In our second excerpt from The Epictetus Club, newly arrived prison counsellor Jeff Traylor now finds himself the advisor to ‘The Epictetus Club’ a group of inmates which meets every week to discuss the teachings of Epictetus. This excerpt describes the first meeting he attended, and the story of how one of the inmates (nicknamed Zeno) first came across Epictetus’ Encheiridion (Handbook)
I arrived for the meeting promptly at 7:00 PM and began by introducing myself to the dozen men who had gathered for the Epictetus Club meeting. As I did so, Zeno and I exchanged quick glances, asking nonverbally if the other knew where the chair and photos had gone, but neither of us had a clue. The walls were blank except for the outlines where the picture frames had hung just hours ago, and the platform that held the electric chair was also empty. The answers would have to wait, though, since it was time to get started.
I was one of three new faces at the meeting. The prison grapevine is faster than fiberoptic cable, so everyone already knew that I was the new club advisor – and also the new furlough counselor. Each man seemed acutely aware that my job was to screen suitable candidates for early release on furlough and forward their names to the parole board for final determination. Naturally, everyone was very polite and courteous.
After all the men introduced themselves to me and handed me their passes, I turned the meeting over to Zeno and sat down outside of the circle. Zeno began by thanking me for offering to be the advisor, and suggesting to the men that they not use the meeting as an excuse to lobby for furlough. “Send a kite to Mr. Traylor if you want to discuss furlough, and he’ll take care of it during regular business hours. None of us are here for that on Friday nights.” That was the last mention of furlough at any of the club meetings.
Zeno went on to describe the group rules, which were few and simple: respect your fellow group members by paying attention when they speak, only one person speaks at a time, and what is said in the meeting stays in the meeting. He then gave some background on the Epictetus Club for the benefit of the new members and myself.
The Club had been meeting for about five years, and had been started by Zeno and another inmate named Doc. Doc was not actually a doctor, but had been a medic in the army before coming to the penitentiary on a second- degree murder conviction. Doc had served ten years at the Walls and had been transferred to the medium security Marion Correctional Institution a little over two years ago, leaving Zeno to organize and lead the groups himself. It was actually Zeno who had first discovered the teachings of Epictetus and tried them out.
“When I first came to the Walls, I had what you might call a bad attitude,” he began. “I was angry and bitter and facing a death sentence, and when that was commuted, I was still facing a life sentence. I had been a boxer, so after I came off the Row I was being challenged to a lot of fights in here. And I felt like I had to answer every challenge. Today I see that I was being played and was the entertainment for the instigators, since I would keep getting sent to the hole. After one fifteen-day stint in the hole I had been reassigned to a new cell as part of my punishment the cell on the first tier in Big Block right by the door. That is the cell that ends up with the snowdrifts in it during the winter when the wind blows the snow through those big doors.
“When I entered my new cell, I immediately searched it for contraband that may have been left by the previous tenant. I did not want to go back to the hole for someone else’s stuff. I tossed the mattress, and underneath it was a skinny little book called The Enchiridion: The Handbook of Epictetus. I opened it up and at random I read the passage that said “set up a certain character and pattern for yourself which you will preserve when you are with people and when you are alone. Be silent for the most part and say what you have to say in a few words. Don’t be afraid of verbal abuse or criticism. If someone comes up to you and says so-and-so is saying bad things about you, don’t get upset and react, but instead say ‘apparently that person doesn’t know me very well if those are the only bad things he had to say about me.’
“I couldn’t believe it. It was as if that book had been placed there just for me. That paragraph I found at random addressed my main problem. I could see that this guy Epictetus was the real deal, and I devoured the rest of the book that night. In the years since then, I have not been back to the hole a single time, and I have more personal freedom and peace inside here than I ever did outside, which just proves another of Epictetus’s points: you can make your life a prison or a palace just by how you think.
“Some time later I told my friend Doc about the book, and he said that he knew some pilots in the army who studied Epictetus in case they were shot down and taken POW. He was interested in it so we started studying it together, and soon someone else wanted to join us, and it finally grew into the Epictetus Club. But that is enough about the club history and me. I am happy that you are all here tonight and I hope that you find what you are looking for. Let’s go around and introduce ourselves to each other.”
The next extract will be posted on Saturday.
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.