Prison or palace? The story of an ex-con.

I was watching a swimmer in the ocean today, carving his way through the water, while the water closed in around him leaving no trace that he’d been there.

Just as I was contemplating the philosophical meaning of that, a guy stops between me and the shoreline and takes off his shirt. He has a lot of tattoos. I look as if I’m fascinated by the sand under my crossed feet, but he doesn’t seem to notice my aversive tactics and turns to me with a wide grin, “Is this low tide or high tide?” It was obviously low tide. Anyway, I answer politely, prompting a “You from around here?” I’m groaning inside, I wanted to meditate. Best laid plans… it is fantastic to meditate amongst the elements in a beautiful space, but stay inside if you want to guarantee not being disturbed. “I just hitched from Ohio, but look where I am now!”

As he sits himself a few feet from me, I make a feeble excuse, “Ermm, I won’t be too chatty as I have to think.” “Why’s that?” “Ermm, I am a writer”. Ok, dear reader, that’s not a complete fib, I’m writing this aren’t I?! I didn’t want to tell him I was meditating, and I didn’t want to be drawn into conversation. But of course not wanting something is often a sure bet you’re about to get it.

He goes quiet for a few moments and then asks me as if he really wants to know:

“What do you write?”

“Well, I write about meditation.”

Now he goes really quiet and I think he is thinking about how to make his escape. I hope so anyway.

But I misconstrued his silence, for then he says thoughtfully:

“I was in solitary confinement for three and a half years in an 8 by 10 cell. I had to stop myself going mad. I think I taught myself to meditate then.”

Ok, now he can stay.

He has a cheeky friendly face with wide-spaced bluish brown eyes. He has skulls and writing all over his body and he shows me his ID card and parole card to show me his is not fibbing. He was sentenced for 26 years, served the first three and a half in Super Max solitary, served 18 altogether, and was then paroled for good behavior. Then he tested positive for marijuana (a family member apparently shopped him) and to his horror was thrown back inside for 3 years for violating his parole. Now he has been out for 2 years and his parole ended last week, hence the road trip. He is 44 years old and his name is Loren Jay Shaw (“like George Bernard, I think we’re related, I’m Irish by the way.”)

Some of the details of his story don’t add up if you pay too much attention – e.g. all four of his grandparents were Irish, but he also never knew his father. He was the child of violent rape and his father apparently died during a 20-year prison sentence for the crime that inadvertently brought Loren Jay forth. But overall what he said rang many notes of truth so I’m not too bothered about the veracity of every detail.

How did he survive? He starts to tell me.

He knew the ants in his cell, he even named them, “I’d never hurt them, they were my friends.”

A bird could make his day. It’d briefly land on his window sill, enough time to make friends with it; and then he’d imagine him and the bird in a forest or on a beach like this one. He could spend hours like that. “And that is where you are you know, not in prison.”

Every other day a mouse would visit him for crumbs of his food. “He would come right up and sit here”, he jabbed the sand with his finger six inches away. “I would never touch him. I’d say ‘Hey Buddy, how you doin’ today?’ He was my friend.”

“So you were like Tom Hanks with Wilson the football?” “Yeah, something like that. Or you go mad, you know. They were my friends.”

He lay on his rack, “Seriously that’s what they call it! We don’t get a ‘bed’!”, and imagined himself wherever he wanted to be and whoever he wanted to be with: “I was rarely in the prison. I been everywhere! ‘How many women you been with, being inside all those years,’ people want to know, and I reply, “Thousands! Beyonce, Jessica Simpson, you name them! We done lots of things together, hanging out, not just what you think.”

One day his heavy door was cranked open at 5:30am. “Get up, you’re moving.” “Where to?” “Can’t tell you.” He was transported to another prison and let out of the van. He was in a large courtyard. “Where’s my cell?” “There is a dorm over there.” It had over 100 beds. Other people. He wasn’t sure if he’d arrived in paradise or hell.

Within 3 days, he says, he was dating a female prison guard and she would bring him extra food. He is around 180 pounds now but he was 241 in prison, pumped, to show the other inmates that he was to be respected. He had a good attitude, seemingly an infectious one. He was popular.

