19 December, 2019

The Body, Considered

My first day in prison, I had to strip down to nothing in a tiny room full of other nude men, then show the inside of my mouth, spread my butt cheeks, and lift my scrotum for a guard with a flashlight and all the humanitarian spirit of a doctor at Auschwitz. Then I received a tiny towel and was directed into a shower room where another guard misted me with slippery chemicals from a pump-action bug sprayer. I felt demeaned, forlorn, weak.

DOC policy demands a lot of nudity. Most people preparing for company just put on the right music, open their front door, and say hi. Before spending time with a visitor, I have to peel off my clothes and hoist up my junk for a stranger wearing a badge. Eighteen years into my sentence, I'm sometimes randomly strip-searched before getting to do my job as an office janitor, and I hardly think about it at all. I'm telling you this not for pity or because I'm a chronic oversharer but to make a point: it's hard to get precious about the human body when you're elbow to elbow, or stark naked, with someone else almost twenty-four hours a day.

Being stuffed like sardines in a can might offend some people's sense of personal dignity. At ERDCC, this happens most often at mealtimes. There's no real consistency to when the prison population is released to the dining hall (or anywhere, a circumstance that I blogged about here). Hungry and expectant in the half-hour or so before a meal, a crowd of twenty to forty prisoners waits at the front of the wing. They stand, twitchy with impatience, staring out the window that looks onto the prison yard. The loudspeaker eventually beeps and rumbles with a guard's voice: "Mainline, gentlemen! Mainline! Let's go!" The men all jockey to be in front of each other as they bumrush the door. Heels are stepped on, odors waft, bodies jostle — all like cattle though the chute. Sometimes, when I'm really in the mood, I moo.

Living in a very small space with at least one other human affords plenty of time to acquaint oneself with the biology of Homo sapiens sapiens, too — the body's most intimate smells, its sleep-and-wake cycle, its waste production, its squishy and solid sounds, its myriad modes of functioning and malfunctioning. A cell's door, according to its purpose, is more often locked than not. The inhabitants are trapped inside together. One can either resign oneself to it or throw a fit over his cellmate's every cough and fart.

The psychological community refers to getting used to something as "habituation." It's considered to be a positive adaptation, a way of better surviving the world. The concept of habituation isn't new. Buddhist teachings from 2,500 years ago hold that the roots of dukkha — a Sanskrit word variously translated as "stress," "discomfort," or "suffering" — lie in the inevitability of old age, sickness, and death. A certain Buddhist practice therefore involves meditating on bodily corruption as a way of subduing passions and one's unhealthy attachment to physical form.

Why worry about every wrinkle and spot?
Everybody's got a body, and every body's got to rot.

(I just made that up.) But back to my point.

I used to have this idea that my body was some precious thing, not to be taken lightly or presented to unworthy eyes. I took a lot of vain pleasure in its form — its particular assortment of curves and angles, its unique range of motion, the tone and texture of the skin wrapping it.... Having been imprisoned since I was a very youthful twenty-two, it took a while for time's effects to become visible. My hair thinned first, then laugh lines appeared, then crow's feet crept into the picture. My ego underwent a minor crisis, as I stared into the mirror for long periods, fretting over how I might hide from the inevitable.

Of all the things that a man wrongly imprisoned for life might worry about! How ridiculous a few tiny wrinkles and a less-bountiful coiffeur are, compared to my stolen freedom! But such is the strength of delusion — the delusion that the form in which we move through the world is under our full control, and the delusion that anything in this universe might remain as it is, unchanging, for any length of time.

I often call my body "the meat machine." Zen Buddhist traditions refer to it as "the bag of skin." These aren't terms intended to offend anyone or provoke disgust, just to downplay the perceived involvement of physicality in selfhood. A vehicle is all the body is, for us to get around in. Too much attachment to it is futile and hazardous to your mental health. Although there's no question that living in this particular physical form influences one's life in countless ways, the body isn't who one is. I've treated mine very, very well for years, yet still it rebels and breaks down unexpectedly; it isn't even a faithful companion!

Thinking of the body dispassionately is liberating. I'm not irrated by every snore and slurp my cellmate makes, my senses are no longer offended by mealtime cattle drives, and, most importantly, I don't feel degraded anymore during those all-too-frequent strip-searches. By abandoning attachments to the body, one lives so much better in it. What a beautiful paradox!

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.