Saturday, 21 August 2021

Practicing Freedom in Prison (Guest Post by Bryan Noonan)

Throughout my life, I've tried to control a lot of things. I suspect that this incessant need to control things comes from being raised in a home that often felt out of control. We never seemed to have enough money, my parent's relationship was always highly contentious, and nothing I did was ever good enough. I took the anxiety I felt as a child because of these situations into my adulthood. I tried to control relationships (to avoid abandonment), my work and finances (to avoid being poor), and my wife and children's behavior (to avoid looking bad to others).

All this effort to control things left me deeply unhappy, always anxious, and desperate to hold onto the fragile sense of control I had over life. My attempts to have power over my own life led me to abuse my power over others' lives. Eventually, this need to control my life and others' contributed to some very destructive decisions that earned me a 17-year prison sentence. It is while serving this sentence that I have learned to take an honest look at myself, to love myself, and to cultivate peace and freedom in my life.

In his book "The Untethered Soul," Michael Singer claims that the only way to find peace and contentment in life is to stop thinking about yourself. Prior to prison I was clearly unhappy and completely lacking peace. I was also consumed with myself. I had to be lord of my life. That meant I spent an inordinate amount of energy trying to change things over which I had no control.

As Singer explains, much of my thoughts and behaviors were shaped by energy patterns I had developed in my childhood. I had spent so much energy in the past resisting difficult situations and emotions that those points of resistance defined how I processed life. Every time something unpleasant came up in my life, my old resistance patterns caused me to revert to, "I must try to control this." Of course, so much about life is outside of our control, so my patterns of resistance simply grew stronger.

I don't condemn myself for these patterns because I know they were meant to protect and defend me, even while they really caused me harm. Rather than experience the emotional vulnerability of loss, of conflict, of lack, I walled myself off with an (un)healthy dose of physical and emotional control. I resisted every obstacle to what I thought would give me happiness. The problem is that after every battle of resistance, there is always more to resist. It was an incessant war against everything that sought to disturb my understanding of what would bring me peace.

I thought financial success would bring peace, but it simply brings a different set of stresses. I thought if people behaved how I wanted them to, I'd be happy. But there is little joy in inauthentic relationships. Success might have earned the praise of others, but it didn't make me like myself any more. I still doubted myself and felt like I was never good enough. And there's nothing like a prison sentence to confirm that notion.

Prison itself tends to feed a fantasy world of "what-ifs" and "some days." Daily life in prison leaves little joy in its wake. But it is in prison where I learned how important perspective is to happiness. When I lost control of so much in my life and learned to stop resisting things I could no longer control, I discovered that when I accept what I can't control I am free to find joy in what's left. And when I have trouble accepting something, I am learning to simply not resist it. For me, there's a distinction.

Refusing to resist things I can't control is not always easy, but as Singer points out, maintaining an open heart and mind makes nonresistance easier. It also leads to greatly reduced anxiety, and greater energy, peace, and contentment. Rather than complaining about (resisting) what I don't like in life, I'm free to feel and express gratefulness for even the little things. Sunrises and sunsets, blooming flowers, a gentle breeze on a hot day, an unexpected smile or kind word, the gift of friendship, books like Singer's that help me learn to move beyond myself, and so many other simple things now fill my heart with gratefulness.

Learning to live a life of non-resistance has also freed me to live out my faith more authentically, which means being others-centered rather than self-centered. It frees me to love difficult people, to see and take opportunities to be kind to others, and to simply surrender to the work of the Spirit through me.

Today, I'm still a work in progress, but I also feel a much greater sense of peace in my life, even in prison. My future after prison is uncertain, but I feel much greater confidence in facing life, with its uncertainties, with acceptance. Before I even exit prison, I'm already practicing what it means to live free.


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Bryan Noonan is co-author of "Insider's Guide to Prison Life" and author of the blog, HopeOnTheInside.com

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