Human to Human

Yesterday I met a man who has been in an isolation unit in San Quentin for the last 9 years. In addition, he was in another isolation unit for another four years previous to that. This means no contact with others for 13 years. When he goes out for a few hours a week to have sunlight, he is still alone in a kennel (a caged box) along with the other kennels. Each man in the kennel is in death row in “the hole”. He had told me that one man had been there for 30 years. San Quentin in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area Marin County practices the use of prolonged solitary confinement. This is considered a violation of human rights law.

I was the first person he had a contact visit with. This meant there is no glass window between us nor a telephone line to hear each other. We sat inside a locked cage together. The guards call it a holding unit. The first thing my dharma friend said once his handcuffs were released was he was being mindful of being nervous. I said I was nervous too, a downgrade from being petrified a few days ago. I had bought some frozen chicken wings and french fries from the vending machine there and fumbled with the microwave to heat them up. It was his first meal with another person in 13 years. We held hands, and I asked him to lead the prayer. There was much gratitude and appreciation for the web of life and for each other as we blessed the food.

Dharma here is having an open heart. There is a mistaken view that the whole dharma is meditation. Actually meditation is mental cultivation (bhavana in Pali). Mental cultivation is not Chan/Zen or the isness of being. Beingness is not causative. Undergoing a mental training to arrive at stillness will not necessarily open your heart and be compassionate. It can. It may. There is no guarantee that it will. Mental cultivation can give you the precision and clarity aspects of mind, but loving because of non-separation is different.

He mentioned repeatedly the newness and difference of viewing me not through a mesh wiring or glass between us. He could see with more clarity how I looked like. “You are pretty. You are small. Your eyes are bright.” I breathed, looked him directly in his eyes and began our sitting practice together. We dialoged about our lives, me dealing with a move that didn’t work at the last moment while he with his life inside and what it meant to be in death row. The smoke like quality of life kept rising and disappearing into nothingness as we shared

At that moment, the confinement of the cage vanished and it felt no different than sitting in an expensive Italian cafe in Sausalito. There were no fancy words, no organic food. I placed the warm morsels of food on a common paper plate from which we can share. I broke the chocolate bar in half and experienced the sweetness of just this moment meeting human to human.

May you deepen in your dharma. May you touch the web of life with love which is no other than you are. May all beings be happy and be free of suffering.

Yours in the love and light,

Kathrina Kasha Peterson

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