By Joseph Hileski – Collegiate Staff
When I was young I always believed that in order to find spiritual truths or experience the “sacred and divine,” one would have to travel the world going to different holy lands like Jerusalem or India. But I’ve come to realize that the truth is everywhere. Thee truth isn’t contained in any certain culture or religion. It has no ethnic bounds or denomination. You don’t have to have the perfect, ideal circumstances to know and understand the truth. You don’t even have to be anybody special, or spend years living in monasteries, praying, practicing meditation or yoga.
I strongly believe that we all stand at the center of our own perfect truth. I have learned that the the universal truths of the spiritual life are only alive and present in our own unique personal experience – here and now. The place where you are standing or sitting reading this right now is sacred, no matter where you are. is very moment is sacred.
I’ve spent the vast majority of the last eighteen years locked up in jail, mental institutions, and prisons. (Go ahead, form your opinions of me, criminal, low-life, lunatic, they don’t a ect me at all.) I’m telling you this not because I’m proud of it, or want you to think I’m some badass, but because this was my own unique personal experience in which I came to understand some of those universal truths and became awoken to the “sacred.”
Jail is where my spiritual journey began. The first time I went to jail I ended up in a cell all by myself with absolutely nothing but my one jail out t and some toilet paper; no mat, blanket or anything. After a few weeks with nothing, the empty cores of the toilet paper rolls became very precious to me. I remember looking so deeply at the hollow, cardboard tubes and seeing, contained in them, the whole universe. The sunlight, the oxygen, the earth, the trees, the clouds, the waters of the earth, even the bees that pollinate the blossoms, which produced the seeds, that grow the trees from which the precious toilet paper cores are produced. I even visualized all the people involved in the many di erent processes it took to get me to be locked in a jail cell and to have and hold that amazing phenomenon called “toilet paper tube.” In that sacred, enlightening moment, after thinking a little about the use of the toilet paper itself and the workers at the sewage treatment plant, I recall laughing a little and feeling truly happy for the first time in my life. At that moment
I realized that happiness is not dependent on external circumstances.
That was the beginning of what turned out to be a one-year jail sentence. I was only 17 at the time. After getting into a fight, I ended up spending practically the whole time in solitary confinement, in a part of the jail that they call an Alternative Segregation Unit, with a camera on me 24 hours a day. With only myself and books for company I became immersed in the world of literature and philosophy. I developed a love and passion for reading, which I still cherish to this day.
It was during this time, of what turned out to be many years, of incarceration that I read my first books about the teachings of
e Buddha and mindfulness and meditation practices. Being locked in a cell for what seemed like forever was the ideal conditions for the cultivation of mindful awareness and mental discipline. I would meditate daily, each day increasing the length time spent practicing.
Being locked in my tiny, dingy cell all day gave me the perfect opportunity to get to know my own mind. If you don’t know your own mind, you won’t be able to see the true nature of reality. The most important thing in the whole world is to know your own mind and how it functions, and work at training it to perform better. is is what true spirituality is all about.
As I progressed in my meditation practice, I began to notice changes right away. I felt less anxious, more alert and better able to concentrate. I felt a deep sense of peace, as a pleasant type of calmness mixed with a slight exhilaration. My simple, dreary prison cell became a holy place. Silence was bliss. I found myself not being attracted as much as before to reading novels but being pulled toward the spiritual and sitting quietly in meditative absorption.
That was when I took my first steps as a “seeker of truth.” I embarked on this quest with the intention to become the absolute best person I could be, not for the sake of myself but with only the aspiration of being best able to benefit others, not just myself. The whole basic premise of Buddhism is that it is possible that we all can awaken from the unhappiness and su ering of the dream like illusions and delusions that we’re trapped in. The best thing we can do for mankind is to wake up and help dispel the ignorance and deluded behavior in our own lives.
A Buddhist prayer that I’ve memorized and love says, “May all beings everywhere with whom we are inseparably interconnected, be fulfilled, awakened, liberated, and free. May there be peace in this world and throughout the entire universe, and may we all together complete the spiritual journey.”
When I finally got out of jail that first time I remember sincerely pursuing spirituality with relentless fervor, but I was much more foolish at that time than I am now. I was full of lust and desire. Being separated as long as I was from all of the sensual pleasures of the free world that were all easily available for me now, I quickly became distracted. I became caught up in the relentless seeking after of momentary sensory gratification, exploring the world of hard drugs, alcohol and sexuality.
Soon I got locked back up and was returned to the same “peaceful” environment of solitary confinement from which I was just released four months earlier. I picked up where I’d left off diligently studying spirituality. Practicing mindfulness and meditation and taking a vow of renunciation. I no longer wanted to partake in the worldly life of materialism, sensual pleasures, sex and drugs. I wanted to be a good person, to live a pure and holy life. But my ego and attachments to desires were too strong.
Over the next 10 years I repeated the cycle of getting locked up and becoming all spiritual and getting back out and starting to commit crimes and use drugs. I felt as if I was at war with myself, my intentions versus my desires. I started to become aware of the futility of clinging to desire. I started to realize even when I did get out and ful lled all of my fantasies, longings and cravings, ultimately I was still never satisfied. I would always still want more and more. No matter what it was, material possessions, drugs, or sexual encounters. No matter how good the drugs or sex was, it never seemed to fulfill the expectation I had set up
in my mind for it. I always wanted something better, sexier, more.
