by Daniel Dimitrov
After six years of incarceration I've finally
made it home, hopefully, with my sanity intact. It's been an incredible
journey with much pain and regret, but also with much joy and healing.
The journey of incarceration has come to an end, and yet I know
my journey has just begun. After more than two months home and my
first week on the Vajrasattva retreat, at the urging of my kind
heart teacher, Ven Thubten Chodron, I would like to humbly relate
some of my experiences.
But before I explain my experience of release
from prison, I would like to share the manner that I dealt with
my incarceration in the beginning. After my arrest, and initial
incarceration, I was emotionally and fundamentally a mess. I was
confused, depressed, ridden with guilt and shame, angry and in pain.
I was spiritually empty, or at least didn't recognize my spiritual
potential at that point as this was before I had met the Dharma.
Yet even at that spiritually empty point there was a longing, a
spiritual yearning to fill the void that was previously filled with
unwise sexual behavior, depression, and alcohol abuse.
Also I had a heartfelt desire, almost a grim
determination to address these emotional ills that had afflicted
me for so long. I immediately began working on myself after the
fog of alcohol and acute depression slowly began to lift. I was
determined to survive this seemingly hopeless experience. My mantra
back then was, "It's gonna be alright" and "I'll
get better." Thankfully things did get better even after more
than a year of incarceration. I was served divorce papers. I do
not have children, which surely made things easier, and it was a
As I said, things most certainly did get better.
But it didn't happen magically or overnight. It took time and it
took work. I started by admitting my guilt, avoiding blame, and
accepting responsibility for my present situation. It was a gradual
process of speaking with counselors about depression and taking
anti-depressant meds. Eventually when the time came for me to decide
whether to continue taking meds, thankfully the staff was very cooperative
in supporting my decision to be weaned off the meds. I didn't want
or need any more chemicals in my life i.e. psychotropics. In conjunction
with a continuing relationship with the mental health staff, I had
a strong desire to enroll in various self-help styled programs,
for a total of almost four years of intensive, comprehensive programming.
I chose to do this of my own accord. This also included a six-month
comprehensive substance abuse program, in which I learned tools
to help me cope with my past alcohol abuse and address emotional
issues through introspection, cognitive approaches (correcting thinking
errors), and utilizing a peer group setting for feedback and support.
Of course, the Dharma was instrumental in my
recovery. In fact a spiritual component is critical to any recovery
program. In my experience the spiritual element is so critical that
true recovery is not possible without it. That said, I was very
impressed and in some cases deeply moved by the staff-counselors
of the recovery programs who, in my opinion, were-to a person) dedicated,
caring, compassionate, stern when needed, and knowledgeable people.
Overall they were outstanding human beings who I'll never forget
and who reaffirmed my faith in humanity. Clearly some of my counselors
could have been making more money in other careers in which they
qualified but they were in the trenches with us, treating us with
respect and dignity, and living their true calling. I must add that
my opinion is contrary to the popular and deeply ingrained attitude
of most inmates who view staff with deep suspicion-as enemies at
worst or as those who place obstacles in our path at best.
This positive experience in the substance abuse
program subsequently inspired me to stay on as a substance abuse
program facilitator (my prison job) so that I could hopefully give
back a little of what was given to me. I found that facilitating
in the growth, healing and recovery of another human being, regardless
of their race, class, education, attitude, or background, gave my
life while incarcerated purpose and meaning. It also afforded me
an opportunity to continue bettering myself and to keep the principles
that helped me recover fresh and inspiring. I found that this job
also meshed well with the Dharma, especially the bodhisattva ideal
to benefit all beings. Compassion in action, so to speak. I took
my job very seriously, but at the same time did not forget to laugh
and keep things light to prevent myself and others from becoming
too uptight or rigid in our approach. Humor is, after all, very
important on this path of life. This is the wisdom that has been
imparted to us from all the great saints, sages, masters and pundits.
Incarceration also gave me the opportunity to
study and become more well read. I read from Dickens, Darwin, and
Dostoevsky to Jung, Lao-Tzu, and Joseph Campbell. I was particularly
moved by the prison advocate Bo Lozoff whose books advocated reforming
the penal system through deep personal change, one inmate at a time.
As time wore on I felt good about myself and
life in general. There was a new found peace of mind that was sorely
lacking before. The peaks and valleys of emotional instability that
I had experienced before were now nowhere as sharp as they had previously
been. They were now more like small bumps in the road and were therefore
much more manageable. There were times of depression to be sure,
but they were nowhere near the debilitating type or for duration
that I had experienced in the past. They now were much easier to
manage through constant application of the Dharma methods of Lam
Rim-purification, meditation, four opponent powers, altruistic intention,
etc. Dharma methods I'm only now beginning to familiarize myself
with to their full extent.
I feel like I have my life back. This is a feeling
which I'm not sure I ever really had up until this point. I strongly
feel that my heart teacher, Ven. Chodron helped me in this regard
and for that I'm eternally grateful. Allow me to give an example.
I received some transcripts in the mail of some talks on karma that
Venerable had given. One of the headings was "Karma is Not
Punishment." Previously after reading Joseph Campbell, I had
an inkling that perhaps my incarceration was more of a necessary
spiritual journey, sort of a trial by fire in which there was an
opportunity for profound spiritual transformation. But I hadn't
quite articulated that notion in my mind. Then I read Venerable's
transcripts and began to think about them very carefully. This ruminating
on the teachings brought about a fundamental paradigm shift inside
me. To put it plainly, it changed how I viewed my incarceration.
