Innocent on death row: How I survived 18 years

Meditation with a mystical edge? Don't knock magick 'til you've tried it.

Damien Echols: The true crime stuff I think it has good points and bad points; Good points because it is literally saving people's lives. When you're talking about cases where you have innocent people sentenced to death, you have innocent people doing life without parole, and it happens way more often than people have any idea. A guy named Bryan Stevenson who works with the Southern Poverty Law Center, I was talking to him one time and he said that they now estimate that maybe as many as one out of every ten people executed are innocent. Now if one out of every ten planes crashed nobody would fly anymore. Everybody would demand that something be done before they got on another plane. But most people don't know anyone and they're not connected in any way to the death penalty. So it's sort of just being swept under the rug in a lot of ways.

So the true crime stuff is bringing stuff like that into mainstream attention. It's saving people's lives. On the other hand you have the other stuff, the really tawdry—and I can't think of a case right off the top of my head—but just people like to sort of wallow in the darkness of humanity a little bit. Say people who want to read stuff about Richard Ramirez, the night stalker guy, stuff like that. That sort of goes the other route. I think whatever you focus on is going to sort of dictate the direction that your life moves. If you focus on things that inspire you, that uplift you, that raise you up, you're going to be a happier person. If you're focusing more on the basest, just bottom dregs of human activity then you're probably not going to be a very happy person. It's going to manifest in depression and despair and things like that.

So I see the good points of true crime and I see the bad points of true crime. For me personally I tend to stay away from it. I honestly have not even seen the Paradise Lost documentaries. I tried to watch them, I made it through 15 to 20 minutes of the first one, and I could understand why it had such a big impact on people because when I was watching it, it felt like being in the courtroom. It was like experiencing it again. And, for me, that was the last thing in the world that I wanted. That was—it ate up 20 years of my life, so the last thing I wanted to do was go back there. At the same time I'm grateful that so many other people did watch it and were affected by it and came to our aid, because it saved my life. But that doesn't mean I want to watch it.

The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. They're not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing. So it's not like you're going to see a real doctor or a real dentist. At one point I'd been hit in the face so many times by prison guards that it had caused a lot of nerve damage in my teeth, so I was in horrendous pain. Your choices are: live in pain, or let them pull your teeth out. I didn't want them to pull my teeth out, so I had to find techniques that would allow me to cope with the physical pain. That was probably the biggest thing that kept pushing me forward to learn more and more and more about magick, because I had to find ways just to survive.

Magick, spelled with a K at the end, M – A – G – I – C – K, the reason it has a K is to differentiate it from sleight of hand, you know, sawing assistants in half, pulling rabbits out of a hat, things like that. The entire point of high magick it is a path that leads to the same things that Eastern traditions refer to as "enlightenment," which is the dissolution of the self. The form that I practice derived, for the most part, from the late 1800s in London. You had a group of people, they called themselves the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—some really intelligent people, the beloved poet W.B. Yeats was a member. What they set out to do was look into all religious traditions in the world and get to just the practices, you know, strip away the dogma, the belief systems, things like that, and get to just the practices. And they wanted to figure out what works, why it works, how it works, and how we can make it work better. And it's ideally suited to people in the West because it uses like I was saying Christian, Judaic, things of that nature iconography. So it's things that are really deeply ingrained in our psyches already.

When I was in prison I actually also received ordination in the Rinzai Zen tradition in Japanese Buddhism. It was a tradition that used to train the Samurai in ancient Japan. So I sat Zen meditation for years, and I still feel like I got more out of ceremonial magic in months than I did Zen in years just because it is more—it deals with things that are more deeply ingrained in the Western psyche than Eastern traditions do.

