I have a good friend who was sentenced to a nine-year jail term for writing bad checks. While that may seem like a perverse miscarriage of justice, especially since the checks bounced and no one lost money, this story has a happy ending. During his jail time, he started to meditate and found a certain calmness and peace in his life that he hadn’t had before and now lives a productive and happy life. One of the funny anecdotes he likes to tell, is that when he was leaving jail for the last time, they didn’t give him his belt back. Due to the fact he had lost a great deal of weight, his pants were ten inches too large and as he walked through the barricade leading to freedom his pants fell down around his ankles and he mooned the jail that had been his home for so many years.

I tell this story because it is a tale of our times, an allegory of how many people unknowingly live their lives. Most of us live in a prison cell, the one between our ears, and we are our only jailer. What we do with our time determines whether we eventually free ourselves or suffer continuously in our own mental prison. Pretty much every horror story you have ever heard happening in prison, can and does happen between our ears. We die many deaths, we mourn for our freedom, we constantly fight with ourselves over our story being the most tragic or ironically, the happiest (although the latter seems to not be as popular these days).  So how do we free ourselves from our prison and live a life of freedom? There are several suggestions I’d like to share that learned both from my friend and while observing myself and others.

  • Make a new story: While my friend was in prison, he imagined that he was living in a cave on a mountain top like a guru in Tibet. He found a lot of positives about his experience. He had the promise of food everyday (even if it wasn’t the best), he had all the time in the world to meditate and contemplate life. Think about it, when you are in prison you have a lot of down time and can get deep inside of yourself. He was not in a maximum-security prison so he wasn’t so concerned about his personal safety. Rather than be a victim, he decided to become as well-read and enlightened as he could be.
  • Take Responsibility: We must accept the fact that sometimes we get unpleasant results. We can blame others for our problems, but ultimately, we were the ones that set the stage for those unpleasantries to show up. We must accept the fact that we don’t have problems, we have learning experiences, “opportunities for growth” if you will. The old cliché applies here; life is what happens when we had something else planned. We planned, God laughed. Humor arises from the unexpected, we need to cherish the unexpected. I often wonder if the caterpillar knows what is going to happen when it lies down for that cocoon of a nap. I believe that the troubles and trials of life that we encounter, are like going to an emotional, mental and spiritual gym; We can develop our “personal growth muscles” if we start lifting those heavier weights that come with those challenges. The results are usually better than we could ever imagine.
  • Grow up; Most of the mental jails I see were built in childhood. We get stuck in these prisons because we never grew out of those experience that shaped us then. Maturity requires delayed gratification, discipline, awareness and mindfulness. We need to finish what we start, keep our promises, live free of supervision, and let shit go (forgive). Most prisons (real and metaphorical) have the trap of letting someone else tell us how to live our lives. We surrender our authority and disempower ourselves to authority figures (parents, gurus) so we don’t have to take responsibility for our lives and how they turn out. I have a long history of disempowering myself to gurus and I did not escape that prison until I committed to marching to my own drummer. It is a bit more challenging to be sure, but a lot more freeing and a hell of a lot more gratifying.
  • Meditate: Obviously, my friend had a lot of time to meditate. There isn’t a lot to do in prison. Most people who are locked in their own prison don’t even realize that they have placed themselves in a self-imposed jail. When we meditate, we get to look around our mental and emotional landscape and see what needs to be changed and emotionally purged. Eventually we get the opportunity to change everything about our lives by changing our thinking from being a victim to being an emancipator. When we live a life of freedom free from our own self-imposed imprisonment, we are not only taking off the heavy coat of victim hood but we are also an inspiring example for everyone else.
  • Deal with your Shit: Personal prisons are built from our addictions, habits, beliefs, chronic self-defeating behavior and self-doubt. When we are radically honest with ourselves, we know this. We know exactly what we are addicted to, whether it is substances, behavior, people, places or things. We should have faith, courage and discipline to break out of our prison. A lot of it. Self-doubt will stop us before we even step through the doorway out of our prison. We would rather live a life of misery with the known, than look the unknown in the face. We must quit listening to that voice in our mind that keeps us locked in our prison. You know that voice, the one that whispers in the night that we are failures, constant disappointments and will die alone, so why bother trying? We should pick ourselves up, lift our chins, put one foot in front of the other (baby steps welcomed) and carry on.


My escape from prison, like my friend’s, only came after I had lost everything important to me. I am truly grateful that it was not my destiny to spend 9 years in prison. I am hardheaded and I don’t wish my experiences on anyone. However, many of us need to get a harsh wakeup call before we realize that we are in the middle of a shit storm that we can get out of.  We all must endure whatever we endure, before we wake up to the sound of wonder and start to imagine what life on the other side of the prison wall would be like. I would have loved to have dropped my pants and mooned myself when I escaped from my prison, but that is stuff of legends and a story for another day.  Now, I am happy to be exactly where I am.

Reprinted from The Elephant Journal