Chicago, Illinois, United States (Summer 2009)
When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
As she leaned into the doorway of my room, I explained the quandary to my daughter, Grace. “I don’t know what to do,” I said, “I am supposed to present a paper at a conference in Champaign, but it conflicts with the meditation day at the prison in Indiana.” Grace cocked her head, indicating I could continue. “I really like this conference, but it is huge, and no one will miss me if I am not there, and the graduate student with whom I am presenting is so bright and articulate that he can certainly handle it on his own,” I pause, “And I haven’t been to the prison in months because of my teaching schedule. This is a really big deal—an all-day event where they let the guys bring in Chinese food.” Grace observed me with cool dispatch. “So what’s the problem?” she asked. “Go to the prison.”
And so I went, on a clear, cool May morning. The prison is a maximum security facility in northwest Indiana. I have been visiting there for the past six years as part of a Zen Buddhist group founded by a former DePaul theology instructor, Ron Kidd. Over a decade past, Ron answered a request to start a sangha for the handful of practicing Buddhists who resided in the prison. With little more than good will and trust, Ron responded, and over the years, he has patiently and lovingly ministered to the group members, some of whom have spent time on death row. Every visit reveals its own lesson; this Saturday morning proved to be a tutorial in kindness.
Our time together began at 7 AM with the requisite 108 full prostrations. There were eight outside guests and twelve inmates; about half of us opted to do the entire grueling routine. I did so partly in defiance of increasingly resistant middle-aged joints, but also in acknowledgement of the starkness of these men’s lives. If they can spend decades within the confines of those walls, I can spend a portion of one fine spring morning in supplication. Following the bows, we took a break. In my jeans and sweatshirt, I was winded and perspiring. Chuck, a tall, quiet sangha member passed among us, offering napkins to dab at the sweat. Moments later, seated on our cushions on the unyielding concrete floor in the prison education department, we began a series of chants. Chuck took his place along side of me. When the chanting concluded, we sat in earnest—four sessions of forty minutes of silent meditation interspersed with five minutes of walking meditation in between. Twenty minutes into immobility, my bare feet tucked beneath me, I began to resent the air conditioner’s relentless drone. Those more advanced on the path to enlightenment wear gray robes over their clothes, indicating they had taken the precepts of Buddhism, but I have not, and I had nothing but street clothes between me and the room’s gathering chill. I slipped my hands into the sleeves of my sweatshirt and flipped the hood over my head. Through half-opened eyes, I noticed my toes turning blue.
A hushed commotion at my side indicated Chuck’s departure. Within moments, the air conditioner went silent. After our next walking meditation, Dale, the most senior sangha member with a deep reservoir of gentleness, dropped his gray, prison-issued sweatshirt in my lap and glided away without awaiting acknowledgment. I took the sweatshirt and wrapped it around my mottled feet, its comfort as welcome as a down quilt.
We stood, we sat, we walked. During the extended periods of stillness, I continued to shiver. Far from enjoying the liberation of an empty mind, I chided myself for the absurdity of succumbing to hypothermia in mid-May.
Halfway through the morning’s routine, a rustling ensued as those designated to procure the much coveted Chinese take-out food got ready to leave. Dale stood, removed his gray robe, donned his black prison boots and departed. Ten minutes later he returned with a pair of clean white cotton socks. I put them on my feet, removing the sweatshirt from my lap and drawing it over my head. Breathing in the gratitude, I closed my eyes, breathing out an urgent desire to cry.
Like most of us, my life encompasses many spheres. I teach at a large university. I practice nursing within a busy hospice organization. My community involvement includes a local and international nonprofit organization, both of which recently underwent painful schisms when individuals with the highest aspirations found they could not get along with one another. In addition to my respect for Buddhist wisdom, I am a lapsed but still dabbling Catholic and a member of a Quaker Meeting. After more than 26 years of marriage, the final throes of divorce loom. In short, my life is complicated, a product of its times. And so I treasure the simplicity of what is allowed within this Indiana maximum security prison.
Within walls of the peeling paint and behind barbed wire, beneath the gun-turret towers, I find sustaining peace. Looking around at the sangha members assembled on their black and green zafus and mats, I see testimony to fortitude. And more—to integrity. These men, with a minimum sentence of twenty years, could easily have calcified into molten artifacts of rage, despair, and nihilism. Instead, they chose a different path. They opted not only to care but to care deeply, paying close attention in a way that we, who are too much of the world, do not.
Their kindness is not confined to visitors from outside their walls. They confer it upon one another with playful humor, considerations exchanged between those individually caged, but collectively transcendent. Manny, a tall and graceful young man with braided beard and afro, bows to Otto, the bald and hobbled older man with tattoos from neck to fingertips, who clutches a cane as he moves laboriously through walking meditation. Dale and Sam have known each other for many years, sharing the accomplishments, such as their college graduations, as well as the tragedies, like the recent execution of a longtime friend and sangha member. Whatever their past offenses, years of penance and reflection have honed these men into creations of their own choosing. Their lives are slowed and deliberate in a way that we, the free people with the suffocating schedules, can only imagine. Because so much has been stripped away, they are left with the essence of what truly matters—opportunities for small acts of human kindness if they just pay attention. And they do.
I am grateful for the hospitality afforded me by these men, for Ron whose vision made possible a different path for the incarcerated, and for my daughter’s clarity, which allowed the morning to unfold.
In my role as a hospice nurse, I am often asked if I find the work depressing. I do not. In my role as nursing faculty, I tell my students that hospice affords us the opportunity to practice as the nurses we have always wanted to be—to concentrate on what truly matters, to spend time on the essentials and triage the rest. Isn’t it ironic, they often observe, that only at end of life can we offer and receive the care we all desire?
Ironic indeed, and humbling—like relearning the essential lesson of how to treat one another while sitting on the floor of the education department in a crumbling maximum security prison.
GERALDINE GORMAN is an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also works with Midwest Hospice and Palliative Care Center. She is the mother of three children, and she occasionally practices mindful sitting and intentional kindness with the men who reside at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana.