by C.Z. Cantrell
"The world is its own magic." - Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi
Tides have a rhythm and so do our lives. My sea changed when I said yes to a position as a prison teacher. The tide moving out would take away my comfortable, if modest-paying work as a government analyst. The incoming tide, teaching hard-core prisoners, could flood my life with adventure and even danger.
For the first time in a long while, I was neither running from nor chasing employment. It was my own slack tide. I hoped to use the time to gather strength for the passage I’d charted. Times of stillness can be useful. I wanted some time alone to rest and enjoy nature--a sort of spiritual cleansing to prepare for the work ahead.
Second thoughts flooded my mind while I waited for the new job to begin. What was I thinking when I signed on to work with convicted felons? Would I regret leaving my old job where I worked on behalf of elderly and disabled veterans? To quiet my mind, taking off to Hawaii was a tempting idea but timewise, I could only fit in a short trip to the West coast.
For a respite, I chose Green Gulch Farm and Dragon Temple, a community located a few miles north of San Francisco. The site was so named because this Zen Buddhist center is situated in a lush emerald valley.
I had my first formal meditation lesson at Green Gulch Farm years earlier during a longer retreat. Back then, I sat across from a black-robed woman with a shaved head, a welcoming smile, and a soft German accent. I told her I doubted that I could ever learn to meditate because I had so many distracting thoughts. The young Buddhist nun laughed and said that nearly everyone has the same problem. She offered some advice I’ve since found very useful. “Treat the thoughts like uninvited guests. Imagine simply giving them a cup of tea and sending them on their way.”
On my pre-prison visit, I soon found myself thinking of and doing just one thing at a time. Mindfulness, paying attention to the present, was in the air. No one seemed to be multi-tasking. That evening, in the dining hall, I fell into conversation with an older woman in a black robe. When I explained I was about to start teaching at a prison, she gently but firmly encouraged me to take good care of myself on the journey ahead.
My room in the Lindisfarne House had a floor to ceiling window, providing a view of California laurel and eucalyptus trees, and blackberry brambles. Night fell, and bright stars filled the black sky. I turned on the desk lamp, and when I pulled open the drawer, I found Beginner’s Mind, Zen Mind, a book authored by Green Gulch’s founder Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi. His words soothed, encouraged, and made me smile. “You are perfect as you are, and you could use a little work.”
In the morning, a cool ocean breeze brushed my cheeks as I made my way to a breakfast. I enjoyed the polenta, scrambled eggs, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Then I walked the winding paths until it was time to leave. I yearned to linger a little longer.
Driving home I vowed to maintain the sense of wonder and awe I felt at Green Gulch Farm, even in a prison. A glance in the rearview mirror provided a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. Sunshine illuminated the water in an amber glow.
A week later, I met the vice principal at the prison gate. Metal doors buzzed open and slammed behind us. We then wound our way through a series of steel bars that creaked open and rumbled shut. My heart pounded hard as I stepped into that closed society. When I arrived at work in the months that followed, darkness shrouded the prison. In the sky above, I noticed the same lemon drop stars that sparkled above Green Gulch Farm. Here and there, rabbits munched on the rare shoots of grass that grow in the prison yard.
Each day the prison awoke to the same routine. Inmates clothed in chambray shirts and blue pants walked in and around the buildings. Officers wore drab army green uniforms and were never far from the prisoners. A gray sea of cement buildings lined the dusty prison yard. If there’s a more desolate place, I haven't experienced it.
Gradually, I became accustomed to working my 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift inside a windowless classroom. I discovered the inmates were similar to struggling students elsewhere; some wanted to learn more than others. Only a few were downright angry. I managed to find a sense of equanimity.
Uncertainties still show up, but I’m better at sending them away. Teaching at a prison has become part of the cycle of my life. The hours rush in and out like tides. I practice staying tuned to the present on a moment-by-moment basis. Never before has it been so important to my personal safety to pay attention to what’s going on around me.
After days in the often noisy prison, I savor the precious quiet and stillness of my own home, a daily slack tide. There I let my mind drift to my next getaway to Green Gulch Farm.
C. Z. Cantrell is a Californian who writes travel essays and fiction.