In Europe, the tradition is to build the cathedral on the highest part of town. Here in northern California, that honor goes to our local jail. From Humboldt Bay and much of town of Eureka, the blocky five-story eyesore, known officially as the Humboldt County Correctional Facility, rules its surroundings like Tolkien’s Dark Tower.
The bleakness doesn’t stop on the outside. The moment I walk through the heavy metal doors to the visiting area, I’m in another world, cheerless and severe. This Thursday evening, a few family and friends of inmates stare at the floor as they wait under a pastiche of “Call us first!” advertisements for bail bonds. Old newspapers and magazines litter the waiting room. “Men’s meditation, Room 322,” I say through the microphone to the woman sitting behind reinforced glass, trading my driver’s license for a visitor tag, to be worn at all times.
The metal detector screeches a harsh warning as I pass through, but after nearly 10 years, they know me and they know my brass Tibetan chimes. I’m never stopped. Two sets of remote-controlled doors and a brief elevator ride later, under the constant scrutiny of security cameras, I enter our meeting room.
Room 322 is an unlikely zendo, with its concrete walls and circle of plastic chairs squeezed between a mess of metal tables. The room normally functions as a classroom for rehabilitation programs. My first task is to rearrange the furniture to create a sitting space for however many of the jail’s 300-odd male inmates have chosen to sign up. I’ve had zero and I’ve had twenty come for this weekly “time out.” While I wait, I deconstruct the leavings on the blackboard from a previous class. “Think before you act.” “Respect yourself and others.” “Participate!”
For a few minutes, I savor being alone, wondering how many “brothers” will come tonight, whether I’ll know any of them, if the evening will be quiet or challenging. Just one time I felt anxious. About a year ago, a big guy—he looked like he might have been a professional wrestler—fixed me in his gaze. Then, “You ever feel scared in here?” I replied, truthfully, “Not until now!” Laughter all round. We were cool.
The door clangs open, and they start arriving from the dorms in ones and twos and sixes and sevens, high-fiving buddies, sometimes greeting me as if they’ve known me for years (a few have!). Some I recognize from a couple of weeks back, others I can’t quite place. “Remember me? I came to meditation five years ago, last time I was here.” Jail time is an occupational hazard for some, up here in the Emerald Triangle.
Once they’re settled in and we’ve gone around the circle saying our names, I tell them we’re going to do two sessions of meditation. My instructions are about as terse as the motivators on the blackboard: What I’d like is for you to sit quietly and notice what’s happening. Then I switch the lights off. Although it’s not pitch-black, it’s better than anything else they’ll experience inside, where harsh fluorescent lights are on night and day. I might remind them that this is the darkest, quietest, safest place in the jail. Whatever tension they—we—might have brought seems to soften in the gloom.
Most stay in their chairs. A few sit on the floor or on the tables, some erect in formal lotus posture. “Relaxed but alert,” I say, before modeling a long, loud out-breath: “Let it all go!” I ring the chimes three times and the adventure begins. My routine is to sit for 15 minutes, check in with the guys, take any questions, then sit for another 20 minutes. At the start of the first session, I usually give brief guidelines for relaxation: “Notice how you’re sitting, what your hands and feet are doing. Are your eyes are open or closed? Are you breathing through your nose or mouth? Are you feeling safe… bored… anxious… calm? Check your body for any tightness, then imagine exhaling the tension.” And that’s pretty much it until I ring for our check-in.
In the dim light, they look like saffron-robed monks in their orange jumpsuits. I break the silence: “How’s it going out there?” Silence. Shuffling. Then, “Sure beats the dorm.” “I thought this would be more of a lecture.” “I was on the beach watching the waves.” “Wish I could feel like this all the time.” “How do I get my mind to slow down?”
I’m reluctant to offer much help or give instructions. In my experience, it’s easy for meditators to turn well-meant advice into “this is right” and “this is wrong” thinking. If someone is really up against it—at times they say they feel overwhelmed by anger or helplessness—I might offer a few words of encouragement: “Tony, you’re doing fine by just showing up here in the first place. Minds aren’t designed to be still. Our ancestors survived by being on red alert all the time. That’s what we’re working with here.”
“But I feel like I’m going to explode!”
I offer him a small gesture—a bow—wanting to wave a magic wand. “Just noticing how disturbed your mind is, that’s great, watching your drama instead of being trapped inside it.” He nods, looking unconvinced. I don’t engage in extended discussions, believing the best way to find answers is to sit quietly, trusting oneself. All I can really do is create the opportunity for them to discover their own wisdom.
