This is part one of our two-week series from The Epictetus Club, an account of how prison inmates used the philosophy of Epictetus to help turn their lives around.
In this excerpt, Jeff Traylor, a newly arrived prison counsellor, reflects on his meeting with an inmate, nicknamed Zeno…
Epictetus Club: Extract One
I had been thinking about what Zeno said at our last meeting – that people were not upset by things themselves, but by what they told themselves about those things. At first I had my doubts. But I was also open to considering it, so I decided to pay attention to my thoughts the next time I was worried, upset or angry. It didn’t take long to find my first opportunity. Driving home that evening after work, someone cut me off on the freeway, and then had the nerve to give me the “we’re number one” sign. My instant reaction was to think, “Who the hell does he think he is? I’m going to pull up beside him and tell him a thing or two.” Then I thought of what Zeno had said, and tried something new. I told myself, “That guy is obviously having a bad day, and I don’t need to make him a part of my day. I’ll just take a deep breath and go on listening to the radio.” To my amazement, and just as Zeno predicted, my feeling about the situation changed from anger to minor annoyance and then to complete indifference about the other guy. I felt more in control of my feelings and actions than I ever had! I couldn’t wait to talk with Zeno again.
When Friday rolled around, I stopped by Zeno’s House (I preferred thinking about it that way) for our chat and found him reading a little book with the strange title Enchiridion. He promptly laid it down on his stand, and it was then that I noticed a snapshot in a matchstick frame sitting on the stand. In the photo one could see Zeno smiling broadly, surrounded by boxing promoter Don King, former heavyweight champion Joe Louis and someone I didn’t recognize. Zeno explained that the photo had been taken about a year earlier when Don King brought ABC Wide World of Sports to the prison to televise some professional bouts on national TV. King’s entourage included Joe Louis, one of America’s greatest heroes, and an unknown young boxer named Larry Holmes. “Don told me to be sure to get Larry in the picture. I didn’t know who he was, but Don said that he would one day be the heavyweight champion of the world, so Larry was kind enough to get into the photo with me. We’ll see if Don was right or just blowing smoke from one of his big cigars!”
Zeno paused to look at the photo, and then said that he used to do some professional boxing in Akron. “At the time I didn’t know how important that would be to helping me survive in the pen, but it has literally saved my life.”
“How many fights have you been in with other inmates?” I asked.
“At first, a lot, but none for the past ten years.” he said with a wry smile. “My boxing skills now help me avoid that kind of trouble.”
He went on to ask if I remembered what he had said about the importance of our thoughts, and I described to him my incident of road rage on the freeway and how I had calmed myself down just by changing what I was telling myself.
“You’d probably be a good boxer,” he said. “Thinking skills and boxing skills are very similar. Think of yourself as in a boxing ring with an opponent, but your opponent is not another person – your opponent is your own thinking. There are some thoughts that can take you out for the count, like your thought of ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ I see it all the time in here. Of course, the thought that has knocked out nearly everyone here is ‘I won’t get caught.’”
He laughed, and went on. “A good boxer is able to recognize and anticipate what his opponent is going to do, is able to recognize the punch that is coming, block it, then throw a counterpunch. In our thinking, if we can recognize self-defeating thoughts as they come up, block them, and then respond with a productive counterpunch, we can avoid trouble and live a good life. If we can’t do that, we will have a life of pain and turmoil. But just like in boxing, it takes practice, practice, practice. Good thinking is not a haphazard enterprise, or something that some are born with and some are not.”
“Are you saying that thinking well is not a question of intelligence, but a matter of skill?” I asked.
“Exactly. And it is also a question of bravery.” “Bravery?”
“Yes, bravery. The ancient Greeks said that learning
to think well is a moral virtue they called courage, because it takes commitment and effort. They also said that those who do not take pains to learn to think clearly are committing the moral vice of cowardice. Just as someone on a battlefield who runs away out of fear of getting hurt is a coward, so are people who refuse to take the necessary pains to change their lives also cowards. Those who do take the pains and effort are demonstrating courage, just as much as the person on the battlefield who overcomes fear of injury and fights for a good cause.”
“How does one develop these skills?”
“The way we do it in here is to get together at the Epictetus Club.”
“The Epictetus Club? What’s that?”
“It’s a group of inmates who meet once a week. We are open to everybody who would like to come, regardless of age, race, religion, or criminal offense – or even whether you are an inmate or staff member. The prison chaplain is our staff advisor, but he mostly just provides the space for us to meet on Friday nights. I like to think of it as Friday Night at the Fights – but our fights are with our own thoughts and attitudes. Remember, thinking is like boxing – identify the thought, block it, and counterpunch. Speaking of the Epictetus Club, I better start getting ready for the meeting. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you Monday at the gate.”
The next extract will be posted on 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.