“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…”


Pravasi’s vivid impressions of life in jail, going through the dark night of the soul, until he started a healthy routine of yoga, silent meditation, reading and writing. “Once you are free inside external freedom is extraneous and illusory…”

Nicholas Sand Pravasi by Nicolás Rosenfeld

Suddenly there is a flash of bright lights and brazen shouting. Stand for count! Get up for breakfast! Whether you want it or not! A wave of desolate terror sweeps over me as another day of dread begins. The smell of urine from the drunks and vomit from the junkies assails my nose, as a hot burning wave of fear crawls along my skin. Busted again! After so many years! And I wonder if this claustrophobic jail horror will go on for the rest of my life…

Perhaps few of you understand the difference between jail and prison. Jails are places for temporary incarceration while the authorities sort out whether or not they’ve arrested the right person or, if they have, whether they feel they want to allocate the resources necessary to obtain a conviction. Of paramount importance is the question of bail. Nowadays in most important cases bail is denied or granted only for what must be considered ransom.

Conditions in the jails are abominable. One tolerates it by hoping for bail and trying to remain as calm as possible in the meantime. The guards are abusive, exercise and fresh air often nonexistent. Conditions are extremely overcrowded, with a typical space of 25 feet by 40 feet having around thirty men with 3 toilets and 1 shower. And steel tables and benches for eating. At peak times on weekends the population can rise to 40 or 45, which happens by putting mattresses between the bunks and on the tables until there is almost no room to walk, and even little air to breathe. Since bottom bunks go to people who have been in the unit for a while the top bunks go to the newly arrived many of whom are junkies and in instant withdrawal, unless they have smuggled in some heroin. As a result of being deathly ill and therefore immobilised when undergoing extreme nausea, they often can’t make it to the toilet. Those on the floor or bottom bunks may be subjected to cascades of vomit. This is not an infrequent occurence. The food is horrible, the TV on for almost 24 hours a day, loud and blaring, and everyone is in a terrible headspace, yelling over the din of the TV.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, with no conceivable relief in sight. I became hopelessly depressed. Gone was my home, gone were my loved ones, gone was my ability to move myself physically from a worse place to a better one. I was trapped physically, socially and emotionally. In every direction that I turned I saw despair. My money was gone, my beautiful laboratory was gone, stolen and auctioned to a motorcycle gang for a song. I was reduced to a plastic jumpsuit on a thin mattress in a small dark corner, surrounded by hostile demons. An incessant din and nothing to do but think, and think, and think. The inexorable horror that this could be forever was looking more and more certain as the months crept by. The only anchor I had was my beloved Usha who waited patiently and loyally for the five long years we were to be separated.

As the time went by I became despairing and depressed. I became very overweight eating the greasy food, and not getting exercise and fresh air was also to blame. When I noticed that I could not go up a flight of stairs without wheezing I became seriously alarmed. I realised that during these months in jail I had done little but read trashy novels and go over in my head all the errors and mistakes which had lead to my arrest and incarceration. I repeatedly fell into the would I? should I? could I? syndrome as I futilely recreated the past in a vain attempt to extricate myself from the frustrating self-blame I was experiencing. Around and around and around as I wound myself up into greater and greater degrees of despair. This was indeed a dark night of the soul.

I realised that I had to do something to break out of this self destructive cycle… so…

When you graduate from the grade school of jail and move on to college level you have made it to prison. The food is still bad, though considerably better. The guards are often more polite and given a chance even friendly. Quarters are still overcrowded, but conditions are decidedly improved. The headspace of your fellow convicts is less confused and the terrible uncertainty of not knowing what will happen is gone. The most dramatic change is being able to go outside and feel the sun and the wind and see the stars once again. The worst part is over. You have made your mistakes, acknowledged to varying degrees your responsibility and now get down to doing your time…

I asked Usha to send in a book on yoga, and I began to diet and do twenty minutes a day of yoga which soon became thirty minutes, then an hour, and eventually three hours a day. My disposition brightened and became more positive. I lost weight and altogether started to feel much better. Usha started sending in books on ethnobotany, anthropology, psychology and most important the works of the enlightened masters. And, after so many years of working, I was finally able to catch up on my reading! I realized that freedom was the burning issue in my life, and that even though my physical freedom had been eliminated, my ability to trip inwardly was completely my choice. Naturally I was regarded as an oddball…

During this time also, quite spontaneously and irresistibly, I began to write. Every morning my hand picked up the pen and dragged me to the table and made me write. So there was my day. Three to four hours of writing in the morning, yoga in the afternoon, and study in the evening. This was really good for me, and I began to realize that whining about my situation was idiotic and I would be much better served by learning how to do my time. Instead of mourning over my situation and bleak prospects for the future I learned to see that no one exists in misery who cannot find someone who has had a worse deal of the cards. In fact we are all doing time in the jail of life for as long as we don’t stay completely present, responding to each situation as it arises. Reliving the past, through regret and depression, or worrying about the future are unreal activities that have no relevance to the present. The advice of the old-timers in prison is to do one day at a time, and so I moved into this timeless mode and the days passed with increasing tranquility.

It was at this point that I realized that every calamity that befell one in life was governed by a compensatory mechanism. Within each dark cloud there really was a silver lining, if only one would look for it with enough diligence. As I looked deeply into each misfortune I realized I was looking at my expectations and attachments. If I let go of them I could see I was undergoing no misfortune at all. It was just my mind. The reality of the situation was that in fact I had no problems. I had free living quarters and food, hot water and light; my clothes were provided for. Great books were being sent in by my beloved. If I simply accepted the life of a monk there were no problems at all. If everything went wrong I would still be cared for by existence. I would still be alive and vital in the world; my heart would beat, my eyes would see, I could still be surprised…

Once you are free inside external freedom is extraneous and illusory… I began to move into two or three hours unmoving meditations which were quite surprising as meditating more than 40 minutes had previously always given me a backache. Now nothing of the kind occured.

During this time I was writing to Eckhart Tolle. He read one of my letters and commented to Usha that I would be getting out even earlier than I expected. When Usha relayed this message to me I asked why he said that. He said it was because I had completely surrendered.

One of the things I felt as I realised that once again I had lost everything I had built up on the material plane for 20 years was a burning feeling all over my body as the realization that everything I had been clinging to for some support, for some transient trite reward was gone. The work was gone, my distractions were gone and all that remained were my attachments burning up in a blaze of purification. And when this was over and I could laugh about it again I realized that I had regained my freedom, and that every activity I found myself in was a meditation in motion, and I was lucky enough to have been ripped loose from everything but beauty and truth and love. Janis Joplin expressed this exactly when she sang “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…”

Yearning is the desire for freedom and oneness. Only by going beyond our boundaries and limits into the vast field of consciousness, beyond word and time, will we find that beauty of love and unity, and total freedom, Until that time, as they say in prison, we are all doing time…

Pravasi (May 10, 1941 – April 24, 2017) – illustration by Nicolás Rosenfeld

First published in sannyasnews.org

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