Prison is a microcosm of society just behind an iron fence, he told me. You can do whatever you want – he took advantage of everything on offer, got two degrees and learnt how to drive a truck; and he read copiously. “When people say ‘How come you so smart with that background?’, I tell them ‘I got an IQ of 183 and I read solidly for 18 years’.” He still never watches or reads anything that he feels isn’t going to improve him somehow, “What’s the point?”

That includes the bible, the only book he read in Super Max solitary confinement, because it was the only book he was allowed. He knows that book very well, and is also, “I kid you not”, an ordained minister now. Jesus Christ is his personal savior. But I didn’t find him preachy or judgmental. He thinks God appears differently to different people so Buddhism is fine with him. But his God provides everything he needs.

Just last night after visiting his two daughters, aged 21 and 22, in Tampa, he found himself lost in a rough area. He was nervous and called upon God “Again!” to help him. He turned down a dark street and walked past a porch where a 21-year-old kid called out to him: “Hey dude, where you goin’?” He said he needed to get to I275 so he could hitch to Clearwater. “I’ll take you.” “Thanks! How far is I275?” “No, I mean I’ll take you to Clearwater.” As they were driving, Loren said to him: “You are an angel”, and explained why.

I know what he means. In my wisest moments I feel deep inside exactly as though my life is being entirely guided and provided for by the spiritual guide, Dakinis and Protector. Emanations have appeared out of nowhere more times than I can count, especially it seems to me in the last few years, though they’ve probably always been around waiting for me to notice.

Loren sees life as a series of events. Wandering in Tampa and meeting that kid was an event. Meeting me on the beach is an event. The rest of the day will be an event. Life is an adventure.

Why, I asked him, were no other books allowed in Super Max? The answer is because people screw up the paper into braids to hang themselves with. Someone hung himself with toilet paper.

Some people cannot make it on the outside again either. One man was in for 48 years and then abruptly paroled. He said, “I’ll be back next week”, and he robbed a shop. Now, I’ve heard that story or a variation on it before, but it still resonates. Think Shawshank Redemption. We need some courage to make it on the outside, a free but deeply unfamiliar place to our delusions. We may prefer the seeming security and control of our familiar prison guard delusions and the petty living from day to day.

Because, according to Loren Jay, petty it is. Men spend all day just trying to get hold of a picture of a pretty woman, ideally naked. ‘Hey man”, he would apparently tell them, “There’s more to life than sex!” A large number refuse to avail themselves of what is on offer in terms of education and training. But a lot would avail themselves of the pills for mental illness – many were indeed mentally ill, talking to walls, but many just wanted the high from the pills. There were umpteen drugs in there. The meals weren’t big enough so people fought sometimes viciously over the food brought in by visitors. Life was dangerous. He showed me four stab marks on his chest for a pack of his cigarettes. (Now he only smokes the occasional cigar.)

On his bad days in Super Max, what would he do? “I would sleep. I did ask God to kill me sometimes. Those times, after about 20 minutes, something would happen and my mood would change.”

He marked straight lines on the wall and watched as the sunshine crossed those lines, telling him the time. He’d get absorbed in that. His mind would clear.

He made chess pieces out of toilet tissue that he moistened in his sink, and he drew a chess board on a piece of paper. Then he’d play against himself. He’d make a move, pause, and then imagine he was the other person playing.

Loren had one hour a day out of his cell for a 15 minute shower and 45 minutes recreation. But somedays he didn’t take it! “Some days I didn’t want to be disturbed. I was somewhere else altogether, not in that prison. I was up a mountain with a beautiful view, or on a beach like this one.” Another con (whose name I’ve forgotten though he told me) gave him life-changing advice before he was locked down:

“Take three deep breaths, breathing out from the bottom of your toes. Then imagine where you would most like to be at this time. Go there. Stay there.”

I told him about the Yogis who would do three year three month retreat in strict isolation as a way to control their minds and unbind their imaginations. Difference was, they went into this prepared.

