The Epictetus Club: Part Three

 In our third excerpt from The Epictetus Club, the inmates’ discussion turns to how best to approach emotional and mental wounds from the past….

” At seven sharp the meeting began. Zeno again welcomed all of us and gave a quick review of our last meeting. “Who remembers what ‘fail’ means?” he asked.

Eddie spoke up. “Fear, Apathy, Inertia, Lack of Vision. These are the four walls that keep us in the box.”

“Right. Tonight we’re going to talk about getting past these walls – or to use Animal’s terms, to leave the well and go to the ocean. And we’ll start with a campfire by the water. I’m going to paint two scenarios for you and I would like for you to choose the one you would prefer. In the first scenario, you are walking by the campfire and you trip and fall and your hand goes into the fire. In the second scenario, you are walking by the campfire, you trip and fall, and your head hits a rock and knocks you out as your hand goes in the fire. Which of these two would you prefer?”

The men looked puzzled for a moment, then one of them said, “The first one.”

“Why?” asked Zeno.

“Because I could pull my hand out right away.” Some of the others nodded in agreement.

Another man said that he would prefer the second scenario “because I wouldn’t feel the pain if I was knocked out.” A few others shared his opinion.

The first man then said, “Just because you don’t feel the pain doesn’t mean that damage isn’t being done. What will happen to your hand if you don’t pull it out of the fire?”

The second man then admitted that it would probably burn off, and he asked if he could change his answer to the first scenario.

“Pain and consequences have a good purpose,” explained Zeno, “but only if we pay attention to them. They can motivate us to make changes, to pull our hand out of the fire, but only if we are aware of them. Consequences without awareness are ineffective.” By now everyone was agreeing that the first scenario would be the better choice – that it would be better to feel the pain for a moment to avoid long term damage.

“All of us in here have probably had our hand in the fire for some time, but we have ways of playing it off, making it seem like no big deal,” he said as he pulled his right hand up into his sleeve to the laughs of the men. “How do we keep ourselves unconscious to the negative consequences and pain we have brought into our lives?”

“By doing drugs and alcohol,” answered Shakes. “That is what I did, and I woke up in here – with a ten year headache!”

“Hanging out with my friends who are into the same stuff as me – they all have just one hand, too, so it looks normal to us,” offered another.

“I hang out with people who have no hands – that way I look really good while I’m burning up,” added a third man.

“Just telling myself it’s not so bad, even though it is,” said another.

“Not thinking about it at all.”

“Being the life of the party is how I did it,” said Animal.

“You guys get the idea,” said Zeno. “We have ways to block out the pain and consequences in our lives, and to even make ourselves look good while we do it, but we still get the negative results, no matter what. Since we all agreed that it is better to pull our hand out of the fire as soon as possible, let’s do a little activity to increase our awareness of the consequences. This is not to show us how bad we are, but to show us how bad of a life we are creating and to motivate us to make changes – to save ourselves and our families from further damage.”

He then introduced the next activity by quoting Epictetus: “Determine what happens first, consider what that leads to, and then act in accordance with what you’ve learned.” Zeno asked the men to consider some of the results they had received from living a criminal lifestyle, and they went around the circle taking turns as Zeno listed their answers on the board. Loss of freedom, stress, anger, debts, loss of respect from family, loss of self-respect, bad role model for their kids, loss of job, depression, health problems, anxiety and looking over your shoulder all the time were the first round answers. The board filled up after a couple more rounds of answers, and Zeno then broke the list into categories: physical, emotional, social, mental, financial, spiritual, and he added one more category – others. “Who else pays these prices right along with us?” he asked.

“My kids,” answered Shakes immediately.

“My employer lost a lot behind this,” said Leonard. “By the time he found and trained someone to take my place, he almost went under. And that would have cost his other workers their jobs, too.”

“The taxpayers also lose,” said Animal.

“I don’t agree with that,” said another. “I’ve been paying taxes all my life, so this is just getting my own money back.”

“Are you saying that instead of your taxes going to roads, schools, and hospitals, they were going for your future stay in prison?” replied Animal. “Instead of an Individual Retirement Account, you set up an Individual Incarceration Account? I can just see the banker’s face on that one!”

The group cracked up, with the first man finally agreeing that the taxpayers did, in fact, pay for his room and board at the Walls. Some of the other answers Zeno listed on the board included victims and their families, parents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, society, and friends.

“Now please take out a piece of paper and draw a circle in the middle of it about the size of a quarter. In the circle write the words ‘old life’. This represents the old life that you were living that led to your coming to prison. Draw four short stems off of that circle and put a circle at the end of each of those stems. In each of these four circles write one price that you are paying or have paid for that life. Think of a price from several of the categories, but one of your circles must include the word ‘others.’”