It says in the classic, ancient Chinese spiritual teaching of the Tao Te Ching, “The secret waits for eyes unclouded by longing.” The unawakened mind seems to always be conflicted about the way things really are. To follow a spiritual path, and stay on course, I believe we must try to understand the whole process of creating conflict, within ourselves and without, how it starts and how to end it. War and conflict’s roots are grounded in ignorance, confusion, and misunderstanding. Misunderstanding causes a struggle in life, avoiding pain or clinging to pleasures that, by their very nature, can never be truly satisfying.
One of my favorite quotes is from Aryadeva’s “Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way”: “As there is no end to this ocean of suffering, why are you, who are bound by this, not afraid?”
The reason I was not afraid, at that time, was because I was clouded in ignorance. I was still too full of desire, still desperately thirsty for sensory pleasures. I was too attached to
the perception of who I thought I was, and where my life was supposed to take me, and was clinging way too tightly to it all. I was still perceiving what was in the nature of suffering to be as in the nature of happiness. Because I had no fear of suffering, there was no thought of liberation from it, and since I had no thought of liberation, there was no possibility of attaining it.
I still didn’t understand. I was still too ignorant to realize the significance of the Four Noble Truths taught by The Buddha: that life is pervaded by a gnawing sense of disatisfaction that underlies the whole of our experience; that this unsatisfactoriness is caused by clinging to desire; that it is possible to put an end to this su ering; and that the way to end it is through moral discipline, concentration, and intuitive wisdom. I just didn’t get it. What is it that I have to do to be truly happy and content and stay that way? Not desire anything? That’s impossible.
So, after establishing a significant criminal record of property crimes, drug possession and domestic violence, and being diagnosed with manic depressive and schizoaffective disorders, inevitably I graduated from the small, isolating worlds of jail and mental institutions to the vast industrial complex of the Michigan Department Of Corrections prison system. There I started to attend the prison’s Buddhist service, where I had access to a whole library of Buddhist books and other people to talk to who seemed to be quite knowledgeable of the teachings and practices. With the added benefit of these invaluable resources I accelerated on my spiritual path, immersing myself completely into the teachings of The Buddha, which is called “The Dharma.” I read every book available and discussed every trivial point and aspect of Dharma that came to my attention.
Now, after getting out of prison for the third time seven years later, I think I’m finally starting to wake up. For some reason, probably grounded in my Protestant upbringing, I felt
to be spiritual was to turn away from and renounce “worldly life.” I’m realizing now though that Dharma is about living life more fully not escaping it. I don’t mean just being more mindful and aware, although that is a big part of it. I mean that no aspect of our personal experiences needs to be rejected on the spiritual path. With this more inclusive perspective, even desires can be treated as a valuable part of the journey. So I’m beginning to relax my desires, to not feel guilty or ashamed of them, to be simple and easy with them, knowing that the journey itself is the reward.
Renunciation, for me, seen in this new way brings along with it a more positive emotional connotation. I feel a sense of a joyful spirit emerging with this new understanding that’s unfolding. With the belief that enlightenment and liberation are a real possibility, I’m more clearly recognizing the nature of suffering; becoming disillusioned or disgusted with the whole of materialism and the mundane, egoic, ceaseless chasing after sensory grati cation. I’m bringing into alignment my desires with my spiritual aspirations, sincerely confronting my tendency to cling; the always wanting of more. I’m stopping the compulsive thoughts and habitual behaviors I always used to have, and the clinging they always seemed to provoke.
I’ve learned that I do not have to give up desire, I only need to turn my attention toward it in an honest way. By opening to the desires of the everyday, free world, I can continue to open to the desires of the spiritual world. They are not in opposition to each other, but are different aspects of the same sacred experience, with one serving as a portal into the other. My new perspective of renunciation is functioning in a way as to not dampen down my desires but to liberate them. By setting desire up as my enemy and then attempting to destroy it, I was trying to eliminate one of the most precious of our human qualities; desire is our natural response to suffering. Buddhism seems to provide the perfect applicable path for me, it teaches that even the most sensual of desires can be recruited into practice and used to help train the mind.
Renunciation of my hurried, restless, starving desires seems to be deepening my capacity for a more passionate engagement with the world. All life is precious, every moment of consciousness is precious. To be able to see the preciousness of all life, of all things, we must bring our full attention and awareness to it, whoever or whatever it is. Most especially our own consciousness and the experience of the precious present moment.
Even though our lives seem to be pervaded by almost inexplicable feelings of unsatisfactoriness, whether or not these feelings are brought about by change, loss, fear, pain or desire, we must learn how deal intelligently with them. It’s helpful, I find, to think of it all as part of the practice, or as being “more grist for the mill.”
Also, my view about myself has completely shifted. I used to see myself as isolated, alone and in need. I was very attached to this
concept of me being separate and I felt like I always had to go somewhere or make progress materialistically, or whatever. Now I’m looking more deeply and compassionately at the concept of my so called “self,” viewing it as I once did that sacred toilet paper tube so long ago, knowing that I and the universe are one. The Buddha taught that there is “no-self.”
So I’m understanding now that really I’m nobody, and since I’m nobody, I keep asking myself, where could there be that I possibly need to go?