As I sit in my cell in the Corcoran Security Housing Unit, I see with unwelcome clarity that I will most likely never leave these confines, these fortressed walls of time.
In this room, teachings on impermanence are lost on me. There is no equanimity. As I wake to the familiar sounds of slamming doors and head counts, I feel as if I am lost in a nightmare version of the movie Groundhog Day.
The path of the Buddhist practitioner is often difficult; in a prison’s general population, it can feel like a test. But inside the suffocating walls of security Housing Units, or SHUs—the solitary-confinement units of a supermax prison—that test is unrelenting.
There are three SHUs in the state of California. All, in most respects, are essentially the same; the same can be said of my days. I stay locked in my cell for twenty-three hours a day. Anytime I leave my cell, I am either handcuffed or chained and escorted by two correctional officers (one to physically hold me, the other to brandish a billy club). Food is pushed through a slot twice a day; all my meals are eaten in the cell. I shower for five minutes three times per week. Visits are strictly noncontact. Phone calls are limited to notifications of a death in my immediate family; otherwise, there are no phone calls. Living in the SHU is like living in a bathroom—a small, concrete bathroom with no door.
A layman on this path, I find myself locked in dualism, in an ongoing battle inside myself and inside this room where I’ve been for fourteen years and where I have studied dharma for two. But in the dharma, I do find some relief. That’s what it is to me—relief. It’s the realization that the suffering I cling to can dissipate by my merely letting go of it. Easier said than done, certainly, but powerful.
Still, in the world full of anger, hatred, and pain made concrete by the sHU, I find it hard to draw on the dharma. I grasp for it as a drowning man reaches desperately for a life preserver. At times it feels as if I’ll be consumed in the deluge of madness that sweeps through these halls. Remembering teachings is hard. It’s easier to submerge myself in the familiar comfort of rage.
I’ve learned that the Buddha teaches not to cling, not to grasp, and not to define things. At this juncture in my practice, however, I do all three. I cling to the dharma, I grasp at the precepts, and I define Buddhism, rather crudely, as a way to deal with the shittiness of life.
Meditation, as a space of clarity and equanimity, eludes me. But I recently read a book by the soto Zen teacher Dainin Katigiri in which he talks about the struggles of meditation, and it helped. His instruction is, quite simply, “Just shut up and sit.” this message resonates with me. so now, even when my mind is full of monkeys and a plethora of uncontrollable thoughts, I just shut up and sit. I can do that.
I feel akin to an infant on this new path. my legs feel unsteady as I trek onward. some steps are heavier, weighed down by the cloak of negativity that adorns the shoulders of the incarcerated. Other steps are lighter as the dharma helps me, temporarily, shirk that burden.
I stand at the edges of Buddhism, the glacial implications of enlightenment simultaneously overwhelming me and keeping me real. Here, in this spot from which I cannot move, I am beginning to recognize both myself and the walls I have built inside my own mind. I am starting, for the first time, to see a way to break through.