Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cairngorm

At the end of the Reception assessment I was moved round the corner of the corridor to Unit 2 - "Cairngorm". Whilst the same BM regime applied there was a dilution of the overwhelming attention from staff. With about a dozen prisoners the staff to prisoner ratio did not allow for such personal attention as listening to every word I spoke.

Free from the strange constraints of the prison regime, I was able to mentally relax and begin to reflect upon what I had done to find myself in this situation. The carapace that I had to construct - internally as well as projected to others - whilst in prison became irrelevant to this new circumstance. My original Self began to resurface.

The shock that I had initially felt when I killed my friend returned, accompanied by nightmares and a deep feeling of revulsion. I began to pick up the threads of thought - how could I have done this thing? Being fifteen and desperate for some sort of certainty, my emotions became an obvious suspect. It followed that if I had killed because of an emotional outburst, then emotions must be bad. Star Trek aficionados will see the parallel with the Vulcan belief system here... I determined to suppress my emotions. Such a simplistic solution had an appeal that I couldn't resist or de-construct into something more complex. The chain of reasoning was utterly clear - I had killed due to being overwhelmed by emotions; I must not kill again; therefore I must destroy my emotions.

It was a fraught year. The enterprise of re-engineering my psyche in an effort to render myself 'safe' was a journey which I was ill-equipped to either understand or conduct. Each eking moment was one where I was attempting to discern my emotions, and crushing them. It was pointless and frustrating, and possibly took me to the edge of madness.

A single, short book rescued me from this folly - Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. A collection of koans from the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism. They resonated with something indefinable within me. Seeing my interest, staff arranged for a local lay Buddhist to visit me and I began my practice of zazen - sitting meditation. This was a far more sensible path to resolve the knots that twisted my mind. Emotions and thoughts inevitably arise; but one does not have to latch on to them and be carried by them.

This sense of concentrated detachment was one that I practised, with varying degrees of zealousness, for some fifteen years. It gave me a control over my emotions that I craved. To this day prison psychologists look baffled when I explain how I deal with anger - I just 'let it go'. Simple.

Having being given this new opportunity, a toe-hold on dealing with my emotions, a new fear began to grip me. This was intensified by the fact that I was an adolescent amongst other male adolescents, giving rise to a fragile and nervous masculinity that often threatened violence. I was afraid that I would get into a fight, and that I would accidentally kill someone by a random blow to some sensitive, lethal point.

This was irrational. The human body is remarkably resilient and many years of prison violence amongst men has shown me that fights rarely end in any significant damage to either party, such was my fear of -killing again, though, that this became a real and daily worry.

Who would teach a murderer Karate? I doubt it was a policy decision taken in some boardroom; more likely a very local decision taken in the pub. What the hell, why not...? And so one of the staff began to instruct me in Shotokan Karate, a muscular, linear style of great dynamic power. Never having being physically adept at anything, and loathing team sports to this day, I took to this regime with vigour. I loved it; and it gave me enough ability to reassure myself that if I did ever inflict damage upon another person, it would be deliberate and no more than was necessary.

Slowly, and not always consciously, the building blocks of my future development were being embedded. A revulsion of violence, the ability to accept and not be overwhelmed by emotions, some small confidence was growing that I was rendering myself 'safe'.

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