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Meditation Helped Me Survive Death Row and 19 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

Since I couldn't leave, I had to find a way to change the energy there.

I am a magician.

I don't pull rabbits out of hats, saw attractive young women in half, or wear a tuxedo. I practice magick, spelled with a "k" in order to differentiate it from slight of hand, and once upon a time I was sentenced to death for it.

My name is Damien Echols, and in 1993 I was arrested for three counts of capital murder in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Nine months later I was sentenced to death, and spent almost 19 years on death row before being released in 2011 when new evidence came to light.

Prison is a dark and stagnant place. It's filled with the most cold, horrendous energy you can imagine. It feels like a kind of psychic filth that penetrates into your very soul.

Much of magick is about is learning to change states of consciousness at will. I learned to use meditation and ritual as shields. They prevented the hellish energy of prison from changing me and making me more like the people all around me—people who had given up on even trying to be human.

This is a story about how I kept my sanity.

***

I fell in love with magick when I was first learning to read and realized that such a thing existed. At about the age of twelve I discovered the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and my life changed forever. The Golden Dawn was an order of ceremonial magicians that lived in the mid to late 1800s in England, and included such luminaries as W.B. Yeats, Pamela Coleman Smith, who painted the artwork we now know as the Rider-Waite tarot deck, and the notorious Aleister Crowley.

Crowley was the person who deigned that magick be spelled with a "k." He was also a big part of the reason I was sentenced to death.

In 1993, when three eight year old boys were found murdered in my small town, attention immediately turned to me. Why? Because I was the town weirdo. I dressed in all black, had long hair, and listened to heavy metal music. As if this wasn't enough to make me suspect in a small, hardcore fundamentalist town in the midst of the era of Satanic panic, I also practiced magick. Some of the most damning evidence brought against me during the trial was my love of knowledge of Crowley, and the fact that I owned Stephen King novels.

By the time I was released, I was doing meditation and ritual work for nearly eight hours a day

If you want to know more about the case, watch any of the Paradise Lost documentaries about it, as well as West of Memphis, the documentary I myself was a producer on. You could also read my book, Life After Death.

My interest in magick may have contributed to my being sentenced to death, but it was also a huge part of what allowed me to survive for the better part of two decades in the American prison system.

***

For a huge chunk of my incarceration—nearly nine years—I was in a super maximum security unit prison, where I spent 24 hours a day in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is like living in a vacuum in which no comforts exist. You spend every single moment alone, with nothing to distract you from the horror of your situation and no contact with anything or anyone that can possibly provide you with a shred of hope. Time ceases to exist, as there is no way to mark its passage. Noon is the same as midnight. Christmas is the same as the Fourth of July. All you can do is sit with your fears, waiting for the next time the guards decide to hurt you.

It was here that I decided to dedicate every single waking moment of my life to delving deeper and deeper into the realm of magick.

I had several teachers I corresponded with, including the priest of a Japanese zen temple who would travel from Japan to the prison in Arkansas to give me ordination in the Rinzai Zen tradition of Japanese Buddhism, the same tradition that used to train the samurai in older times.

Zen teaches you patience, willpower, and self control. You sit in a position called "seiza," which basically means on your knees, for long periods of time. This allows you to build up a sort of detachment that enables you to observe your thoughts and emotions as an observer, instead of being carried along by them. You learn to override physical discomfort, mental anxiety, and emotional tar pits. Sitting in seiza, I realized my mind had been running around and around in circles since the day I was born, like a dog chasing its tail.

What I learned from zen seems very simple, but it's far harder than it sounds: I learned to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how difficult or brutal life became.

By the time I was released, I was doing meditation and ritual work for nearly eight hours a day.

***

There were times in prison when guards entered my cell in the early morning hours before the sun had risen, handcuffed me to the bars, and took turns beating me. I was beaten so badly that I pissed blood.

There was no physical escape, of course. I could not leave even after the beating was over. I sat there for years, in the same spot where I was traumatized and tortured, in that concrete box where the very air was saturated with hatred and misery. It left me in a state of trauma I sometimes still struggle with years later.

Since I couldn't leave, I had to find a way to change the energy there. I didn't have any of the tools and implements that people traditionally use, such as sage, smudge sticks, or incense. All I had was my own will, intellect, and energy.

