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Natural Awakenings New York City

Life: Heaven or Hell?

It was cold and rainy the day I went to prison.  Although it was in the middle of the summer, there was nothing warm about the place.  There was no heating, no color, no plants, no life.  Simply a dark, barren, harsh concrete trap on an island made of rock in the middle of the San Francisco harbor.  The place was Alcatraz.  Fortunately, I was only there as a visitor.  But even being there for an afternoon gave me a glimpse of what life must have been like for thousands of prisoners who lived there before the prison was closed.  It was a cold, dark, haunting place that allowed few, if any, of its residents to escape.

One of the highlights of the visit was our tour guide, a former prisoner nicknamed “Whitey”, who told us during the visit that he had been a prisoner on Alcatraz for many years.  He gave us rich insights into the incredible nightmare of being imprisoned on Alcatraz.  I found Whitey to be fascinating, and so during one of our breaks I took the opportunity to speak to him. 

“Whitey” I asked, “what was it like to actually live on Alcatraz? It must have been hell.”

“Actually it wasn’t as bad as you might think” he responded.  “Now, of course, it seems like hell, but at the time I didn’t really realize how bad it was.  Took me a few years away from the prison to realize it.”

“Really?” I responded in amazement.  “I cannot even imagine being in a place like this for a week, let alone years.  How could you ever think that it was okay?”

“Well, its interesting” Whitey responded.  “I can’t even begin to tell you how many guys I knew here who, after serving their sentences, would go to San Francisco and commit a crime, and intentionally allow themselves to get caught so they would get sent right back.”

“What?” I responded in shock.  “Why on earth would they do that?

“Because” Whitey replied, “as bad as Alcatraz was, for these guys it felt like home.  And the fear of the unknown was worse for them than living in hell.”

I thought a lot about Whitey’s statement long after the tour ended.  It is easy sometime to dismiss behavior that seems on the surface so different than our own, and doing prison time is not a life experience I have had or can relate to very easily.  But if we go deeper and ask ourselves hard questions, we find more commonalities in the human experience than we find differences.  And this case was no different.  We often trade our hopes and our dreams for exactly the same reason:  security. How many times in my own life had I stayed in a bad relationship where I was lied to, or mistreated, because I feared being alone?  How many times had I put up with a boss or work situation that did not nourish my creativity or passion because I worried about my financial future? How often had I endured circumstances or situations that caused me stress because I did not have the courage to face the unknown associated with changing those circumstances or situations? 

The truth is that we are often locked in our own prisons.  Although our prison walls look different than the walls of Alcatraz, they still kept us trapped and often locked in a place filled with depression and despair.  The bitter pill of truth that many of us have to swallow is that we too are scared to face the unknown, and this fear keeps us trapped.  And when that happens, the flames of our passion slowly begin to fade.  And we get stuck and lose hope.   And it happens, not overnight where we might be shocked into action, but rather over time, in a slow progression that is obscured by fleeting moments of materialism, pleasure, and distraction.  

In those moments when we realize this truth, the decision we are then faced with has profound consequences.  Will we choose security and allow our dreams to die, or will we choose freedom and fight for our dreams to live by facing the unknown?  I have been teaching self-awareness and leadership for over a decade to thousands of individuals, and I can tell you this:  heaven and hell are not created by what is happening to us, or outside of us.  Rather, heaven and hell are consequences of our state of mind and are built, respectively, either on a foundation of, or lack of, the inner strength and courage to pursue our hopes and dreams.  So as the character Andy Dufrane stated in one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, as he was planning his own escape from prison: 

 “You can either get busy living, or you can get busy dying.”


   About the Author

Austin Vickers is a professional speaker, and the writer and producer of People v. The State of Illusion, a powerful new film on the science and power of imagination, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, that will be coming to New York for 3 nights only in December with a keynote discussion and Q&A to follow by Producer Austin Vickers.  For more information about the movie and how you can see it, visit the website at or text your email address to 480-282-2156.  To learn more about Austin Vickers, you can visit his website at