For three years he managed to stave off insanity and find peace through his self-taught practices and the few words of advice from his friend. He has come to know that imagination creates our world, and, as he puts it, “We can choose. Choose your life and what you do with it. Why choose to swear and cuss, for example, why not say ‘How in the heaven have you bin?’ instead. Why chuck garbage on the ground when there is a disposal nearby? You can choose, man, so why not choose the trash can? Why spend your life in a 9 to 5 when that is not what life is?”

He seems to spend his days at the moment chancing upon people to help e.g. change their tires. He picks up trash when he sees it. And he feels constantly on the receiving end of kindness. I only had an apple to give him for breakfast, but it was enough to make him smile with joy. When he started hitching a few days ago, he said he had $28 in his pocket – by the end, he had $131, as people had given him ten dollars here, ten dollars there. (This may not square with his showing me his wallet and telling me that he had a debit card and could stay in a motel room if he wanted to but chose to sleep last night in the beautiful arch of a bank doorway as he hates being confined – the confined bit makes sense, but the money part… Still, I’m not quibbling. He may have some of the Irish gift of the gab, but he didn’t make up his insights or his zest for life.)

He tells me that he has seen people with Lamborghinis and Cadillacs who spend their whole life moving restlessly like a shark, polishing this, barking orders at that, worrying about scratches, and he thinks, “Hey man, just give up the car. It only brings you problems.” This reminded me of when Geshe Kelsang explained how we cannot solve our problems by external means alone, giving the example that before we have a car we have one problem, no car. After we get our car, we have many problems!

“Look”, Loren said looking out at the ocean, “Life is short. We don’t know if we’ll be alive tomorrow. An airplane could crash out of the sky right now and kill us. So why tie yourself down? That’s not living. And home is everywhere.”

Then he drew from his pocket a picture of two laughing skulls. “I’m not proud to have been in prison. But they say prison is make or break, and I made it. I had to endure a lot in prison, but it didn’t break my spirit and I came out better. So I had this tattoo done. We’re laughing at the prison, they didn’t break us! And, look, there are two of us?” “You and Jesus?” “Yeah!!”. This is the tattoo on his left chest. “I’ll have this etched here forever, so you keep the picture! If you ever get a tattoo, please get this one!” Well, laughing at the prison of samsara with my spiritual guide, why not?!

Then my eye fell on the large tattoo on his belly – it was a winding path leading up a mountain to a fairy castle, like Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. “Here is the path they took me up the mountain through the palace doors.” He is talking about entering prison. Man, he is a complete natural for entering the Tantric mandala! Samsara is likened to a prison but — realize that everything is empty of existing from its own side — and the mandala palace of bliss and emptiness is only a trick of the mind away.

Loren has had even more challenges since he got out. Last year his twin sister tragically shot herself with her mother’s gun in her mother’s bedroom because, she said in her suicide notes, she was in an abusive relationship. He got a bit upset at this point and said: “Look, if you were in an abusive relationship, wouldn’t you just get out? Why did she identify with being just a victim? Life’s too precious. Why didn’t she just get out? I did.”

EOS: End of Sentence

I told him he could write a book and speak in prisons. He could record into one of those little tape recorders. He did a little speaking when he first got out; and he also kindly gave me his dog-eared toastmaster card, with the acronym “EOS” meaning “End of Sentence”. He says he doesn’t need it; they have him in the computer.

He wrote a story in prison too, about a man whose father was in the casino business and in with the mob. The son didn’t want to be part of the mob, yet he knew so much about the casino business that he had to find ways to fend them off. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with that story. This man really is someone who has fought to stop being under the influence of the mob – both external guards and prisoners, and internal delusions that could have damaged him seriously but that he refused to entertain. I would describe him as a free spirit with a lot of actual  working faith. He knows he is being provided for and in return he wants to be good and he wants to be kind. He also says honestly: “There are two parts to me – there is the convict, and believe me I learnt a lot about having to survive in there, and there is the me you are seeing now.” As it is for him, life for the rest of us is also a case of a daily choice between which “part” we identify with, deluded or non-deluded. 

We never know who anyone really is. All I know is that I have learnt a heaven of a lot from one apparent ex-con this morning.

Loren Jay, if you are reading this in the library, all the best to you, and thank you.

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