By Enrico Blanca
“Ducks, grass and sky,” says Mr. Young. “Looking out the window that’s all I saw. No people. Now, I like ducks, grass and sky. But they’re so much better out here.”
The others laugh and nod. “And having to pay attention all the time,” adds Darren. “Head on swivel like a security guard. I still do it now.” He also describes the mindless lack of awareness now. “People walking with their eyes glued to their phones. I just stand still and let them walk into me.” Things are so unlike the rigorous schedule Darren is used to.
We are in a session in an outpatient program for parolee substance abusers. Zen is not therapy, but I am struck by the experience of these men who have served 10, 20, 30 years or more in state prison, and the similarities to the rigors of Zen sesshin.
A few months ago I became a member of this group that sits together for an hour several times a week.
When I first joined, I was struck by the fearless honesty and depth of introspection with which many of these men talk about their experiences. I was shocked by their descriptions of arbitrary and inscrutable authority with the threat of death always looming.
“Focuses the mind,” they agree. For them the most ferocious Rohatsu in history would be a vacation. Sacrifice an arm? Shit, how about both legs. Polish tiles? Yes, for weeks, months, years on end. Floor sweeping until the end of days. And the tenzo needs no instruction.
Most of all, these guys have blown me away by their fortitude and resilience.
Mr. Young had spoken eloquently of chants of remembrance. And of long stretches of solitude, loneliness, physical pain and mental anguish. “Academic shit don’t cut it. Smart words don’t come close.” But he also described moments of grounded sanity and laser-sharp clarity. “It was hard at first. I didn’t know anything. But the older ones guided me. They showed real knowledge and compassion. Now I’m different…stronger, more humble, a little wiser. More willing to depend on others. Funny, the way your whole life can change in a second.”
In a wheelchair and in his 60s, Mr Young appears to be a gentle, kind and caring Muslim. To know that he served 35 years for murder is nothing short of astounding. Perhaps, all of us have some of his profound qualities for being able to deal with life’s vicissitudes with forbearance and acceptance, as well as his insight into the interdependence of all. Buddha nature?
To my right, Albert adjusts himself in his chair. “It’s my knee. Just can’t settle in sometimes. And my back. Of course there was pain, but not like I see in the world. In a controlled environment with a set routine all you have to do is pay attention to what’s going on around you and you’re good. But some didn’t make it.” Next to him Kareem nods peacefully in a kind of samadhi, I think. Another guy brings up the chanting Mr. Young mentioned. “There were times when it was the only thing that got me through. That feeling of faith and support from the others.”
All of us are trying to come to grips with the almost unbearable consequences of our ill-chosen actions, those driven by greed, anger and self-deception.
Juan is speaking about the sanity of taking care of things. Little things like your bed, shower (10 minutes, boxers on), and simple meals. Zale indicates that the hour is up and concludes, “Everything changes. When you think you can’t take it any more, it will change. You just have to hang in.” As I look and listen to Mr. Young, Darren, Albert, Juan and the others, my mind boggles at the changes these guys have survived from the time they landed upstate until now.
My friend Ross has lived in Zen communities more than half his life. He often says that everyone suffers, that all suffering is equal. I don’t believe that. But we agree on the profound possibility of redemption.
On this particular day, there is general agreement among the guys about their past and present circumstances. Also, lots of jovial mockery (“doing the dozens”) and self-deprecation. Other groups have been more tense and fraught. But now Albert says something that has everyone nodding vigorously in assent. “If I had just listened to the females in my family, my mother, aunts and sisters, I would never have wound up in all this. But that’s life, right? My life. I’ve tried hard to accept and move on.”
Through hearing and witnessing the struggles of these men, struggles and challenges which I almost cannot imagine, I have learned that profound redemption is possible for us all.
Enrico Blanca is a free range intellectual (of pecking intelligence), poet, flaneur, socialist and cosmopolitan bon vivant who lives in New York City. He has had a nearly 30 year career as an academic librarian and is now embarking on a second one as a substance abuse counselor. A long-time Zen practitioner, he now studies with Barry Magid at the Ordinary Mind Zendo. He has a passion for music, cooking, writing and performing his poetry, and cherchez les femmes. Right now he is all about Ikkyu.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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