My personal desire was to not be beaten by guards, or have them destroy what few possessions I owned, such as family photos

I put those things to use by relentlessly performing a exercise that magicians call The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. It involves using breath work and visualization to direct energy. With it, you create a kind of sacred space, by driving out lingering energy from an area. It's like sterilizing a room's energy.

In addition, it also gives you a basic introduction to working with intelligences that we refer to as Angels. After cleansing the space, you call upon the archangels of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) to stabilize any energy that enters the space, and make it more harmonious with whatever your personal desire may be.

My personal desire was to not be beaten by guards, or have them destroy what few possessions I owned, such as family photos. I performed this ritual over and over and over, driving it so deeply into my psyche that it became almost a reflex. Now, years later, I can do it without ever moving from my chair.

***

Magicians believe that reality isn't simply the bland, mundane concrete world around us, but that reality is more like an onion in that it consists of layer upon layer, each overlapping the others.

Take our thoughts, for example. We know we have thoughts, but you can't show a thought to someone. You can't see how much a thought weighs, or what it smells like. The same is true of our emotions: things like love and hatred are impossible to truly measure, yet only a crazy person would tell you those things don't exist. Emotions, thoughts—those exist on a very ethereal part of reality. Then on the other end of the spectrum you have our bodies, our cars, our buildings, our Gucci hand bags and Domino's pizza—those things exist on a much more dense, concrete level of reality.

What separates western, Magickal practices from the Eastern forms of meditation is the ultimate destination. Eastern techniques, such as those practiced by Taoists and Buddhists, aim to liberate the individual from the world, or allow them to transcend and escape it.

The magician, on the other hand, doesn't seek to escape the world. He seeks to master it. He seeks to shape the very substance of reality through sheer will power until he creates heaven on earth, and there's no longer any need to escape.

Magicians also believe in the presence of intelligences that reside on the more subtle planes of reality.

Different cultures have a variety of names for these intelligences, and they've been called everything from gods, to spirits, to angels. "Angel" is the term that I myself prefer, as these intelligences tend to behave in a way that mirrors the thought labels we apply to them.

These intelligences—these Angels—are what I called upon for the ultimate goal of my release from death row for a crime I did not commit.

Every day, I would focus on entering an altered state, shifting my consciousness to the aspect of reality where those angelic intelligences abide, and then pulling as many of them to me as I could.

The magician doesn't seek to escape the world. He seeks to master it.

In the beginning, it was difficult to deal with four angels simultaneously (ever try to visualize four things at once? It's like herding cats!) but as my strength and concentration eventually grew, I went from four to over 200.

It felt like a surge of adrenaline, but more than that. It felt like I was drinking in pure spirit. I had been slowly dying due to lack of sunlight, horrible nutrition, no human contact, crippling stress, and various physical traumas. My hair had started to fall out, my eyesight was rapidly failing, and I was in constant pain of one sort or another. The contact with so much pure spirit flooded me with vitality and joy. I was suddenly more alive than I'd been in years.

Each day I would hold those 200 intelligences within my sphere of influence and program them with one overriding thought: "May I be free from prison. May I be at home, living happily with Lorri ( my wife). May it come about in a way that brings harm to none and is for the good of all." Then I would release them to do the job I had programmed them for. Within one year, I walked off of death row.

The tricky part of magick is that we often get exactly what we ask for. In hindsight I realized I should have worded my program a little more carefully. I didn't ask for a new trial. I didn't ask to be found not guilty. I didn't ask for the actual murderer to be caught. I just asked to be home and for my 18 years of torture to be over. So that's what I got.

After results of DNA testing came back that showed the DNA at the crime scene didn't match me, the prosecutor gave me a deal. It's called an Alford plea. An Alford plea means you are accepting a guilty plea, but are allowed to continue to maintain your innocence. It makes no sense at all, but the state never cares about making sense. What it does care about is not being held liable for its own screw ups. And that's what the Alford plea gave prosecutors—a way to get out of this situation without having to admit they made a mistake and be sued for it. I was allowed to live, and to go home.

I now live in New York City, and plan on calling this my home until the day I die. I also still practice magick on a daily basis, although on a smaller scale than in my prison years. Now I stand on the subway platform, close my eyes, and ask the intelligence that resides within the C train to let me get a seat so that I can ride home a little more comfortably.

Damien Echols is an artist and magician who lives in New York City. He spent nearly 19 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @damienechols.

Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.