SELF DEVELOPMENT IN THE PENITENTIARY

By Fred Janney

 

   About this Booklet


You may be a career criminal or in the penitentiary for your first offense. Your sentence may be short, long, or permanent. You may even be innocent of the crime for which you were convicted. Whatever the circumstances that brought you to prison, you are confined to a small area, subject to search and observation by others twenty-four hours a day, and you are under strict and changing rules dictated by those in authority and the “prison code.” No matter where you turn, the reality of concrete, steel, barbed wire, and surveillance confronts you and forces you back on yourself. Life in the penitentiary separates you from society, friends, family, and the stimulants and habits of your life in the outside world.

On the other hand, prison naturally provides time and opportunity to think and reflect. It allows you to develop a deeper understanding of yourself, of how you got to be where you are today, and of possibilities for the future. Thus, you have a rare opportunity to get to know yourself, Self-education! Time and opportunity may be the only things of which you have plenty these days, and the phrase “Learn how to do the time or the time will do you” is fitting.

Your best shot at making a better life for yourself is right here and now. Now is the time to start to become more aware and gain control of yourself. Your training ground and partners, regardless of their skin color or uniform, are with you at all times. Come to view the prison as your school for increasing your self-education. You need to train and develop the inner tools to guide you through the rest of your life, whatever your address.

What are these tools of self that need training in order for you to grow and learn? You live with them everyday and yet probably do not know them very well, or you take them for granted, much like a fish who has no awareness that he lives in water. These tools are the gateways that allow you to know yourself and the world. They are your own thoughts, feelings and will.

The purpose of this booklet is to provide you with instructions for the development of these essential tools for self development and personal growth. The method calls for six exercises which should be practiced in the order given, because mastery of one exercise will help you develop your skill in the next one. You should spend at least thirty days of daily practice on each one before undertaking the next one and adding it to your daily schedule. After doing the first exercise for an extended period, add the second one, so that now you re doing these two activities every day. Then, after another extended period, add the third exercise, then the fourth and so on, until you are doing all six exercises daily.

Let us begin with a riddle. What activity takes place in you from the instant you wake up until the moment you fall asleep? This activity is generally not under your conscious control, and the content of it changes without your noticing it. It can repeat itself over and over again and you cannot escape it, much as you try. It combines with feelings that are painful, and even brings actions that you later wish you could take back. Thinking! That’s right, thinking. Unless you gather some control over this activity, making sense of the world will not be accurate, reflecting on your past will lead to confusion, and your plans for the future will be based on false information. Because of all of these aspects, it would be in your best interest to gain control over your own thinking. The best way to learn how to think clearly and in line with reality is to practice it every day. Here, then, are the six basic exercises.

  Control of Thought

 

Take a common object that you use every day, such as a comb, pencil, shoelace, or coffee mug, and place it in front of you. Observe the object in every detail, thinking only of the object. Describe its basic parts, how the parts are put together, and it’s essential uses and purpose. Ask yourself any other questions related to its use, function, origin, or characteristics. Compare it with other objects that have a similar function. Do not use an object for observation with which you any personal, emotional attachment like a photo of a loved one. Do this exercise for three to five minutes at about the same time everyday for at least a month. After practicing this exercise for a while using the physical subject, you may substitute a word (concept) or sentence (thought). For example, concentrate on the word “pencil” instead of having the actual pencil in front of you. This exercise is provided to help you develop your thinking so that it flows in line with the facts.

The following is an example of a thought exercise which follows an appropriate sequence of having the object of observation at the center of attention.

I have a pencil in front of me. It is a writing utensil. It is about four inches long and a quarter of an inch wide. It is made of wood, rubber, metal and lead. At one end is a rubber eraser held in place to the wood by a thin, rounded hollow metal band about a half-inch long. The metal piece has grooves in it. The other end comes to a point of lead which runs the length of the wood frame through its center. The pencil is generally held in the hand by the thumb, index finger and the third finger but there are many variations in how the pencil is held in the hand. The lead side of the pencil is made to contact paper and leaves a trail based on the movements of the pencil in hand. A pencil is generally used to express thoughts into words to communicate ideas or to draw pictures. The trail of lead on the paper can be erased by rubbing the rubber end of the pencil against it. The advantage of a pencil is that the writing trail can be easily removed whereas a pen which leaves an ink trail is much more difficult to remove.

