Updated: Sep 13, 2020
Finding Freedom by Jarvis Jay Masters was one of those one-sitting-read books, once I picked it up, there was no sense in putting it down. It is a series of stories, vignettes really, of various experiences Masters has had while on death row at San Quentin for a crime he claims to be innocent of. The sheer injustice of that situation, not to mention the terror of waiting to hear when you will be led to the gas chamber, or the daily casual violence of a high-security prison, would be enough to make anyone lose their fucking mind. Instead with Masters, I found a voice that was compelling, compassionate, and gentle. During his time at San Quentin he found peace within Buddhism, eventually taking a vow of non-violence. And from this place of unshakable centeredness, he tells his stories.
His stories ranged from genuinely hilarious to utterly horrifying but each one spoke to the basic need of humans to be loved and cared for, even - and perhaps especially - those that have been condemned as the villains of society and locked away. Whether he was laying a trail of sugar water so the ants in his room could vacate peacefully (vows of non-violence apply to animals too you see), bullying an inmate into not killing himself, or concocting distractions to save vindictive guards from the prisoners they had pissed off, he drives home the point that all life is precious.
In one of my favorite chapters, he explores the way in which violence is often cyclical. Those against whom unspeakable violence is perpetrated grow up to become the aggressors themselves, often entirely unable to see or acknowledge the pain they carry around with them. He frames it as a conversation between him and a few other inmates - the hardest of the men, the ones doing time for violent crimes that no one would dare start beef with. He notices (while watching these men shirtless bench pressing 450 lbs) that many of them bore similar markings. They had deep scars and mangled flesh that, to Masters, is reminiscent of those black and white daguerreotypes of slaves and what remained of their bodies after a lifetime of savage whippings. These men had been abused. When he spoke to them about it, they began to swap stories, recalling the ways in which they had been brutalized by their fathers or their foster families with fondness and humor, laughing off memories of being chased around with belts or hot irons. They weren’t little bitches, they were men, and men were not going to be hurt by something as trivial as child abuse.
The well of pain from experiences like that must be so deep that to even begin to dredge it would be unbearable. Far easier (and accepted by society) to transmute the hurt into rage instead. It made me sad. I know men like this in my own life, so bound by expectations of masculinity that they cut themselves off entirely from their emotional selves. And as the pain builds, it is released in lashes of violence and rage, hurting those around them and themselves in the process, because it is what they know. Masters later writes that aggressors deserve compassion in the same way that victims do. At least as a victim you are (1) more likely to receive the love and support that you need to heal and (2) absolve yourself from the karma that brought you to that experience (from the Buddhist perspective). As an aggressor, however, you pull fear and hatred from others and find yourself stuck in the karmic cycle.
I wonder what that must feel like, to be in a constant state of heightened pain and rage. You’re waiting for something to piss you off so you can have that sweet release and feel as though it was justified. And what must it be like when you take hundreds of men like this and put them together in a prison? And what must it be like to try and find self-acceptance and peace in the midst of that?
It brings up another question for me about how I want to view people. Take for example two convicted murderers, one who feels genuine regret and repents for his crime and one who does not. Is the former more deserving of compassion than the latter? What if dude #1 came from a well-off family and lived a comfortable and happy life and dude #2 came from violence and poverty and abused as a child? Does that change things? Does it even matter at the end? Compassion probably shouldn't come with qualifications, but we are a product of our society and are more willing to extend compassion to those we have been conditioned to believe deserve it. The prison system both does and does not make any sense to me at all (as a concept, not the specific way in which it exists now) but the idea of the death penalty revolts me. How can we as an "advanced" society sanction the killing of a person as punishment. Shit is nuts.
At the end of the book, Masters writes of finding freedom within a 7 x 10 concrete cell. How difficult it can be to accept yourself when you know you have deeply hurt people, how excruciating it is to face the thoughts your mind can come up with when you’re on death row, and (tactically) how hard it is to sit in meditation when the general inclination of the space you’re in is toward chaos. But (and there’s that gentle compassion), he acknowledges that finding freedom isn’t just difficult when you’re in prison, it’s difficult regardless of who you are and where you are. All of us can feel trapped inside our minds, all of us suffer needlessly, all of us wish for our lives to be different. Finding freedom is a universal pursuit that takes diligence and dedication no matter who you are. It’s a path I’m on, and I feel fortunate to have teachers like Masters to help guide me.
5/5 read it now. Better yet, listen to it because the dude that narrates it has a really dreamy voice lol.