Posts Tagged ‘Meditation’
I have been reading about freedom in confined spaces. How a prison cell can become a practice ground. I have never been to a prison and somewhere in my mind I have an image of a cell as a stark, empty place, a place of isolation and silence. It does not seem a far leap to link the word “cell” with a monk’s quarters.
Paradoxically, the most vivid the world has ever been to me was during a sesshin, a week-long Zen meditation retreat. No television, no books, no writing, no eye contact, no radio, a strict schedule and limitations everywhere.
All of a sudden the empty world around me was alive – a teacup filled with magenta, a colour my eyes had never witnessed, the syllables in the chant book leaping off the page, each one distinct and embodied with life. I wonder what this space of silence is, where what seems to be empty is in fact very full and what feels like a prison can be a vast open space? With this in mind, I go to meet Sister Elaine MacInnes.
Sister Elaine lives in a modest house on a crescent in a residential, east-end Toronto neighbourhood. This is the main house belonging to Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns founded in 1949. It looks as if it could be an old people’s home or a retirement community; nothing spectacular here. On the inside there isn’t anything obviously religious about the space – just a communal kitchen with a long counter, a living room with large windows looking out onto a ravine, violets growing in the windows, a sofa and some modest chairs, a coffee table with a doily, a calendar on the wall. Not a cross or icon in sight.
Sister Elaine MacInnes has been on the phone all morning. At eighty-two, things are not really slowing down for this Roman Catholic nun who is also a Zen Roshi. She was talking to the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, where she was director for seven years. Next she had to handle an incident involving sex offenders in one of the Canadian prisons where she sends yoga and meditation teachers now. It seems that some of the teachers are uneasy working with pedophiles. Sister Elaine does not distinguish between sex offenders, murderers, political prisoners, young offenders or lifers – they are all people she can offer help to and bring a little more freedom into their trapped places. “We hold out a little hope for people in doing meditation when they are in that state,” she says confidently.
Sister Elaine has led a truly extraordinary life. When you look back, it appears to have been guided. Originally from a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, she joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after studying violin at Julliard in New York. While training to become a nun, she read the writings of St. Francis Xavier and was struck by his experience of attempting to encounter a monk on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto in Japan. She made a secret vow that where he had not succeeded she would.
As fate had it, in 1961 Sister Elaine’s first missionary assignment was to Japan. Not only did she climb Mt. Hiei and meet a monk, she went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, where she lived for eight years. She then practised zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study in the Sanbo Kyodan order in Kamakura under the tutelage of Yamada Koun Roshi, from whom she received transmission in 1980 as a Roshi or “old teacher.”
In 1976, Sister Elaine was transferred to the Philippines during the worst years of the Marcos regime. It was through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila that she ended up teaching meditation to political prisoners. Her work in prisons would become her vocation.
Wearing all black clothes, the only splash of colour a cloth flower in vivid hues of orange and red attached to her lapel with a clothespin, her eyes shining as bright as the day she was born, she does not look like a monk or a nun, a Buddhist or a Catholic. Her voice has its Maritime lilt still intact despite the forty-three years she spent abroad, testimony to how vivid and true her personality is.
She may have had “the bottom fall out in a most spectacular way” when she experienced satori, but the “no-self” or “extinguishing of the self” that Zen points to has led to the much more vivid human being. No spiritual trappings here, no pretensions, no stink of Zen or Catholicism or anything I can put a finger on. And perhaps that is her greatest majesty and greatest mystery. Sister Elaine seems ordinary, someone you might encounter on the street in a small town, a warm-hearted neighbour, and yet it is quite clear that she is the real thing, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met: a true mystic.
Surprisingly, Sister Elaine does not consider herself to be a Buddhist. In Kamakura, she studied with a unique teacher from the Sanbo Kyodan order, a mixture of the two dominant schools of Zen (Soto and Rinzai). He was a teacher who did not draw lines of division between lay people and monks, men and women, or even between religions. “You know, there is no separation. We make separation.” She describes the Sunday talks that her teacher Yamada Roshi would give, and said they were filled with Buddhist references.
“I was never moved to be a Buddhist,” she says. When people in Japan asked her about it, she would say, “Look, I was just brought up in Moncton, New Brunswick. I can’t all of a sudden say I have had a hundred lives beforehand. I was born on March 7th in 1924 and I was fresh and clean and I have my own personality. I’m not another hundred thousand people behind me.” When her teacher noticed her first breakthroughs in Zen practice, he simply said, “Now you go out and be a better Christian and a better Sister.”
