The Illusion of Significant Improvement

Wheat Field and Poppies, Amghas, Morocco
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
~Dongshan Liangjie (China, 807-869)


I just got Mark’s last letter in the mail. It’s been almost two years of knowing him, 18 letters in all, a strange relationship that has been at once both distant and intimate. I guess that comes with the territory; letters can be so intimate because we assume that no one else will read them so we give voice to things we may not otherwise say. There is also the intimacy or understanding of two Buddhists conversing with one another. It was also distant because, well there is distance involved – both the literal distance of miles of separation and the figurative kind born from leading two very different lives. He inside, me outside although in reality there is no inside or outside.

There wasn’t much in this last letter – just saying that he was still alive and getting out in June. Getting out of what you may be wondering. Through the San Francisco Zen Center’s Prison Pen Pal program I have been corresponding with an inmate in a maximum security prison and he will be out on parole next week. In the letter he says that he is “very stressed out” because he is getting out. At first glance it seems strange to be apprehensive about getting out of prison but I think I can relate. Not to getting out of prison after many years (7 or 8 this time around for Mark) but the stress of such a huge change in one’s life. Don’t we all experience this kind of intense stress when going through a dramatic change? Haven’t we all felt this at some point in our lives? There is the excitement and anticipation of something new but also trepidation and fear of the unknown. Of course in actuality, everything is unknown or at least unknowable.

In a letter written by another inmate, with whom Mark thinks I should correspond, there is a quote from Alan Watts that says, “The illusion of significant improvement arises in moments of contrast, as when one turns from left to right on a hard bed.” That struck me as related to Mark’s stress particularly, and to our lives in general.  Is he feeling stressed because of the uncertainty of what he will do on the outside and the fear of doing the same shit that got him locked up in the first place. I would guess that inmates are both afraid and incredibly excited by the possibilities of a better life. But the reality is probably much like flipping over on a hard bed – the other side only seems comfortable in contrast with what you have been lying on. Both sides are hard, damn hard and no amount of flopping around is going to change that fact. So while getting out of “hell”, as Mark has described prison, offers a world of possibility, it is no panacea for one’s ills. Wherever you go there you are and life, your life, is there to meet you. When we attach to ideas of happiness, like I will only be happy once I am out of prison, we set ourselves up for disappointment and great suffering. Our attachment to a future state that is unlikely to be exactly how we want it to be anyway is the root cause of much of our anguish. In this ever-changing world we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness when we hold on to anything too strongly. This doesn’t mean that we cannot hope for a happy life or for something to be a little different; what it does mean is that we need to find a way to be happy regardless of what happens, irrespective of the outcome. A qualifier like “I will only be happy if” sets us up for disappointment because life is constantly changing and we really cannot know what is going to happen next. We really cannot know if an outcome is good or bad because each new outcome sets in motion a whole new set of conditions. What we can do is to practice equanimity, whereby we are okay with whatever happens. Without qualifiers we have the possibility for a boundless life, one in which we can be happy and content, most of the time, regardless of what happens. No “if” statements, no caveats and no qualifiers. No looking for significant improvement by turning over on a hard bed.

I don’t know what prison was like for Mark and I can’t know what it’s like to be released after so many years. What I do know is that we all go looking for happiness somewhere else, outside of ourselves and beyond the conditions of our lives. We wish for something else, someone else and think that only then will we be happy. In fact, we all the possibility for happiness right now, right here. So perhaps Mark found some contentment or happiness in prison and that he can take that practice with him into this dusty world of ours, outside of the walls of prison.  I wish for him a happy and (mostly) satisfied life where he feels like he is positively contributing to society. I know that is his intention but now he will have to do the difficult work of realizing that intention. And when he inevitably flips over on the hard bed of life, I hope he understands that there is no significant improvement over the present moment and that just this is enough, whatever this is. I hope this for myself too and for all of us.


View From Seat 14A

Free your mind and your ass will follow.

~George Clinton

I settled into my seat, buckled the lap belt, took a deep breath, and looked out the window at the tarmac. I have enjoyed airplane travel over the years, mostly because of the sense of adventure associated with going somewhere far, but I am still nervous when it comes down to it. In part this is due to the insanity of leaving the earth beyond in such a heavy bird and expecting it not to crash, but also there is the nervousness of so many strangers being so intimately packed into what is really just a large sardine container. It’s really quite amazing to think about how well we all get along as we total strangers come together in such a way. I took a deep breath, grabbed my notebook, and was about to begin writing when I read the writing on the back of the seat in front of me. It said, “Fasten seat belt while seated, Use cushion as flotation device.” This was something that I had read many times before, and it was almost always the exact same with nothing profound or out-of-the-ordinary.  I read it again and thought to myself, “Could I write something equally succinct and terse about my life, my values,” like a modern day, American haiku. Here is what I came up with from seat 14A, with a few variations to boot:


Unfasten the self, be wild and free.

Use your life well, don’t waste it.


Unfasten yourself while in flight

Use bottom for cushion and float away free.


Unfasten your mind

Let it flow freely.

What would you write, dear reader, for your life? If you are comfortable doing so, please share with all of us by replying below or emailing me directly.