“Every Moment Can be Either a Prison or a House of Prayer”

 Midnight Express


I am standing in the lobby of the prison, one thick grey metal door has already slammed behind me, another grey metal door, still locked, lies ahead. A long row of grey steel metal doors await my journey inside. The tall prisoner with the tough face beside me reaches over to his waistline, slowly unbuckles his belt and begins removing it from his pants, in a routine movement like in the English boarding schools' movies. The prisoner behind him removes his shoes. The air in the entrance room is stuffy and thick with the smell of nicotine that oozes its way into my hair and clothes. Above us a sign reads out: No smoking. We wait to be admitted by the prison guard on duty.

When the prisoners walk through the security metal detector they carelessly throw their belts and shoes on the moving belt of the x-ray machine, followed by my purse. As always, the guard questions the purpose of the Tibetan bowl that strangely appeared on his screen. This time I remembered to leave my mobile phone and nail clipper in the car.

Within these walls my fifteen prisoners await our weekly meditation course.

Sitting and observing the breath is not an easy task for them. They prefer talking, sharing, lying on the mattresses rather than sitting upon them, dreaming of their bygone days of freedom which may one day return. “Put on some music and do a guided imagery meditation!” – they implore. Anything, just not sitting in silence. That is the most difficult for them.

Actually, not just for them. For all of us. Our Mind finds it hard to simply stop, to set aside its object of fascination, to awaken from the dream in which it is caught, captivated by the enchantments of the senses. No wonder the Buddha defined awakening as: “Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released.” – Chachakka Sutta, MN 148

We are all imprisoned for life

We all find it difficult to sit and observe the breath. We too prefer day-dreaming of our past days of freedom, and perhaps of The Big Freedom that will one day arrive, the Nirvana that will descend upon us like a huge gift from the sky, rescuing us from our problems, pain, worries, anxieties and suffering. Especially from the need to sit and watch the breath.

What distinguishes us from those prisoners? In their film “Doing Vipassana, Doing Time,” Ayelet Menahemi and Eilona Ariel say there is a very fine line that distinguishes between us and them: “Everyone is a prisoner, serving a life sentence, imprisoned within his or her mind. We are all hostage to fears, anger and desires. Those things that don't go beyond the level of our thoughts – crossed the action barrier for those serving time. And yet, we are similar. Deep inside each human being lies a potential criminal.”

We too, like them, are imprisoned within our mind, controlled by internal forces that are unknown to us, that threaten us. How little do we know about our Mind! We are controlled by our fears, angers and desires, and are helpless with them; we find ourselves reacting and behaving in ways that do not benefit ourselves or those around us, leaving us with a sense of guilt or regret in hindsight. It seems the remote control for our behavior is not in our hands, but rather in the hands of some unknown force that abuses and mocks us. Internal forces stronger than us run the show. The show of our lives. We are slaves to our habits, conditions, and addictions.

The prisoner who did not want to escape

Mahmid, Ziad, Mazen, Shlomo, David and Rachamim (all names have been changed) are members of a 12 Step Recovery Program. “We’re now at step 4”, they tell me. “How can meditation help us with step 4?”

“Meditation is good for all of the steps. After all, step 11 specifically says 'Sought through prayer and meditation'…" – I am proud to display my knowledge of the 12 step program, and that addictions are not foreign to me. I may have not killed anyone, but to be honest (and the “12-steps” demands rigorous honesty), my relationship with chocolate and ice cream definitely falls under addiction definition.

The practice of awareness calls us to assess our relationship with our objects of pleasure and delight. Meditation invites us to examine the places where we grasp onto a promise of pleasure, comfort, security or relief, and to see their inherent emptiness, that they are unsubstantial and delusive. It invites us to also examine our impulse to protect ourselves, to contract, attack, place barriers and walls, barbed wire and armed sentries patrolling around our heart. How free are we really ready to become?