Sister Elaine speaks of Zen as being about direct experience, not words or objects. “There was never anything but the right now, right here.” Even the Buddha requested that his words not be recorded. He taught from experience and it was these practices that were later to be the basis for Zen teachings, but the terms themselves and the religious elements of Buddhism were recorded later. “Scholars say the Buddha grew up in a Hindu country so that he just went back to the religious matrix of his time.”
Of her own teaching Sister Elaine says, “I have Jewish people and I have Muslims and I have people with no religion and it doesn’t bother me at all. I just try to use quite a few different terms so that people won’t get stuck on one. We don’t find it necessary to impose a god on you, we just ask you to sit down and keep quiet.” She laughs heartily at this.
“My teacher in Japan used to say ‘we are all born to be mystics.’ And I say that goes for each of us. There were twenty-four lifers who had all committed murder in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in England and I went around to each one and I said, ‘that means you’ and there wasn’t one snicker.” When Sister Elaine talks about the prisoners she works with, it is with a great deal of love and an incredible dose of optimism. “There is no guile there, you know, and they’re lovely, lovely to work with.”
In 1992, Sister Elaine was invited to become the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust in Oxford, UK, whose patron is the English actor Jeremy Irons. She set up a network of yoga and meditation teachers who go into penitentiaries across the UK and Eire, teaching simple yoga postures and breath-centred meditation to prisoners who voluntarily come to the classes. The idea behind the Prison Trust is that the space of a prison cell can become a practice ground, not unlike a monk’s cell.
My first image of a prison cell was perhaps a little off. Sister Elaine tells me that most of them are filled to the brim with “fifteen or twenty pictures of all kinds of different girls, a teapot, cups, all sorts of mementos…My experience working with people is that the more they go into Zen the less they need accoutrements.” So an empty cell only comes later, with an empty mind. It is also a constant struggle to find silence in a prison; they are noisy, bustling places “full of society.”
The yoga and meditation taught are a practice of “silent body, silent mind,” and apparently it works. By the time she retired from the Trust, Sister Elaine had set up eighty-six teachers in prisons across the UK and they receive thousands of letters each month from the inmates. “I would say our discipline is therapeutic and that is why it is so important for prisoners.”
The kind of zazen they teach is Shikantaza. “‘Shika’ means ‘only’ and ‘ta’ means ‘to hit’ and the ‘za’ is squatting on the floor. It is something that will hit the mark.” Simple counting of breath is emphasized, as well as correct posture. “The bottom line of meditation for a teacher is that you’re bringing people to a deeper state of consciousness and that involves something very, very touchy. There is something in practising silence the way we teach that is very safe, and to my knowledge it has never been known for anyone to crack up.”
In her prison programs, Sister Elaine felt it necessary to balance meditation practices with yoga instruction. Yoga Outreach, a charity organization based in Surrey, BC, was asked to implement a yoga program for the correctional institutions in Canada. The yoga postures taught are breath-centred to facilitate a link between body and mind.
The practice of yoga and meditation brings a space of silence to the prisoners, and with this seems to follow discipline, productivity, a sense of purpose, an alleviation of depression, a reduction in violence, and in the long run, a reduced rate of recidivism. This approach fits in with a paradigm shift slowly being introduced into the judicial system called Restorative Justice.
One of the most moving letters Sister Elaine ever received was from a nineteen-year-old prisoner: “As long as I can remember I have had a pain in my chest. When I got to prison it got worse. For one month I have been doing just what you say and I want you to know that not only is the pain better now, but for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark within myself that I can like.”
Initially, it was her experience in the Philippines that convinced Sister Elaine of the effectiveness of yoga and meditation as tools for working with prisoners. When sent to the Philippines during the Marcos regime to open a zendo (Zen meditation hall), she unwittingly attracted many dissidents into the practice.
“Boy” Morales, a renowned rebel who headed the New People’s Army against the dictatorship, asked her to come and teach meditation at the Bago Bantay detention centre, where he and nine other political prisoners were being held and tortured. It took the protection of the Canadian Embassy to ensure her safety – General Verr, the head of Marcos’ army and Intelligence, happened to owe them a favour. And so, in spite of her fears, Sister Elaine went to teach meditation to political prisoners. “I couldn’t have said no. And it was an eye opener for me how a person can change from an angry, enervated, depressed person into … I saw them come out of all their jerkings (from the shock treatment) and they became productive. But you need a lot of sitting if you want real results. In some ways you can say there are no miracles in Zen.”
