Thanksgiving Lessons from Prison

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On November 15, I returned to the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. I arrived having prepared a talk about Zen Buddhist theory and practice for the World Literature class. I departed with so much more.

Students had read Japanese works for our class, so discussion of Zen was perfect for two reasons—Zen influences all Japanese arts, and parts of Zen practice might prove useful in the women’s daily lives. Though living in controlled confinement, locked down and out, the possibility of a lively inner life still exists for each individual—a soulful sanctuary where a clear mind roams freely and a liberated heart loves the world. We had three hours to spend together. Was that enough time?

I shared Zen basics. The practice of sitting quietly, meditation, lies at the heart of this Buddhist practice. Sitting, often and faithfully, awakens us from distraction and confusion, gradually reducing the noise of competing ideas banging around in our heads. Slowly, just sitting, the mind empties of clutter, piece by piece—space for clarity and calm appears. Developing the ability to concentrate, the mind shines a laser beam on each present moment. The moment is all. Now. Only and always now. Preoccupation with past and future fades. The ego, originally full of desire and complaint, stops its incessant demands. Practicing kindness to others and also to oneself reduces the pain and hardship of a life formerly ruled by selfishness. Compassion is the key. Practice it. Sit. Be kind. Sit. Experience empathy.

Everyone shared one specific act of kindness, never to be forgotten, that had softened a hard situation, restored a sense of decency, and proved compassion’s power. So, how about dispensing more compassion, right here and right now, we pondered. Game on! What about setting more immediate goals than that far-off and unknown day of release from prison, I questioned. Surely, I added, such unchecked longing could only create despair. Got it!  “I can use this time to become a better person...every day.” “We are totally unplugged. Here I am. Self-knowledge is possible—for the first time.” “I can take advantage of every chance to learn, get an education, have something to offer.”

As the end of class neared, I shared the first two lines of a short poem by Persian poet Rumi.  “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field.  I'll meet you there.” What would they make of Rumi’s thirteenth century invitation? I asked students to write a description of this field and to express how it felt meeting there. No hurry. Take time. Soon, peace suffused the room. With the students’ permission, here are a few excerpts from their responses:

“The field is endless, with no beginning and no end, like being in the middle of the ocean where the shore is no longer visible. The people who embrace the field blend together as one life force, one world that gives freedom to be.”

“Every blade of grass contains infinite universes and you and I contain infinite ideas because no one told us we couldn’t. There are birds, one named Cosmos, one named Chaos…. What would Carl Sagan be like as a Zen Buddhist?”

“Hand upon paw upon fin upon flipper upon tail upon stalk upon claw upon wing upon WING…into life with all its potential into ONE.”

I hadn’t read to them the rest of Rumi’s poem: “When the soul lies down in that grass, /
the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn't make any sense.”

Just as I suspected, they already knew Rumi’s heart. There’s only one Soup simmering. We’re all in it together.

Wishing you happiness for Thanksgiving. There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

 
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Marietta McCarty is a New York Times bestselling author, philosopher, and teacher. She defines philosophy as “the art of clear thinking," and invites every one she encounters (or anyone who picks up one of her books) into the good life, marked by simplicity and the fullness of life's greatest treasures.