Death Row and Freedom

Independence Day is just a few days away and I thought these reflections are timely for all of us to reflect upon. What freedom do you recognize right now? What freedom are you celebrating? What do you value in your freedom? Is it external or internal freedom?

I am including a short piece here around freedom.

Today I sat across a man in death row in San Quentin. 

Two windows, one glass and one a metal  screen mesh, each about 1.5-2 feet square, stood between us as we spoke through a telephone. I had followed the long yellow line that matched my yellow sweatshirt towards the building. Only my car key, my driver’s license and a strong sense of purpose. I am here to meet this man I had been exchanging dharma letters with.

As I walked, I noticed the tower with a guard above watching. It felt odd the tower against the blue sky and the bay. I  continued my walk along the yellow line towards the old red bricked building. As I waited at another locked gate, I noticed the empty baby strollers waiting outside. I wasn’t mentally prepared for these, and my heart just melted.

There was no sign or button to push. I just waited until it electronically slid opened into another locked gate. Sandwiched between two high security locked gates, I showed the invisible ink on my right wrist under the scan to be allowed to go inside. I just entered the Adjustment Center. This is where the most violent men in San Quentin are held indefinitely.

I had been standing waiting for a while, every few minutes walking from window to window to see if he was in there. I tried to be quiet and non invasive as I passed other visitors talking with their loved ones on the other side of the windows. He waited behind the closed window for 10 minutes before a guard took the solid cover down. This was the maximum security part of San Quentin State Prison. This is called the cage within the cage. He had spent years in isolation. Meditation he had learnt from books has kept him sane within the tiny cell he had.

One day, several months ago, I received a letter in the mail. It was from him. He simply asked for meditation instructions. It struck me deeply. Earlier in my monastic training in Asia, I made a vow that those that ask me to teach the dharma, I will. I didn’t expect though that I would be teaching someone in death row.

When I walked into the waiting room filled with family members waiting for their turns to visit, I sensed the deep love. As I waited, I watched the inmates through the small windows beaming conversing with those they love. Some of the visitors were clearly parents, young children, wives and girlfriends. I also felt the confusion, the pain, the grief. I also saw the commitment, the bond that prison can not break. As we passed each other, our eyes met and we smiled. Humanity here today in visiting hours was not dehumanized.

He asked about my most recent trip. I said I walked a pilgrimage through Spain. My access to open spaces and freedom walking endlessly through the countryside was a contrast to him doing walking meditation in his tiny cell. I added a more detailed instruction from my Burmese teacher for walking meditation because of the physical space he had. I am there to discuss the dharma with him. How do we find internal freedom when the external is not free at all? How do we find internal space when the external space is suffocating?

“What about if I can’t feel my heart?” Then feel what you can’t feel. Sense the absence. Is it cold, hot, tense, a vacuum? “What if I don’t ever feel it?” I said, sometimes the tenderness of the heart is buried deep underneath all the padding. Sense the padding. It may feel like numbness, fogginess, plastic bubble wraps. There are realized beings in Buddhism that murdered many people before they began to meditate. Don’t go to the future. Stay with the practice. Only in this moment can you truly have a choice. Meditation is not to fix anything. It simply is to be aware. Do not judge your experiences. Just aware of what is there. If what is there is indifference or absence, then be aware of that.

We had already spoken about loving kindness and compassion meditations in our letters. Back and forth, we now sat in meditation following the sensations of arms that have fallen asleep from holding the telephone up. What is the sensation of the sleeves on your arm? I remember the invisible ink seal on my arm. Do you feel your sitting bones on the chair?  “Ah, that is what is meant by sensing myself in the body.” Know that in experience there is coming and going. “Meditation has helped me to stay here even when I have been stunned by pepper spray or electricity.” I was quiet. My heart ached.

Make no mistake that I come here to be a teacher alone. I am a student of life. I don’t have ready made answers. I am used to people telling me their deepest secrets. Part of my job in the world is to hold space for client’s trauma, hatred, terror as well as joy and expansion after the coilings. Today, I asked myself if I am ready to hear about murder? Am I ready to hear what happens in the cage within the cage of death row? Is my heart big enough to hold that too?

“Do you know about Buddhism and quantam physics?” When meditating, see the wave in the particle. See it all arising and falling away. This is anicca, impermanence. When you see this over and over again, you will know that there is not one solid self as we believe. This is anatta, non-self. He gave me details of his daily life. What he sees through his tiny window of the outside world beyond his cell. I gave him instructions in the nature of mind so every time he looks out through that tiny slit in the wall, he will remember that which can never be bounded.

The two guards came to unlock the cage from his side. We quickly said goodbye. His gratitude was immense. Mine was too. I don’t know how often he gets visitors. I made sure I left to give him the dignity of me not seeing him being handcuffed and ankle cuffed by the guards. I saw the shadows in the corner of my peripheral vision nonetheless.

I walked out with my car key, my driver’s license, the big blue sky, the bay and a much wider perspective in life.

I leave you with this: what is your freedom? How do you take care of it? When was the last time you’ve appreciated and celebrated those daily freedoms?

May all beings be happy and be free of suffering.

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4 Responses to Death Row and Freedom

  1. Andrew says:

    Beautiful description of such a meeting. It helps those of us who are on the outside, to hold some perspective for the amazing gifts we have. Freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom from the oppression of the majority. Thank you for sharing about your encounter. It helps.

  2. Bill says:

    As I contemplate and discern whether I feel similarly called to such work, this entry is tremendously helpful. You paint a potent picture, even if spare, of not only the external surroundings, but of some details within the internal landscape as well. And I am perhaps most by the clarity and simplicity of your intention: “here to be a teacher alone.” Thanks so much for this! I suspect I’ll come back to this more than once.

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