

She writes that as she shifted her focus from the outside world to her inner self, a new world took shape and revealed itself to her.

The most important lesson I learned during this time was that I had to accept my circumstances as they were, then change my perspective about them. To my surprise when I did this, those once-menacing walls,… were no longer holding me hostage but offering refuge.

She continues:

Restrictions and stay-at-home orders are the reality, but if we can shift our perspective, our homes become sanctuaries, not prisons. We are not locked in but rather the threat of disease and hundreds of other harmful things are locked out, distractions and misaligned priorities among them.

Solitude challenges you to look at things differently.… I had to learn what was within my control and what wasn’t. I also discovered that time exists in relation to an emotion or experience, and it slowed or sped according to my ability to be present. So, I learned how to flow with it, not rushing nor procrastinating, but fully engaged in whatever was before me. … It was as simple as just paying attention.1

She then describes how she started reading books carefully, listening to others, and quieting her mind from incessantly ruminating over events of the past and present. She started giving her full attention to every activity. Her increased attention and awareness made her feel increasingly strong and grateful, and she realized that she could transform her prison cell into a refuge.

We can look upon this period of lockdown or home isolation as a bonus period during which we can focus more on our meditation, seva (if we have any we can do at home), reading inspirational literature, and finding opportunities to help others. This will enable us to strip away the unnecessary preoccupations that used to define us and dominate our minds. It’s a process of reversing the flow of our attention from outward to inward, from negative to positive. And there’s a parallel in the realm of our inner work, our meditation.

Chinese Taoist masters emphasize that in our normal waking state, our spiritual energy flows outward and downward, dissipating into the world. With meditation we can reverse this outward flow of spiritual energy and attain inward focus, and an awareness of the all-pervading and all-encompassing divine spirit.

The spiritual light is always shining within – it is our essential nature. Unfortunately, the light of our consciousness is easily spread outside, dissipated through our desires, our fears, our sensual and intellectual activity, and interactions with others. We need to “turn the light around,” to reverse its illumination, so that it shines within us, awakening our spiritual consciousness, and not allow our attention to scatter into the creation.

As Hazur said, the Master is always pulling us from within, giving us facilities, opportunities, and a conducive atmosphere, so that we will think about the Lord and try to go back to him. That atmosphere and opportunity are often not the cheerful and rosy situations that we expect. Sometimes we have to confront frightening situations so that we understand the reality of this life, turn to Him and submit to his will.

Hazur was once asked:

How can we manage to have a calm or accepting attitude when suffering?

Hazur’s response urges us to take the long view:

Take it as his grace and think more about the Father. When we are suffering, we think more about the Father than when we are in happy situations. So which is better from his point of view? Any moment when we remember him is to our credit. So only that is a moment of grace when we think about him, when we remember him. And when we forget him – that is not a moment of grace at all.

So if worldly happiness makes us bow down before him and makes us remember him – that is grace. But if worldly happiness makes us forget about him, if he has given us so much that we are lost in the pleasures of the world and we forget the Lord even, that is not his grace. So grace may not be to our liking.…

The Lord knows what is best for us. So he will only give us that which pulls us to him. The master will not give us those things which make us forget the Lord and attach us to the creation. That is not his grace at all.

Not that he wants us to suffer. He wants to save us from suffering. We don’t even know what suffering is. We are only worried about these few moments of suffering here, but we’ve forgotten the suffering from birth to birth, from species to species – what we have gone through from age to age.

The Lord wants just to save us from all that, and we are only concerned with these few moments of pleasure, and we think the Lord is unhappy with us, that he doesn’t want us to enjoy this life.2

He is trying to bring us back to him as quickly as possible. So let us use this time to our advantage.

  1. The Guardian, April 13, 2020, “I was in prison for two decades – here's what I learned about isolation”
  2. Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I, #410