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An orange of mindfulness

By L. B.

A single orange.
Peeling the orange was like removing the skin of mental obstacles when sitting in meditation. (Photo by Robert Couse-Baker)

The prison kitchen workers forgot to put fruit on the vegetable tray that I ordered today. However, it was highly likely that I would not receive any due to the fact that I had not brought this to the attention of the guard when he gave me my food. “Oh well,” I thought, “the worst thing that could happen is that he will say ‘no’ when I ask.”

When the guard came around to pick up trays I told him that I didn’t receive any fruit on my tray. “I’ll see what I can do,” he replied and walked off.

About an hour later, I had just about given up on fruit for lunch when here comes the guard into my unit holding a crumpled brown paper sack and making a beeline for my cell. He opened up the tray port in my door and passed the bag into me. He smiled and whispered, “I went down to death row and pulled this off the cart. They won’t miss it and they are through feeding anyway.” He closed the port and left without a backward glance.

I opened up the paper sack and looked inside. There was an orange in the bag! Two years ago they had discontinued serving any citrus fruits in the intensive management unit in which I live, so I had not had an orange in a long time. I reached inside and pulled out the little orange.

I could almost close my entire hand around the orange—it was that small. I held it to my nose and inhaled its fragrance. I closed my eye and thought of Christmases past when mom would stuff oranges into stockings for us kids to find the next morning, and I smiled.

I opened my eyes and I looked at my little treasure. It was slightly discolored with hues of yellow and a little light brown among the orange color. You could tell that it was not the pick of the crop and most likely was a cull from last year’s harvest that was not fit for selling in a store, so it was sold to the prison. I did not care though: it was treat for me!

I remembered the story of Prince Siddhartha sharing tangerines with some children. He taught them how to eat with mindfulness and really see deeply the act of sharing and being together. I thought that this would be a good chance for me to put this lesson into practice, so I held the little orange in my hand, smiled at it, and began to peel it. As I took each piece of peel from it, I would breathe in and deeply see the citrus oil spring from the peel to join the air. I would then exhale and smile.

My universe became my breath; peeling the orange became a unique process, like removing the skin of our mental obstacles when we sit in meditation.

Soon I found my orange was peeled and saw the inner fruit. I held it close to my eyes to see it clearly and noticed little, white, vein-like membranes embedded and circling the fruit. This was the structure that carried the water and nutrients to the fruit as it grew on the tree. It reminded me of our own circulatory system that carries our life blood through our body. Again I smiled and shared my breath with the orange.

I then pulled the fruit in half very slowly. I could hear the skin crackle, and little drops of juice sprayed into the air as I inhaled. It was as if the orange baptized me and gave me the blessings of its essence. I pulled a little piece from the half and laid it on my tongue. It was cold and weighty silting there waiting to be eaten.

I switched the fruit from my tongue to my teeth and bit into it. Since it was the first citrus fruit I had had in two years, and also a factory reject, it was a bit sour. My face started to pucker and the glands in my throat froze for a second. I am sure that I looked like I had a bad case of “bitter beer face.” I chuckled to myself and had to refocus on my breathing.

I managed to swallow that first bite and then pulled off another piece. I looked at it, smelled it, felt its texture, and again bit into it. This time the orange was sweet. Maybe my meditation was so focused I could not taste sour, or maybe the little orange saw the face I made and had pity on me. Whatever the case, not one of the remaining pieces tasted bad.

As I finished the last piece, I closed my eyes, breathed in, and smiled. I held the yellow- and brown-tinged orange peels in my cupped hand and thanked the little treasure for such a wonderful moment in my day.

I reflected on how we, as imprisoned people, may start out our lives as if we were fruit that was not fit for society. We may see ourselves as being a little discolored, and sometimes we were not agreeable to the tastes of others. However, we are still a part of humanity’s tree and if we seek to, we can change our sour taste into sweet nectar for others before our time in this life finishes. We may have to peel away some yellowed, mottled skin, and we may not look too good even then. But through patience and understanding, along with kindness toward ourselves and others, we can become treasures worthy of peace and harmony in everyday life.

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.

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