After a couple minutes the men had completed filling in the circles. Zeno then instructed them to draw three stems off each of the four circles and write in a price in each circle that was the result of the earlier circle. “For example, if you listed stress in one of your circles, ask yourself ‘what does this lead to?’ Maybe it leads to anger, which you would put in one of the three circles off of stress. Maybe it causes fights with your wife or girlfriend. Or maybe when you’re stressed you get headaches. With each circle ask yourself, ‘what does this lead to?’ and then write it in a circle. Off of the ‘others’ circle draw three circles and put the names of three people who are paying these prices along with you, and then from those circles follow it out with how they are paying and what that leads to for them.”

After another minute or so Zeno said, “I’m going to give you some time to keep doing this. Keep drawing new stems and circles off of each previous circle and put in a price that is caused by the preceding circle. And while it may not seem like it, the more circles you can come up with, the better.”

The men were completely absorbed in the task until Zeno eventually stopped them and asked them to look at their diagrams and make any observations they could about the circles.

“I can’t believe how much trouble can come from just one thing!”

“It’s all negative.”

“I keep seeing the same things popping up in more than one circle.”

“How many of you noticed the same old thing repeating itself?” asked Zeno.

All hands went up. “It’s like a dog chasing its tail around in a circle,” noted Eddie. “All mine eventually lead to anger, jail, drugs, or death, no matter which of the four circles I started with.”

“I never realized how many other people were hurt by my actions. I just never thought about it before, and I can’t believe what I see here – but I have to believe it, cause it’s right here in front of me!” said another. “Selling drugs leads to getting arrested that leads to being away from my kids that leads to them having problems in school that leads to my oldest boy quitting school that leads to him having a lot of problems with employment and finances. It’s almost overwhelming for me to see this. This can affect my future grandkids – and I thought I was doing something to help my family!”

Everyone sat quietly for a few minutes looking at the results of their old life on the papers they held in their hands.

Another group member who had not spoken at the previous meeting finally broke the silence. “Our traditions teach that one should consider the effects of his actions on the next seven generations,” offered Manny, a Native American about thirty years old with coal black hair and deep-set eyes. He was studying the traditional teachings of his people and was challenging the rule in court that all inmates must wear short hair. “If you can say that your actions will not harm your descendants, then you may go ahead and act.”

“That is certainly taking a long view outside the box, Manny,” said Zeno. “Thank you for sharing the ancient wisdom from your culture. It’s interesting to see how similar some of these old teachings are. If I may go back to our campfire example for a minute, by doing the circle exercise we are now more likely to pull our hands out of the fire before we burn them off because we are now conscious of the pain. What you have done here is not give yourself any more negative consequences than you had before – you just increased your awareness of the prices you and others are already paying or will likely pay in the future. And who knows – it may very well affect the next seven generations, like Manny said.”

Zeno drew the nine dots on the board, and then placed just one circle in the nine dots. “Not thinking about what leads to what keeps us in the box.” He then drew the stems and circles off of the first circle so they fell outside the box, and said, “All of these prices you identified beyond the first circle represent an increased awareness, or thinking outside the box. And thinking outside the box leads to a life outside the box.

“This circle exercise is a mental tool that we can use to move beyond the F.A.I.L. barriers that keep us in the box. The first of these barriers is fear. When you think about actually changing, what are some fears that come up?”

“I’m afraid that I would lose my friends if I changed my ways,” said one man.

“I’m afraid I’d have a boring life.”

“I’d miss the fast and easy money,” said another to the nods of several group members.

“I’m afraid I’d fail and just fall back into my old ways.”

“I’m afraid of the temptations.”
“I’d lose the respect of my associates if I changed.” Zeno listed these fears on the board, and then asked

each man to write his fear on a piece of paper. “Now hold your paper with the fear on it at arm’s length in your left hand and your circle page at arm’s length in your right hand. That is the trade you are making – you are paying all of those prices in your right hand to not face the fear in your left hand.”

He then turned to the man who feared losing his friends and asked him if his friends were worth all the prices in his circles, which included being alone in the prison and away from his friends. “I can see that my old ways actually caused the very thing I said I feared – I’m more alone now than ever. Plus, there is no way any friends are worth all the prices I’m paying. Hell, I never hear from them anyway now that I’m locked up.”

Zeno then asked another man if he enjoyed the repetitive routines and day-to-day sameness of getting up at the same time, marching to the mess hall at the same time, getting counted at the same time, going to the commissary at the same time, and going to bed at the same time.

“Hell, no, you’d have to be crazy to like that!” he answered.

“But that is exactly what you are getting in your effort to not be bored, isn’t it?”

“I see what you mean – I’m paying the price of living a boring life so that I don’t have to risk living a boring life. It’s the dog chasing his tail again, isn’t it.”

“Before you say anything else, Zeno, I already see what fast and easy money has brought me,” said Eddie. “When I look at all the circles in my right hand, that fast and easy money was anything but fast and easy. I would have done much better with a minimum wage job if you count all the time and money it has cost me – not to mention what it has done to my family.”