An example of a thought exercise which does not follow an appropriate sequence of thought might be:

Here is a pencil it is yellow in color. It is about the same color as a sweater I used to have. What happened to that sweater? I might have given it to my brother.

You will probably find this activity to be a simple but not an easy task to carry out, for your thoughts will wander away and concentration can be easily distracted by various things. When you find that your thoughts have drifted away from the object of thought or observation, simply bring your attention back into focus upon it. Continue the exercise until you have consciously completed the task. Through this process you are building your “mental muscles.” Much like body building, you must practice it on a regular basis over a long period of time to achieve positive results. After practicing the exercise for awhile, a feeling of firmness and security can be noticed within your mind and even your head. Learn to notice and cultivate this feeling.

 Control of Will

After you have gained some mastery of the first exercise, control of thought, by practicing it daily for a least a month, you can now add the second exercise, control of will. Two major areas in human behavior which involve the will are decision-making and actively following through on a decision by physically carrying it out through an action of the body. Examples of poor will-control are common to everyone. For instance, do you find yourself active and busy all day but never accomplish anything? Do you make up your mind to do something and then put it off until the next day, at which time you make the same promise to your self? In the prison environment most or even all of your actions may be motivated by following or rebelling against rules and expectations set by others, and so it appears you have little opportunity to practice your own decision-making or exercise any freedom of choice. Your life is regimented; your will appears to be controlled by others.

Also, many of our actions are the result of long-standing habits that we developed in childhood, of which we now have only minimal or no conscious awareness. After waking, we go through a set of personal hygiene and dressing routines in the same order every day, as if sleep-walking our way through the processes, never questioning their effectiveness or efficiency, we continue the pattern only because that’s the way it has been for us as long as we can remember.

The purpose of this exercise, control of the will, is to learn to use your decision – making power and follow-through ability, to carry out your own instructions exactly, and be conscious of the activity as you’re doing it. Your aim is related to gaining awareness and control of your will rather than satisfying some personal desire. The method of this exercise is to do something every day that has no purpose beyond just doing it for its own sake – like untying and tying your shoelace even though you don’t need to, or turning the ring on your finger a certain number of times, or tapping your foot or hand. For the purpose of developing will-control, activities aimed at satisfying personal desire would not be suitable, even though they have other benefits. For example, weight-lifting would not be a suitable routine for this exercise because it brings person satisfaction, such as improved physical fitness, an attractive appearance, or perhaps weight loss. The idea is to do something regularly every day that has no purpose other than to exercise your will. The activity you choose need take only a few seconds to carry out and, like the first exercise, should be done at the same time every day. After doing these first two exercises for a couple of months, you’ll find that your power of concentration and your will-power are growing stronger. Instead of the world controlling your thoughts and actions, you are beginning to control them. Then you will be ready for the third exercise.

  Control of Feeling

Your feelings are your personal reactions to life situations. They are unique to you and are based on what you are drawn to or repelled by. Your life of feeling is going on all the time, but you are generally not aware of it unless your reactions are strong, abrupt, or intense. The purpose of this exercise is to establish and nurture a sense of calm and balance in your feeling life. Whether you just received a parole, a pardon, or a flop, the expression of your feelings needs to remain under your control. We are all familiar with situations in which we lost control over the expression of our feelings – so much so, that for many of you it has led to property destruction, injury, or even the death of another person. “It is not the justified pain that one should suppress, but involuntary weeping; not the horror of an evil action, but the blind rage of anger; not attention to danger, but fruitless fear, and so forth.”

A major aspect of your feelings is that they can surface without warnings. They occur spontaneously, suddenly rising up and then passing away. It is of great importance that you become aware of a potentially strong feeling as soon as possible so that you don’t immediately react outwardly to it. Instead, create a little distance from the feelings and ask yourself, “What message does this feeling bring me?” Then, when you have an opportunity, attend to the feeling in such a way that you stop blaming others for it. Attend directly to the feeling, and let it speak as in a poem, scribbling, drawing, image, song, or whatever nondestructive creative outlet it can find in you. Through this creative process, you can learn much about the situation or the person who incited the feeling in you.

