Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Jail: A crash course in nonattachment

The ideas of attachment and non-attachment are things I ponder regularly. On a regular basis something comes along to show me that I am more attached to something than I should be. I'm getting a bit better at being less attached to having things or buying things, but I am only just becoming aware of how attached I am to having things turn out the way I want them to, and to having people act or think the way I want them to. I am also quite attached to having things progress along a certain time frame, in a certain order. I like some things to be 'just so' - that way, I feel comfortable and at ease.

And I like that.

Just ask Gord how out of sorts I get if something I've planned has to be changed, or if I take a wrong turn on a road somewhere and suddenly don't know where to go next. I can really come undone when stuff like that happens, particularly if I'm under more stress than usual, or I'm over-tired.

As I've mentioned before, I work in a jail. Jail is a place where people learn to get over their attachments, and fast. Personal belongings are confiscated and stored. Even things like wedding rings and personal pictures of family can be taken away and put in to storage. Putting on standard issue coveralls makes everyone look like everyone else, right down to your socks and underwear - your 'outside' identity is traded in for an 'inside' number. Your 'outside' timetable and priorities are unimportant - you are told what to do and when to do it. You are dependent on 'the system' and those who work in it for your food and water, clothes and lodging. You can be transferred from cell to cell, unit to unit, or jail to jail without notice. And you won't necessarily be able to let your family or your lawyer know before you leave.

Those who have the hardest time with all this are those who had the most 'normal' lives before coming to jail. Those who adapt the most quickly are those who, by societal standards, had nothing before they arrived: the homeless, the mentally ill. There are exceptions to this of course, but I am usually struck the most by the grace with which the latter adapt to these circumstances. They appreciate the sparse cot, the chance for a hot shower, and three meals a day. They take each thing as it comes.

I don't want to romanticize the idea of jail: it is a harsh and dangerous environment in many ways, and I would advise staying out of it! But I consider myself lucky to be able to learn from those 'inside' who have mastered the art of non-attachment.

11 comments:

SoapBoxTech said...

But is that level of non-attachment balanced?

artbystrongheart said...

What an interesting perspective.

B said...

I once read a book, can't remember the title now, about how to live in your car. The author had much experience and covered every practicality so that I actually thought "I could do that". And what freedom to know that if I lost almost everything I own, I could still live with dignity.

I don't envy you working in a jail.

Theresa said...

Hi SBT - in terms of the balance, I suppose it would depend on what needs to be balanced. If you're trying to retain some personal equanimity while everything around you is being taken away and changed in unexpected ways, then I would say it is the balance that is required for the situation at hand. It can go too far the other way though, where a person becomes overly attached to seemingly minor things, like having your cell door opened at 10:15 am and freaking out if it isn't. But even then, I find that a lot of the inmates can let that go right away, and just get back to resting in the ambiguity of the 'now' without the anxiety that such a situation would cause in someone like me.

Artby - I've often thought that if it weren't for the criminal element, jail would be a really good ascetic 'retreat' environment.

B - that sounds like a book of really valuable information. Lately I've been trying more to just deal with physical and mental discomfort without trying to change it, so I can also get better at saying, "I could do that." I'm quite glad to work in a jail actually - it is one of the most hopeful places I can think of. People just keep getting back up and trying again despite having no job, no home, no family, rampant addictions, history of abuse, etc. Of course there are the psychopaths as well, but those do not make up the bulk of the people in jail at all.

B said...

I feel sorry for kids in school, not to mention prisoners. I'm glad there are people like you who can find hope in unlikely places.

Theresa said...

Sometimes it seems the likely sources of hope have dried up....

EJ said...

Two books I recently read that speak about this experience:

The Best Buddhist Writing 2005 has a short story from an american prison.

The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

Both moving stories from beyond our affluent horizon, where your beliefs truly are a matter of life or death. I recommend both to anyone looking for a good, but not comfortable, read.

Beany said...

I constantly work on non-attachment only to stave of incredibly sadness in the future. Yet at the same time I've gone too far in an attempt to not be attach. I think I made myself miserable without realizing it.

Thank you for the reminder to be aware of the concept instead of getting attached to the idea of nonattachment

Theresa said...

EJ - I think I may have that 2005 anthology - I'll have to check. I haven't heard of the other book though, thanks!

Beany - that is a good point: being sure not to become attached to non-attachment, whereby a person would/could become aloof or disconnected. It's quite a paradoxical, yin-yang sort of thing, to be non-attached but still interconnected. It is an interesting thing to think about and a challenge to put into practice. Sort of like meditation, now that I think about it.

Simply Authentic said...

Theresa, I really enjoyed this posting. Non-attachment is a hard thing just as attachment in the right ways can be a difficult thing to tackle as well. I love your ability to view the jail through the adjustment of mulitple individuals though. It really does represent different things to different people. Hope you are enjoying a relaxing weekend....

Theresa said...

Thanks SA - it is hard to find the right balance between these things - and once you think you've got it, you've probably just lost it!

My weekend has been quite nice, thanks! It's a long weekend here, just like where you are I think?