Sitting. Still. Mind wandering.
Thoughts come and go, space in-between.
Adjusting form, swishing cloth. A cough.
Stomach gurgling, like a trumpeting crane.
Spine straight, thumbs lightly touching.
Tires crunching gravel, muffled radio from within.
A raven croaks, “Good morning.
I am here. I am awake.”
I am all of this, suchness.
It is all me, ephemera.
Narrow chasms open to wide spaces.
The bell rings and I bow.
So far inside boundlessness
Beyond words and ideas
Dwelling in wholeness.
Empty of selfhood
Brimming with fullness
Interconnected beyond belief.
Beyond, gone gone way beyond
Emerging spontaneously from silence
Into the cacophony of life.
Equal wholeness of beginning and ending
I merge with oneness and am myself again.
Here are some poems that I wrote after participating in a weekend zen retreat that left me feeling settled, gathered, animated and awake:
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.
It is the sufferings and insecurities of our lives that, although painful and distressing, teach us not to cling to the impermanent things of this world. Not even the greatest master could teach us so well. We should honor and respect them, not shun their company.
~ Dongshan Liangjie (9th Century Chinese Ch’an Master)
Kristin placed a dollop of peanut butter carefully upon each round of sliced banana and then artfully arranged it all on a plate in the shape of a smiling face with eyebrows raised in a quizzical look. The girls devoured this dessert like ravenous wild dogs until there were only two pieces left. Juniper, the younger, grabbed one piece and quickly popped it into her mouth and then grabbed the second one and as I was saying, “that’s for Maddie” popped it in too. As Maddie bounded down the hallway to where we were standing, her joyous countenance turned to sadness in the blink of an eye as she realized what her little sister had done. I held her as she cried and felt her anguish ripple throughout her small frame. Juniper stood nearby looking at her with a searching look that wondered why her big sister was so upset. I explained to her that this was because she had eaten both bites of food one of which was for Maddie. I didn’t belabor the point and I didn’t chastise her for it. I simply let the effects of her action sink in. She stood nearby looking concerned and then it softened as a look of empathy came to her face. She toddled over, hugged her sister and said, “Sorry Maddie” in her sweet, toddler voice. “Sorry eating Maddie’s bite,” she said again and the two sisters hugged as Kristin and I looked on lovingly.
This situation and the suffering that occurred taught me something important, something that I seem to need to learn over and over again – that the difficult moments in our lives are our greatest teachers and that when we don’t shun them there is an opportunity for growth within the suffering. When things go well, we don’t have cause to learn anything. “We got this,” we may think to ourselves. But it’s when we have difficulties and when we suffer (or cause suffering for others) that we have the opportunity to learn something. And what Juniper showed me is that moments when we don’t act our best are the fertile ground of our blossoming. In this situation, I saw the realization of what her actions had caused and the compassion (literally “passion together”) of her apology. She seemed to learn something about compassion, empathy and the power of atonement that I could never teach her. She learned it first-hand because her actions were real and Maddie’s tears were authentic.
I also learned an important lesson in parenting from this situation. Because neither Kristin nor I stepped in to discipline Juniper, it allowed her the space and time to think about what happened and to come up with her own response. Had we stepped in, we would have limited the possibilities of this moment and I don’t think Juniper would have learned the lesson of cause and effect. Because we took a step back, we were able to enjoy heartfelt reconciliation between two sisters, who really are best friends. The seeds that were planted in this moment will likely blossom at some point in the future and while we don’t know when or where, we do know that they will produce a delicious fruit because they were planted from the heart. Lessons abound in this life of ours when we pay attention and especially when we don’t shun anyone’s company.
I just found a half-sheet of yellow paper ripped off a legal pad, stained with coffee and displaying the beginnings of what looks like an excellent round of crayon doodling by a toddler. The title says, “Blog Post” and under that I wrote a list of things to write about:
- The warmth of eggs on cold hands
- The crescent moon slowly slicing its way across the western sky
- The huskiness of coastal dusk
Finding this list this morning stopped me in my tracks and brought a smile to my face for it is a brief glimpse into my life, into a day in my life showing something about the richness in which I live and the mind that I try to cultivate – a mind without walls that can be present, aware and appreciative of whatever is occurring in the moment.
How wonderful is it to know the delight warm eggs on cold hands, eggs that had been warmed the soft body of an ochre-colored hen. If it was cold enough that my hands were cold in this mild coastal climate then the skies must have been clear. And if the skies were clear then nascent stars would have been visible to the east and the western sky would have been the most splendid dark blue color fading to lighter blue and on down into a very subtle green where the blue of night-time sky and the yellow of the daytime sky just above the horizon merge. Yellow and blue make green.
The crescent moon slicing its way across the western sky would have been hanging there or perhaps this was another evening. The crescent moon with a planet dangling off of it like those Arabic earrings I saw for sale in Moroccan shops. There is something about the smallness of a crescent moon that illuminates the vastness of the night-sky in ways that a big, round full moon fails to do. Just enough light to let me know where I am but not so much as to make me feel exposed.
On other evenings when I head out to do the chicken chores, taking them fresh water, collecting eggs and closing them in for the night, the air feels thick and heavy. It’s a huskiness that can feel oppressive in hot places but not here on the coast, where it is almost always cool and mild. On these evenings there is cloud cover, which acts like a blanket over the earth, holding in the heat of day and raising the humidity. Calmness and quiet reign supreme on these nights as if the moisture in the air captures any errant sounds. On these nights a few chickens may still be out, pecking here and there or getting their last drink of water before roosting for the night. If this is the case, I slow down and simply take it all in. If I hurry, however, and am impatient the chickens will run away frustrating me to no end. But if I just relax and let things unfold, the stragglers will put themselves to bed. No effort on my part but mind that it takes to just be there. In these instances I am afforded the opportunity to look around and take things in. I may see the trees in the orchard beginning to bloom, plums first then apples and pears. My skin may feel the slight movement of a soft breeze, gentle and refreshing, perhaps bringing the scent of plum blossoms along with it. And I may hear the sound of a cow mooing in the distance and think perhaps its Basil, the cow that has been giving us delicious fresh milk once a week when Kristin volunteers on that farm. The sounds, smells and sights of this moment are always there, if and only if, I can be there too, not distracted by self-centeredness or delusion. When the walls of mind come down, anything is possible and the moments of life scratched down on scraps of paper come truly alive.
…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.