Because of that work, Sister Elaine became director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. When she returned to Canada she decided to set up a similar organization here. It is called Freeing the Human Spirit and in spite of initial resistance from the Canadian prison authorities, she has managed to place yoga and meditation instructors in prisons across Canada. “You don’t find much openness toward anyone in prison in Canada, do you? There is no death sentence here, so a lot of them are going to be back on the streets again, so it is to our advantage to rehabilitate them. Prisons don’t work, that’s the first thing we have to remember.”
Even though Sister Elaine sees the flaws in our penal system, she continues to run Freeing the Human Spirit with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm, and she does it because it works for the prisoners. “I suppose everybody in a position like mine goes through a time when they try and get more justice in the system.” Sister Elaine recognizes that the work she does is separate from a political struggle for change. She says that if she were to take that up, it would only build a dichotomy between the officers and the prisoners. “I am staying on the prisoners’ side,” she tells me. “Other people will try and get a better idea going. I don’t know what that idea is, but Restorative Justice is a very good step.” In 2001, Sister Elaine was awarded the Order of Canada for her humanitarian work.
When thinking about Sister Elaine, the image I am left with is from a documentary film made about her life and work called The Fires that Burn. The image of an inmate – shaved head and tattooed arms, his muscled body suddenly looking very fragile as he holds himself in Plank pose. I have never seen anyone do yoga with such tenderness and fear before. This is clearly fertile ground – the space for things that are broken to mend in silence.
Note: Almost 40 years ago I had my first sesshin in 1978, that is, a Zen retreat, with Sr. Elaine Macinnes. Thanks to Sr. Marie Jose Garcia who introduced me and some friends to Sr. Elaine. (By the way, Sr. Marie Jose visited I and my wife yesterday. I was so happy to see her. It was almost 20 years since I last saw her).
On my first dokusan or interview with a Zen teacher, Sr. Elaine gave me the Mu-koan. It took me 20+ years before I could have some insight on the koan. But it was worth it. It happened when I attended a one-week Zen retreat with my 2nd Zen teacher, Sr. Sonia Punzalan. I wrote an account of what happened to me during that retreat in this blog post — A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen.
Zen is the practice of nothing special or extraordinary.
–Yamada Koun Roshi
After a three-month stint in the Bay Area, during which time I smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot of beer, and sat a total of twice at San Francisco Zen Center, I returned to Koko An  in early October 1971 in order to participate in a seven-day sesshin, the intensive monastic-like seclusion that is presided over by a Zen master…
The sesshin was to be led by none other than “Mr. K.Y.,” the Japanese businessman whose thunder-and-lightning daigo-tettei (Great Enlightenment) account in The Three Pillars of Zen I had by now reread at least a hundred times. His initials stood for “Kyozo Yamada,” and we would come to know him as Yamada Ko’un Roshi (Ko’un being his Zen teacher name). Since he was reputed to have experienced a depth of kensho [awakening] unprecedented in modern times, a few in the Diamond Sangha, myself included, began referring to him from time to time as “the most enlightened being in the world.” I sometimes thought of him simply as “The Master.”…
Yamada Roshi had written to Bob Aitken a few months earlier, formally committing to leading this sesshin. Bob, who had come over from Maui Zendo, became noticeably excited the day he received the letter and exclaimed after evening zazen, “There are roshi and there are roshi, and we now have the best!” He then told of having met Yamada some years earlier and how he had come away greatly impressed by his bearing, personality, and almost palpable depth of enlightenment. From that point on, all of us redoubled our dedication to our practice in preparation for the retreat.
The morning Yamada Roshi arrived was one of scurrying bustle. I had no idea as to how to interact with a personage who had experienced the awesome-sounding daigo-tettei, and the butterflies in my stomach multiplied with each passing hour. Would this “best” of roshis be free of allergies and asthma attacks, unlike Bob? Would he “walk through the marketplace with arms hanging loose”? Would he have “forty undivided and very white teeth” and “eyelashes like that of a cow” or any of the other “Thirty-Two Marks of a Buddha”?
I heard him before I saw him. As he sat in the passenger seat of Bob’s car, he loudly cleared his throat, a trademark habit we would hear frequently over the coming week and beyond. He emerged from the car and moved resolutely to the trunk. From my timorous vantage point on the porch about thirty feet away I beheld a heavyset man with a wide, impassive face, about 5’5” tall, with a full head of steel-gray hair combed straight back. He was dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, his gray suit jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and looking like an ordinary Japanese businessman on a hot day. Seeming to take delight in all the tropical trees that surrounded Koko An, he chuckled lightly to himself before reaching toward the trunk of the car to retrieve his luggage, but Bob tut-tutted him away and lifted the bags out himself. The small party then made their way to the tiny cottage in which Yamada Roshi would stay for the entire week of sesshin, coming out only for brief exercise walks around the block, and to deliver teisho, the formal Zen Buddhist dharma-talk given each day at 2 p.m. during the retreat.
