We wait in a large quiet basement room, a voice calls out our last names. We are the citizens, non-convicts, resident San Franciscans; the ones able to judge right from wrong, upholders of the Constitution. The orientation video entices us, invites us to witness the criminal justice system up close, be Judge Judy for a day. We shuffle into the courtroom, African-American, Asian, White, Latino, all here when called upon. I become a witness to factual knowledge, as people in the jury box state their occupation, marital status, whether they rent or own. A voyeur, I listen for stories. The man married 32 years, the older woman still living with her parents, the UCSF nurse who helps the chronically ill, bits of life shared with a room full of strangers. Potential unlawful eviction, but I’m not to reveal trial details, took an oath not to tell. I scribble notes on the book that I brought to relieve boredom, think of my father and sister, both lawyers, they’ve lived in rooms like these. I observe while the attorneys work, sweating, brains churning. Who to keep? Who to release? Juror number 5, tell me again about being a landlord, you own three houses? They query, looking for answers, for an advantage, sizing up faces like poker players. Women stand up, men sit down, human beings shifting seats 1-21 like musical chairs without the melody, money at stake. Hours have passed, I find myself spacing out, listening to my breath, what am I doing here? I’ve forgotten. Then suddenly the words, the rest of you are dismissed, you have done your duty. We walk out of the room, the doors of democracy opening into afternoon sunlight.
It took me 22 years to stay at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center by the Pacific Ocean. I’d passed it a couple of times while hiking in Marin County long ago, but there was an invisible barrier bigger than the 10 foot fence keeping me (and the deer) out. Hour after hour of silence, meditation in the austere zendo, no distractions apart from the sound of bees moving among long strands of lavender.
I walk into the Welcome Center, You’re Daniel, we’ve been expecting you, a woman named Lucy says with a British accent. I’m one of very few guests staying at the zen farm. My room isn’t ready so I walk to the zendo, remove my sandals and step inside. I’ve been in the zendo before, but on a Sunday when the space was filled with people. The wooden room is now empty, smells vaguely of incense, zafus (meditation cushions) line the floor in rows, two Buddhas watch over the wide expanse from an altar near the front. I try sitting on a zafu, but after a few minutes my aching back says no. I find a chair and meditate for an hour, then walk out imaging the years of silence that the room has absorbed. The long departed women and men who once sat where I was, content, grief stricken, finding their breathing over and over again.
I arrive at my room, it is mostly glass windows, sliding doors, no key. No locks, that is how we roll around here. Lucy said. For a split second I remember that tomorrow is Friday the 13th, but quickly stuff thoughts of Jason back into my brain (I’ve never watched one of those movies). My quarters have a private bathroom. Most meditation retreats emphasize the communal, shared rooms and toilets. In theory I’m not against being communal, but I almost always pee in the middle of the night at 3am and would rather skip the walk to wherever that toilet might be. I opted to do a retreat with no set requirements, no alternating hours of sitting and walking meditation, no dharma talks every night, no emphasis on complete silence. I appreciate all those things, but I had to make the retreat work with my family. Green Gulch is close to San Francisco and is usually available anytime for guests, unlike other meditation retreats that book up weeks in advance.
After getting settled I amble over to a pond, its edges filled with green vegetation poking out of the water. I sit on a bench and meditate again, and appreciate my good fortune. The whole scene has rustic fragrant beauty with abundant earthen sounds, like a summer camp aviary for peace seekers; a complete contrast to the noise and cigarette littered streets of San Francisco.
Two periods of meditation complete, I walk past penstemon and buckeye flowers, then acre after acre of plants rising through soil, the farm’s edible rainbow; purples, greens, yellows, all in rows, an oasis of curated nature stretching out almost to the ocean. Women and men till the ground, water plant roots, their unlocked bikes rest on the ground nearby. The farm is a miniature utopia, a perfect society, a Buddhist hippie kibbutz. Everyone smiles at me as I pass, hummingbirds dart in and out of flowers, rabbits sniff the air, then disappear. I feel like my five-year old self singing I’ve got the whole world in my hands, with my post-Vietnam War teachers smiling peace at me.
6pm the dinner bell clangs slowly, then faster, letting everyone know it’s time to gather in the dining hall. The food is served buffet style, pinto bean stew with sauteed onions, garlic, tomatillo sauce, grilled corn, and steamed leafy chard. It goes without saying that everything is organic, of the earth only yards away. As mindful as I try to be, my wife is the first to say that I eat too quickly. I blame it on being a teacher, always cramming in my food before class, or maybe I’m just like most Americans steeped in a fast food world where eating rapidly is the norm. This is my chance to be different. There is a clock on the wall, I tell myself, you’re not leaving here for 40 minutes. The pinto stew mixed with brown rice is delicious, I make a point of laying my fork back on the plate after savoring each bite. I don’t take another forkful until my mouth is completely empty. 35 minutes later and the food is gone. I slowly get up, walk to the front and pour myself a cup of peppermint tea. I sit for another 10 minutes, completing a 45 minute silent dinner. We are short of volunteers in the kitchen, a young woman with red curly hair calls out after ringing a bell. I have nowhere else to be so I find myself in the dishroom with Santosh, a 70-year old woman originally from the Punjab region of India. She does the first scrubbing, I dip the dishes into a tub of soapy water, then into a drying rack. Santosh’s daughter invited her to Green Gulch as a birthday present. When we first meet we bow to each other, then work in silence for several minutes, occasionally bowing to other people as they leave their plates and utensils.