One of the goals of high magick is to achieve the same thing that in Eastern traditions they call enlightenment. Think of it, for example, think of yourself as a cup of water. Now if you just leave a cup of water sitting somewhere for a long period of time it starts to stagnate. It's going to accumulate debris, maybe it's even going to start to clot up over a long enough period of time. What ceremonial magick tries to do is invoke certain energies into your system. Now if you were to take that cup of water, that stagnant cup of water, and just hold it under a running faucet and just let it run until it spills over the rim and hold it there and just let it spill and spill and spill, eventually what's going to happen is all that debris, all that stagnation is going to be washed out. The same thing happens to us on an energetic level when we're constantly invoking all these energies. The reason they're planetary, astrological, elemental, they're still all variations of a type of energy that we have a name for in every single culture in the world except ours. For example, the Chinese call it chi. The Japanese call it ki. The Hebrews call lit ruach. The Indians call it prana. In the West we're the only ones who don't really have a name for it, so that's kind of why I prefer just the generic term of "energy."

You know, when it comes to resiliency I think the thing that saved my life in there was: I found what I was supposed to be doing in life. As crazy as it sounds, there were entire weeks would go by when I didn't even think about the fact that I was in prison because I was so focused on magick. You know even now people will come up to me, people who have been through horrible things, people who suffer from depression of some sort, and they say, "What got you through that? What would bring you through these things?" And the honest answer is there are only two causes of depression. One is a chemical imbalance, in which case the only thing that's going to correct it is medication, something of that nature to correct a physical problem. The other cause in one way or another is you're not doing what in magick we call your "will." In Buddhism they call it dharma. It's the thing that you're put here to do. Nature, the universe, is not going to waste a lot of energy making duplicate people, making cookie-cutter people. We're all here for a specific purpose. Now your purpose may be similar to someone else's, but it's not going to be exactly the same. Because like I said the universe isn't going to waste that energy. The cause of happiness and the cause of depression is figuring out what you're supposed to be doing in this life and then dedicating yourself to it, one hundred percent, to the best of your ability. For me that was doing magick. When I started to devote every minute of every day to doing magick while I was in prison, by the time I got out I was doing it eight hours a day. Once I started to do that everything else took a backseat. I still went through horrendous things like beatings or starvation or whatever it was, but once it's done I'd get right back up and I'd go to doing magick, because it was what I loved.

It was, you know, when I started to figure out what was possible because of this and how it was affecting me on a mental level, on an emotional level, on a physical level, I was so excited about it that everything else just faded into the background, and I was happy. Even in prison, even on death row, for huge chunks of time I was happy, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing in the world. And still to this day the example I always give to people is Michelangelo. Whenever they asked him, "How do you create these sculptures?" he said, "Well, I just look at the block of marble and I carve away anything that's not part of the figure." That's where happiness comes from. You look at your life and you start carving away anything that's not pertinent to your life's mission. So for me for example I don't go to parties, I don't go to clubs, I don't go to concerts, I don't chitchat. For me anything that is not directly connected to magick I have gradually carved away from my life and it has made me a much, much happier person. Social media I honestly now I try to stay away from it as much as I possibly can. I think it can be useful for really down-to-earth practical things like letting people know, for example, I'll use it to let people know where I'm going to be doing a meditation class and things of that nature. But at the same time I think it is incredibly detrimental as far as what we're putting our energy into. Part of what magick is is containing our energy, containing our chi, because we disperse it constantly. We disperse it in everything we think about, everything we talk about. And I saw a study come out about a week or so ago where scientists were pretty much saying we are now practically one generation away from the extinction of humanity due to climate change, global warming and all this sort of stuff. Yet the only thing that people were talking about on social media was Kanye West at the White House!

So it really can be detrimental to our development if you let the meaningless things or if you just spend hours and hours a day combing through Instagram photos of people taking selfies and things like that. I think you really have to be careful with everything you consume, and not just in a physical way but mentally and emotionally as well, as well as everything that you put out; I always try to be as mindful as I possibly can about whatever I take in through the Internet and whatever I put out through the Internet.

  • Damien Echols was a member of the West Memphis Three, a group of young men who were wrongfully convicted of murdering three children. He served nearly 20 years on death row before being exonerated and released.
  • Some have described his plight as exploitative, in that the case became a media circus first and a murder case second.
  • While in prison, he practiced High Magick, a form of theurgical ceremonies and rituals, much in the tradition of Eastern spirituality, but retooled for the Western psyche. He credits it with helping him survive 18 years on death row.



Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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