In our final extract from Jeff Traylor’s book, the inmates explore the art of good mental boxing, or how you can make a productive ‘counter-punch’ to negative thoughts….
“The prison had been abuzz for days about the escape. Rumors abounded on the grapevine about how Crime Wave had gotten out. One story had him tunneling under the wall, another had him carving a hole through the wall, and another had him climbing over the wall. The most likely method was that he had managed to hide himself in a garbage truck that left the prison earlier that evening, avoiding a search by stashing himself in the garbage bin of the truck. However he did it, the prison would probably be closed by the time the answers would be found. Anyway, it was old news by the time the next Epictetus Club meeting rolled around. Zeno had stayed focused that week and had hung a new frame on the wall that I especially liked:
The Prayer of Epictetus
Lead me, Zeus and Destiny, whithersoever I am appointed to go. I will follow without wavering; even though I turn coward and shrink, I shall follow all the same.
The meeting came to order promptly at seven, with Zeno welcoming the members and then moving on to the night’s topic. “A half-hearted spirit has no power, according to Epictetus. And power is a very important part of change. We can have good intentions, but without any
power to carry out our plans we will not succeed. Mike, what is the main way that your stock car might lose serious power?” asked Zeno of one of the men.
Mike, an experienced stock car driver and mechanic, answered that one of the ways was by having a blown head gasket. “You can have all the horses in the world under your hood, but if you don’t have the compression, you don’t have the muscle. Some of your power is blowing out through the hole in the gasket instead of being directed toward powering your car toward the finish line.”
“There are some things we do with our thinking that also cause us to lose power, or to lose compression,” said Zeno. “And if we do these things, even though we have good motivation and a good target, we still won’t make it to our finish line or to our goal. Tonight we’re going to do a sort of compression check – to see if we’ve blown a head gasket ourselves.”
“I know I’ve blown a gasket or two in my time,” said Leonard. Most of the others agreed.
“Sometimes it’s obvious when we’ve blown a gasket – like when we’re enraged and flying off the handle. But there are other times when it is so subtle we might not even realize that it has happened.”
He then asked the men to think of the reasons they used to justify their crimes as he wrote their answers on the board.
“I was drunk,” volunteered the first man.
“I needed the money.”
“I was snitched on.”
“My parole officer was out to get me.”
“I didn’t do it,” another man said to the laughter of
“The guy driving got pulled over and they found the drugs on me. If he hadn’t run that stop sign I wouldn’t be here.”
“My kid needed diapers.”
“I didn’t have a job.”
“I don’t have a good enough education to get a job,
so I had to do what I did.”
“My old lady pissed me off.”
“I grew up in the projects.”
“I was high on drugs.”
“I didn’t think I’d get caught,” said the last man in
Zeno then read a passage from the Enchiridion:
“Blaming others is silly. When we suffer setbacks, disturbances or grief, let us never place the blame on others, but on our own attitudes. Small-minded people habitually blame others for their misfortunes. Average people blame themselves. Those who are dedicated to a life of self-mastery understand that the impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself. Blaming oneself puts you down and is not the same as taking responsibility. Taking responsibility empowers a person, giving them a chance to learn from their mistakes and make changes. One of the signs of the dawning of self- mastery is the gradual elimination of blame.”
Zeno then added, “Simply making excuses is a way to blow a gasket and lose our power to change. We end up feeling helpless, blaming others, and giving our power away to whoever or whatever we are blaming.” He then pointed to the list on the board and asked, “What do you notice when you look at this list?”
“We might think of them as reasons, but they are really a lot of excuses!” said Eddie.
“Eddie’s right – the list is a load of B.S.,” agreed Leonard.
