Damien Echols

Hard Time 

Today my feet bled through two pairs of socks. It was bliss. Watching those coin-sized crimson stains bloom through the white fabric has become holy communion for me. Bringing my body to that point of pain and exhaustion has become my religion.

My life has taught me that true spiritual insight can only come about through direct experience, the way a severe burn can only be attained by putting your hand in the fire. Faith is nothing more than a watered-down attempt to accept someone elseís insight as your own. Belief is the psychic equivalent of an article of second-hand clothing, worn out and passed down. I equate true spiritual insight with wisdom, which is different than knowledge. Knowledge can be obtained through many sources: books, stories, songs, legends, myths, and in modern times, from computers and television programs. On the other hand, thereís only one real source of wisdomópain. Any experience that provides a person with wisdom will also usually provide them with a scar. The greater the pain, the greater the realization. Faith is spiritual rigor mortis.

My adopted mother lives in San Francisco, where she says the weather is pretty much the same all the time. There are no tornadoes, no blizzards, no scorching heat waves that leave the earth dead and brown. Itís just one eternal, mind-numbing 70˚ day. At first I was intrigued by this. In fact, it seemed somehow magickal. However, the more I contemplated it, the more uneasy I became. Then I realized why. Itís because something about it is vaguely prison-like. It seems almost dispassionate in some way. How is a person supposed to experience different emotional and psychic states when living in an eternally continuous environment? Thatís the tidbit that was nagging at me, sticking in my craw. Because thatís what life comes down to in prisonóa continuous, soul-stealing environment. Something like that can lull you into a stupor long before you realize itís happened. I began to wonder how much of my own spirit had atrophied and calcified.

I can vaguely remember life in what I call the real world. It seemed to be a chain of events that flowed one into another, not always seamlessly, but at least naturally. There is nothing natural about my current situation. Nothing flowsóor even movesówithout someone applying a tremendous amount of willpower to one of realityís pressure points. Even then, itís like trying to keep a beach ball afloat just by blowing on it. Life without momentum is not truly life. A person needs movement, or they eventually begin to forget that they even exist.

Iíve read stories where through some bizarre form of emotional alchemy, bliss becomes lethargy or malaise. Perhaps itís the boredom that causes a prince to give up all he knows and become a beggar. I canít say. What I began to wonder is if the opposite may be trueóif by following the thread of pain to a deep enough level, I could find something else. I knew I wasnít the first to wonder about such a thing, because in certain Native American tribes, the men would sometimes undergo tremendously painful ordeals in search of spiritual or psychic insight.

One of the most torturous and well-known paths to opening the senses wider than usual is by fasting. I decided to give it a try. On my first attempt, I went for two weeks without consuming anything but water. For the first four days or so the pain of hunger, combined with the physical deterioration, was maddening. My skin was hot with fever. It reminded me of the powerful periods of fever and sickness that would come upon me suddenly as a child. There would be no warning, I would just wake up in the middle of the night with a high fever. I would be so weak that I couldnít move, but it felt like I was floating. I could feel currents of energy passing through my consciousness, and realized they were always flowing through the world, but that I could only feel them when I was in that fevered state. The closest I can come to articulating it even now would be to say that I could hear a river of pink voices. Once I was a teenager, it stopped. During the very last fit, the fever went so high that my mother submerged me in a tub of ice-cold water in order to bring it down. The touch of that ice water on my skin was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. I wanted to scream and fight, but could only lie there gasping. I couldnít even cry. My mother kept muttering reassurances to me and smoothing the hair out of the way as she poured the frigid water over my face. I kept thinking, ďHow can she not know that Iím in Hell?Ē The fever never bothered me. It was comforting, in a way. It was the ice water that I knew was going to kill me.

While fasting I would fall asleep fevered, hungry, and exhausted, but I was closer to that current than I had been since childhood. Still, there was something separating me from it. I could hear it on the horizon like a distant train whistle, but I wasnít experiencing it. I needed something else to bring me closer.

Meditation is a pain in the ass. I practiced it extensively throughout my mid- to late twenties under the guidance of both Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teachers. I left it behind when I felt myself pulled in another direction, but decided to add it to my fasting to see if it would bring me closer to the experience I couldnít quite define. It did not. I felt like a snake trying to put last seasonís shed skin back on. It had become a husk with no life, so I began shifting through my internal catalog to see what else I could pull out of the trick bag.

I donít know why I started running. I donít even remember starting; it was as if I was suddenly just doing it. Being trapped in a cell meant I had to run in place, so thatís what I did. I ran so hard that I lost all track of time. Eventually, I passed out. The world just went black, and sounds seemed to be coming from the far end of a very long hallway. I did it again the next day, only this time, I put on two pairs of socks, because of the blisters on my feet. I ran until I found myself crawling towards the toilet on my hands and knees, retching and dry heaving as I slipped in my own sweat. What should have been horrible was somehow beautiful. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I felt closer to all things divine than I ever did in any church. I had run for over two hours without stopping for so much as a drink of water, and I had discovered a new world.

By the third day, my feet had started bleeding, leaving little smudges and droplets all over the floor, but I wouldnít even notice them until later. I donít understand how there can be magick in the repetitive movement of the body, but Iíve still found it.

There are times when my mind screams at my body to stop, that itís not possible to go for one more second. I ignore it and push beyond that point. Only by pushing beyond every boundary that my mind and body pose can I swim in the dark, deep waters that I need. Thatís the place where anything worth having comes from. Itís the pain of destroying my boundaries that lets me scan the current for messages in bottles. They come from down the stream with a ghost inside each one. I donít know who or what casts those bottles, at least not yet. Those with less curiosity or ambition just mumble that God works in mysterious ways. I intend to catch him in the act.




Wishes Remembered
by Nancy Dunaway