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. Too short, by a mile, my curiosity about the blue of the sky on the other side was strong.

Meditation as punishment

Still punishing passersby with curiosity, the wall confines a prison that died fifty years ago -- Eastern State Penitentiary. Occupying a full city block in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, gargoyles and gun towers are as dead today 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. Twisting a ruthless idea of monastic life where community is viewed as a source of moral failure that leads to more criminal behavior, the system was particularly inhuman.

Prisoners were astronauts thrown adrift. Guards and wardens knew neither their names nor their crimes. When walking through the halls, for any reason, convicts were hooded, shackled and required to shuffle quietly. There was no sky.

Alone. Completely. A conversation with God. Nothingness.

Another paradox

It is simplistic, and perhaps disrespectful, to compare what the prisoners were forced to experience to the mindfulness of Zen, especially when one experiences the interior of the penitentiary. Draconian iron and granite piss. Choice removed, the comfort of nothingness is profoundly ugly.

The wall and sky

A flea market circumnavigated the fortress. I stole a picture of the wall meeting the sky. Jazz played. Children spilled and smiled. Vintage, vinyl, gizmos and hot dogs were a strolling maze. Newly mowed grass filled the air. The joy of community embraced the ugly.

At 4 pm, as the market was winding down, vendors jam-packing old conversion vans with stuff that didn’t sell, I sat 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. 


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

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