After Yamada Roshi was settled into the cottage, Bob Aitken escorted him out onto the zendo back porch, where we had a lunch prepared. I still couldn’t muster the courage to introduce myself, so I just hung back on the fringes and tried to look as Buddha-like as possible, keeping my eyes focused on the rice, tofu, and vegetables in front of me and fixing on my face a solemn Zen Man demeanor. We all bowed to our food, and lunch proceeded with a little conversation among Aitken, Yamada Roshi, and some of the residents who were not as intimidated as I was. At one point during the meal, my brother Paul asked the Roshi if he ever ate meat. “Yes, of course,” he replied. Whereupon several hardcore vegetarians at the table choked on their tofu. He also mentioned that his tastes in music ran more to Beethoven than to anything traditionally Japanese, which he said he found too simple.
Over the previous months, an ethos of almost ascetic restraint had developed at Koko An. Thus, when Yamada Roshi reached into his pocket after lunch and extracted a silver cylindrical object, I lightheartedly imagined him awarding it to the sangha in acknowledgment of the purity of our practice: “On behalf of Zen Buddhists everywhere, I wish to thank you all so much for the example you are setting here in America. And as a token of my appreciation for your efforts, I now present to you—the Silver Buddha-Wand of Diligence.”
But instead, he unhasped the cylinder, took out a thick black stogie, and struck a match, asking of no one in particular, “Does anyone mind if I smoke?”
For months I had taken great care to wash up thoroughly after smoking a single cigarette so as not to offend overly sensitive noses, and here was our new Zen master, “the best roshi,” asking if we minded if he lit up! Someone scurried inside to retrieve a decorative clamshell that was pressed into service as an ashtray, the cigar smoke’s blue tendrils rising into the mango-scented air and a look of pure nicotine-bliss crossing the Roshi’s face. Jared Aiona (not his real name) and I, the zendo reprobates, took one look at each other and then reached into our own pockets for our packs of Kools and Marlboros, and before long the air was thick and fragrant with Sir Walter Raleigh’s revenge…
After dinner that night I finally mustered up enough courage to introduce myself. I tried to meet his eye as directly as I could, since I had read in one of my books that Zen masters always look for this kind of straightforwardness, and instead of extending my hand, I made an awkward bow, just to show him that I was savvy about at least one aspect of his culture. But he extended his own hand and said, “How do you do?” in accented but completely understandable English.
I nervously turned over in my mind the possibility that he was testing me in some way: “How do I do what?” And how should I respond if he then examined my spiritual attainment with something even more koan-like such as, “What is your original dwelling place?”
“Where are you from?” he then asked. I shuddered at my own prescience.
“New Jersey,” I replied tentatively, wondering if I should have said something more mysterious, like “The Void.”
“Ah, yes, New Jersey. My daughter is living in Hoboken.”
Over the next few days before the sesshin began, we learned more about this man who had taken several weeks out of his busy life to come lead us in our practice. He was universally recognized in Japanese Zen circles as one of the most accomplished Zen masters alive, even though he was a layman and had never spent more than a sesshin’s time in a monastery. He was also a highly successful businessman who ran the Kenbikyoin Clinic, a private hospital in Tokyo. His wife, Dr. Kazue Yamada, was one of the first female physicians in modern Japan and oversaw the medical side of things at the hospital, while Mr. K.Y. himself was its CEO. From all appearances he had completely integrated the practice of Zen with the ordinary demands of family and employment life, an integration wholly congruent with one of the major themes of his teaching—”Zen is the practice of nothing special or extraordinary.”
 Honolulu Zen center founded by Robert Aitken (1917-2010)
This charming and chirpy video pays tribute to the happy wholesomeness of being alone. Tanya Davis recites her poem about the ways of solitude, gently cataloging all the places where aloneness can bring freedom and healing. Whether at a lunch counter, park bench, mountain trail, or on the edge of a dance floor — all we have to do is love ourselves enough, to love being alone.
If you are at first lonely, be patient. If you’ve not been alone much, or if when you were, you weren’t okay with it, then just wait. You’ll find it’s fine to be alone once you’re embracing it.
