Bearing Witness As Homeless

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“When we go to bear witness to life on the streets, we’re offering ourselves.

Not blankets, not food, not clothes, just ourselves.”

Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness
Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness

The time had arrived to plunge into the unknown. Wearing only the clothes on my back and carrying a water bottle and a small bag to collect food, my hair unwashed for the last five days, I joined the Cherry Blossom Street Retreat.

Our group consisted of one teacher and eight students-five women and four men from age forty to sixty-seven years old. We had all begun the retreat at home by begging for the cost of the retreat from friends. Having never begged for money before, I realized my feeling of extreme vulnerability was the required and most important first step of entering into the spirit of the retreat.

Beginning that afternoon, we lived and wandered around downtown Washington, DC for three days with no resources, begging for money, searching for food, shelter, and bathrooms. The retreat was a way to practice three tenets of Engaged Buddhism, as defined by the Zen Peacemakers:

• Not-knowing: letting go of fixed ideas about our selves, others and the world

• Bearing witness: opening our hearts and minds to fearlessly witness both joy and suffering

• Loving actions: healing ourselves others and the world, through compassionate action and nonviolence

Sensing that nothing I would imagine could come close to what I was about to experience, I started the retreat with very little expectations or apprehensions; my only conscious anxiety was that I needed to ask someone if they could lend me a phone at some point in the retreat to call my husband and reassure him that I was alive-which I did, eventually. The nine of us had adventures on the three days and three nights we were together and as I had anticipated, the lessons came for me in the form of the unexpected.

After spending the first few hours of the afternoon connecting as a group, we started focusing on finding dinner and a place to sleep for the night. Rumor had it that food was being distributed at a nearby park that night-soup and sandwiches served from a van by a small local organization. Standing in line, observing the dismayed men and women around me, I felt both sad and reassured as I realized how different and separate I was feeling from the rest of them. Yes, I was standing physically in the same line, but the mental barriers that stood in between them and I seemed so real. All seemed to separate us: I wasn’t beaten up by life like most of them seemed to be, I wasn’t cursing away or muttering to myself, I didn’t have the same wildness in my eyes and above all, I wasn’t alone-even here, in the streets, I was with my group.

Why was I here? What was this all for? Remembering my first tenet ” not knowing” I did my best to detach from my thoughts, to absorb and observe it all, and to simply hold the space for whatever was arising in my mind as well as all around me.

Bearing Witness

A few hours later that night, as I was lying on the thin cardboard that protected my body from the cold concrete- I had in contrast a much more direct experience of homelessness. I was freezing, so cold I couldn’t sleep, and all I could think of was that I needed to find something warm to protect me for the following nights. At this moment-I realized later-I probably was sharing a very similar experience with anybody who was trying to sleep on concrete on a cold and windy night.

Experiencing homelessness firsthand, I had to rely on my true nature many times during these three days, as I had nothing else. I’d written in my request for funds, “Poverty is our collective shadow, on a globalĀ  three days, I will not be able to close my eyes. I will be embracing their pain as my own.”

This retreat was indeed an opportunity to go beyond my imagined limits. As Sensei Grover Genro Gauntt, founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, organizer and teacher of the retreat once said: “A street retreat is the barest poke at renunciation.”

The morning after that first sleepless night of freezing to my bones, a lady at the soup kitchen where we had breakfast offered me a blanket. I had the hardest time accepting the gift-I shared with Genro that I felt as if I was taking the blanket away from them.

“After all,” I insisted, “She could have given it to someone else that needed it more that I did”.

“Them is us,” he replied, giving me one of his genuine smiles. His simple and profound teaching sank deeply into my heart and in that moment, I felt a sudden letting go as if something had just dissolved. Maybe it was my resistance to perceiving myself as the same as them? I don’t know. I took the blanket and simply felt grateful that what I had wished for all night was manifesting so quickly. So much for the power of intention!

Witness As Homeless

Through the woman’s loving action I also understood in that moment my experience of the previous evening at the park: All my feelings of separateness originated merely from the ideas and concepts I was attaching to my own self-image: basically that of a healthy, wealthy, educated and goodhearted young white woman.

As the hours and days passed roaming around the streets, sharing meals with women and men in soup kitchens, these prejudices and limiting boundaries continued to bubble up, demanding my attention and yet, there were times when the boundaries dissolved.