After dinner I hear coyotes crying out into the night, they live in the low mountain ridges that surround Green Gulch, a chorus of loud lonely barks and howls, high pitched and haunting. The evening brings more meditation, some writing, then reading a Buddhist text by Ajahn Chah. His words remind me that my body and life are not permanent. At 9pm a monk claps blocks together, telling everyone that it is time for slumber (the monks and zen students will be up at 4:30am the next day to meditate).
I arise the following morning at 5:45am, do an hour of meditation, then a few push-ups, and more reading. I won’t go into all the breakfast details except to say the blueberries are bursting with sweetness, bringing the oatmeal to life. I sit with a woman named Janet, also a teacher, married with two adult daughters. We are grinning ear to ear, both incredibly happy to be in this place. She is staying in the guest house. Is it full? I ask. No, only three other people. She tells me. We can hardly believe that Green Gulch is empty compared to all the other spots around San Francisco that are overflowing with tourists. Remove TV, booze, and meat, add a little silent Buddhism, and I guess that is all it takes for the zen center to remain mostly unknown to the public.
After breakfast I walk the 20 minutes to Muir Beach, meditate on a bench, listen to the waves crash, then watch a woman dive into the ocean with all her clothes on, laughing, supremely happy with her decision. I smile, she feels the way I feel, covered, drenched in elation, very thankful for another day of tranquility at Green Gulch.
People schedule SoulCycle, mani-pedis, evening cocktail encounters with friends. I schedule spiritual growth. Very American of me, I know, but I live in a world of kid carpools, grocery shopping, laundry, and taking the dog out to poop. My daily calendar is always filled to the brim with bills that need to be paid and emails that must be returned. If I don’t make time to listen to myself, everything else takes over.
For years I knew there was a spirit in me, a writer in me, a poet in me, never fully free, always bound by external obligations. I have figured out a formula for expressing my inner being. I begin each morning reading a spiritual text that helps guide me on my journey. I meditate at least 45 minutes a day, scheduled breathing, in, out, trying to be as present as possible. Most Wednesday nights I meditate for an hour with a small group of friends, we then read and discuss the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn for another hour. I spend daily minutes (often hours) writing, reflecting on who I am with words, my words, on a page or computer screen. Every two months I plan intensive meditation weekends (Friday-Sunday) where I meditate multiple hours a day either at home or away. Each day I also do some form of yoga.
What exactly is spiritual growth? For me spiritual growth invites my internal quiet to speak loudly with truth. When I grow spiritually I learn things like love is everywhere, more is learned by listening than talking, there is good in everyone, anger is always reactive. Wisdom I’ve heard before, known before, but I need reminding, over and over again. Am I sitting enlightened under the bodhi tree? No, but I’m keeping a channel open, my spirit touching a timeless stream.
plant seeds in fields
knees in wet dirt
rabbits watch and twitch
sun and fog above
lunch bell starts slowly
come and get it
what they have harvested
the ones who meditate
they smile with peace
bow to each other
cut bread, scoop soup
some sit in silence
voices of children sing
small feet on earth
present moments at play
grateful for this day
Japanese maple tree, its delicate leaves shade the pool where my son teaches himself to swim. Jumps from the edge with his sister, free in July air, the two tumble into clear water splashing. Adonis, my wife calls me jokingly, as I lie tanning in the sun, meditating, absorbing the warmth of summer. Afternoon breeze blows the camellia and purple princess flowers, while hawks and crows circle overhead patiently watching the earth below. A baby deer trots up nibbling grass, then jolts off. Hardly seems real, these moments away from the city, away from computers and planning. No past, no future, only dragonflies navigating the present wind.
Cigarettes sucked to the butt, lie dead on the sidewalk like flat white and orange cancer worms. Not my ideal place to meditate, but I’ve committed to 2 hours of sitting on this grungy street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The handwritten sign above my head reads Free Meditation scrawled with one of my son’s purple smelly markers. I’m surrounded by a small legless dog, its toothless owner, and a woman muttering to herself. They are waiting to take a free mobile shower thanks to the nonprofit Lava Mae. I had some kind of fantasy that the cardboard box campers, hungover, strung out, would sit with me, close their eyes, allow me to guide them through some mindful breathing. Instead the first hour is me and them, the guy blasting AC/DC on his cassette player boom box, a mom with two toddler children sitting in my guest meditation chairs, and a homeless kid talking to himself about fairies. I close my eyes, breathe in the secondhand smoke, try to ignore the broken needle on the curb a few feet away. The Lava Mae staff encourage people to sit with me. We are offering meditation today Charlie, want to try it? They ask the toothless man. But Charlie just looks through me like he’s on his 3rd tour in the ‘Nam. They all ignore me, like they ignore the Back in Black screeching out into the foggy Saturday morning air.