We could start with the acceptable places, the bathroom, the coffee shop, the library. Where you can stall and read the paper, where you can get your caffeine fix and sit and stay there. Where you can browse the stacks and smell the books. You’re not supposed to talk much anyway so it’s safe there.
There’s also the gym. If you’re shy you could hang out with yourself in mirrors, you could put headphones in.
And there’s public transportation, because we all gotta go places.
And there’s prayer and meditation. No one will think less if you’re hanging with your breath seeking peace and salvation.
Start simple. Things you may have previously avoided based on your avoid being alone principals.
The lunch counter. Where you will be surrounded by chow-downers. Employees who only have an hour and their spouses work across town and so they — like you — will be alone.
Resist the urge to hang out with your cell phone.
When you are comfortable with eat lunch and run, take yourself out for dinner. A restaurant with linen and silverware. You’re no less intriguing a person when you’re eating solo dessert to cleaning the whipped cream from the dish with your finger. In fact some people at full tables will wish they were where you were.
Go to the movies. Where it is dark and soothing. Alone in your seat amidst a fleeting community. And then, take yourself out dancing to a club where no one knows you. Stand on the outside of the floor till the lights convince you more and more and the music shows you. Dance like no one’s watching… because, they’re probably not. And, if they are, assume it is with best of human intentions. The way bodies move genuinely to beats is, after all, gorgeous and affecting. Dance until you’re sweating, and beads of perspiration remind you of life’s best things, down your back like a brook of blessings.
Go to the woods alone, and the trees and squirrels will watch for you. Go to an unfamiliar city, roam the streets, there’re always statues to talk to and benches made for sitting give strangers a shared existence if only for a minute and these moments can be so uplifting and the conversations you get in by sitting alone on benches might’ve never happened had you not been there by yourself
Society is afraid of alonedom, like lonely hearts are wasting away in basements, like people must have problems if, after a while, nobody is dating them. but lonely is a freedom that breaths easy and weightless and lonely is healing if you make it.
You could stand, swathed by groups and mobs or hold hands with your partner, look both further and farther for the endless quest for company. But no one’s in your head and by the time you translate your thoughts, some essence of them may be lost or perhaps it is just kept.
Perhaps in the interest of loving oneself, perhaps all those sappy slogans from preschool over to high school’s groaning were tokens for holding the lonely at bay. Cuz if you’re happy in your head then solitude is blessed and alone is okay.
It’s okay if no one believes like you. All experience is unique, no one has the same synapses, can’t think like you, for this be relieved, keeps things interesting lifes magic things in reach.
And it doesn’t mean you’re not connected, that communitie’s not present, just take the perspective you get from being one person in one head and feel the effects of it. take silence and respect it. if you have an art that needs a practice, stop neglecting it. if your family doesn’t get you, or religious sect is not meant for you, don’t obsess about it.
You could be in an instant surrounded if you needed it
If your heart is bleeding make the best of it
There is heat in freezing, be a testament.
~ Tanya Davis
The police had declared Monday, November 14th of 2011 as the day of the raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment. It was the first Occupy site to call for a general strike that shut down the fifth largest port in the country; it was also the first Occupy gathering to report a shooting and a murder, as police violence also reached new heights. With tensions mounting amidst political chaos, police escalated their violent crackdowns and the narrative of fear. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in preparation for the raid, police from around the state were called in, and uncertainty filled the air.
The night before, Pancho Ramos Stierle heard about growing tensions in the community and thought, “If police are stepping up their violence, we need to go and step up our nonviolence.” So on that Monday morning at 3:30AM, Pancho and his housemate Adelaja went to the site of the Occupy Oakland raid. With an upright back and half-lotus posture, they started meditating. Many factions of protesters were around but the presence of strong meditators changed the vibe entirely. Around 6:30AM, the police showed up in full force. Full-out riot gear, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas. All media was present, expecting a headline story around this incredibly tense scene. Instead, they found 32 people, all peaceful, with Pancho and Adeleja meditating with their eyes closed in the middle of the Plaza. As the police followed their orders of arresting them, people took photos — particularly of two smiling meditators surrounded by police looking like they’re ready to go to war. Within a day, that photo would spread to millions around the world, as Occupy Oakland raid ended without any reported violence.
One such experience can be enough for a lifetime. For Pancho, though, this is just run of the mill. In small ways and big, he is always looking to step up his compassion in the most unexpected places.
Raised in Mexico, Pancho was fascinated by the stars, planets, and galaxies. He would always look up in outer space and admire the border-less cosmos that we inhabit; and he’d imagine looking down at Planet Earth from outer space — and not seeing any lines across countries. He envisioned a world of oneness and unity, and when he got a full scholarship to study the cosmos at University of California at Berkeley, his vision got a huge boost. He moved to Berkeley to pursue his PhD in Astrophysics.
