Why would bunnies run around prison yard? The concrete compound has no grass and no trees. It’s got a lot of barbed wire and machine guns. In the distance you hear gun shots of the guards training at the target halls. The rabbits look at you for a split second and look away, back to their abrupt movements. There are several rabbits in the maximum prison in Soledad.
The evenings at the prison are surprisingly sweet and serene. A full moon and a sky full of stars soften the sterility and suppressed energy in the air.
The inmates are walking in pairs in the enclosed yards, not noticing the rabbits around them. I did, as I was trying to identify with any kind of normalcy, any sign of life to help me open for the meditation class ahead.
One rabbit snuck through a hole in the wire and disappeared. I watched it until the small creature was no longer visible.
As I approached the final checkup point, one of the guards rushed towards me. He stood in front of me checking me from head to toe. “Don’t you know you are not allowed to wear blue?” he asked with a hint of impatience. ”Blue is the color reserved for the inmates’ attire. You got to take off your shirt.” I apologized and went to the side to undress. I was left with my T-shirt and sweater. We approached the check point once again. “Where is your pass?” asked the guard. (At the first check post we are issued daily passes that we attach to our shirts.) I must have dropped mine while taking off the shirt. I said that much to the guard.
He looked at me with intensity and turned around to the inmates who were getting ready to come to my class. “Everyone get back to your cell.” he ordered, his hands caressing his belt. He turned back to me. “This is serious” he said, “we won’t be able to let you leave until you find the pass. If one of the inmates finds it, he can attempt to leave”
The sudden activity in the compound was disturbing. I felt helpless as I looked at all the people I had gotten to know being ordered back to their cells. I felt miserable and so very sorry to see the inmates gathered again into their cells.
I was also uncomfortable at my own situation of having to stay there indefinitely. I looked at Dvorit. We smiled bravely at each other and I started searching for my pass. One of the prison volunteers, Lee Gaines, came forward and started helping me. He talked into the intercom next to the tower and asked the guard to open the door.
We combed the whole passage twice. It was getting dark and even the rabbits had gone. “Found it,” shouted Lee Gaines waving the pink pass. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Lee Gaines is a unique individual. Originally from New Orleans, he is a volunteer and a guard who suddenly got in touch with his spiritual need. At the first class he sat as a guard and a spectator. Now he is participating in the class and always making sure to tell me how it helps him in his life. “I breath all the time now,” he says. I am surprised again and again to find that for most people a deep breath is a novelty. Two weeks ago, one of the female guards confided in me about her marital problems. Her husband was cheating on her and she did not know what to do about it. I was reluctant to serve as a marriage counselor and I told her to forgive him and breathe deeply whenever she feels depression setting in. Then go and talk to him. She appeared next class thanking me for showing her how to breathe deeper. She said it worked for her. Her husband is still cheating but now they can talk about it.
I am immeasurably happy to find out that my reminder of “take a deep breath. And then take another one and another one,” is such a helping tool. Just breathing, without the actual meditation technique, gives one a different perspective about life.
Sitting in front of these hungry people I suddenly realized that I am going through basic training once again. I am so grateful for it. I come to these classes with humility and a simple need to help. I compare my life to the lives of these people who are stripped of everything and find it hard to complain about my problems. I am well aware that they are not angels. But they have the spark of life in them. Coming to meditation classes is their attempt at changing.
I work with them in class, trying to generate enough energy to break through some blank faces. Within myself I hope that knocking on their pandora boxes will not offset their self taught survival balance. Working with a person, you have to be there when their shield is starting to crack. The immense responsibility suddenly dawned on me.
I had to struggle for a short moment with my sense of inadequacy and limitations that arise after each class. Inside myself I realized that at his core, every human being wants to help and contribute. Fear has to be overcome. More than failure, it is the fear of discovering and handling our own magnificence that paralyzes us. At times one has to end up in prison to find it out.
It is my second month here. I look at the guards and immediately drop my instinctive judgments. I realize that all these people who are walking around carrying guns, taser guns and sticks are human beings doing their job.
As we were getting ready for class, James came to me. “I got married last week” he said. A large smile lit up his face. James is one of the most powerful energies I have encountered in this prison. There are no boundaries to what this man can achieve once he learns how to channel his energy into a positive directions. His eyes are very deeply set and burning with dark fire. All that is missing is the internal discipline. The training. “No disrespect meant,” he said, “can I leave at 7:45? I am waiting for a call from my wife.” “Sure” I said.”Not a problem.”
Stewart raised his hand, ”My anxieties come up in the middle of class. I feel so anxious suddenly. It used to bring me to violence.” “You are not perfect,” I answered, ”It’s ok. It will take time until these emotions are washed away. Keep doing your exercise and bring all these feelings of anxiety down to your foundation center. Be grateful for your problems. They are your best friend. They are your pathway to freedom. None of us is perfect. We all struggle through layers and layers of stuff.”
I took a deep breath and continued, “The prison is your mirror. Use it to change and evolve and someday you’ll be grateful for it.” I stopped and took another deep breath. That was not easy for me. I breathed deeply into my foundation and allowed my doubts and thought to dissipate. “Forty years back, I met a young woman who was in a wheelchair. She was sixteen and had been in a car accident. She was a quadriplegic. On one occasion she confided in me that the accident saved her life. I looked at her with a mixture of awe and pain.” I was on the way to becoming a whore,” she said, “The accident knocked me back into my senses.”
Everyone was quiet. The inmates responded with silence. You could see the story penetrate them. Reality, no matter how harsh, was a way of connecting.
Class today was shorter than usual. I was tired and still reeling from my lost card incident. When we came out all the rabbits were gone.
Only the gunshots of the training officers cut through the silence.