“One of the best ways to get power back over our own lives, to repair that blown head gasket, is to see our excuses for what they are,” said Zeno. “Simply identifying them is a great step forward. To use our ABC Model of Inner Boxing, these excuses are like the attacking thoughts we are using against ourselves. We can block them by being aware that they are excuses and are robbing us of our own power. Let’s see if we can come up with some counterpunches to each of these thoughts. Let’s do some work on the speed bag – how fast can you counter your own attacking thought with a productive thought that restores your power? Repeat the attacking thought and then counter it.”
Shakes went first. “Attacking thought: I was drunk; counterpunch: I drank and got myself drunk.”
“Good job,” encouraged Zeno. “Next.”
“Attacking thought: I needed the money; counterpunch: everyone needs money. I could get a job or borrow it or find some other way to get money besides crime.”
“Attacking thought: I was snitched on; counterpunch: if I hadn’t set myself up by doing the crime the snitch wouldn’t have had anything to use on me.”
“You guys are doing great. Next,” said Zeno.
“Attacking thought: My parole officer was out to get me; counterpunch: what the hell am I doing with a parole officer anyway!”
“Attacking thought: I didn’t do it; counterpunch: okay, I did it.”
“Attacking thought: The guy driving got pulled over; counterpunch: if I didn’t have drugs on me, he would have just got a ticket and I wouldn’t have gotten anything. As it is, he lost his car and I went to prison.”
“Attacking thought: my kid needed diapers; counterpunch: there are better ways to get diapers.”
“Attacking thought: I didn’t have a job; counterpunch: go look for a job!”
“Attacking thought: I don’t have a good education; counterpunch: go to school and get an education.”
“Attacking thought: my old lady pissed me off; counterpunch: I pissed myself off, and being pissed is no excuse to hit anyone.”
“Attacking thought: I grew up in the projects; counterpunch: so, I grew up in the projects. Not everybody in the projects goes to jail.”
“Attacking thought: I was high on drugs; counterpunch: I got high to get rid of my fear so I could do the crime. The fact is, I was doing crimes before I ever did drugs.”
“That is a powerful insight. Nice counterpunch!” Zeno responded. “Next.”
“Attacking thought: I won’t get caught; counterpunch, I will get caught!”
“Great job, guys,” said Zeno. “How did that feel?”
“Strangely enough, it felt better than the excuses I’ve been using. All along I thought that if I admitted the truth I would feel worse, but I actually feel stronger and more hopeful. I can’t change the things I was blaming, but I can change myself. The attacking thought seemed beyond my control, but the counterpunch is something I can do, something that is up to me,” replied Leonard.
“When I saw those so-called reasons on the board, I was kind of embarrassed because I saw through them right away, so I know that others see through mine too. Just because they don’t call me on it doesn’t mean they don’t see it. And here I thought I was making myself look good!” added another group member.
“It actually seems easier to step up to the plate and own up now. I wear myself out trying to keep my stories straight and remembering what I said to who.”
“I confess that I actually started believing my own stuff after a while, since I said it so often. I must look like a fool to the people I was lying to. No wonder no one believes me even when I tell the truth – its like the boy who cried wolf so many times no one came to help him when the wolf really showed up.”
“I see that I made up my excuse to keep from feeling guilty and ashamed. And when I see my counterpunch, I do feel guilty for what I’ve done.”
“Guilt can be a healthy emotion,” answered Zeno. “It can motivate us to change and to live a better life. But if we keep trying to avoid it, it can’t do its job. Healthy guilt is guilt that prompts us to make a positive change. After it’s done that and you’ve made the change, let it go and move on with your life. Unhealthy guilt is guilt that we refuse to acknowledge so it is unproductive, or guilt that we hold on to for too long so that it keeps us stuck in the well feeling bad and pitiful. That is self-blame and is different from taking responsibility. One keeps us stuck, the other motivates us to change. Self-blame might look good to others, but it is just another excuse to keep from being responsible.”
By then the clock showed eight o’clock, so it was time to adjourn. Mike made the final comment: “Thanks for the compression check, Zeno – I guess we got our heads screwed on a little tighter tonight!”
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.