On campus one day, he serendipitously engages in a profound hallway conversation with a janitor. It opens his eyes to the janitor’s incredibly difficult life. Something awakens in him, as he actively starts looking for solutions. “I saw that instead of PhD’s, what the world needs more are PhDo’s,” Pancho recalls.
As time went on, Pancho realizes that his research supports an institution that actively proliferates nuclear weapons. That tips him over the edge. Not only did he stop cooperating with the university system, he starts raising a dissenting voice.
When his complains fall on deaf ears, he partakes in a nine-day fast with other students and professors across California to request an open dialogue with the UC Regents — the governing body of the University of California. The fast cultimates at a public hearing of the Regents. When the student request is denied, they lock arms in nonviolent protest and sit peacefully. To disengage them, the police are ordered to make an example of one of them. They lift up this man, slam him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, twist his arms behind his back and handcuff him ruthlessly. Supporters start shouting at the overt show of inhumane behavior towards a fragile student who hadn’t eaten a single morsel of food for nine days. That man was none other than Pancho.
The story would end there, except that Pancho’s strength resided beyond his body. “It was excruciating pain,” Pancho recalls. Perhaps the police officer picked on Pancho because of his small and skinny frame, but the outer force is no match for Pancho’s inner might. The injustice is obvious, but Pancho knew that the officer is not to blame. In a completely unrehearsed move of raw compassion, Pancho, with all the love in his heart, looks directly into the police officer’s eyes, and says, “Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.” The overflowing love coming from the heart of this man on a nine-day fast is unmistakable. This is not the kind of encounter that police are trained in. Seeing his confusion, Pancho steps up his empathy and changes the topic. Looking at the last name on his badge, he asks for the officer’s first name. And addressing him as a family member, he says, “Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.” [Awkward pause.] “Yes.” “Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I’d like to break my fast with you. What do you say?”
The police officer is completely flabbergasted, his humanity irrevocably invoked. He accepts the invitation! Dropping eye contact gently, he then walks around Pancho and voluntarily loosens his handcuffs. In silence. By now, all of Pancho’s comrades — twelve of them — are also in handcuffs, so the officer then goes around to loosen everyone else’s handcuffs too.
There are those who use anger, sarcasm and parody to confront unjust action. Pancho does it with just the simple — and radical — power of love. If he had a superpower, that would be it. He is a fearless soldier of compassion, unconditionally willing to hold up a fierce mirror of love.
For Pancho, the whole World, every moment, is his field of practice. When he was recently asked what nourishes him, his response was clear: meditation and small acts of kindness. Meditation deepens his awareness while small acts of kindness deepens his inter-connectedness. Or as Pancho would sum it up, “Meditation is the DNA of the kindness revolution.” Ever since he first went to a meditation retreat, he has continued to meditate everyday. “Pancho 2.0” is what he calls himself since then. It was as if he discovered a new technology to battle our burning world.
Spirituality often sees activism as unnecessarily binding, while activism often sees spirituality as a navel-gazing escape. For Pancho, though, the two paths merge into one. Meditation is internal service, while service is external meditation.
In Arizona, when Pancho is arrested for protesting immigration laws that President Obama called unconstitutional, he smiles peacefully for his mug shot. The Sheriff yells out an order: “Stop smiling.” Immediately, it mirrors the ridiculousness of the request. Several years ago, some of Pancho’s friends lived in a tree to ignite a conversation around “chopping down 300 year old trees in 30 minutes”. When the authorities put a barricade around the tree to starve the tree-sitters, Pancho shows up to meditate and spread “metta” (loving kindness) to all those around him. While sitting peacefully under the tree, he is arrested. His offense quite literally read: “Disturbing the peace.”
Ultimately, it was in Gandhi that Pancho found his greatest role model for social change. Perhaps for the first time, history had seen someone manifest seismic systemic shifts in the world solely through the power of inner transformation. Gandhi opposed unjust action, not just without violence but with radical love for everyone including the person doing the harm; and for every act of resistance, he advocated nine more actions for constructive social change.
“Nonviolence isn’t just a philosophy of resistance. It is a way of life. Nonviolence is the thoughts we have, the words that we use, the clothes that we wear, the things that we say. It is not just an absence of violence, not even just the absence of wanting to cause harm. Nonviolence is a state when your heart is so full of love, compassion, kindness, generosity and forgiveness that you simply don’t have any room for anger, frustration or violence,” Pancho describes.
