Several weeks ago, when I scored tickets to see Damien Echols speak about karma at the Ruben Museum, I had no idea what to expect. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I had missed a few of his appearances since he moved here to NYC, and I was very excited to at last be seeing him. As I settled into the dark, quiet theater to listen to his and Sensei Nakagaki’s conversation, I thought to myself, “Finally!”
If you are not familiar with Damien Echols or his story, you really should Google the West Memphis Three. Damien is currently heading into his fifth year of freedom after being wrongly incarcerated for eighteen years, having spent the majority of that time on death row. For someone with such a unique and heartbreaking story, it was both interesting and inspiring to hear his take on the subject of karma. I have to admit that prior to the lecture, I was a little leery of the concept, but I soon discovered that my idea of what karma was (the western world’s interpretation of it) had been bastardized to fit our conventional, religious, “good vs evil” narrative.
Up to that point, I had always believed karma was the universe’s way of punishing us for our bad deeds, much as God punished humanity in the Old Testament by literally raining down His wrath upon them. The reasoning behind that major act of aggression and genocide (of course), was due to the fact that we were all flagrant, hopeless sinners that need to be taught a lesson.
As it turns out, Buddhist teachings are much more merciful, and the true meaning behind karma is a more personal one. I am not a philosopher or scholarly in the least, but in my own oversimplified definition, karma is not the universe’s way of punishing or rewarding us; rather, it’s the way we choose to punish or reward ourselves. The difference may seem incidental, but never forget, the devil is in the details. If you sit down and really think about it, the concepts are completely different.
Hearing Echols speak about how much growth he went through during his time behind bars really resonated with me. While I only spent a small fraction of the time he spent in prison, I can completely relate to how much it changed him as a person. For myself, it’s as if during that brief period the entire blueprint of who I was, and who I had been, was completely redrawn. Sure, some of my core traits remained, but the way I saw the world, and would continue to see it, was forever changed. I can’t fully articulate how it changes you, but sitting there listening to him was the first time I had heard someone else express just how much that place could teach you about humanity–sometimes the good, and often the horrifying.
Being in the presence of Echols, after years of not even believing he would live to see the light of day, was somewhat surreal, to say the least. Prior to their release, I had been a supporter of the West Memphis Three for many years. Like so many others, I heard about the case from Henry Rollins. Rollins was a longtime supporter who spoke passionately about their innocence, with unwavering support for their cause.
In August of 2011, there was growing chatter in the press about the case, and I emailed Henry to see if he knew anything about it. I will never forget driving upstate on the Hutch when he replied back saying that I “should expect to hear some very big news within days,” and man, he was not exaggerating. When the story finally broke, it was nothing short of miraculous. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, after spending eighteen years in prison for a crime they did not commit, were all finally going to be released.
Coincidentally, earlier in the day I had been in NYC to march with #RiseUpOctober, and I have always felt that the West Memphis Three was my first foray into activism. Their case was the first time that I saw with my own eyes what the power of the people was capable of doing. We really do have the ability to accomplish great things, as long as we take that first step and decide to be an actor.
As the Q&A part of the lecture began, I reluctantly raised my hand, and instantly felt my mouth start to dry and my heart to race. I am not typically the type of person who enjoys addressing a roomful of strangers; however, there really was something I wanted to ask. After hearing him share his journey and seeing the similarities to my own, I wanted to know what motivated him to stay on the path of personal growth and transformation once he had been released from prison.
I am sure that so many would be content to leave the past behind, sit back, enjoy the rest of their lives, and fade away into obscurity. This scenario however, does not seem to be Echols’ style. In a world where we all share a very public space on social media, I have been following his accomplishments, and it’s quite obvious that he is not okay with staying idle or drifting off into obscurity.
I have been out of prison myself for almost 18 years, and becoming stagnant is something I have struggled with–a lot. There have been times when I felt like I was no longer growing as a person, or living a life of purpose. While there are occasions that I still feel that way, I try to make an effort to surround myself with other like-minded people, and activism really has become my saving grace.
The things I choose to do are done in the hopes that some day the world will be transformed–they are also done with the hope that I, too, will continue to be transformed by them. And while I would like to believe that in the end love will indeed conquer all, I understand that I may not live to witness the fruits of my efforts; and I am at peace with that.
The world that I envision, my utopia, is a world where war does not exist, and there are no borders. It’s a world where all of mankind is truly equal, a place where compassion and empathy are the norm rather than the exception. I realize that these are lofty goals, but I also know that there are many others like me who are trying to make these things happen; and even if we don’t live to see it, just being a small part of that is amazing.
The things that Damien said motivate him are art, magick, and surrounding himself with people who bring a positive energy to his life. He spoke a bit about how he chooses to keep his circle small due to the effect that negative people have on his life. I walked away thinking that was some advice I would benefit from applying as well.
So many people in this world will try to derail you, attack you, make you doubt yourself…why on earth would anyone choose to allow that negativity into their lives? I am beginning to question why, for so long, I have allowed it into mine. While I think it’s very advantageous to have an open flow of ideas and philosophies exchanged, I have come to realize that how those ideas are being expressed affects me. I need to be more cognizant of how the people in my world are treating each other; and, in the spirit of self-awareness, I also need to be more aware of how I am expressing myself and being perceived by others.
When I walked away from NYC that night, I finally understood that karma is not something the world inflicts upon us. Karma is a choice we make for ourselves, and I will always try to choose positive over negative, love versus fear, and understanding above apprehension.
Author: Cynthia Tarana is a heavily tattooed Ex-Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She currently lives on Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes, likes to drink, rage against the machine and shop at the GAP.
Contact Cynthia at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit: Scott M. Lacey