Life 101 Applied Philosophy

By Edward SantoPrieto

What good is “book learning”? What good or practical purpose is there in philosophy? It’s all bullshit, right?

Of course not.

The irony is that even those who claim not to like philosophy, politics, or reading, make assumptions — form opinions and worldviews — that guide their actions. The difference being is that those who actually explore knowledge live life in a conscious manner. Those who pursue knowledge are aware of the past and its application to the present. Those who deny or abhor knowledge live as pawns.

And my response to those who question the practicality of philosophy is that it is useless if it isn’t being applied. Any tool is worthless in the hands of a fool…

So what good is philosophy?

Well, let’s take the philosophy of nonviolence. Many great men and women over the centuries have expounded on the importance of nonviolence. You wouldn’t believe it by the way many for advocate war, but even fundamentalist Christians have to admit that at the very foundation of Jesus’ teaching lies the principle of nonviolence.

How does this teaching look when applied? Can it be applied to us everyday, normal, not-so-godly folk? Is being nonviolent in a violent world even possible? Can ordinary people practice nonviolence as a way of life? I say, that if a teaching isn’t relevant, then it’s no longer worthy. If a philosophy has no practical value, then it’s bullshit and should be dismissed.

I was incarcerated once at the notorious maximum security prison, Ossining Correctional Facility — better known as Sing Sing. My security clearance was deemed minimum, but because I scored high on intelligence tests, I was sent to Sing Sing (rather than a minimum security facility) because they needed someone smart with a minimum security clearance to work with the civilian personnel in administration. ::Winning::

I cannot conceive of a more humiliating, more violent experience than prison. The prison environment is structured in a way that dehumanizes people and promotes and foments violence. If you were fucked up, or not functioning too well to begin with, prison will make you worse. Violence was a reality and everyday possibility in Sing Sing. People often ask me, “How did you survive prison,” and I laugh because I know what they’re really asking is how I avoided being raped. After all, I’m not a physically imposing figure: I stand at 5’7″ and at the time of my incarceration, I weighed maybe 130lbs.

The fact is I survived prison was the way I survived anything else in my life: by using my intelligence. The martial arts begin and end in the within ones capacity to think clearly and strategically.

I broke out of my inner mental prison at Sing Sing. That’s why I have hard time when people assume that I don’t understand, that I’m too idealistic, and that their lives and problems are unique, somehow.

Bullshit.

If I could do it (be free) in prison, you can do it out here.

My cell was my sanctuary and it’s there where I first began a regular meditation practice. My first “meditation retreat” was in solitary confinement, where the oatmeal I was served had maggots in it. Sing Sing was also where I took the basic Buddhist precepts, one of which was non-harming. Yeah, leave it to me to take a vow of peace in one of the most violent places on earth. I guess saying I like to do things the hard way is putting it mildly.

One day, I got into an argument with a fellow inmate over a game of dominoes. It was a silly argument, but as I stated before, everything in prison is magnified, intensified. We were separated before it escalated, but his last words to me were that it wasn’t over and that we would resolve the issue “in the yard.”

This was really difficult because in prison appearances are extremely important. I didn’t want to fight not because I was afraid, but because I abhor violence, always have. I also wanted to live differently. I wanted to apply these new principles of non-harming and skillful living in my life. But I couldn’t back down because then I would become prey to everyone else. I had to man-up and fight this motherfucker because if I didn’t then I would become everybody’s bitch.

That day everything seemed to get quiet and no one would talk to me. One of the worst things about prison life is the noise. It’s always noisy in prisons, so the quiet was amplified and foretold of bad things to come. There was a buzz in the air, everyone knew we were going to square off as soon as we were let out for recreation in the prison yard. The tension was palpable. One “friend” came by my cell and slipped me a shank (a homemade knife), advising me to watch out for the other guy because he had a shank too.

Geez!

Here I was, in a maximum security prison, about to go hand-to-hand with an individual who was serving a 25-to-life sentence for a murder. Great Eddie, you sure know how to fuck shit up, I thought to myself. People, don’t ever tell me that I don’t understand, that my life isn’t/ wasn’t as hard/ difficult as yours.

 

What to do? What would a Buddhist or any enlightened person would do? On the one hand, I had to fight, there was no way of backing out and still manage to survive prison. On the other hand, if I maimed or even murdered this man in a knife fight, I could be convicted of new crime and end up in prison for a long time. Or, he could cut my face and I would be scarred for life. To be honest, I was actually more fearful of losing my looks than anything else, truth be told. I mean, I may not be the prettiest man, but I had grown accustomed to my face and I liked it the way it was.

