Zen (and other stuff)
Foreword: All chapters of Pigeon on the Wing published on this website are in draft form only. The final version may include grammatical, syntax and content changes, as well as sidebars and illustrations to maintain a level of interest and to stop readers’ eyes from glazing over. All comments and / or criticisms of content or writing style would be most welcome. Masterpieces like this don’t just write themselves, you know.
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Pigeon on the Wing – Chapter 7 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
It’s an odd thing, but the human mind is capable of adapting itself to drastically changing circumstances relatively quickly. Only a few days previously, I had been a free man, able to sample all the exotic delights of Birmingham on a whim, with no worries other than whether I would wake up with a moderate case of “Delhi Belly” after having consumed a dodgy Chicken Tikka Masala from the Balti House down the road on Churchill Parade.
Churchill Parade is an exotically named row of shops on our housing estate. It doesn’t include an insurance company with a nodding bulldog as its logo, but it does include an off licence, a newsagent, a pizza restaurant, chemist and the aforesaid Balti House, which passes for our local “haute cuisine” establishment. (There is also the Falcon Lodge Chippie, famous throughout the area for its doner kebabs and salmonella.)
As it was, I was now a convicted criminal, subject to Her Majesty’s Prisons’ rules and regulations, and severely constrained in what I could do over the next forty-two days in terms of just about everything, not just sampling the delights of the local takeaway, although that is still fairly high up my list of “Great Places To Visit in Sutton Coldfield.”
However, they do say that “stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage” and I was determined to make the most of my predicament and not to let it get me down too much. There are those who say that this is easier said than done, but there are techniques that one can employ to mitigate the circumstances in which one may find themselves embroiled from time to time.
The first thing to do is to accept the things over which you have no control. In my case, I had been sentenced to twelve weeks in prison, which meant that I would hopefully be released in six weeks with good behaviour. So, for the next forty-two days I would do my very best to stay out of trouble and to navigate my way through the unknown waters that lay ahead of me.
The second thing to do is to treat your situation as a positive learning experience, and this is what I endeavored to do over the next forty-two days. I won’t lie to you – there were times when I felt down, and it would be very easy to be crushed by the experience. The loss of control over one’s life and liberty can be very hard to deal with, and I could see that many of the other inmates exhibited signs of extreme stress during the time that I was there.
The presence of illegal drugs such as “spice” was an ever present problem throughout the prison, and although there were numerous posters on the prison notice boards warning against the use of this pernicious drug, there were many prisoners who had fallen under its spell. It was easy to get hold of – consignments of the drug were regularly thrown over prison walls or brought in by corrupt officers, and in some case by remotely-controlled drones flown directly to the cell windows of well-connected prisoners.
You could always tell a prisoner who was under the influence of “spice” – just think of the zombies in the TV series “The Walking Dead” and you have a very good idea of the effect that this drug has on the average prisoner. A blank-eyed stare, shambling gait, and an inability to engage with the world are just three of the symptoms apparent.
In addition, the drug poses a challenge to all those who would help prisoners under the influence. It has been described as worse than heroin in that it not only can it render the user unconscious and in risk of death extremely quickly, but the toxic atmosphere literally surrounding such a user can be easily inhaled and may affect the person tasked with trying to help to a similarly dangerous degree.
However, assuming that one is able to steer clear of dangerous narcotics and other psychoactive substances, there is actually plenty to focus on in order to develop a positive experience.
As you may recall, I was asked earlier by the prison authorities whether I identified as Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain, a Buddhist or a Baptist or a Jew (to paraphrase Bob Dylan in his song Universal Soldier) and I thought it would be prudent to identify as Christian, seeing as how that was how I had been brought up. Not that I was actually a practicing Christian, in fact I saw myself then (and still see myself now) as an agnostic – one who admits to the possibility of a higher power but not necessarily within the confines of organised religion.
So on the first Sunday of my incarceration, 30 April 2017, I found myself making my way to the meeting room designated as the place of Christian worship within the prison. All those identifying as Christian were called from their cells by the prison officers, lined up at the exit of the prison block, and marched around the vast open space that doubled as a running track and a football field to a prison block on the other side, where we were patted down, identities checked – and checked again – one by one, in order to experience the solemn and profound word of the Lord.
Well, that was an eye-opener.
I had no sooner made my way into the meeting room than I became aware of a tumultuous hubbub emanating from a crowd of inmates at the front of the room. This was obviously a very popular event, and the reason why soon became apparent.