Above all, you can learn to establish some distance between yourself and the feelings that come charging in at you. That is, you can control your own feeling rather than let it control you. But this third exercise requires you to be alert to feelings as soon as they start to arise. It’s not easy, but if you’ve done the first two exercises faithfully, you will find that the third lies within your strength.

In addition to controlling the expression of your feelings as they occur throughout the day, set aside a few minutes each day to concentrate on a word, thought, or image that represents calmness, peacefulness, serenity, or equanimity for you. Practicing this exercise daily will help you in situations where strong feelings suddenly rise up and threaten to overwhelm you.

You’ll be able to hold them at a distance and realize that even the strongest feeling will pass. A picture of this process may help motivate you to develop the inner calm we’re looking for here. As I stated earlier, your feelings can be separated into two categories. One type of feeling in you pushes away, resists, repels, opposes, or stands against. All these words can be summed up in the word antipathy and will be symbolized as ( ). The other type of feeling draws you toward, appeals, accepts, agrees, or stands with, and is summed by the word sympathy, indicated by the symbol ( ). The purpose of this exercise is to develop a middle point, a center of calm and composure between these two poles of sympathy and antipathy - that is, equanimity, which is represented by a growing dot (—). These symbols together ( — ) represent the range of feelings from antipathy to sympathy, with equanimity in the middle. Instead of letting your feelings pull you this way or that way, you want to grow into this sense of calm ( — ). Eventually your feelings will become a sense organ, much like an eye — . If you do not let the expression of feeling become an end in itself, your feelings will become a means for understanding the world.

  Positivity

Some incarcerated individuals have set out on a journey of self-development. As part of the program, they isolate themselves so that they are not negatively influenced by other inmates. Recalling times they got “caught up in the wrong crowd,” they justify their isolation. Self-development requires a balance of learning how to be by yourself and also with others and the world in which you live. As in the process of breathing, which requires in-breath and out-breath, individuals need to strike a balance between being alone and interacting with others and the environment. Instructions for this, the fourth exercise, are given after some work in the control of thought; will and feeling have been undertaken. The first three exercises have a more inward quality, while positivity calls on you to look for goodness, truth, and beauty in the world and in other people.

Begin to realize how much time and energy you take up daily in judgmental thoughts and negative feelings toward others. Your negativity allows you to see things only from your own point of view and clouds your ability to see clearly. Truth is sometimes found in the ability and willingness to view a situation from other and opposite points of view.

There is an old Sufi tale about some blind men who were asked to describe that part of the whole that each was touching with his hands. The first man stated that he put his arms around what seemed like the trunk of a tree but it was softer and not so coarse. The second man said that he ran his hand down a rounded, smooth, and very hard object that came to a point at the end. Another man described a long hose-like object, and yet another said that his outstretched arms and hands could not enclose the soft coarse object he was touching. Each man was touching a part of the object which, when all put together, made an elephant. So truth sometimes depends on your point of view, and to take more viewpoints into consideration is to let the truth stand out more clearly.

An example of someone seeking, to find “the good” in a situation would be an individual who comes to realize that if he hadn’t been caught and sent to prison, he would probably be dead because the life-style he was leading would have led to his own self destruction. He is able to move through his feelings of resentment toward the victim, witness, or authority figure so that he can see positive qualities in the people who carried through on their responsibilities, and even be thankful to them that he is still alive.

“This positivity should not be confused with non-criticism, with the arbitrary closing of the eyes to the bad, false, and inferior. One cannot consider the bad good and the false true, but it is possible to attain the ability not to be deterred by evil from seeing good, and by error from seeing truth.”

The fourth exercise, then – to be added only after you’ve become good at the first three – is deliberately to look every day for goodness, truth, and beauty in other persons and in the world. We call this positiveity. The result? You overcome your own negativity.

Openness

The purpose of this exercise is to open yourself to experience the situations of daily life in new ways – to allow yourself the possibility of learning something new, so that you’re not just trapped by your past experience. It is an openness of attitude in which you might otherwise say to yourself, “I don’t believe that, it’s impossible. No way!” If only for the moment, keep yourself open to explore the possibility that the situation may be different from what you think, believe, or have experienced before. Particularly in prison, life is marked by routines and repetition, which brings human reactions of boredom, dullness, monotony, and weariness. People then close themselves off, sleep-walk, and miss opportunities to be receptive to different possibilities, to new ways of thinking about things.