The first thing I did was to sit and meditate. Buddhist mediation isn’t about escape or about thought control. Meditation in this context is practicing what some scientists now call the opposable thumb of consciousness, the capacity of mindfulness. It’s being present and experiencing the process of the moment without adding to it. I had one teacher say that meditation is stopping the inner argument with life. I sat for a while and watched and experienced everything: the fear, the thoughts, many unbidden, the way my body responded to my internal dialogue, the stream of thoughts.

Soon enough, the time came to leave for the yard. I looked at the shank and I decided right then and there to leave it. I made a commitment to live by the principle of nonviolence (whatever the cost to me). At that moment I didn’t know how I would do it, or if I would even survive, but I was going to do it.

You might want to get into a semantic hand-to-hand about the meaning of freedom, or whether freedom even exists. I have no desire to engage in mental masturbation. For my purposes, freedom isn’t a goal, or a fixed state of being. Freedom is a process of living, of understanding ones circumstances and constantly evolving, breaking past barriers and blind spots. In this way, freedom is a constant process. Freedom is facing death and still committing to live.

I walked out in the yard and my “enemy” was across the yard, playing handball against the far wall. One of his friends tapped him on the shoulder and pointed my way and he put on his shirt and started walking along the wall toward me. He had a hand in his pocket.

Everyone was watching.

I took a deep breath and walked along the wall toward him. My mind was racing now and I felt like a fool for leaving the shank because two things were obvious: 1) he definitely had a shank and, 2) I had no plan.

I just committed to walking and trying to apply the process of mindfulness to my walk — to not get lost in the seduction of my internal dialogue or cave in to my emotions. He was maybe 100 yards away from me and I could see the determination in his eyes. But I also saw something else. I saw another human being who was probably just as scared and conflicted as I was. We had been friends. We had broke bread together and kept each other company, playing dominoes and the dozens with one another. And yet here we were, ready to kill each other. Well, I wasn’t going to do it.

When we finally came face-to-face, I refused to fight him.

Just like that…

I said, fuck it, I ain’t fighting you, this is stupid. Why are we doing this? And he’s looking around because by now everyone is looking, hoping for violence to break the monotony of prison life — some recreation, and we’re standing there like two fools. He tells me to fight or that he will stab me, and I tell him to fuck himself that I’ not going to fight. I begin talking to him, asking him why we’re doing this. I ask him if it’s cool to be entertainment for these other motherfuckers who don’t have anything else to do.

Truth be told, I really don’t remember everything I said that day, all I know is that we didn’t fight. I refused to fight. I know I told him if he really wanted to stab me to go ahead and for a moment, I thought he was. But he didn’t.

He cursed me out and I told him to fuck himself, I wasn’t fighting. He just shook his head in disbelief and walked away.

Later, a group of mutual friends invited us both to the dominoes table and eventually we were able to resolve our problem and we even became good friends. I even taught him to meditate, though he didn’t like the idea of listening to his process. The day I left prison for the last time, that man had tears in his eyes. Many years later, I returned to Sing Sing, to tell my story of life on the outside to the men I left behind, many of who will never see the light of a free day.

When I stood up that day in Sing Sing to tell my story as a free man, many of the men I did time with, hardened men — men who had harmed and been harmed — cried openly. My friend came up to me after and told me these words, “Today we live freedom through you, Eddie. You have gone out there and shown us that freedom is something in here,” he said as he pointed to his heart. “You represent all of us here who may never be free and that’s your responsibility because you have been given another chance.”

Freedom is a process — a way of living.

Today, those words are just as powerful and they serve to remind me that freedom begins here. That philosophy is not merely mental masturbation for college kids debating in class, but that it has practical value. It’s what separates us from animals ruled by mere instincts.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

11 Comments on “Life 101 Applied Philosophy”

  1. Philosophy, as a study, has a bad rep, yet everyone has one. I once asked a con-artist why he stole, and he answered because the people he targeted had everything and he had nothing. Hence, his philosophy was that it’s okay to steal from those who have more than you, although his philosophy seemed to have an implied ethics; it’s not okay to steal from those who have less.

    However, your treatment is not about philosophy in general, but the philosophy of non-violence. It’s true, we live in a violent world; so violent, we scarcely see our own aggressions. In order to join a particular non-violent group of political protesters, i had to take a course in non-violent confrontation. I thought i was a self-controlled person. I rarely got into arguments, and when i did, they rarely ended in physical aggression. It wasn’t until i took the course that i realized my ability to resolve peacefully had very little to do with a peaceful nature. Although i only weighed in at 110 pounds at the time, and not much higher than a cockroach, i had an athletic body. I was stronger than most women and could duel it out pound for pound with any man of the same body weight. I had biceps. People backed off only because they didn’t want to risk fighting with me.

