The Alchemy of Ceremony

…and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions…
~Red Pine (from “The Heart Sutra”)


Walking through the final set of doors, opened remotely by someone watching us closely, we exit through several layers of razor wire and electric fence and find ourselves on the outside in a parking lot heading towards our car. I would predict that I would feel a great sense of relief leaving the prison behind with its dour gray walls and its foreboding sense of danger. Make a wrong move and something bad could happen is an easy assumption to make. Instead I feel a bit sorrowful, which is how I usually feel leaving the prison walls behind and quite frankly I don’t understand this reaction.

It could it be that I feel guilty for being able to so freely walk out of this horrid place, while the men return to their incarcerated life in their tiny cells. Certainly there is some of that guilt in my sorrow but that isn’t all of it because there is also something about Pelican Bay that leaves me settled and serene in a way that I only experience after meditation retreats or backpacking trips into the mountains. I find it strange to say these words but the melancholy I experience after Pelican Bay has a similar flavor to what I feel after a Zen retreat. I learn a lot about myself when I am in there and the men inside share so much. Inside those walls for a brief period of time, walls come down and openness prevails. And I wonder how I can ever repay them for their generosity and kindness, in welcoming me into part of their world and letting me leave again at the end of the morning. It may sound strange to talk about generosity and kindness about men who are incarcerated in one of California’s “worst” prisons, but then again, Pelican Bay is a strange place.

We are all imprisoned by someone or something is what I have learned inside Pelican Bay. Our narrow views, self-centered thoughts, and uncontrollable desires constrict our lives in ways  similar to prison walls and strictly enforced rules. And what is left of our freedom is obliterated by any fear that we may have about who we are, who we might become, and where this is all going. We seem so willing, or perhaps we do it unwittingly, to give up our freedom by holding on too strongly to opinions and making real something that isn’t – namely our narrow sense of self or who we think we are. While these men are literally locked behind bars and thick concrete walls, I too am stuck behind walls of the mind that I have helped to create. What I learn in Pelican Bay is that we really are not very different from one another and that we all have the same desire: to be freed from our self-imposed shackles in order to live an authentic life. How we do that is the proverbial journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step or perhaps each step is the thousand-mile journey in its entirety.

There is something about the time in Pelican Bay that is a different sort of time despite the fact that there is a large wall clock in the chapel where we meditate that tick tocks its way round and round, ceaselessly.  Sesshin or Zen meditation retreats are like that too in that they have a kind of timelessness about them. We sit and settle our minds by being silent, still and awake. We try to leave our baggage at the door, as we cross the threshold, and to see what is actually there (here, really) when I let thoughts, opinions and preconceived ways drop away. Somehow a trip to meditate with the men at Pelican Bay is the same way. I leave both sesshin and the prison behind and I feel both serene an exhausted, settled and agitated. It’s an otherworldly feeling resulting from a settling of body and mind to the point of no longer being in lock-step with life on the streets. I am like an autumn leaf that is about to drop from the twig I have been attached to for several seasons, ready to flutter to the ground, except that I, unlike the leaf, hold on tight and remain firmly attached. To what I wonder?

Another paradox of Pelican Bay is that going into one of the worst prisons in our country is like going somewhere sacred. Despite the fact that the chapel’s low ceiling and thick, windowless walls are anything but sacred, we create something utterly different for a few hours on Saturdays twice a month. The ability to create sacred space amidst such intense incarceration, amidst so much fear, speaks to the power of intention, especially when it is collective and communal. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass”, says, “Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention.” And this is exactly what is done by the Buddhist men of Pelican Bay – fear and constriction are transformed into something spiritual and beautiful, transcending the profane to reach something very close to profound.

As our car glides down the Redwood Highway, lined with towering conifers, I think about all this and remember the individual men I had just interacted with on the inside. I recall one of the men telling the group that he does not regret being in Pelican Bay because without being there he doesn’t know if he would have ever found his way to a place where he can practice with such diligence, selflessness and compassion. Stunned by these words, I cannot help but be encouraged to drop my petty complaints and narrow-mindedness for something broader, something boundless. If he can do it in there, surely I can out here. But breaking down the walls of the mind, the false dichotomy of inside there and outside here is the very gift that they are giving me. Going inside those walls give me the chance to practice breaking down a few of my self-created walls. There gift to me is clear but what, if anything, do I give them in return? Perhaps jus this is it – I carry in the freshness of the wild Pacific air that clings to my clothing as I enter the prison where we together once again use the alchemy of ceremony to turn our attention into intention, breaking down a few walls in the process.


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