When Pancho stopped cooperating with the University of California system, he lost his student visa. In light of his courage, more than a dozen people offered to help reinstate his status. He appreciated the gesture but chose to stay undocumented. More than being in one geographical location or another, he was more interested in blooming wherever he was planted. Now, all of a sudden, being “undocumented”, he got an experiential insight into what that meant for 11 million people living in the United States; he couldn’t work, he couldn’t have a bank account or a credit card, he couldn’t own anything and he’d have to work low-wage labor jobs, without any insurance, just to survive.
Here is someone capable of being a rocket scientist, whose father is an Economics scholar and author in Mexico, who chooses to live without any financial currency — just so he can be of service to his struggling brethren. He is sustained purely by social capital. His tendency to constantly seek to be helpful earns him many friends, who would host him one day of the week. And on days that he didn’t have a host, he’d just live out in the woods (“Redwood Cathedral” as he calls it). Such details don’t matter much for Pancho. All his possessions fit into one bag pack, as his life organizes around doing acts of service.
When Pancho learned about the troubled situation in his neighboring East Oakland, he was quite moved. Rife with gang warfare, it is an area that most people have written off. Every week, residents hear the sounds of gun shots being fired — and that’s no exaggeration. It’s a community with 53 liquor stores and no grocery stores. The tensions between the police and the community have continued to escalate, while traditional civic programs haven’t made much of a dent.
So Pancho decides to do something about it, with an altogether different framework. Instead of helping from the outside, he wanted to become one of them; instead of just receiving external aid, he wondered if the community could not only discover undiscovered gifts but then share them freely with others.
With a few like-hearted friends, Pancho rents a house right on the border of two gangs. They call their home “Casa de Paz” — house of peace. The shared values of the house include 2 hours of daily meditation, no drinking, and a vegan diet. And no locks on the doors — anyone can come in any time.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, they meditate and do yoga at the local Cesar Chavez park (which has been home to several shootings in recent months). People have all kinds of reactions to their public meditations. One time, a mildly drunk man with bloodshot eyes is roaming the park with his girlfriend. Initially, they smirk and make snide remarks but then as they approach Pancho and his two housemates sitting in crossed legged meditation, Pancho opens his eyes with a loving embrace. As Pancho reaches to grab something from his bag, the man instinctively reached for something (possibly a gun) in his pocket. “Brother, here’s a fresh, local, organic strawberry for you,” Pancho said while holding up the edible, red-colored gift from Nature.
On another occasion, their neighbor’s teenage daughter attempts to commit suicide, on a Friday afternoon. The sounds of sirens create a mild panic in the community but for Pancho and his housemates, it is another opportunity to spread love. They show up to comfort their neighbors, with a kettle of hot tea, as the family shares their troubles. Over the next month, that same teenage girl becomes a friend and gets interested in the farming projects at Casa de Paz.
Almost everyday, they facilitate these transformations. Another time, a few young boys boisterously smash empty alcohol bottles on the streets, just as a prank. Instead of cringing in fear, Pancho runs outside, barefoot. The boys could see him and vice-versa, and instead of anger, Pancho humbly bends down and starts picking up the pieces of broken glass. Something about that act took the kids by surprise, as they slowly returned back. “Brother, you see that house over there? They have a young one, and when he walks out on the street, we don’t want them to get hurt,” Pancho explains to them in fluent Spanish. One thing after another, the kids themselves start helping pick up the broken pieces — and make role models of these love warriors on their street.
In isolation, these are small stories. Yet, collectively, its impact adds up. It binds the community, it creates new connections, it fills the gaps. Its like the silence in between the notes that allows the music to be heard.
“A lot of people talk their talk, but very few can walk their walk. Living in that community is hard, but living at Casa de Paz is even harder. They simply refuse to compromise their values, even in small ways, when no one else is looking. One time, I told them that perhaps their precepts were a bit too tough, and Pancho opened up a book and showed me 11 observances that Gandhi upheld at his ashram. I couldn’t say anything to that,” remembers Kanchan Gokhale, a long-time friend.
One of those observances is Silent Mondays. In the tradition of Gandhi, Pancho is silent every Monday. Even on that November 14th, the day of the Occupy Oakland raid which happened to be a Monday, Pancho stays silent on principle. As the riot police arrest him, he writes a comment on a piece of paper: “On Mondays, I practice silence. But I’d like you to hear that I love you.” The officer smiles. How could you not?
“On the face of it, Pancho doesn’t own anything. Yet, he is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met,” says another friend, Joanna Holsten.