This paradigm shift came about gradually. If
someone would have told me at the beginning of my sentence that
my incarceration was not punishment, I would have told them where
to go! But, over time, instead of viewing my incarceration through
the paradigm of punishment, self blame, or guilt which at times
I was prone to doing, I began to look at my time in prison in another
light: I created the causes and conditions to arrive in prison through
my choices. Choices = volitional actions = karma. I planted the
seeds, the results came. I understood that if I told myself, "My
incarceration is hell, it is punishment," then I would be miserable
and it would most definitely feel like hell and punishment. Suffering
is based solely on our paradigm. When we think we are impure and
negative and that our situation is hopeless, then it becomes just
that. I saw so many inmates viewing their world in this way and
they were clearly unhappy, angry, blaming, complaining, and generally
negative. I simply refused to give into this kind of thinking by
using a cognitive approach and recognizing my thinking errors.
Through the purification practices of Tibetan
Buddhism, I was able to begin the process of identifying my potential
for perfection and earnestly putting energy into developing it.
I was then able to cultivate a more positive self image. Believing
that we are pure and that no situation is inherently negative is
the first step in becoming pure. I began to see the positive potential
in not only my situation but also in myself. In addition, I tired
to surround myself with positive friends, people who wanted to better
themselves, had a good sense of humor, and were striving to act
ethically. My cellie Maitri was a good example of this kind of person.
Are not good Dharma friends a part of practicing teachings?
But more importantly, it was understanding that
karma is not punishment that had changed my paradigm. Simply put,
I understood that my present situation was the result of cause and
effect. I planted the seeds, now come the results. There was no
need for a heavy value judgment or the dualities of good, bad, right,
wrong. Incarceration was an opportunity, not punishment. It was
an opportunity to better myself, to grow, heal, and transform myself
and practice the Dharma. It was free of the worldly distractions
of bills, taxes, children, spouse, gas, insurance, and also for
me, it was especially free of sex and alcohol. I felt unburdened
and thus better able to practice the Dharma. I changed my outlook
from one of fear, confusion, anger, and blame to one of acceptance
and even gratitude for being given such an opportunity to practice.
I was grateful also for such a kind, compassionate, and qualified
spiritual mentor, such as Ven. Chodron, to help me along the path.
The experience of incarceration improved immensely,
once I changed the way I viewed it. Consequently, once I changed
my paradigm I also began to gradually change my behaviors. I quit
viewing porno pictures; I quit smoking and started to work out regularly.
I began to act more ethically, with honesty and integrity, treating
people with respect and dignity. Because I was developing these
qualities within myself, it was easier to act this way towards others.
Of course, I'm not a perfected being by any means and I still had/have
my moments of depression and anger. But the more I diligently applied
the Dharma methods-the antidotes to the gross negative feelings
and imprints-given to me by my kind guru, then the better I felt
about myself and life in general. In fact I began to find a new
happiness, a new hope and a new and better life in the Dharma.
I realize this may sound like some corny, religious
born-again testimonial, but unlike some of the superficial spiritual
experiences delivered by an outside agent in some traditions, I
felt my experience to be more profound. This was because even though
I had the Three Jewels and my teacher to take refuge in, guide me,
and inspire me, I was the one ultimately doing the heavy lifting
of doing the work of applying the practices. After all, what good
would it have done me if I were to proclaim my new found joy in
the Dharma and I then turned around and smacked a guy in the face
for stepping on my toe in chow-line? Not only applying the practices,
but also doing the visualization meditations brought about healing,
compassion, and transformation. His Holiness says, "Develop
the good heart." I cannot rely on an outside agent to do the
work of developing the good heart for me; I have to do the work
myself. I tried very much to carry all of this with me as my release
was approaching. I wanted very much to practice and live the Dharma
upon my release.
Are there problems in prison? Of course!!! Is
being locked up a problem? I guess it depends on one's paradigm.
All we are really doing upon release is exchanging the problems
of incarceration for a different set of problems associated with
release. I tried to avoid the trap that so many prisoners fall into,
thinking that all our problems will magically disappear once we
are released. I call this "the panacea of physical release."
It is a fantasy, a delusion. All we are doing is exchanging the
physical prison of incarceration for the samsaric prison of so-called
Don't get me wrong, of course I'm very happy
to have been released and would definitely prefer that over incarceration.
I'm just trying to keep things in perspective and temper the joy
of release with the understanding that I cannot take the happiness
of release for granted. I must create the causes for my happiness
through daily Dharma practice and living ethically. Then the results
will come. I must not be anxious, depressed, or disappointed by
expecting the results of happiness and freedom to come immediately.
Practice, practice, practice. Create the causes, results will come
in due time. It is a practice in patience.
Wanting to create the causes is the reason why
I've taken my kind, heart-teacher's advice to participate in the
Vajrasattva retreat. It would have been easy for me to decline Ven.
Chodron's request to do the retreat, with the excuse that my life
is simply way too hectic presently because I'm trying to deal with
life after release. This indeed is exactly what I told her when
she asked, being the lazy sentient being that I can sometimes be.
But thankfully, Venerable kindly and rightly reminded me that it
is precisely times like these when we need Dharma the most. Looking
back after a couple of weeks of retreat, I'm very glad that I did
participate during this time of release and opportunity.
I know in many ways my journey is just beginning.
I'm very grateful to Ven. Chodron and my Dharma brothers and sisters,
those in prison, at home, and at Sravasti Abbey for giving me this
precious opportunity to share such a powerful and transformative
retreat. It is, after all my sincere and true motivation to improve
myself so that I can be of greater benefit to all living beings.