“And my fear of failing brings me circles such as stress, depression, anger, loss of family, debts, lost jobs, and so much more. I can hardly say that all these circles represent a resounding success!” confessed another man.

Zeno then addressed the idea of temptation. “What is it that makes something tempting to us?” asked Zeno.

“Obviously it is something that we want and like,” answered the man who had listed a fear of temptations.

“Right. But if you look at the big picture and see where it all leads, you may find it is not as tempting. If you include being locked up, away from your family, and all the other circles on your paper, you’ll find that those old temptations are suddenly not as tempting as before. Think big picture, outside the box.”

At this point, Animal chimed in, saying that reminded him of a dog story. “If you don’t count all of the long term prices in these circles,” he said, “it is like trying to just walk the front half of a dog. We all like the front half of the dog – it licks you, you get to feed it, and all that – but we don’t want what comes out the back half of the dog – the smelly messy part. But a dog has both ends, and so do our actions. You can’t just take the front half of the dog for a walk – like partying or doing crimes – without taking the back half. You have to take the whole dog.”

“And a pooper-scooper,” added Eddie to the laughter of the others.

“Thanks, Animal – I guess!” said Zeno good- naturedly. He then moved on to the man who listed losing the respect of other inmates. Zeno pointed out that Epictetus saw this as a particularly harmful fear, and quoted from the Enchiridion: “Those who pursue a better life must be prepared to be ridiculed or criticized by their former associates. Many people who have progressively lowered their personal standards in order to win acceptance from others will bitterly resent those who seek to better themselves. Never live your life in reaction to those poor souls. Be compassionate toward them, and at the same time hold to what you know is good. It is your job to carry yourself with quiet dignity and to stick to your ideals and goals. Cling to what you know in your heart is best. If you are steadfast, those very ones who ridiculed you will come to admire you.’”

After the discussion of how to counter fears with the circle diagram, which he compared to a warrior’s shield that can protect us from bad decisions, Zeno moved on to the other walls of the box. “You can also use these circles to counter the next two letters in F.A.I.L. – apathy and inertia,” he said. “Motivation is the great counterpunch to fear, apathy and inertia, and if all these prices we are paying don’t motivate us to care and make an effort to change, I don’t know what will. Epictetus said that a half- hearted spirit has no power and that tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes. Use these circles to power up your motivation to move out of the well.

“There is one letter left in our four letters of F.A.I.L., and Epictetus thought it is the most important one – lack of vision or purpose. In fact, he said that evil did not exist naturally in the world or in people, but was a byproduct of forgetting our true aim and purpose in life. We are out of time tonight, but next week we’ll talk about that one. Have a good week, gentlemen.” And with that the men walked out of the Death House and across the cold, windswept yard to their cells.

The last extract of the Epictetus Club will be posted next Wednesday. 

About the book:

The Epictetus Club: Lessons from the Walls is both an inspiring story and a unique thinking skills teaching tool written by Jeff Traylor, a former prison counselor and award-winning program developer. Set in the Ohio Penitentiary, the book follows a group of inmates who meet weekly to study the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, a former slave and prisoner who used adversity to become wiser and more compassionate. The group is led by an unforgettable lifer named Zeno, a former professional boxer who points out that our greatest opponent is our own thinking. Zeno compares thinking skills to boxing skills, and teaches the men the ABC’s of Inner Boxing and the Ten Rounds to Self-Mastery. The reader sits in on life-changing group sessions where the men discuss finding a sense of purpose, “knocking out” excuses, turning adversity to benefit, converting entitlement to gratitude, identifying consequences of actions and how others are affected, handling provocation, dealing with stress, and many other key life lessons. The Epictetus Club is an easily read 155-page paperback book divided into short chapters that encourage reading and discussion. Popular in prisons and universities around the country, the book is great for self-study or in a discussion group (discussion guide available). A 270-page, 16-session cognitive skills course manual called The Epictetus Self-Mastery Program is also available.

N.B. If you would like to have a free PDF copy of The Epictetus Club in full, please email the author (epictetusclub @ aol . com – minus the spaces!). He will be happy to send you a copy. You can also buy a physical copy of the book here.

About the Author: 

Jeff Traylor has a wealth of corrections experience, ranging from implementing the furlough program at the maximum security Ohio Penitentiary to serving as the cognitive skills instructor at a community based correctional facility. His experience also includes substance abuse counseling and program development, and he has worked in the psychological and social services departments in Ohio prisons. He is the creator of the Shoplifting Diversion Program that earned a national award from the National Council of Community Mental Health Centers and was adopted in more than 30 U.S. cities. He has served on the faculty of the Michigan Judicial Institute and has trained hundreds of professionals ranging from parole officers to social workers. He earned his graduate degree from The Ohio State University and is the author of a series of Ohio travel books called Life in the Slow Lane. See his website here

With thanks to Jeff for allowing excerpts from his work to be published here.

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