Q: Power is one of the prime factors of existence in prison life. Someone is always trying to climb over someone else’s body. How can you work consciously within this power structure? Also how can you transcend the power structure?

A: Prison is a power hierarchy in which it is defined who has power over whom, not only in the gross ways in which guards have power over inmates, but also how inmates have power over one another in minor ways. The way in which this power is reflected is in privileges and goods, in terms of space and control of space. All of these commodities are in demand or are usable as power objects only so long as everybody wants them — that is, a pile of sand is hardly a legitimate commodity to barter over power. How involved you will get in the power struggles within the prison is a function of how much you are attached to the goods, services, commodities and privileges that are up for grabs. For example, if one of the privileges is a quiet space physically, you may get into a great power struggle for that object; however, if you could imagine having worked on yourself until you have a quiet space within, you could then live with less of a need for an external quiet space. This frees you from being involved in the power struggle for that particular commodity — that quiet space. But you cannot totally deny your attachments or your needs or your desires, although some of them may fall away as you have a deeper spiritual understanding of who you are.

When you understand that all of your life experiences are useful in awakening you, then you have a very good handle on power structures. Then, whether you get a privilege or don’t get it, it’s all grist for the mill of awakening and not getting the privilege can serve as a fire for your purification.

Now none of this means that you should become necessarily just a passive scapegoat for other people’s power trips. You can assert power in relationships and get your fair share of things — the secret of it is to be non-attached to your actions, so that you do them out of the fairness of the situation, and not because you are lost in feelings of righteousness. If you win, fine; and if you don’t — well, that’s the way it is — and you work with it either way, even though you worked as hard as you could to win.

You have to make decisions along the way as to how much it is worth investing in any particular power struggle. What you really want to do is go to God, and anything that isn’t going to get you to God, you don’t even want to be involved in. So you may give up the extra smoke, the extra television, the extra privilege in the yard, the extra food, or the special privilege, because it doesn’t really matter — because that privilege isn’t going to liberate you. And you get to the point where you just take what comes, working only for those privileges that are really functional in your spiritual work, working for those without attachment, but with total involvement.

As your meditations become deeper and you are quieter, you connect with a place within yourself that is neither in prison nor is not in prison. You will be able to appreciate the entire predicament of any power situation. And this quietness of mind will in truth give you more power.

One of the secrets of living within a very tense power struggle is the ability to keep a certain detached humor about your own predicament — not a cynical humor and not a humor of defense, but a cosmic humor of seeing the delight in the dance of life. You will also find that the whole heaviness of power relationships is lessened if you do not get emotionally lost in the power struggles, if you can see the essence or soul beyond the power trip in another being. You are only able to see that in another human being when you can see it in yourself. That is why again and again we emphasize meditation as a vehicle for finding your own deeper spiritual identity.

A secret of power relationships is non-reactivity; that is, not jumping into a reaction for every action of another. Your ability to not react immediately, and get lost in an immediate reaction, is helped considerably by the use of mantra. For example, when somebody swears at you, instead of reacting to their swearing immediately, you withdraw momentarily inside into your mantra and it allows you an instant in which to see the entire predicament you’re stuck in, including perhaps, the fact that it is that individual’s frustration that is causing them to lash out. For when you can see that someone else’s anger and frustration is their karmic predicament, and only if you get caught in an instant reaction does it become yours — you learn how not to buy everything. In that space you can see that if you react immediately, you might make the situation worse, while if you can allow at least a moment of quietness before your reaction, perhaps you can redirect the whole tone of the situation into a more positive and productive one. It is that moment of inner silence which you can develop — at first only at moments now and then — but ultimately — that moment is every moment and you sit quietly and gently at rest within your being.

There is the story of the Buddha and two young disciples whose father was very irritated because he had wanted them to go into his business. He came to the Buddha, and screamed at great length; swore at him for some thirty or forty minutes. The Buddha sat quietly. When the man had finished, the Buddha said, “Sir, in your home, when someone brings a gift and you do not accept it, what happens?” The man said, “Well, then they must take back the gift and keep it themselves.” Buddha said, “Well, I do not accept your gift.” That is, the Buddha did not accept the anger of the man; he left the anger with the man for he himself did not collect it by reacting. That is the secret of the quiet mind.

For example, let us say that you are living with someone who is angry and frustrated and constantly provoking, and attempting to irritate you. The first 1,000 times you get lost in reaction. You just can’t stand it and you yell back or you beat up on them or you tear up their stuff or you get furious, and the adrenalin pumps through you — for the first 1,000 times. And each time after you’ve done it, you say, “Oh shit, I got lost in it; I blew it again; I forgot; I got caught in reacting; he got to me.” But the winner is not necessarily the person who has the last word, but the person who retains his peace and his closeness to God. So each time you forget, when you remember, you say, “Oh, I blew it, well, next time maybe I’ll do better,” and there will be another opportunity, and another and another. Maybe one in twenty times you will be able to stay quiet through the provocation — and when the arrow comes, you will be able to send back, if not love, at least neutrality. When you’re really good at this game, you will be able to convert the person’s negative energy, not to neutral energy but even to positive energy for both your use and his. Then you’ll be able to take someone’s anger and send it back to them as love. Take the same energy they send in spitting words of venom, take the negativity out of it, offer it up, convert it, and see that possibly they are frightened, pained, frustrated individuals who are angry, not at you, but at their situation — and that you’re just the object that’s most available on which they can vent their spleen.