One afternoon we arrived too late for a street food distribution and nothing was left-all of us were hungry and tired. We met this very young man who offered to walk with us to the nearest Safeway supermarket-twenty minutes away-to buy us some food with his food coupons. We were all so touched by his generosity, and yet some of us didn’t want to accept his offer for he certainly needed his coupons more than we did. Our teacher reminded us not to interfere with the natural functioning of “bearing witness“-that generosity and compassion arise out of this action-and this young man, who had very little himself, was embodying those qualities for us. I was reminded of what my grandmother used to tell me: “The most generous people are often those who possess the least.” I wondered how I was going to apply this teaching in my life: I thought about my constant battle with time, and how, rather than money, time was certainly what I perceived as lacking the most in my life. Maybe being more generous with my time would be a way to cultivate generosity in my own life?

Another example of loving action arising from bearing witness came our way one evening when we didn’t know where dinner was going to come from. Out of nowhere a beautiful Indian family appeared. The couple and their two young adult sons were distributing food from their car in a little gloomy square, a hang-out for the homeless and junkies. We found out that they cooked the food in their home and drove twenty miles once a month to come to this dark neighborhood in downtown DC to distribute meals to the homeless. They served us an amazingly fragrant and colorful meal of homemade Indian food, the best I had ever enjoyed.

To quote Bernie Glassman again:

“… Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises. Loving action is right action. It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor. We take such direct, natural actions every day of our lives without considering them special. And they’re not special. Each is simply the best possible response to that situation in that moment.”

The experience was quite surreal: here I was, with eight other fellows as shabby, dirty and worn-out as I was after two and a half days of aimless walking and barely sleeping-we were actually starting to look like real homeless people-enjoying the most delicious food and feeling in complete harmony with all that was arising around me. This spaced out junkie on the bench- not a bit interested by the food; that old woman sitting alone a few meters away diligently watching over the few bags she possessed; that funky black guy-apparently a regular-grabbing a chapatti on the go as he was riding his bike; that gracious Indian lady who found a nice word or smile for each person she was serving. We were all one. In that moment, the construct made of my concepts and ideas dissolved and all that was left was the direct reality of that moment unfolding, perfect as it was.

I started the retreat feeling different and separate from the “real homeless” and I ended up needing the same basic things as everyone else: food, shelter and basic comfort. I recognized my common humanity by direct interaction with strangers and our common quest for basic survival. I realized my responsibilities towards my fellow human brothers and sisters-that of living my life’s purpose-to promote and restore wholeness and healing through all my actions and relationships.

I learned during this retreat that sitting on the cushion and bearing witness in the street is the same thing: in the same way that I empty myself in meditation, I had to empty myself in going out in the street. I took almost nothing with me, and the more I emptied myself in the street-the more I let go of my ideas and concepts-the more real and full were my experiences and encounters with others. On the streets I found true abundance. I learned that whatever I needed was right here if I used my intention and if I could ask for it.

You may be wondering what this street retreat concept could possibly do or change for the poor. Or you may think that this is only about me, not about the people in the street. After all, what is the point of living like a homeless person for three days, when one knows it’s only for three days? It might even seem like an insult to the poor. I do not and cannot hide from that part of me that wondered the same things.

At the same time, I felt deeply called to be part of this retreat. It was the inner sense that something very meaningful and transformative on a collective consciousness level can occur when even just a few people offer their whole self-bearing witness to a form of suffering that as a mass we often refuse to look directly into the eyes-like a part of ourselves that we want to keep away from our awareness.

Here are the gifts that I took home with me:

• When bearing witness, we let ourselves be touched by all the pain and joy of the universe and we let go of our illusion of separateness: “Them is I”

• Everyone is a smile or a word away from being a friend

• “Not knowing” is the way to direct seeing, deeper listening, better understanding, more effective doing

As I intuited before the retreat, I can no longer close my eyes. During those three days, I bore witness to pain and loneliness, madness, anger and distress. I also have never felt so free, connected, open and grateful for all the blessings in my life. I made new friends too: eight fellow travelers on the Buddhist path and a few individual encounters with homeless men and women with whom I had the privilege to connect with one-on-one. What could be better?

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