Today I realized a profound thing while sitting in my cell contemplating my life and the situation that I find myself in. This profundity went through me like a bolt of lightning. I felt I had stumbled upon a great treasure and wanted to shout for joy. My find was this: the Journey of life is what really matters!
In my cell I have numerous books by a variety of authors that cover a multitude of different outlooks on life. I have a book on the Tibetan Buddhist forms of meditation. I have several Christian daily devotionals. I even have a book on a Catholic priest named Father Arseny who suffered in the Russian Siberian “death” camps. A diverse group to be sure. But the one thing that they all agree on is the fact that life’s Journey and how you approach it is the key to finding your place and happiness in our ever-changing world.
Jesus said He was the way; Buddha said to follow the path; Einstein said we are on a road of time, always moving and forever changing. Is it any wonder that the journey of our lives should be the key to opening up ourselves?
Recently I have experienced depression like I have never felt before. It wrapped around me like a wet wool blanket and threatened to smother me. I laid around without any energy whatsoever and thought that I had come to the end of having any meaning or hope for a future in my life—here I was locked up in a maximum security prison’s “Inmate Management Unit” after my third escape from prison. I had just received 50 years for that escape and related crimes a few months before this and had already served 24 years of my 42 years on this planet behind bars. What could possibly be any reason to further this waste of a life?
Luckily for me I stopped long enough in my self-pity to pen a letter to the Human Kindness Foundation. I had a few of the books that they offer, and since they dealt with incarcerated people and seemed to genuinely care, I wrote them a letter. Shortly a reply came back, not one I expected, but one that put me to thinking. From that has come the essence of this article. The reply was from a man named Arjun, who had spent over two decades in prison and who could definitely relate to my position. In this letter he said, “Thank God that you feel all of your present guilt and shame.” He went on to say that I had a great opportunity to do some deep soul purging. What I really wanted was a hug and someone to tell me it was all right. What I got was what I needed, and that was someone telling me that I needed to face my pain, face my guilt, face my demons, and see that in me which needed changing. That is what the path, the way, and time give to us—a chance to see our nature and to change in ourselves those things that keep us from continuing on the Journey as a whole and healthy being.
I have also realized that along with the Journey we must reach out to others. Reaching out to others is essential to staying on the right path along the Journey.
For the entire span of my life, 42 years, I have been very selfish and self-centered. If something wasn’t about me, I wasn’t interested in it. If someone wasn’t always praising my abilities or my personal achievements, I wasn’t interested in them.
Those are hard things to realize about yourself and even harder to do something about, because you’re constantly going against that little voice in your head that keeps whispering to you, “You’re all that matters, you’re all that’s important.” In fact, what’s important is going beyond yourself, and caring about and loving the persons you meet along the way. Mary Cholmondeley writes in the book Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul:
Every day I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the power we have not used, the selfish prudence that will risk nothing and which, shirking pain, misses happiness as well.
I agree with her. Looking back on my own life I see all the waste of my life, all the missed opportunities to reach out to others and share love, and I weep. There is pain in this realization: pain and resolve to start from this moment and let not a single chance to reach out to others go by. It is my firm belief that in doing so I will be opening myself up to all the love and wisdom that exists on the Journey of life and healing a multitude of hurts that I have caused others. There is freedom in this knowledge, freedom that takes me beyond the bars set to lock me in, freedom that lifts my heart in flight to travel along the Journey that we all must take. This Journey can be self-centered and useless, or we can take the higher road to love and appreciation of others. Somehow with that thought I am no longer depressed, but excited as I wonder about the beauty I’ll be a part of, the things I’ll be able to share, and the joy I’ll be able to bring.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.