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.


5 Comments on “The Illusion of Significant Improvement”

  1. howard lafever says:

    David…very interesting…I hope you have made a difference in this guys life!!

    • The LaFevers says:

      Thanks Dad – I have no thoughts of grandeur but I am sure that I left some positive mark on his life. You know from gardening that you never know which seeds will sprout and now its his responsibility to take care of the seeds that we planted together.

  2. Julie says:

    Theres something remarkable that the Alan Watts quote came from Marks friend. Deep insight of their situation. Made me realize a lot of their mental struggle around being “free”. This would be a nice article in the sun magazine!

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