An ancient fable attributed to Plato tells of a cave in which a prisoner lived. Years passed, and one day his cuffs and chains were released and he was set free. However, the light outside was too bright, and the prisoner preferred the familiar comfort of his shadow-filled cave.At times, despite the open doors of our prison cell – the prisoner within refuses to burst out.

in Jaiil

Despite this, I believe the yearning for freedom pulses within us all. Bob Dylan wrote of this longing in the 60’s:

I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

Dr. Stephen Fulder, the spiritual father and senior teacher of “Tovana” says: “Every moment can be a prison or a house of prayer.” Every moment can be a moment of contraction or expansion; of control or of relaxation and release; of internal enslavement or a holy moment of awakening. Can we fully awake to the moment? And if we do – what will we chose: the prison or the house of prayer?

And do we have the appropriate tools to identify, to clearly see, to discern and differentiate, to choose wisely, to go “against the stream” as were the words of the Buddha, of our conditions and habits, of the familiar and safe, to dare to dive into the unknown? Are not most of us choosing, again and again, day after day, to remain within the safe shadow-filled cave?

Are we not “Trained to be totally obsessed with the idea of safely,” in the words of the spiritual teacher and social activist Vimala Thakar: “Tomorrow concerns us much more than our responsibility for today, for right now. We have never dared to embrace life in all of its tremendous and awesome splendor. Like generations before us, we are satisfied with perpetuating our partial-lives – finding hiding places where we feel ideationally safe and emotionally secure.”

If peace begins within me, then violence begins with me as well. We must seek within ourselves the source, the cause and the solution to our violence, possessiveness and fears, we must “deepen our investigation into the our souls and discover the hidden roots of violence” claims Vimala Thakar. “Until we find them – as well as the roots of our ambition and jealousy – we will not be able to find our way out of the madness. It is crucial to expose the roots.”

In our meeting this week Mahmid shared: “If you’re angry, you're eaten from inside. If you’re happy, you’ll end up crying. Best if you stay calm.” Within this complex, defensive and belligerent human heart lie the answers to our human conflicts on a personal, interpersonal and political-global level. It is all the same mechanism. The boundaries differentiating between the personal and the political become blurred,  as the famous feminist statement goes. Thus, investigating this mechanism becomes both a personal and a social imperative, both private and collective. In the words of the spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti: “The root of the problem lies in each individual, for society is composed of individuals…If each individual begins changing – society will change as well.”

When I sit on the mattress-covered floor with “my” prisoners, our eyes closed, observing our breath – what differentiates between us? How am I different from them? I also have angry, aggressive or vengeful thoughts – what caused them to cross the thin but significant line that separates a violent thought from a violent action? Is it possible that under different circumstances and with different conditioning I would have acted as they did?

The answer lies in the human mind, in awareness. In our mind lies the seed of greatness, the seed of Buddhahood, the seeds of beauty and mystery and the vast potential to create change, to choose, to awaken. To choose to awaken. To be one who goes “against the stream”, as in the Buddha’s words: “Those with little dust in their eyes". To choose freedom, against all odds, to dare to leave the familiar and safe cave, to believe we can live an awakened life, a life of internal liberation. For us and for those around us.

“Inner freedom is a social responsibility", says Vimala Thakar. “We need to examine the thought and the human mind not only for ourselves, but as an act of compassion for the entire human race.”

My father survived the Holocaust as a 20-year old youth, while his entire family was murdered. He lost his faith in God, but not in humankind. He passed this legacy on to me, the faith and belief in human goodness, even if it exists only as a potential.

This firm belief accompanies me as I enter the prison walls every week, sitting with “my” prisoners on the floor and guiding us all to close our eyes, relax the body and mind, and observe the breath. I celebrated my 50th birthday with them in the prison last week. My prisoners and I wished for one another to be released soon. “What does the tattoo on your arm say?” they ask me. “Freedom, liberation”, I answer. “You’re in the right place!” they laugh.

We’re all in the right place. May we all “Any day now, any day now” be released.

צילום: צילה זלט

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