At the front of the room, on a slightly raised platform, were the members of the South East London Gospel Choir, and boy, were they dressed to impress. Modesty forbids me from describing the short mini-skirts and the tight blouses of the half-dozen or so well-endowed young ladies on the platform, but they seemed to be proving a big hit with those who had taken the trouble to ensure that they were right at the front and able to make the most of the sights and sounds presented to them.
The young ladies of the South East London Gospel Choir proceeded to belt out an enthusiastic range of songs that had the inmates literally dancing on their chairs and in the aisles. I couldn’t fault them – they certainly knew how to appeal to their audience, to the extent that I could see the five or six prison officers who were supervising the event glancing at each other in apprehension. Was something going to kick off?
In the event, things passed off without major incident. One young Afro-Caribbean inmate fell off his chair after some particularly animated dancing and had to be carried to the First Aid room with a dodgy ankle, but other than that, the South East London Gospel Choir exuded a certain magic that I felt was almost entirely beneficial. I could certainly see how they would attract inmates to their cause.
It was around then that an earnest lady of around seventy-five or eighty years of age approached me after the South East London Gospel Choir had completed their last number. “Did you enjoy that?” she asked. I tentatively replied in the affirmative. “Have you ever considered giving yourself to Christ?” she continued. Talk about trading on heightened emotions. “Let’s just say I’m open to all possibilities,” I said, “and I certainly wouldn’t rule anything out at this point.”
This was her cue to unload a ton of religious literature on me, including a copy of the Bible and a tract entitled “How to Counter the Double Curse of Booze.” Well, given that booze was quite hard to come by in prison, unless you included straining melted boot polish through six slices of Warburton’s finest, I would have thought that countering the Double Curse of Booze was not of the highest priority when it came to advising prison inmates.
However, I was not about to upset someone who obviously felt very strongly about all the good works she was doing, so I simply murmured “Thank you” as she departed to foist her attentions on another unsuspecting prisoner.
On the way back I was struck by the magnificence of the Prison Garden – a cultivated area by the side of the football pitch. Someone – I dare say maybe many people over the years – had clearly put a lot of effort into developing a truly inspiring oasis of horticulture in an otherwise barren landscape. There were numerous exotic plants – although as a complete ignoramus in horticultural matters, I would have great difficulty in naming even a few of them – interspersed with vivid green bushes and trailing vines circumventing their way up a series of trellises to simulate a tropical environment. I leaned against the fence surrounding this vision of beauty for several minutes, and almost completely forgot about my oppressive surroundings.
Then there was a shout from one of the prison staff – “Oi! Burton! Get a bloody move on!” and I was transported back to the reality of my situation.
The reality was that for the next forty-two days I would be subject to Her Majesty’s rules and regulations, which on one level was perfectly true, but on another level I was freer to explore the limits of the capabilities of my mind. When one is subject to the mind-numbing routines of everyday life, it is quite difficult to “think outside of the box” and to develop patterns and lines of thought which can lead one to a higher stage of enlightenment.
Having a lot of time to oneself, on the other hand, as in prison, allows one to cultivate a Zen-like environment where every thought can be analysed and expanded upon to reach conclusions that would never (or hardly ever) be attainable during normal everyday life. I was reminded of another book that I had read in my early twenties, entitled “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M Pirsig.
When I first read this book I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the thoughts, concepts and emotions described therein, but having re-read it in recent years I am struck by the profound truths that it contains. Distilled into a nutshell, the message is that there is more than one reality, and it is not always what you think it is. Only by undergoing hardship and endurance, coupled with humility and introspection, is it possible to perceive the perpetual transition between realities and to realise that many (if not most) things that one has taken for granted during their lifetime are but an illusion.
Another Buddhist saying:-
“When the student is ready, then the teacher will appear.”
This refers to a state of preparedness on behalf of the student. The teacher may not be an actual person, but an event or a combination of circumstances that allows the student to realise a truth of which they have previously been unaware.
I arrived back at my cell in a state of euphoria. “What’s up with you then?” said John. “I have been overwhelmed by the complexity and the beauty of the Universe,” I said, suddenly afflicted with a bout of uncontrollable spluttering and coughing, “nothing whatsoever to do with the extremely brief mini-skirts and tight blouses of the well-endowed young ladies of the South East London Gospel Choir.”
John cast me a glance of scepticism. “Don’t you start enjoying yourself in here,” he said, ” or the next thing you know you’ll be fighting to get back in when you’re out on the street, and then from there on in, it’s a slippery slope to institutionalisation.”
I laughed. “As if,” I said.
End of Chapter 7
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