Prisons of the Mind

[This post is part of my Truth Tuesday series on Facebook.]

Monday, in the prison meditation circle, I talked about what it means to be free. I spoke about my early years in academia, where it felt like I had no choices. Driven by unrealistic inner-expectations, I worked long hours, provided many and varied extras to students, said “yes” to every committee, and attended all events. Eventually, I was exhausted and irritated. It seemed like outside forces were imposing impossible rules. In reality, I was imprisoned by my own thoughts, judgments, and beliefs. When I realized I had choices, even if they were small, it was a great awakening.

I could, indeed, say “no” with kindness and integrity. I could cut back extras with the students while still providing rich experiences. I could work reasonable hours, putting off tasks until a different day or building flexibility into my classes. I could prioritize my own well-being. Each new step was freeing. I had created this prison and I had the power to step outside it. I still excelled at my career (from a more wholehearted place), yet I wasn’t defined by it. Freedom exists not outside me, but within my own heart and mind.

After my sharing, the guys had a chance to speak about what it means to be free and what it means to be imprisoned. Some observations from the circle:

“On the outside, I was abused and imprisoned by my shame. Now that I’m actually in prison, I’m taking care of myself. I’m growing and changing. I have freedom to be me.”

“Freedom is the pause. It’s the space between anger and acting on the anger. It’s the breath. It’s a chance to make different choices in daily life.”

“On the streets, I worked really hard, just like you. I didn’t take care of myself. During my jail time, I was imprisoned by my own obsession with the case—telling my lawyers everything. When I took a plea deal, I felt relief. I could be me. I’m in prison now, but my freedom comes from my actions and my way of being.”

“I have choices each day. Whatever’s for breakfast, I say, ‘great, this is my favorite.’ When I work out, I say, ‘this is exactly where I want to be.’ I accept the reality and let go of judgments. I’m here and I’ll make the best of it.”

The whole group agreed that freedom is inside us. Prisons are inside us, too. Whatever the external circumstances, we have choices in how we respond. We have choices about which habits we strengthen. Habits of judgment, blame, and anger, or habits of tolerance, compassion, and awareness.

Life is filled with things we don’t want to do—circumstances in which we believe there’s no choice. Yet there is a choice: feel our breath, relax our body, and meet ourselves—right where we are—with kindness and curiosity. Life is also filled with things we want to do. Freedom comes not just from releasing resistance, but from savoring ordinary moments of beauty, love, joy, and grace; from being present to ourselves and the people we love; from opening our hearts to all of life.

 Mindfulness, meditation, classes, teacher