Updated: May 26, 2020
By Barry Evans
[Originally published in the North Coast (California) Journal, where Barry writes the “Field Notes” column. Republished, in full, by permission.]
PHOTO BY BARRY EVANS – Pete Kayes, one of the men’s program volunteers from the Arcata Zen Group, rings a bell to signal the start of meditation. (Pete, a dear friend of the author, has since died.)
In Europe, the tradition is to build the cathedral on the highest part of town. Here in Humboldt County, that honor goes to our local jail. From the bay and much of town, 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, as I trade my driver’s license for a visitor tag, to be worn at all times.
The metal detector screeches 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 20 show up for this weekly “time out.” While I wait, I deconstruct what’s left 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. “You ever feel scared in here?” he asked. I replied, truthfully, “Not until now!” Laughter all around. 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 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 someone will say he feels overwhelmed by anger, helplessness or discouragement — I’ll try to encourage him: “Tony, you’re doing fine by just showing up in the first place. Our 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 rather 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 to learn 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. The genius of the practice is its spontaneity. My all-time 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 the 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 saying, “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 as 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 bow, reminding them that one of us is here every Thursday. Their own “thank yous” 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.
SIDEBAR: A History of the Jail Meditation Program
In 1998, Tom Lewis was pursuing his Masters of Divinity degree in Berkeley at the Pacific School of Religion. Needing to take an experiential “field education” class, he negotiated with his school to spend a year working at the Humboldt County Correctional Facility. His off-site supervisor, Father Eric Duff, then at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, introduced him to the Correction Program Coordinator, Karen Keasey, who was — and still is — very supportive of meditation as a way of helping inmates get through their time in jail. (“We should all do it!” she says.) For 18 months, Tom led meditation, yoga and a support group, and offered one-on-one counseling two or three days a week.
He also joined the Arcata Zen Group, becoming friendly with the teacher, the late Maylie Scott, who was hugely enthusiastic about the project. When Tom relocated back to Berkeley, the meditation program was taken over by AZG member Mitch Trachtenberg.
Soon after, my wife and I moved to Eureka from the Bay Area. I already had a personal interest in supporting inmates, as I’d become friendly with Manny Babbitt, a U.S. Marine veteran of Vietnam, not long before he was executed at San Quentin in 1999 for a murder committed 19 years earlier. His case was complicated. He suffered from PTSD after being wounded at the battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Thirty years later — one year before his execution — he was awarded a Purple Heart. Talking with Manny had given me some small insight into what it was like to spend time “inside,” so when Mitch asked at one of the AZG meetings if anyone would be interested in helping him, I jumped at the chance.
Since then, the program has expanded. Now, once a week, four of us facilitate the men’s program, while four women lead a women’s group in the jail. We are all members of the Arcata Zen Group.
I asked my fellow facilitators how they viewed the program. Michael said, “I get the opportunity to feel the universal dilemma we are all in, of being imprisoned in delusion and worry and ego … that inside or outside, we are all in this together; it’s the human condition.” Maggie echoed this: “This volunteer work breaks down walls — we really see that we aren’t separate, regardless of circumstances.”
SIDEBAR: Zen Meditation
Tradition holds that Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism some 2,500 years ago. Since then, the philosophy has split into many streams, some of which the Buddha might not recognize. Certainly the sect of Soto Zen seems a far cry from the earliest Buddhist writings, with its non-judgmental, no-progress, no-goal and no-path approach. Around 1250, the founder of Soto, Dogen Zenji, wrote, “Your practice is your enlightenment,” anticipating by several centuries the beer commercial tag, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The practice of Soto Zen is summed up by the term shikantaza. Dogen’s teacher, Tiantong Rujing, is said to have coined the term: “nothing but (shikan) precisely (da) sitting (za),” usually translated as “just sitting.”Shikantaza avoids techniques, calling only for the student to sit quietly in a state of alertness, directed to no object, attached to no particular content. Sometimes described as “goal-less meditation in quiet awareness,”shikantaza is the basis of the form that Dogen brought to Japan from China in the 13th century. Back then, Soto was disparagingly called “farmer Zen” because of its simplicity and mass appeal, in contrast to, for example, Rinzai, which appealed more to the samurai aristocracy.
In the group that I help lead on the “outside,” we sit for 30 minutes facing the wall, keeping our spines erect and our eyes open. Following sitting meditation, we walk slowly and deliberately (“knowing we are walking,” in the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh) for several more minutes. Room 322 in the jail doesn’t lend itself to much movement, and we usually sit in a circle facing each other. I do ask the participants to check whether their eyes are open or closed, but don’t direct them to do it a certain way. A few minutes of “real-time” meditation teaches more than all the instruction I can offer.
My own history with meditation began 40 years ago with Transcendental Meditation, and for many years I was, in my wife’s words, a spiritual dilettante. (I took that as a compliment!) Whichever technique I was using, I was often aware of a common theme, that somehow I was doing it wrong. Discovering Soto’s non-judgmental approach in the early 1990s was a huge relief. I had stumbled into the Kannon Do Soto Zen center in Mountain View, Calif., and after sitting for 30 or 40 minutes once a day, I decided to try the longer three-sit Saturday morning program. After the first two sits, I looked for my teacher, Les Kaye. It was work period, and he was sweeping the steps.
“Those two sits were just awful,” I said. “My mind was all over the place, so I think I’ll skip the third period.”
He put down his broom and smiled at me. “There’s no such thing as a bad meditation,” he said.
Encouraged, I stayed. An hour later, I was tying my shoes when he came by. “Thanks for your support,” I said. “I’m glad I stayed. That last sit was really good.”
He smiled again, and said, “There’s no such thing as a good meditation.”
About the author:
Barry Evans take on this practice is, “If you have to teach it or explain it, it’s not meditation.” He is a member of the Arcata (CA) Zen Group, and also sits with Master Akira Kasai in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he and his wife occasionally meditate with inmates in the local “carcel” (jail). He can be reached at email@example.com