So the process of learning how to not react is done through constant repetitive confrontation with an irritant, with something that will elicit that reaction until finally you have learned how to let it go through you just as if you were a porous sieve or a piece of cheesecloth, and water just pours right through you. The anger will go through; there will be no place in you it can hang its hat. The sticky thing in you is your model of who you think you are. But if you think of yourself as a soul going to God, then other people’s criticism either of your personality or of your body has no real effect on you. For example, I am bald; when people laugh at my baldness, that’s their problem, because I am not identified with being bald.

When you really get good at this game, and you really are getting on with your spiritual work, you are looking for every source of energy in the universe to work with. When somebody yells at you or comes on to you, they are giving you their energy and when you know how to work with that, it is like a gift. Ultimately, you can use the electricity from the light bulbs. You use it all in order to give you more and more force, or more and more spiritual energy, shakti, which you can use in your spiritual practices. It has to do with your philosophy and your single-mindedness of purpose. That’s the secret of whether you get lost in your shit or not.

When you have made a commitment to want to use your life in order to awaken, and when you have a deep enough understanding of the way in which the Spirit works, and the way in which God manifests on earth, you then recognize that all experiences can be used as grist for the mill of awakening. The situation you find yourself in is just a very hot fire in the sense that it will force you to confront your own attachments, desires, fears and doubts. When you are really ready to do this work, you may not be enthusiastic about the situation you find yourself in, (e.g. being in prison) but you take it and you work with it and with your reactions to it.

Q: How do you cope with the space created by losing one’s external freedom and not having anything yet to replace it?

A: When an individual loses his external freedom and before he’s found his internal freedom, he gets very neurotic, and he freaks, and he shows a lot of weird behavior. And you may be showing a lot of behaviors that you wouldn’t be showing on the outside, because of the situation you’re in. Our strategy is to suggest that you get to work on developing your internal freedom, so you don’t have to be as neurotic about having lost your external freedom. The important thing is not to over-react to your own peculiarities. When neuroses show themselves, sexual panic, frustrations, anger, loneliness, fits of weeping, fits of depression, notice them, acknowledge them and say, “Are they going to get me to God?”; and if not, start to let them go. The best practice is to sit down and start to follow your breath and quiet your mind, or to pick up a spiritual book and start to read it, really read it for a few minutes, open yourself to it. Just take one of the poems, or one of the quotes in this magazine you can work with and keep working with it. It’ll quiet you down and open you up. The journey of a thousand miles begins with but the first step, so just sit down if you’re freaked and start to join us in this journey. You’ve got to begin somewhere.

Maharaji was once sitting inside the gate of a British-Indian army camp. The Base Commander, a British Colonel, happened to drive by in his jeep and see this sadhu sitting inside the gate. The Colonel stopped and questioned Maharaji as to what he was doing there. Maharaji said, “Why not? I am the C.I.D. (a spy).” The Colonel said, “Get out!” Maharaji laughed and replied, “It’s not your land. It’s not yours. I’ll sit here.” The Colonel then called the guards and had Maharaji placed behind bars. The head of the guards was an Indian devotee who Maharaji sometimes visited at the base. When he saw Maharaji, he pranamed and Maharaji said, “Do your duty!” So Maharaji was locked up.

A little later the Colonel once again drove by the gate and, much to his chagrin, saw Maharaji sitting in the very same place. The jeep screeched to a halt, and the officer once again questioned Maharaji as they waited for the guards to arrive. Maharaji simply said, “Here I am — the land doesn’t belong to you. Everything belongs to God.”

When the guards arrived, the Colonel rebuked them soundly for not placing Maharaji in jail as ordered. The guards not only swore that they had, but furthermore said that he was still there. The Colonel left Maharaji with the guards with firm instructions to return him to prison, and drove on ahead in the direction of the jail. Upon arriving he was both shocked and amazed to see Maharaji smiling at him from behind bars. The Colonel said, “What! This must be a trick, an hallucination . . . ”

Today a photograph of Maharaji hangs in the Officer’s Mess of that army camp.


The clear water sparkles like crystal,
You can see through it easily, right to the bottom,
My mind is free from every thought,
Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.
Since it cannot be wantonly roused,
Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.
When you have learned to know in this way,
You will know there is no inside or out!

— Han Shan