Born in prison

As early as about 500 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato published his Allegory of the cave in his monumental book The Republic. An allegory can be a useful way of making someone realize some painful aspect of life that has been pushed out of awareness because realizing it would be too painful. For Plato, his Cave allegory did not only serve to remind people that while most of them choose a life of ignorance, true happiness is attained by choosing to acquire knowledge of “the Good” (Plato’s term); it was also a way to channel his deep frustration over the assassination of his teacher Socrates, who had been murdered because he had brought exactly that inconvenient message of mindfulness.

In the cave allegory, presented as a dialog between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, we see a group of people who have been chained by neck, hands and feet in a cave all their lives. They face a blank wall; they are not able to look around them, let alone behind them. From the entrance of the cave behind them, the sunlight casts shadows on the wall from travelers on the road passing the cave. To the prisoners, the shadows are perceived to be the sole reality of life. They even believe that the sounds of the traveling merchants are caused by the shadows on the wall. Each of the cave people is born in the prison of the cave. However, they do not perceive it as a prison: they perceive it as home; their entire world. They know nothing about any other kind of life outside their cave.

At some point though, the chains of one of the cave people fail (as Murphy’s law seems to be ubiquitous). This prisoner (a stand-in for Socrates himself of course) starts to look around him in bewilderment. At first his eyes are blinded by the sunlight coming from the entrance, and he flinches back. Eventually though, his curiosity overcomes his fear of the unknown, and by the time his eyes have more or less adjusted to the daylight, he starts to explore the outside world. Imagine how the bewilderment turns to joy as he learns that there is a much better world outside the cave! Feeling blessed by such good fortune, he becomes filled with pity for his fellow people. He decides to bring them the glad message of the world of light, so they might share in his gladness.

The cave people, however, do not welcome the philosopher back at all. Since the latter’s eyes seem to be blind in the cave because he is not used to the darkness anymore, they reason that the world outside will only hurt them. They collectively conclude that they should not venture a similar journey, for this would surely end in disaster. And it gets worse: they vow to kill anyone who might attempt to drag them out of their cave. Which is of course exactly what happened to Socrates. This is the rationale behind the ancient saying that “a prophet is never welcome in his own home town”: his message tends to drag people too much out of their comfort zone, which only results in vicious resistance.

Jesus faces the same challenge in bringing his peace-bringing curriculum of A Course in Miracles to our sleeping minds. In fact, in Textbook chapter 20 he explicitly refers to this allegory to get his point across: “Prisoners bound with heavy chains for years, starved and emaciated, weak and exhausted, and with eyes so long cast down in darkness they remember not the light, do not leap up in joy the instant they are made free. It takes a while for them to understand what freedom is.” (T-20.III.9). In a way, Jesus is very much like the philosopher who brings the message of light to prisoners who have known only darkness their entire lives. If you have been studying A Course in Miracles for some time you will no doubt have noticed the infinite patience with which Jesus presents his same message again and again. Not once does he scold his students for continuously choosing the stupidity of remaining asleep in darkness. As any good psychotherapist realizes, you do not take away people’s defenses.

Anyone born in a prison will love the prison, since it is all they know. If you have ever watched the movie “The Shawshank redemption”(still #1 on IMDB’s all-time Top 250), you will realize just how true this is. Brooks Hatlen, a man who had spent most of his life in the Shawshank prison, was released in 1954, then aged 72. Outside, he encountered a world that had changed dramatically since his childhood years. Although he tried hard, he concluded that he wasn’t capable to adjust to a society he had never known. Finally, he committed suicide. Reading his farewell letter, his former inmates concluded: “He should have died in prison.” On the other hand, the event also drove the main character to make serious work of his escape back to the free world, which in the end succeeded.

In A Course in Miracles, Jesus explains that we are all (seemingly) born into the prison we call the physical world. We just try hard not to experience it as a prison. In spite of the struggles and decay we see while watching the news, we are all intimately in love with the physical world. Moreover, we are thoroughly convinced that it is all we have, which partly explains the overwhelming zeal over ‘creating a sustainable future on this planet’. When Jesus reminds us that “I am not a body. I am free. For I am still as God created me”, we really cannot depict what this state is like, since it is devoid of any form, which is the unknown. And just as the world outside the cave was the unknown to the cave people, the thought of exchanging everything that you know for something totally unknown is simply terrifying. And so we keep clinging on to our worldly externals, just as the the cave people decided it would be too harmful to attempt to exit their cave.

Jesus knows his students well, which is why he spends so much text on having us fully realize the nature of wrong-minded thinking, and just how painful this really is. That’s why Kenneth Wapnick repeatedly reminded us that A Course in Miracles is not a message of love; it’s a message of learning how to choose to deny the denial of love. We will not take Jesus’ hand on the road to the real world as long as we do not fully realize the true nature of the cave in which we have bound ourselves, and which we still love so much. Again, Jesus knows this acceptance process takes time. To repeat: “Prisoners bound with heavy chains for years, starved and emaciated, weak and exhausted, and with eyes so long cast down in darkness they remember not the light, do not leap up in joy the instant they are made free. It takes a while for them to understand what freedom is.” (T-20.III.9)

To be free, we merely need to choose Scharmer’s principle of “letting go, letting come”, that is, letting go of our stubborn conviction that we know what the purpose of our lives and this world is about, and increasingly allowing Jesus/The Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, merely by giving up condemnation of everything and everyone outside of us. In chapter 20, Jesus continues: “Strengthen your hold and raise your eyes unto your strong companion, in whom the meaning of your freedom lies. He seemed to be crucified beside you. And yet his holiness remained untouched and perfect, and with him beside you, you shall this day enter with him to Paradise, and know the peace of God. […]  In your brother is the light of God’s eternal promise of your immortality. See him as sinless, and there can be no fear in you. […] This [forgiveness] is the purpose given you. Think not that your forgiveness of your brother serves but you two alone. For the whole new world rests in the hands of every two who enter here to rest. And as they rest, the face of Christ shines on them and they remember the laws of God, forgetting all the rest and yearning only to have His laws perfectly fulfilled in them and all their brothers. Think you when this has been achieved that you will rest without them? You could no more leave one of them outside than I could leave you, and forget part of myself.” (T-20.III.11).

To conclude, let us remind ourselves of the often-quoted line: “The secret of salvation is but this: that you are doing this onto yourself.” (T-27.VIII.10). Anyone who has chosen to honestly study and practice a spiritual path begins to realize that not only a life in the cave is not desirable; it is a prison we have chosen to be bound in, and there’s a much better state of life outside that prison. They also realize that it takes a while to adjust to the light. Still, there is no greater joy than finally seeing (with the mind’s eye, the psychology of vision) the road to the real world, and walking that path with a companion Who cannot fail in His guidance. Our task is merely to strengthen our innate desire of letting go and letting come, by practicing unconditional forgiveness.

Also see my seven “guidelines for living in an illusory world” in “Miracles or Murder: a guide to concepts of A Course in Miracles“. This guidebook, endorsed by Gary and Cindy Renard, was published in March 2016 by Outskirts Press and is available at


One thought on “Born in prison

  1. Pingback: In gevangenschap geboren – Ik zoek innerlijke vrede .nl

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