I learned an important thing twenty years ago, aboard a small security plane, being transported to state prison to serve a 25-year-to-life sentence. Bound up in handcuffs, leg irons, and waist chains that weighed nearly as much as I did, I sat squashed in a seat between two huge male prisoners.
I tried praying with all my heart, but fear, mingled with despair, overrode my best efforts. Then I spotted a blue light on the dashboard of the instrument panel and began to concentrate on it to the exclusion of all else.
An experience of God’s presence
Suddenly everything but that blue light dissolved, and I discovered the passageway to a very sacred space within my own consciousness. Closing my eyes, I still saw nothing but the blue light. Subtly I could sense the light expanding with my breath until I was totally absorbed in a very special reality, feeling surrounded and protected by the presence of God.
In my first years here in prison, I thrust myself much more energetically into my own spiritual understanding and development, rather than the more common practice of furiously consuming myself with legal strategies as to how to get out of prison. I was much more concerned with getting out of the self-created prison of drug addiction, inferiority complex, and codependency which had dominated my thinking for too many years and nearly destroyed my life.
I began to meditate daily using a technique I had learned years ago but seldom practiced. Now, removed from all external distractions, it seemed only natural to sit very still and follow my breath into the quiet silence that exists at the core of our being. After reaching out to several spiritual teachers, I received a brochure from Ananda, which was like an answer to a prayer. This was the path that spoke to my heart and the people from Ananda, especially Swami Kriyananda, personified the spiritual truths I was seeking.
My altar becomes “contraband”
My room, as our cells were called back then, reflected my preoccupation with self-study and spiritual matters. A three-tiered wooden altar that I’d built in Hobbycraft jutted prominently from one wall and was adorned with flowers. This is where I would sit daily to pray and meditate. The very vibration in that corner of the room became peaceful. Even visitors, staff, and inmates would remark on the peaceful feeling.
But soon enough the rooms were remodeled into cells and a double bunk was brought in—along with a roommate. All wooden structures, even our closets and desks, were taken away, replaced by old, banged-up metal lockers. Wooden shelves, along with my precious altar, became contraband and had to be removed. So I pasted a picture of Yogananda and a paper travel altar with pictures of the gurus on the wall in my sacred prayer corner, until pictures on the wall also became contraband.
Ah—but that lesson I had learned so long ago aboard an air security plane served me well. The external space was of relatively little consequence—the real sacred space was within. All we need to do is to clear the distractions out of the way to enter that soul-encased silence within. I have found, through many years of yoga practice, that the breath makes the best guide through the narrow and sometimes elusive passage. Focusing on the breath automatically calms the turmoil of thoughts generally parading through my mind.
The constant din of prison noise is incidental compared with the noise I can churn up inside my own head, echoing my own fears, judgments, and commentary. I have found that extreme adversity in the environment can actually expedite my journey to that sacred center, making total surrender to God the only possible way out.
Years later, I have seen that the experience with the blue light on the airplane was truly guided and inspired, and occurred during one of those important and rare moments of complete surrender. And perhaps that has been the most important lesson in this experience—that the “way out” of the troubles and pain of this life is in fact the “way in” to the Kingdom of God.