I try to meditate, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes catching glimpses of people throwing their used towels into a bin as they trudge away to get dirty again. Then this guy sits down next to me to dry off after his shower. My altruistic heart skips a beat. This is what I’m here for, to save someone, to be an example of peace, to add hope to the psyche of the streets. He’s tall, maybe 6’6, light skinned, African American, carrying a large blanket like a cape, like a king. You meditating man? He asks. Yes, would you like to sit with me? I say, almost sounding like Linus speaking about the Great Pumpkin. Nah man, but that meditation stuff is some good shit, I like that shit, but I came here to get my ass clean. His eyes look at me clearly, no booze on his breath, no weed smell around his edges. You’ve meditated? I ask. Yeah, meditated, yoga, visualization, all that shit. We talk about his hoops career, (he played divison one ball in college), his ex-wife, his old job selling cars, his race (Man, I didn’t discover my blackness until I was like 20, I was raised by white folks who’d adopted me), his descent into crystal meth. I ask him about living on the streets. Dan, man, I never miss a meal, I sometimes walk 12 miles a day from place to place. I sleep wherever, in a tent, in a box, on the bus to the casino up north. I don’t ask him if he’s still using, but my money says yes. You want to get off the streets? I ask. Yeah, but I want someone to write my story. I was a pro baller in Europe man, fuck, people need to know about this shit. I look down at my watch, an hour has passed talking with Dennis and my time is up. I grab my sign, say goodbye to the Lava Mae people, then to Dennis. I want to give him my card, meet with him again, write his story, save him from his end, but all I can manage is, really good to meet you, stay strong. With that he is off, clutching his blanket, a giant of a man, almost elegant, owned by addiction.
I get home and immediately go to my computer. There he is, averaged 9.7 points a game his senior year, his LinkedIn profile shows his last job as a car sales manager near Sacramento. He was telling the truth, I think. A real man, a real human being, off the grid, gone, maybe forever.
A couple months ago I was helping my daughter with her Arizona project. One of the requirements was a poster highlighting a current event from the state. I went online, scrolled through murder, after fire, after assault, after trial, after teacher strike. I could almost hear Jack Johnson humming Where’d all the good people go, I’ve been changing channels, I don’t see them on the TV shows. Four pages of bad news, headlines like Woman’s body found or Man struck, killed by car, with attractive photos of the people alive before they were decomposed, crushed, dead. I finally found Taylor Swift’s smiling face, arm and arm with foster children on the top of the 5th page. She’d given a free concert to the kids with pizza. Thank you Newsday, thank you Taylor Swift. We live in the era of self-fulfilling media prophecy, read about killing, go out and kill someone. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are we all addicted to violence? Someone is reading the articles. Awhile back I let it all go, the news, the football, the MMA, the suffering, the injuries, the bruises. What does it mean to live peace? (I’m preaching now). Slowly move your fingers away from the computer, let the news go, let the violence go, vote with your time, give it to life, to peace.
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky. I’ve never really thought about what those Bowie lyrics mean, but as I age the ashes have begun to appear here and there. They’ve been getting cremated, them, those people, the ones I used to know. My geometry teacher from high school, that dad who drove carpool years ago, my old girlfriend’s father. Usually men go first, into the ceramic vases, urns, boxes; some permanently placed on mantles, others spread in oceans, on mountaintops, even on golf courses. Dead in walls, in graves, in the sky, blown away, everywhere, nowhere. Morbid, I know, but the wheel of life turns and we all get cast off the ride. No more popcorn.
There was a night when the four walls couldn’t hold me, when listening to The Velvet Underground was too depressing. No tent, no car, no pillow, only my two hiking legs and a sleeping bag. Modern John Muir escaping the streets. I ambled my way to the base of a country mountain. 8pm dusk and me just sitting on the ground, my shadow fading into night. Long blades of grass, deer droppings, my new bedroom. Resting there I did nothing, no phone, no book, no flashlight. I wanted the hilly air to take me, absorb me, like only the earth can. There was no plan to sleep, there was no plan to not sleep, there was no plan. There was a her somewhere, out there, over there, without the zest of the World War I tune. But I had the full moon. I saw the moon and the moon saw me. I slept and woke and slept and woke, the moon so bright that I thought to turn it off, then realized where I was again and again. The evening went like that, blanketed in endless space, all the ground my mattress. By morning the her, the she, was a little less in me, nature said, let it be.