Reflections from a Death Row Monk

by Donald Dilbeck

Incarcerated for more than forty-three years and a long-time participant in the Art of Soulmaking, Donald Dillbeck is currently serving time on death row in Florida.

There are a number of parallels or trains of thought that can be had from the story written in The Art Of Soulmaking concerning the word, “meek.”

I first came to prison at the age of fifteen and have been incarcerated for the past 43 years. The first eleven years were in open segregation while the last 30+ have been in a cage on Florida’s Death Row. It’s here on the Row that I learned to live as a monk, not in a monastery but a place that gave me the opportunity to be in the world and yet, not in it. To be ‘inside’ looking outside, but strangely being on the outside of normal society peering into it.

After about a year in prison, I was scheduled to see my classification officer for what is known as a progress report. Progress reports are designed to see how the prisoner is adjusting and what’s going on with our behavior. It’s at this time when the classification officer may choose to send someone who requests it to another prison or perhaps a different job, etc.

On this particular day, I was forced to wait outside his office for what seemed like forever. I was sitting on an old uncomfortable hardwood bench, bored out of my mind and full of nervous energy. I just wanted to be anywhere rather than sitting on that bench! I thought, “Man. I’ll never learn patience!” It’s easy for me to imagine “Life” getting a good laugh and saying, “Oh really! We’ll just see about that, little mister.” Because patience wound up being something I learned through a lifetime of training, struggle, and practice. Like the stallion in the story, I had to be trained to go from willfulness to willingness, from a kicking and screaming mind to one of clarity after learning to love meditation.

I read the history of the word “meek” coming from the Greek, “praus” and it originally had a different meaning than how we often view the word today. Now we view “meek” as being tame, timid, humble or non confrontational to the point of always being nice, and not being able to say no because the other person may be offended. Rather, I saw how it was meant to mean training stallions to be gallant war steads that have an unbroken strong spirit, while yet being trained to willingly perform the task at hand. This makes way more sense. I mean why would a Rabbi who was reported to have said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” instruct his followers to be weak when they were already downtrodden and had a foot on their necks by their Roman masters? I don’t know about you but I surely don’t ever want to be the way of today’s interpretation. But, like me, you probably feel a rise in your spirit that says, “YES!” to praus.

There is also an old Greek metaphor concerning our mental and emotional energies being considered a rider and horse team.

The horse is our emotional nature urging us to act and move since it has tremendous energy and power. The rider is the focused attention and direction decider. Without a rider, the horse is vulnerable to predators and uncontrollably leading into trouble and unsafe situations. Without the horse, the rider is powerless and stationary. Yet, for this team to work properly, both have to be on the same page and the rider needs to trust the horse and not be forceful and dominating. Together, balanced, they are an amazing team.

In The Art Of Soulmaking book, it speaks of the trainer teaching the stallion how to be disciplined and accommodating. But could it be possible that the stallion is the one who taught the trainer how to understand his nature and to work with it rather than be forceful and controlling? What if the trainer was like a Horse Whisperer and took the time to fully grasp the horse’s language rather than expect the stallion to be obedient, and he then started working within its wants and needs and so a working relationship was formed?

We of the Western society put so much value in our intellectual ability and see our emotional abilities as being less or subservient, but we just might one day come to understand that our natural feelings are way more superior than thinking can ever be.

We think, “Since I can think and reason in words, I’m so much smarter than animals.” I’m really not so sure this is the case at all because we are the ones who have let our reasoning and beliefs disconnect us from this gorgeous earth and our natural state. Seems to me that makes us the “dumb” animal. Not the other way around.

The more I learn to trust my inner senses, the more I see they are way more intelligent than my thoughts ever were. So it’s my horse who teaches my rider how to stay connected, how to be attuned and engaged. Yep, that’s one smart horse!

This is what I call living in our heart rather than our head. I invite you to give it a try.