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Waking Up: I Was in Prison Long Before I Ever Broke the Law.

I was a rebel.

Now, I’ve been a federal prisoner for over 18 years. I was incarcerated at 23 years old. The specific form the actions took to get me here, as terrible as they may have been, is arbitrary when weighed against the understanding gained by my work to dig into finding an answer to the question Why.

“Why did I do that?” I’d repetitively ask myself throughout the first decade, like a mantra. A question that became a shovel, each ask scooping out of me the magma of my collected past, bringing it before consciousness’s light for analysis.

At first I found a lot of anger (at the countless beatings received from loving parental hands; at Lady Justice’s lack of understanding; at myself), regret (for having thrown so many of life’s opportunities away) and heart-rending remorse (for having let so many people down; for having caused suffering in the lives of others; for having given up on what life could have been).

Three fiery roilings, the heat away from which I refused to recoil. Instead I leaned in, seeking attrition of pain through the pain of penitence, embracing the burn, believing myself deserving.

Anger, regret and remorse: they produced seemingly endless spins on the merry-go-round of past replays and mental chatter. I locked myself into the prison of the mind, a room in hell’s hotel paid for by guilt, digging, searching, insisting on an answer. There I would stay until I found what I looked for.

That was within. In the prison without I read voraciously — psychology, self-development, spiritual teachers of higher consciousness — and I began to learn. I was graced with revelations. New ideas arose and, as the father of modern psychology, William James, observed, “A mind expanded by a new idea can never return to its original dimensions.”

Within that expansion the three fires continued their burn, smelting the ore of all of what I had thought I was, refining the gold of my soul from the slag of the ego. I was waking up.

A Zen proverb teaches, “In order to obtain heaven, one must first learn to embrace hell.” My circumstances clearly revealing I was in all things wrong, as the famous maxim encourages, I chose to surrender all of what I was for what I could become. I embraced, and, over time, the anger and regret melted away. Remorse remained, transmuting into fuel for further expansion.

Understanding cultivated compassion; stillness and peace arose within, which I now freely give.

I learned Why. The answer: Because I was in pain. Only hurt people hurt people. Simple? Trite? Maybe. But no less true. Doesn’t excuse or change the past, but it does explain. And now through it all, I’m not limited to the archetype labels born of ego’s fear, given over to pain’s call to condemn, hate and judge.

Instead I’ve found a more nuanced perspective, seeing humanity’s complex and evolving nature. Instead of bad people wanting to be good, I see broken people searching to have the shattered pieces of themselves put back together again, so that they may heal the hurts they’ve caused.

I see the prison without as merely a projection of the prison within. In this, it’s revealed that prisons aren’t just built by cement and steel. There are far worse ones comprised of the ego. I was in prison long before I ever broke the law. Now in prison, I’ve never been more free. The pain is gone, and now I’m awake.

The keys to ego’s cage are found in the commitment to making a gift of one’s life. But beware. Every commitment reveals the obstacles we harbor within ourselves to its accomplishment. Be encouraged. As Goethe wrote, when a commitment is made, the Universe conspires to help.

And as Dr. David Hawkins teaches, freedom for everyone is in lifting “all mankind by being kind, considerate, forgiving, and compassionate at all times, in all places, and under all conditions, with everyone as well as yourself.” (from his book, “The Eye of the I, From Which Nothing is Hidden”) Now that is what I call being rebellious.


For 18 years, Brian Zater has been developing for and providing to federal prisoners’ rehabilitation and reentry preparation classes based on higher consciousness studies. Learning from his own struggles and personal growth, his work has done the difficult job of equipping broken men with the tools to put themselves back together again. Those who’ve since released from prison have all become contributing members of society, most now successful family-men and small business owners. A strong advocate for positive social change, he serves as a teacher, mentor and life coach, helping people from all walks of life break free from their personal chains of limitation, find their life’s purpose, and achieve their full potentials.


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Rebelle Society
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