Author Calvin Malone began his study and practice of the Dharma while in prison and is now nearing the end of his 20-year sentence.
30 March 2010
A light drizzle was falling one early summer weekend, and I did not want to allow myself to think about better places to be. The air smelled fresh and clean as I stepped out of my unit to walk the long stretch of sidewalk to the main chow hall. The wet atmosphere provoked nostalgic memories. Despite my attempt to be cheerful, feelings of melancholy settled over me like the persistent mist, dampening everything. It took all I had to face the prospect of another prison meal.
By the time I arrived indoors, my mood was sour and matched the gray weather. As I made my way to the chow hall, I tried not to let my mind anticipate the culinary surprises that were sure to be waiting. I tried not to respond to the masses of men crowded together loudly consuming what can only be described as questionable. I pushed away thoughts of those whose meal-time etiquette was reminiscent of various exhibits at a local county fair. I got into my place in the meal line directly behind a particularly hairy inmate who kept emitting grunts with each step. All at once I felt claustrophobic and wanted to run. It got intensely hot and I felt desperate to get back out in the cleansing rain. At least there I felt human, even alive.
Before I could leave, it was my turn at the food window. A tray slid out. I was astonished and stood still, staring at my tray. Right there, right next to the shriveled tan-colored corn, just above the clump of fake mashed potatoes, and on the other side of the red stuff, was an apple. Not just any apple. An extraordinary apple. It was the most beautiful green apple I had ever seen. It sat there like a rare jewel in dark mud. This apple had a small stem protruding from its unblemished dimple. A bright green leaf waved bravely from a perfect stem. The skin on the apple was tight and the shape was the kind of perfection captured by classic painters. It held the promise of delicious crispness.
I must have been standing there for half a minute because the man behind me roughly invited me to move on. Ignoring his remarks about my ancestry, I simply stared at this piece of fruit, which seemed to be the only thing in the entire chow hall. Somehow I managed to put my tray away while holding the apple in one hand. Once outside I held the apple balanced in the flat of my left palm. Drops of rain bounced off of the green skin, enhancing its appearance even more.
As I walked away from the chow hall the rain stopped and streaks of sun reached down through dark clouds like fingers searching this way and that in the dark. I walked slowly with my apple. I could feel prisoners and guards staring. Breathing in I smelled apple, breathing out the universe. Everything there is or ever was was contained in this apple. It was a revelation! I could see it with the wild exactness of shattered glass. The answer and the question were there in the apple. I was feeling an inexplicable joy while, at the same time, I felt keenly aware. I never before felt better in my life. I realized that this moment was as good as it gets.
The apple ceased to be just an apple for me. In it I saw the long journey this fruit made to get to me. Right here, right now. An absolute miracle! I could easily see the seed from which this apple had eventually come. The growing of the tree, the care involved, the labor and, yes, even the suffering that went into creating such a beautiful apple. I was reminded of the water and minerals that went into making this perfect fruit. I felt the sun on my head, the same sun that once nourished the leaves of the apple tree. I became lost in trying to identify the thousands of people involved in creating this apple and bringing it to me. The farm workers and their families, the producers, scientists, people in packing houses, drivers of trucks, sales people, politicians, those paid well and those hardly at all, dietitians, guards, and all those other beings who somehow got involved in making this apple possible. I thought of the bees, and the worms and old leaves adding nutrients to the soil.
Back in my cell I placed the apple on my folded blanket and sat with it in meditation. I could smell its incense-like fragrance. An alluring scent. I smiled. Eventually, I was faced with a decision—to eat or not to eat the apple. If I left it on my table it would soon shrivel up and cease to be beautiful. If I ate it, the apple would be gone.
I was hungry. I ate the apple. It was delicious.
Every part of every day is an open invitation for quiet reflection and mindful awareness. We can do this in our prison cell, on the bus, during coffee break at work, in front of a pile of dishes, while walking from here to there. Each fork in the road is another chance not to give in to set patterns and old habits. It is the perfect time to take the path that allows our attention to turn within and experience the freedom we all seek.
Now, when I think back to that day with the apple, I smile. It brings me joy knowing I will be walking with the apple for the rest of my life. Imagine, if I had not been incarcerated, I might never have seen the beauty that was always in the apple. It helped me become more mindful and gave me a direct experience of finding the intrinsic beauty that is within everything. That does much to ease my suffering. It is easy to see beauty in a rose or a sunset or our partner. Things that elicit feelings of warmth and joy may also be described as beautiful by the beholder. In reality, beauty can be whatever we wish it to be. When we can see the beauty in a paperclip or in shredded newspaper or an old shoe or an apple that is when the good stuff arises. Every moment offers up opportunities to see the beauty in all things, including a meal in prison…but you don’t have to go there to discover that.