The Middle Way

Zen Spot #50 — Mindfulness, meditation and nothingness in the sky December 19, 2017 01:24

On the other side

I reached out, trying to touch the top of the fifty foot stone wall, but was unable. My curiosity about the blue of the sky on the other side was unreasonably strong.

Meditation as punishment

Still punishing passersby with curiosity, the wall confines a prison that died fifty years ago--Eastern State Penitentiary. 

It occupies a full city block in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. Gargoyles and gun towers are as alive as the day the last stone was laid and the first prisoner was assigned solitude. Every prisoner was assigned solitude. 

Nothingness as punishment.

Twisted monastic

It was called The Pennsylvania System . A cruel philosophy of personal penal reform, Eastern State was the mother of the scheme. The system twisted an idea of monastic life, where community is viewed as a contributor to moral failure that indeed leads to more criminal thought. Solitude, conversely and assuredly, ensured change through reflection.

Prisoners were astronauts thrown adrift, into the void, alive and waiting, moving away from the planet at 25,000 mph, while standing still, at the same time. Guards and wardens knew neither their names nor their crimes. When walking through the halls, for any reason, prisoners were hooded, shackled and required to shuffle quietly. There was no sky.

Alone. Completely. A conversation with God.

Another paradox

It is simplistic, and perhaps disrespectful, to compare what the prisoners were forced to experience, to the mindfulness of Zen practitioners, especially when one walks around the interior of the penitentiary. Draconian iron and granite piss. No temple. Maybe an altar. 

Among the differences — perhaps the most stark difference — is the critical element of choice. Without choice, nothingness is profoundly ugly.

The wall and sky

I took the photograph shown above while attending a flea market that circumnavigated every square foot of the four exterior walls. Jazz played. Children spilled and smiled. Vintage, vinyl, gizmos and hot dogs were a maze through which to stroll. Newly mowed grass filled the air. The joy of community embraced the fortress.

At 4 pm, as the market was winding down, and vendors were jam-packing old conversion vans with all the stuff that didn’t sell, I sat, and leaned against one of thousands of granite blocks. Knowing what had happened on the other side of the wall, I tried to be thoughtful and respectful before being mindful. 

I reached toward the nothingness of the sky, closed my eyes and calmed my mind. Sorrow shackled me.


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 Michael 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?