    There was nothing more difficult than learning not to struggle under restraints, not to get back in the face of someone whose face was up against mine. Even more difficult was learning how to retain calm when one of our own resorted to anger, and help bring him or her back into the ranks. It became a valuable life lesson. The non-violent training helped me numerous times in my travels, allowing me to enter areas deemed dangerous and experience life beyond the safety net of social and cultural protection.

    The truth is, most people don’t like to feel they are aggressors. There are predators, true, but not so many we must maintain a fighting stance with every stranger. The majority of violent attacks begin with explosive arguments. Those who take the violence out of their speech as well as their actions have far less to fear from a violent encounter.

  2. I’ll be honest, I never was a fan of pacifism – personally, I think it’s unrealistic in the world we live in (one filled with powers that demand your submission or destruction) and could only come about if everyone suddenly lost their ambitions for power and control (which is not going to happen).

    I myself happen to be a student of philosophy myself, but of a very different kind – one that amalgamates Nietzsche, Stirnir, Machiavelli, Bakunin, Proudhon and others into one that elevates the sovereignty of the individul will over the will of incorporeal powers (such as church, corporate or state). My goal is not peace, but self-determination at any price: and if I have to flex a little muscle now and then to achieve that end, so be it. Now I do believe that peaceful negotiations have their place (using force all the time can wear one down and achieves little in the long-run – you want to have at least a few willing partners to join you) but peace isn’t necessarily the end goal (ensuring my own sovereignty is the primary consideration).

    I am like the wild beast constructing and defending a den – the larger, more powerful animals tend to excel at this more than smaller, weaker ones (rabbits can’t defend their homes against intruders as well as grizzly bears can – so I want to be more like the grizzly bear than the rabbit). All I really want out of life is to carve out my own chunk of territory and keep forces hostile to me and mine out of it: I’m not a violent man, but I have no qualms about using force against those who bring force to bear against me.

  3. Azazel, one should never confuse pacifism with peaceful protest. A demonstration that goes against a popular policy; for instance, anti-discrimination marches, or a march against corporate development, is already meeting resistance from law enforcement, the militia, the media, and quite possibly, the public. If anyone in a peaceful protest breaks ranks and reacts violently to hecklers or police brutality and arrest, the media will only cover the incident. Not the protest in general nor the activities leading up to the protest. Protestors are routinely arrested. If they surrender peacefully, without any attempt to protect themselves from aggression and brutality, they are usually released from jail within twenty-four hours. Any overt moves to protect yourself will be classified as resisting arrest and complicate your chances of a prompt release. Any protestor breaking lines also give the police a good excuse to use tear gas, smoke bombs and riot clubs. It’s a tactic for safeguarding the good of the whole, but it doesn’t necessarily mean pacifism. The self-discipline learned however, from this type of training, does assist enormously in possible other hostile situations. The best defense is not a good offense. It’s waiting for the offense to make its move so you can see its weaknesses.

  4. @ Karlsie,

    I find that the best way to deal with armed opposition is not to simply stand there and take the beating, but to take the arms used by the opposition away from them altogether (I’ll let you use your own imagination as to how a milita force might do something like that…) – make yourself more than a man in the eyes of your enemy and they will be afraid to do so much as come near you.

    Regarding protests, I’ve given up on such things – the decision makers don’t really pay much attention to them anyway and on the rare occasions they do it’s because the political class formed those demonstrations themselves to give their latest agenda an appearance of public support. I prefer to conduct my business on an entirely different plain: one that’s more suited to “direct action” (sorry, but I won’t say anything more than that – “don’t talk about Fight Club” and all…).

  5. Azazel: You’re stuck in discussing what I have written about from an abstract POV.

    I never took any beatings in prison or anywhere else. I’m willing to bet you (or anyone else) that I was raised in environments you have no experience of — places that would be more closely related to war zones — literally speaking. I honestly believe YOU wouldn’t last one day in some of the circumstances I have been in. Not because you’re a punk, but because you don’t have the skills.

    I was involved in high and low-level crimes and ran with people who would shoot you as soon as look at you, AND I NEVER CARRIED A WEAPON

    Never.

    And NO ONE EVER took advantage of me. that’s not what non-violence is about. SMH. the greatest weapon is the mind. the greatest fight is the one you avoid.

    seriously.

    I have been able to thrive, not just survive, in such environments WITHOUT resorting to violence. I won’t even debate this because this about APPLICATION, not abstraction.

