How Meditation and Magick Saved My Life on Death Row and After I Was Finally Set Free
Excerpted from HIGH MAGICK: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row
Damien Echols served nearly two decades on death row—10 years of that in solitary confinement—for a crime he didn’t commit. When he was in prison and even after he was cleared by DNA evidence and finally set free, he trained his mind with meditation to help him deal with anger, fear, isolation and PTSD.
A couple of years ago I was walking down the street in New York City. I was at one of the lowest points in my life, dealing with a lot of PTSD after getting off death row. I passed a bicycle shop, and without even thinking about it I walked in and started looking at the bikes.
When I was a kid, I loved riding bicycles. But when I got out of prison and moved to New York, I was pretty certain that my biking days were behind me. Can you imagine riding a bicycle down the streets of New York City? Only the most hard-core people do that kind of thing: dodging countless cars, trucks, motorcycles, taxis, and pedestrians. When you see cyclists weaving through that river of chaotic activity, it’s hard not to imagine that they have some kind of death wish.
Anyway, I entered the bike store and looked at all of those miraculous, beautiful machines. At that moment, they were more than modes of transportation for me — they were works of art. The wonderful colors, the intricate geometry . . . they were objects to admire and appreciate more than things meant to be ridden.
So I bought one. Without even thinking about it or considering how daunting it would be to ride on those streets, I bought a bike, rolled it out the front door, and hopped on. That first trip was absolutely horrifying. I can’t describe how nerve-racking it was. Within minutes, my clothes were soaked with sweat, my heart was hammering at an unbelievable pace, and I was almost spent with adrenaline. But that first ride was also exhilarating. It felt like I was on a rollercoaster, but one I could actually influence and control. It was good medicine for me at the time, and I was immediately hooked. I took a ride almost every day, and my confidence began to grow — along with my skill and dexterity.
The point of this anecdote is to talk about meditation, because I quickly realized that biking on the streets of New York City is a particular form of practical meditation. In the West, we have this idea that meditation is passive. You sit cross-legged on the floor on some overpriced cushion and just peace out for a while. People might do this kind of thing, especially in North America, but that’s only one type of meditation among the hundreds or thousands that people have practiced for millennia.
Most people aren’t aware of just how much they’re missing from life. They’re distracted by so much stimulation, trapped in loops of internal dialogue, reliving past events, and feeling anxious about what’s going to happen tomorrow. And it’s so easy to carry on like this until the grave, never actually experiencing the richness of life, of the present moment. Meditation changes all of this. It enables you to pay attention to the present moment and train your mind to do what you want it to do. Meditation enhances your natural ability to be alert and aware. Try biking down Fifth Avenue absentmindedly. You can’t do it (well, not for very long). Riding a bicycle in that situation requires incredible awareness, and if you’re not present for every single second of that ride, you’ll end up beneath a city bus before you know it. Additionally, a bicycle will actually drift in whatever direction your attention is focused (remember the chapter on the power of attention). And if you’ve ever learned to drive a motorcycle, you know how important this principle is. If you look at the tree you’re about to hit instead of the path you need to take to avoid that tree, you’ll hit the tree every time. It’s the same reason why they train race-car drivers to never look at the wall. The drivers learn to focus their attention on the track and all of the action going on around them.
Meditation empowers you to notice where your attention is going and to steer it accordingly.
So this is why meditation is important. If you’re not aware of precisely where your attention is, it’s kind of hard to change that focus. Biking in New York is a demonstration of the primary principles of magick in real time. Meditation empowers you to notice where your attention is going and to steer it accordingly. In magick, we steer it toward what we desire instead of on that which we fear.
Most people think that the opposite of faith is disbelief. It’s not. The opposite of faith is fear. Fear is the process of placing energy toward the outcome we most want to avoid. Faith, on the other hand, means directing our focus toward that which we want to manifest. We feed what we fear, just as we feed what we hope for and desire. Meditation helps us see exactly where we’re putting our energy and enables us to change the blueprint of our attention on the astral and mental planes. When we do that, we make it far more possible to manifest what we want on the material plane.
FIVE BASIC MEDITATIONS
Some of you may have years of experience meditating. If that’s true for you, just skim over the suggestions below to see if there’s anything new to try.
And for those of you who might not have meditated much — or maybe it’s been a really long time since you last did it — try one or more of these options:
- Standing Meditation
It’s easier to do this meditation without your shoes or socks on. Find a quiet place to stand, relax your shoulders, and close your eyes. Feel the sensations involved with having your bare feet on the ground. What do you notice about that? Are there certain areas of your feet that are more in contact with the ground? Notice any differences in pressure and temperature. If you don’t notice much, feel free to rock forward on the balls of your feet and then back toward your heels a little so that you can detect the changes in the different sensations. Note as many details as you can.
2. Walking Meditation
These instructions are almost identical to the Standing Meditation, with the important exception of keeping your eyes open while you walk. You can do this alone or in a place with others where you won’t be disturbed. If you do it by yourself, find a quiet room that you can walk back and forth in, somewhat slowly, but not exaggeratedly so. Feel the various sensations of your feet as they rise and fall in your normal way of walking. If this isn’t too difficult for you, also turn your attention to what your legs feel like as you move around the room. Pay attention to the sensations in your ankles, your calves, your knees, and your thighs. See how detailed you can make your attention, and note what comes up.
3. Listening Meditation
To do this meditation, find a place to sit that offers various sounds: outside in a park, in a restaurant, or in an airport while you’re waiting to board your flight. You don’t have to close your eyes for this practice, although some people find that it helps them focus. Listen to the sounds happening all around you. Take a few moments to distinguish them and pay attention to the contrasts — some sounds are nearby and some are far away, some are louder than others, some are pleasant whereas others are grating. Take just a few minutes to appreciate the variety of sounds all around you, then land on one particular sound for a while. Focus on that sound for a couple of moments, explore what it’s like (constant, high in pitch, machinelike?) and then move on to another in the same way.
4. Looking Meditation
It also helps to be outside for this one, although you can do it in a large room just as well. Pick something relatively close to you — a cup on the other side of the table from you, or maybe a nearby tree in the park. Check out all of the visual details you can find — color, shape, pattern, shading, or anything else you can see. Spend a couple of minutes on this object, and then turn your attention to something farther away, something yards away from you. Pay attention to this object in the same way, noting all of the different details, and after a couple of minutes turn your attention back to the original object you examined. See if you can note any new features that you didn’t notice before.
5. Eating Meditation
This particular practice doesn’t take much more than slowing down and paying attention to the process of eating your next meal. You might want to do this alone and when you’re not in a particular hurry to get to something else. For a lot of us, eating has become somewhat mechanical and speedy, and this meditation will help you appreciate the complex and delightful process of consuming your food. Just slow down, really focus on all of the textures and tastes you come across, and feel what it’s like to swallow your food. The same meditation works with drinking juice, soda, or a glass of wine, but I don’t recommend trying it with more than a single glass of your favorite alcoholic drink — it gets hard to pay attention relatively quickly.
Excerpted from HIGH MAGICK: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row by Damien Echols. Copyright ©2018 Damien Echols. To be published by Sounds True on October 30, 2018.
DAMIEN ECHOLS is the author of the New York Times bestseller Life After Death (Plume, 2013), co-author of Yours for Eternity (Plume, 2013) with his wife, Lorri Davis, and the author of the new book, High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row (Sounds True, October 30, 2018). The story of his wrongful murder conviction has been the subject of the HBO documentary Paradise Lost and West of Memphis, a documentary produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. He and Lorri live in Harlem. For more, visit damienechols.com.