Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno on Unsplash

I came across a passage in a book called “Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai,” that states, “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s mind and body are at peace, one should meditate on being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail, one should consider himself as dead.” 

This was a passage that would not leave me. It was like a nagging song that gets stuck in one’s head. So I did what it said — I meditated on it to see where it would take me. 

Being on Death Row, constantly watched over by a guy with a gun, surrounded by signs that say “NO WARNING SHOTS” in big bright red letters, this idea of thinking about death wasn’t hard at all. But it was the last part of the quote that really impacted me — “And every day without fail, one should consider himself as dead.” 

In Japan’s medieval times, meditating on death served to prepare a samurai to die a painful, violent, yet honorable death, to fight fearlessly, always facing the enemy. Considering myself as dead seemed alien and strange. This ain’t medieval Japan. What about life, love, compassion and happiness — all the good stuff in life? 

“Why not just accept it — live life as a dead man and simply let go of life?”

After about two weeks it hit me like a sword strike to the throat: we are all gonna die and that is a simple fact of physical existence. As for me, I’m already on Death Row which puts my death right there in my face. Why not just accept it — live life as a dead man and simply let go of life? 

I did just that. 

I don’t mean grabbing a sheet and hanging myself, shutting off my feelings and becoming some soulless, emotionless zombie. No. 

Living as a dead man, realizing that I die a thousand times a day, did something most amazing to me. My mind became clear and focused. My hearing intensified. My sense of smell increased. My vision became alluringly acute. Colors got brighter. Sounds were more beautiful and melodious, and the fragrances smelled amazing.

I was suddenly freed from prison and transported to an awesome world that I didn’t know existed. The constant noise of restless convicts became the exquisite music of nature. Once dull, drab, muted colors became airy, bright, and dashing splashes of artistic expression. It was like I had been reborn to the world or the world reborn to me. In death, I found life, peace, happiness and contentment. A great burden was lifted from my shoulders, and every single moment became new and exciting, so much worth living for — worth dying for. The next moment of existence, now a lifetime away, no longer mattered. All that did matter was this one precious everlasting nanosecond in time, living each and every heartbeat for all that it is worth. Like it would be the very last — because it was and is the last. 

I had spent over 15 years exploring the world’s great religions and spiritual traditions, and in giving up life, in living as a dead man, it all came together in this strange, yet profound contradiction. I yearned for the serene release that death brings even though I was already dead, and yet so alive. I yearned now for life with a newly found passion for living as a humble spiritual entity in this vast, wonderful and magical universe surrounded by peace in perfect harmony with it all… as a dead man. 

The lesson that I learned that I am trying to pass along to others who are locked away, to those imprisoned by the mind’s restraints and surrounded by the chaos that such incarceration fosters and breeds, is to simply let go. 

Embrace each and every dying moment. And, in that death, find life. If you can find that behind these violent walls, then it can be found anywhere you turn in this life and the next. You will die an honorable death a thousand times a day, mindful of all things, smiling at everyone and everything, even smiling at death.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Bob R. Williams Jr.

Bob R. Williams, Jr. is a writer incarcerated on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California. He enjoys writing, reading, painting, and practicing yoga and aspires to teach teens in the juvenile system who have had similar experiences to him. He has been incarcerated for 24 years.