Mindfulness Inherited

By Melissa Kotulski, Trinity Tripod, Dec 13, 2005

Hartford, CT (USA) -- Fred wore many hats: professor, family man, concerned citizen, spiritual Buddhist practitioner, volunteer in prisons, writer of books. I knew Fred Pfeil throughout his intellectual, political, and Buddhist meditation.

Fred was mindful with his felt hat and bushy beard, he was certainly a sight as he walked slowly down the street. He once described his walks at a meditation, "I make it a point to see something new each time I walk between Trinity and my home." Fred's advice of mindfulness appears in my professional and academic pursuits.

One of the last times I saw Fred was when I brought Scott Virgin to meditate at Elli and Fred's house for their weekly meditation. The three of us worked in Trinity's Anti-War Coalition with hopes to prevent the onset of the Iraq War in 2003. While in TAWC, Scott, Fred, and I wrote articles for the TAWC-ing Points newsletter and we protested at Trinity and in Hartford.

TAWC is where I first met Fred. At one of our first meetings, he handed me a postcard and said, "Here, take this." The dark-toned man-Latino? Asian? Light skinned African-American?-pulled a red, white and blue tied scarf around his mouth and his eyes are closed. Beneath the face were the words: "Patriotism means ask no questions" and "A Message from the Ministry of Homeland Security." The gesture was so surprising, so openly giving, and-what I would soon learn to be-so utterly Fred.

During my time with TAWC, I admired Fred for his strength of will. At our "Die-in" in March of 2003, he lay face down in ice rain, with nothing between his face and the brick outside Mather Hall at Trinity. He was there for three hours, while wimps like me only stuck it out for 30 minutes. Lying there in the freezing cold, I heard some people make comments about the war; I heard reactions to the protestors. When I asked Fred what he heard, he said he saw and heard the people who would suffer in Iraq.

He was as mindful of justice for people in the U.S. as he was for those abroad. Jo Niemann and Fred inspired me to work with them in a program called Alternatives to Violence, as the name indicates, it's a program designed to teach prisoners different approaches to deal with their anger.

The week before his collapse in February, Fred attended my practice presentation in preparation for my first conference paper. He sat through the paper and most of the comments. He gave advice on film history just before he stood up, picked up two pieces of pizza, and respectfully waved to me as he exited the room.

Fred and Elli opened their house for weekly and periodic day-long meditations. The usual day-long meditation routine consisted of sitting and walking meditations for 6-7 hours. Fred was very sick by June so we meditated for four hours during the Summer Solstice meditation. Creaking to the third floor of their beautiful home, we'd settle onto zabuttons and floor mats, under blankets and wear thick socks provided by Elli.

While the day was to be dedicated to my mindfulness, a good deal of my thoughts during this abbreviated day settled on the physical changes in Fred. His head was shaved, but his beard was still there. During our silent lunch, Fred drank his shake, while he watched Elli, the others meditators, and myself eat the food he prepared for us. Bittersweetly, I delighted in his well-prepared food and cringed that we could not enjoy it together. That day during walking meditations in Elli's well-kept backyard, I noticed the detail of the stones and their cracks. They are useful to walk on and count an excellent tool to discipline the mind.

Now I notice a new detail each time I meditate, write papers, enjoy pizza, walk in the woods without Fred's corporeal presence as a mentor. The postcard near my desk on my filing cabinet near reminds me to find ways to negotiate social justice. Fred's body is now ash, but his light continues on as I relish in the exquisite newness of everyday details.