A dramatic example of this approach is the person who refuses to attend an interview with the parole board because of the belief that a decision has already been made for a continuance. Another example is the person who goes to the interview believing a flop is inevitable. The person then carries this belief into the interview, and it not only affects the way he conducts himself, but it leaves a negative impression on the parole board member interviewing him. It may even be true that the parole interview is strictly a formality, but the way you conduct yourself and your willingness to be open may affect the outcome in a later interview, and you may learn something important about the interview process.

This, the fifth exercise, calls on you to be open in your daily life, to be receptive of others and the world through the power of your thinking and will. Spend some time every day focused on learning something new from everything and everybody, and have faith that it may be different from what you thought you knew

  Harmony

The sixth exercise calls on you to practice the previous five exercises in such a way that they become an essential and regular part of your daily living. After you have practiced integrating all the exercises into your life, you can then work with them in pairs, threesomes, or whatever combinations you choose for your personal growth. The sixth one, then, is to orchestrate a beautiful harmony among the first five.

  Parting Thoughts

Now that you have read through this short “how to” manual for personal development, I want to call your attention to several factors which I hope will encourage you to take them up and make them a part of life. The penitentiary, with its many restrictions and isolation from the world, offers you an opportunity to get to know yourself in ways that were not available to you when you were on the outside. To make time and energy available for your inner life to grow is essential for your personal rehabilitation. When and if you get out of prison, these abilities will need to be firmly planted in your soul in order that you not go back to old patterns of thought, feeling, and action, which bring many people back to prison despite their best intentions and efforts.

A self-centered point of view in which a person believes that the whole world revolves around him and is there strictly to benefit his personal desires is part of the normal developmental process that we all go through as children. When, however, this point of view lasts into adulthood, selfishness, greed, and a life guided strictly by one’s own personal likes and dislikes takes over. Then isolation from others will surely follow whether or not you are in prison. It is in the nature of a human being to overcome himself, adversity, and the obstacles he and the world create.

While it’s never too late to begin, delay gets you nowhere. Patience and perseverance need to become constant companions in your efforts to bring these exercises to life. Naturally, you will crave immediate results, benefits you can see here and now. For a long time you may not notice any improvement. That’s okay. For the results to come, you have to overcome the need to see them, and you have to move through a self-centered point of view to engage other and opposite perspectives.

As you go through the process of practicing these exercises you will come to see more clearly, areas of your personality that need further development and correction. You will also find the means by which to change them in a positive way.

In addition to the work required in doing the six basic exercises, another important quality needs to be developed: the ability to stand outside yourself as a witness or spectator, to observe your own activity without judgment. The quality of objectivity calls on you to see yourself from the outside in, just as you would observe someone else. You can develop this capacity by reviewing the events of your day as if you were watching yourself on a movie screen and seeing all the events that took place in your life, that day. The major difference in watching these pictures is that the film is moving backwards from your most recent activity back to the moment of waking. For example, if you brushed your teeth just before starting the exercise, you would watch yourself taking the toothbrush out of your mouth and putting the toothpaste back into the container from which it came and putting the cap back on the toothpaste container. You watch yourself doing everything backwards. It is best when first starting this exercise to work with only a short period of time for review. Pick a one – or two hour block of time for study. Practice this for awhile, then lengthen the time you spend doing it until the whole day is seen passing in review.

Now I offer one last parting thought. Do not let the waves of negativity coming at you from the outside world or your inner doubts prevent you from getting on with this work – newspapers, talk shows, politicians all trying to outdo one another in their “Lock-‘em-up –and-throw-away-the-key” attitude, or your inner enemies of fear, doubt, laziness, or lack of confidence. You need to be aware of these outside and inside influences, but do not let them deter you from working on yourself.

 

 

 

These six exercises were developed by Rudolf Steiner, who lived between 1861 and 1925. Among his vast legacy of knowledge and wisdom, part of which is related in over 300 volumes of books and lectures, these exercises are among the most primary and basic for developing strength of character and self-confidence.

Fred Janney has been a psychologist with the Michigan Department of Corrections since 1987 and a student of Anthroposophy since 1980. He is a founding Director of Anthroposophical Prison Outreach which began in 1997.

Copyright © Fred Janney 1994

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