Jarvis grasped how well when he was on the yard one day and an inmate who’d heard about his conversion asked, “How can you be a Buddhist in this shithole?” Without thinking, Jarvis responded, “The question for me is ‘How can you be in this shithole without being a Buddhist?’ ”
“People think as a Buddhist you want to transcend the everyday, transcend the past, transcend the pain. But the goal isn’t dangling above the messiness of life, it’s sitting in it; you don’t want to transcend the past but be there fully. When you fully connect with your past… that’s when it begins to lose its ability to harm you—to control you. What you do is go to the events; you don’t judge them as good or bad, and you sit with them even if they scare you.” She added, “Especially if they scare you.”
She offered a poignant example: “Let’s say your child is very ill. All you want to do is run away from the bad feelings. It feels as if they will kill you—that’s how afraid you are. You do anything not to feel them. But unless you feel them, they don’t go away. And here’s the thing: if you sit with those feelings, it doesn’t feel good, but it feels honest and true. When you stop running, you can be with your child who’s ill, which is where you want to be for yourself and for him.”
We chip away a piece at a time. To free ourselves, we have to keep going, to go deeper.
The better he became at meditation, the more it helped him face trauma he’d experienced and learn and explore. Sometimes terrible memories and fears—of execution, of guards—arose, but he used meditation to push them aside—to try to transcend the pain he’d carried with him his whole life. But now Pema challenged him to go back to the worst memories and fears again—to intentionally meditate on them. She said not to push them away, not to try to transcend them, not to run from them, but to go toward them.
Pema responded, “Maybe you didn’t let your practice slide because you’re in a bad place, but you’re in a bad place because you let your practice slide.”
Like Chagdud Tulku, she practiced Vajrayana Buddhism, and she appreciated the way Jarvis hadn’t simply adopted that tradition but had adapted it to who and where he was.
I don’t think too many prisoners would live under the boots of their misery if they knew that the amount of work is the same to make ourselves miserable or make ourselves strong. And when we do, we can free ourselves without leaving our cells.
When he told Lisa about the night of the execution, Jarvis said he finally understood the power of meditation. There wasn’t much in his life he could control, but he recalled Melody once saying, “Jarvis, you can control your mind.” He hadn’t fully understood what that meant, but now he did. He could control his mind. He understood what Rinpoche had given him: a lifeline. He held on, and it got him through the ache and fear caused by Harris’s death. But even meditation itself produced wildly varying results. Sometimes he arose from the lotus position feeling a kind of serenity he’d never known. Other times he emerged feeling fragile and tender. Still other times he became lost in dark caves and emerged feeling depleted, feverish, and scared.
By then Jarvis had learned that Buddhism was filled with paradoxes and contradictions that messed with his mind. Sometimes it seemed as if those paradoxes were beyond his comprehension, but the mind is much more capacious than we think. He reveled in a fresh paradox: the death sentence that could kill him had given him life.
“My old self died. The person who was desensitized, numb, dead.” He looked upward. “And from that death… it’s like I became someone new. I’m becoming someone new.” Lisa countered, “You’re becoming who you really are. You’re discovering your true nature.”