It’s that time of year again when we get asked to give, especially to help the homeless.
Which can, unintentionally, trigger our own fear that a worst-case scenario, such as being homeless, could happen to us. Many people find themselves living on the street through no fault of their own, yet how many of us acknowledge street people as fellow human beings with needs no different from ours, simply without the means to fulfill them.
Instead, how often do we avert our eyes when we go by, not wanting to engage?
In an attempt to find out what it would take to see homeless people as being no different from himself, Rev. James Morton, the dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, began an experiment. As Zen teacher Grover Gauntt told us:
“He designed what he called the plunge: an act of diving into unknown waters and getting completely whacked and disorientated so you can orientate yourself in a new way. And he applied this to the street by sending his ministers out without any money, no place to live, no identification, just like the people they were serving.”
From here developed the idea of street retreats: purposefully living on the street for a few days to bring participants into the very midst of society’s neediest, and by doing so to seek a sense of inclusivity. Bernie Glassman, founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, talked to us for our book, Be the Change:
“Street retreats are where we live and practice meditation on the streets, begging and sleeping rough just as any homeless person would. I included meditation, as I wanted to show that meditation is not just sitting on a cushion but reaches every aspect of life. It’s a way of bringing us into a state of inclusivity and of not-knowing, and when that happens the experience of oneness arises. But at the same time we have the experience of not existing. When you’re homeless and begging, people walk past you, you’re completely ignored, you simply don’t exist. When you’ve been so ignored, it becomes impossible to do the same to another person, you can no longer look away from anybody or anything.”
We all dread stepping out of our comfort zone, of what is familiar and known. But when we do, we discover enormous reserves of strength within ourselves, as Oscar winning actress Ellen Burstyn did when she slept on the street in New York:
“I did the street retreat because I was so afraid of it. I could physically feel how much fear I had about being away from my comfort zone, my bed, and especially not having any identity,” said Ellen. “The whole idea of begging was terrifying. The first time I did it, I had to a cross a street to a restaurant with tables outside. Two women were eating there and as I walked toward them I felt like I was crossing over a line that I had consciously never known was there. I was purposefully stepping through my ego to experience what was on the other side. I approached the women and simply asked, ‘Excuse me, but I need a dollar for the subway. Could either of you spare a dollar?’ The woman closest to me reached into her pocket and handed me a dollar without taking her eyes off her companion’s face. I said ‘Thank you’ and walked away. I felt a strange pride that I had really accomplished something, but then enormous sadness as I realized that neither of the women had looked at me. I’d got what I needed, but I’d been completely disregarded and unseen.”
This invisibility is one of the biggest difficulties for the homeless. As Grover Gauntt, who is a street retreat leader, says: “Homeless people get categorized as being alcoholics, drug addicts, there to rip you off, or just plain crazy. But every homeless person has a story and a history, just like we do. Before, I was fearful of confrontation, but I learned that aggression is just disguised fear. I rarely pass a homeless person now without saying a few words and acknowledging him or her as a human being.”
Doing anything outside of our known experience is a plunge, especially stepping into places where we feel resistance or fear. The added ingredient of meditation enables us to step beyond our boundaries and deepens the experience of inclusivity, that we are all a part of our shared humanity. Activist Kiri Westby experienced this when she ran a shelter in Nepal for trafficked girls.
“I needed to meditate before I could even leave my room in the morning. It gave me the strength to recognize that suffering is the human experience that we all have in one form or another, and not to feel overwhelmed by it, not to lose my balance. Without that meditation, without that space each morning, I would have been too filled with the suffering; I would have been paralyzed by it.”
So meditate, find your balance, take fear by the hand, and plunge into the unknown. You’ll never know how sweet the water is unless you dive in!
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Colin Gray