The Middle Way

Zen Spot #45 — Mindfulness, meditation and the legend of Checkpoint Charlie February 7, 2018 00:05

I am child of the Cold War

I’ve learned not to tell my children about anything that once existed. Never discuss a building that covers a corn field from my youth. Refuse to remark of the fistfights found at the 700 level of Veterans Stadium in the 60s and 70s. Avoid tales of warlocks thundering into the center of West Chester while their brother was on trial. Refuse to compare the price of a candy bar between then and now.

Lobbing ICBMs

I recall listening to a radio documentary, in about 2005, that described an evening in the 1970s when warheads were close to being launched over the North Pole, on their way from Russia to the U.S. At the time, I was oblivious. As reported by the documentary, the rest of the population, even adults, was just as unknowing.

I forget why.

I was aware of a wall

It separated people in a funny way. On one side, life was lived in full color, with food and heat. On the other side, life was lived in black and white. Mostly black. Maybe dark grey. Cold. Tattered. People wanting to climb over.

My father, at one point, explained the need for desperate hungry beings to dig tunnels to escape. Like prison. He offered legends of people half-building improvised ramps to jump cars across, but had no proof. That said, how hard could a wall be to scale? Build a ladder, I thought.

He never explained no man’s land

It wasn’t until I opened a National Geographic and saw pictures of the eighty-yard gap between where the tangle of barbwire began on the eastern side, and the base of the wall jammed upward on the western side, that my opinion of no man's land was changed. With images of machine guns hovering, spotlights swiveling, voracious dogs waiting and land mines laid, I finally understood why people were trapped.

The story detailed death found by people with wire cutters and improvised ladders who were killed while trying to escape. Pictures, I think, showed fuzzy silhouettes running from bullets blasting dirt at their feet.

Idiot. Me.

Checkpoint Charlie

A funnel that withered down into a path across the death zone--just enough for a car to drive through, with snipers and barriers on either side--it was the only legal gateway to freedom. We could go in to the prison but they couldn’t come out. 

We and they.

Almost overnight, in 1989, when I was 27, the wall fell and the death zone died. East Berlin was gone. People danced on top of a wall that, just weeks before, would have dripped blood.

Charlie died of cancer.

Johns Hopkins

My son recently graduated from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. It is a Masters college within Johns Hopkins University.

In a very small courtyard, in the front of the college’s main building, is a piece of the Berlin Wall. It is shown above. 

I’ve only visited the campus twice and, during my first visit, I walked by The Wall without notice. During my second pass, I noticed and was surprised that I hadn’t felt its presence like a soul buzz--like Radio Free Europe broadcast into my dopamine. The visceral feeling of home I expect to experience when I kiss the ground in Ireland for the first time was notably absent. The light I felt radiating from Where The Wild Things Are as a five year old was elsewhere, if anywhere. 

No. I just walked by a wall. No. I walked by the Wall. The Wall on one side of which many people died, and I couldn’t tell which side I was on. I wanted to cry. I was in awe. Sad. Happy. Confused. Focused.

I wanted to tell my son what we were standing in front of, but he already knew; he’d been walking by it every day for a full year. I wanted to implore him to understand the ICBMs and machine guns and dead people and misunderstanding and grey lives and cheap candy bars and open fields, all motivated by a desire to let him know that both nature and nurture contribute to a life.

Breathing in front of the wall

Mindfulness was nowhere to be found. Controlled breathing was elusive. My mind raced and, pursuant to a full color description, within an impossible irony, my son informed me that the former East German embassy lies just across the street from the college. I was disgusted and perplexed. On a windy day, I could have spit.

It’s awful, but I wish I had asked my son to go for a fifteen minute walk by himself that I might sit with my back against the wall, like I’ve done with so many other walls when I pursue mindfulness.

I don’t think I will ever be able to use the image in my mind’s eye as a departure point. That said, the image in my mind's eye is not a wall.

Or perhaps it is.


About DharmaMechanic

An artist, entrepreneur and writer walking the Buddhist path, his art focuses on the Dharma Wheel. The four wheels shown above are among over 600 DharmaMechanic has created over the course of his career. Each has a unique story. If you’d like to read the story of these wheels or purchase a framed 20" x 20" ready-to-hang print, visit

What are The Four Noble Truths?

  1. The truth of suffering
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering
  4. The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering

What is The Noble Eightfold Path?

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right action
  4. Right speech
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

What is a Dharma Wheel?