  6. Karlsie: Like I said: I’m PROUD of the fact that I had very few fights in prison, one of the most violent environments I have ever experienced, and coming from me, believe me, that’s saying a lot.

    In prison, peoiple respected me, not because I induced fear, which is a really STUPI tactic in priosn (LOL), but because people respected my “genuineness.” In vioplent environments, EVERYBOY has insight — people can size you up quickly. I was a light-skinned individual in a worls where the population was most people of color, and though I am Latino, people would often confuse me for white — a RWALLY bad handicap in prison.

    I am small, but I know how to fight. I have studied martial arts since I was 12 years old. first with a bodyguard who would pull kids like me off ghetto streets, then with several different Wing Chun masters. I also studied escrima and jeet kun do, boxing, and most importantly the dirtiest street fighting in some of the worst ghettos in this country. But get this: In prison (and the streets) even if I had engaged someone in combat and WON, there would be another person waiting to take me down, and another, and another. And if they saw that I knew how to use my hands, they would wait until one day I as vulnerable and a whole group would jump me.

    I. HAD. TO. USE. MY. MENTAL. POWERS.

    And yes, I wrote mostly about non-violence as a way of life (and a philosophy) but the same can be said of many other philosophical principles. If they are valid, then they should work, regardless of the situation. that’s what I was trying to get across.

  7. @ Eddie,

    Of course I discuss the subject in the abstract as much as possible – I’m more than happy to share my general philosophy, but I avoid specifics as much as possible to avoid spilling any “trade secrets” (no talking about “Fight Club” you know…).

    I hate to disapoint you, but I too operate in a “war zone” of sorts (perhaps not the same as yours, but no doubt there are a number of similarities) – and like yourself I also hve a substantial level of hand-to-hand combat training (as well as other forms of combat given to me by a number of my militia associates – mostly former military men pissed off at a nation that has betrayed them) and I have much experience with the type of people that would “shoot you as soon as look at you.” But they don’t shoot me: they restrain their fire because they know the consequenses that would follow such an action – both directly from me and from my associates (we interpret an attack on one as an attack on all).

    I find that the best way to avoid a fight with powers that won’t negotiate with you is to ensure that they know one is more than capable of posing a serious threat to them without revealing oneself for who he really is – dangerous yet unknown forces make authority think twice before attempting to fight. Based on what you have wrote in the past, you strike me as the kind of person that’s all too willing to compromise: a trait that’s all well and good when dealing with individuals, but if you concede an inch to incorporeal powers you will eventually lose miles – I’m through attempting to compromise with powers that don’t recognize individuals as sovereigns unto ourselves. Such things can’t be negotiated with on even terms, so destruction of one party or the other is the only possible resolution to the conflict.

  8. Eddie, prison is of itself, a violent act. Naturally, the atmosphere of so many people living in such close quarters under conditions that bare no true resemblance to a society, is going to be a violent one. The situation you faced is not the same as one might face by voluntarily and consciously walking into a conflicted area, although the diplomatic skills are the same. Most of the time, non-violence will mend a lot more bridges than violence.

    Most of the time… I also understand where Azazel is coming from. I’ve seen revolution first hand. I have seen the victims of social injustices and understand their anger. I’m not a violence prone person, nor even a very aggressive one. My strong body came from years of farm work and a love for individual sports. It just happened to be advantageous when i moved into urban areas where strength was understood as an ability to fight. I actually only had to get into two fist fights before i was respected on the streets. One with a girl who tried to steal my boyfriend right in front of me, and the other with a guy who was my exact same size and weight, who kept trying to bully me. This is how i know that pound for pound, i can hold my own against a man.

    There never was a definitive conclusion to the fight i had with the guy. It was a Mexican stand-off. Our friends finally broke it up. The girl, however, was a different matter. I had to hide out from the policia for three days because i had beat up a tourist. In the end, even the policia decided i had a point and i was respected. Aw, Mexico City. You’ve really gotta love it.

  9. Eddie I liked this article. To me non-violence is an under-utilized tool. Most of the time it is more effective. You are right to be proud of your actions in a difficult environment. Most people resort to strength over using the calculations of the mind.

    However as Karla pointed out so well in her illustration above, once in a while we have to put our money where our mouth is. It just has to be done. Where that line is will be different for each of us.

  10. When you have 300 inmates inside an auditorium you have to be careful that some topics might be inappropriate. Soundbite of Breakin the Mummys Code Unidentified Prisoner 1 As unidentified character Ive thought of this throughout my long journey and I have decided that my name shall henceforth be M-N-M.

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