For the next few minutes, we might discuss the practicalities of meditating in this crowded, jangly environment: how to find quiet space to meditate every day (before the wake-up bell, in the bathroom); techniques to help focus (your breath’s always right there, even here in jail); how to remain calm in this stressful environment (stay open to unexpected friends and kindnesses, leave the rest); what books to read about meditation (they’re all good, and all limited, since they reflect someone else’s experience). I often feel inadequate. My own experience behind bars consists of one bad night in a London jail 50 years ago, and that was plenty scary. I have no idea how I would cope if I were confined in this environment absent fresh air, daylight, trees, privacy, quiet.
“How long have you been meditating?” I’m sometimes asked during our check-in. “About 15 minutes,” I’ll say. I like the question. It gives me an opportunity to explain my bottom-line belief (not shared by all who sit) that there’s no such thing as an experienced meditator. We start anew every time we sit—with every breath, even. Any knowledge about meditation that I might have acquired over the years is useless. Worse than useless. All I ever got from 40 years of meditating is that there’s nothing to be gotten, and my favorite Buddhist quote is from author Marian Mountain in her classic, The Zen Environment: “There’s nothing so dead as yesterday’s enlightenment.”
Three chimes later, we return to silence. Almost silence. I sometimes interject a word of encouragement midway, remembering that some of these guys have never meditated before and 20 minutes can be a very long time. “Inhale the silence, exhale the noise of your mind.” Or, “Make the most of this precious time.”
One evening awhile back, we’d had a particularly tense check-in period—a couple of the guys were getting sentenced the next day, another was worrying about his teenage son doing meth. The mood was one of edginess. A few minutes later, breaking the silence, I heard myself say, “However you’re sitting, whatever you’re thinking, you’re doing it right.” Later one of the guys came over to me with tears in his eyes. “I just wanted you to know that in 25 years, that’s the first time anyone told me I was doing it right.”
I rarely see the same faces for more than two or three consecutive visits, since the average inmate spends just 13 days in our jail. Some leave for freedom, often under probation, others are sent to maximum-security prisons. The constant sense of not-knowing, hovering between one stage of life and another, is a potent recipe for anxiety. One hour a week of meditation offers the opportunity to muffle the tension and step back from the pain. More than once I’ve been told that these sessions have saved someone’s sanity.
The Arcata Zen Group started offering meditation in the jail nearly 12 years ago, and I’ve been one of the facilitators almost from its inception. In that time, my own approach has changed. For instance, I used to allow sharing of life stories, which invariably came down to, “Why I’m in jail,” or more likely, “Why I shouldn’t be in jail.” Now I ask the guys to focus on what’s happening right now. I also used to get their agreement on a list of ground rules: maintaining confidentiality, staying in their seats, avoiding side-talking, interruptions and gossip. At some point I felt uncomfortable with all the rules—they get enough of those anyway, and this is supposed to be a refuge. These days my only enforcement is “No candy.”
Why candy? Thursday night is commissary night (as we discovered too late in the game to change our schedule), meaning the guys often arrive on a sugar-high, pockets full of the stuff. “Candy and meditation are about at opposite ends of the spectrum as you can get,” I say, “and besides, the sound drives me nuts!” It does too, the rustling and sucking hurls my Buddhist calmness out the window (not that we have windows). It’s a good rule. The guys often comment on the difference between their punchy arrival and mellow departure, bodies full of peace and quiet where before there was only glucose.
“Watch your eyes,” I warn before turning the lights on, “It’s really bright!” We’re back in the world of concrete and plastic. I thank the guys with a gassho, reminding them that one of us is here every Thursday. Their own “thank you’s” are heartfelt. Without knowing exactly what it is we offer, it somehow feels right.
They help me rearrange the tables and chairs and I press the button by the door. “You done in there?” asks a voice on the intercom. “All done,” I lie. We’re never done. The journey continues, one breath at a time. If nothing else, I hope I’ve reminded them that “four walls do not a prison make.”
Down on the ground floor, I reclaim my license and walk out into the cool air, breathing the sky, the street, the traffic. I unlock my bike, thinking, always, “There but for the grace of God…” and roll down the sidewalk into the night.
Barry Evans ([email protected]) is a member of the Arcata (California) Zen Group. He also sits with Master Akira Kasai in Guanajuato, Mexico.