How can you give, when you don’t have anything? That paradox is what makes Pancho shine. When a friend asked him about service, he took her to a local Farmers Market with two chairs. She sat on one chair, and put a sign on the other chair: “Free listening.” When Pancho and his friends saw unused fruit in their neighbor’s backyards, they requested to “glean” the fruit and then gift it to strangers: “This is a gift from East Oakland.” On a recent Sunday, they gave away 250 pounds of fresh, organic oranges that way.
Of the 32 people arrested at Occupy Oakland, 31 were sent home on the same day, with a misdemeanor charge. Pancho, however, is held for deportation. Very quickly, he becomes an iconic symbol for all that is wrong with the dominant paradigm. Within two days, twenty thousand people sign a petition to free Pancho. At his court arraignment, a large group of people show up to meditate — which has never happened in that courthouse, and again confuses all the police in riot-gear who are themselves drawn to the circle. People from around the world call the sheriffs and congress representatives. Media everywhere reports the story. Vigils are held by many around the globe. By the end of the four days, Alameda County D.A. drops all criminal charges and ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) releases Pancho from jail, without any bail. No one can really explain the unprecedented move by the authorities. “It was truly a miracle that he was let go,” Marianne Manilove posted on her FaceBook wall.
Francisco Ugarte, Pancho’s pro-bono laywer, happily reported, “They really didn’t know what to do with him.” He would relay Pancho’s notes from various jails that he was being shuttled to. “Tell them that I love them all. (It’s a) great place to meditate!” was his first note to friends and supporters. Francisco’s second note conveyed this message: “Pancho wanted me to convey to folks that he was, for some reason, identified as a particularly dangerous inmate, wearing a red clothes in jail, and shackled so that the movement of his arms was restrained. The shackles were metal, and surrounded his waist. Apparently, this treatment is reserved only for the most “dangerous” inmates. It is unclear why Alameda County have done this. But after a short conversation, we agreed that, without a doubt, Pancho was the most dangerous person in Santa Rita Jail — dangerous to the whole system. As Pancho said, “The most effective weapon against a system based on greed and violence is kindness.”
Kindness is indeed Pancho’s go-to weapon. When in doubt, be kind. Even otherwise, be kind.
As Pancho is shackled up in solitary confinement, he creates a makeshift cushion with his shoes and starts meditating. The guards themselves start taking photos to post on their Facebook walls! Moved by his equipoise under conditions of extreme stress, some guards even inquire about the specifics of meditation. One of them befriends him and gifts him an extra “package” — a toothbrush, a toothpaste, a piece of paper and a pen. Pancho then cleans up his cell of all the litter, toilet paper and other waste; on the piece of paper he writes, “Smile. You’ve just been tagged with an anonymous act of kindness!”, and leaves that extra toothpaste and toothbrush next to it. “I wanted to beautify the cell for the next person after me,” he would later say. Jails didn’t have any vegetarian food, so he smilingly fasted — having two oranges in four days. He gifts away his ham sandwiches to other inmates, and connects with them in the spirit of generosity too. In transit, when he has more contact with other prisoners, he educates them about their rights. With the ICE agent who shackles him, he smilingly says, “Sister, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this kind of work.” To which she smiled back and responded, “Thank you.”
Really, there’s not much else one can respond with.
When he is released from jail, lots of media houses are frantically looking for him. Pancho, utterly uninterested in the games of fame, is unreachable. The man doesn’t even have a phone. That weekend, like every weekend, the best way to find him was to meditate at Casa de Paz, or volunteer at Karma Kitchen, or farm at the Free Farm Stand. “Let’s replicate constructive programs,” he would say, while retelling stories of Gandhi.
From anarchists to administrators, people love Pancho — not just because he fiercely stands up for his values but because he is genuinely and constantly moved by love. Whenever you meet him, he pre-emptively warns, “Hello, my family calls me Pancho. I’m from the part of the planet we call Mexico and in Mexico, we like to give hugs,” before enveloping you in his trademark embrace.
Former US Marine Jason Kal recalls, “When we first met, I just casually told Pancho that I liked his t-shirt that said ‘ahimsa’ (meaning nonviolence) on it. The next thing you know, he just takes off his t-shirt and gives it to me. I was totally speechless. I’ve never seen anyone do that.” Today, Jason is Pancho’s housemate at Casa de Paz and a dear friend.
As Pancho often signs off his emails, “If you want to be a rebel, be kind.”
~ Nipun Mehta
Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it—simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed.
~ Thich Nhat Hahn