For those of us sentenced to a life term, time is inexorable. Years pass and seem to bring us no closer to release while our bodies succumb to age. We are challenged to draw vitality and meaning from our circumstances.
A king of ancient Israel, Solomon, believed that everything has its perfect time and place. He wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:11, ”He has made everything perfect in its time. He has put eternity in their hearts, except no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”
Viktor Frankl survived imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps and founded a school of psychodynamics called Logotherapy, which states that ‘meaning’ is the central idea of human existence. He concluded that, ”it did not really matter what was expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
We know that there is very little we can control or change in our environment. Our inability to change our situation challenges us to change ourselves. Freedom is restricted by our conditions. But, we remain free to take a stand toward those conditions. Frankl wrote, ”It is spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away and what makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
Eternity exists between a single inhalation and exhalation. The Scriptures talk about the power and sanctity of the breath. The verse in Genesis 1:2 that speaks of the ‘Spirit of God sweeping over the water’ uses the Hebrew word ‘rauch,’ which is the same word used for life. Job said, ”the Spirit (rauch) of God formed me, the breath (neshama) of Shaddai sustains me.” Neshama, a word whose root is used to describe breathing or breath, is also used to denote a person’s soul or life. Genesis 2:7, describing the creation of man states, ”God blew into his nostrils the breath of life (neshama).”
Through the wise and masterful instruction of James Fox, a Yoga instructor at San Quentin, I have begun to learn about the power of the breath of life. In Yoga, the vital force, called prana, is cultivated and moved through a series of asanas, physical movements combined with breathing exercises. This practice helps us to live one breath at a time. It is in quietness and stillness that time becomes an ally not a foe. It is in stillness that we begin to realize the things that are important and those things that really do not matter. The truth that everything can change in a single instant becomes apparent.
Yoga and its emphasis on the power of a single breath promote a respect for life and a profound realization of the destructive force of violence. I have grown to understand that I extinguished the breath of another human being forever and denied him innumerable moments of peace, joy and being.
We desire stability of the spirit during these times of uncertainty and confusion. Learning to live between breaths, we can take each moment as the path to peace.