Bearing Witness to Homelessness

Street Retreats were started in the 1990s by Bernie Glassman in New York City. As they have evolved three tenets have arisen that underlie the practice we’ll be engaging with:

  1. Not-knowing: letting go of fixed ideas about yourself, others and the universe.
  2. Bearing Witness: to the joy and suffering of the world.
  3. Taking Action: rooted in not-knowing and bearing witness.

The practice of Bearing Witness is central to how and what I will be engaging with in Seattle and I want to share the following words from Joshin Brian Byrnes who will be leading the retreat. He describes the practice of Bearing Witness in relation to a Street Retreat and homelessness:

“A central practice of socially engaged Zen Buddhism, Bearing Witness is a process of opening our hearts and minds to take in the joy and suffering of all beings.  In meditation we do this by allowing ourselves to let go of attachments to thoughts, opinions and ideas. Doing this, we begin to drop the differentiation between self and other. In bearing witness we see our connection with the world outside of our own minds and bear witness to the wholeness of life.

On street retreat we will sit with the reality of homelessness. We will bear witness to all of the personal, biological, social, political, and economic complexities surrounding the issue. We do this by plunging into the environment of the streets as part of our practice of seeing the whole interconnected nature of life. We are not spiritual tourists; rather we are practicing with intimacy and all that keeps us from it.

The street retreat will include eating meals at the soup kitchens, sleeping on sidewalks, begging for money, and of course, relationship building with people who are experiencing homelessness.  We will come into contact with people with homes, people without homes, people seeking support, and the volunteers and staff that provide it. We will witness bystanders and others who, wittingly and unwittingly, remain a part of a system that deprives people of basic necessities and nurturance. Needless to say, we see ourselves as part of this mandala.

In bearing witness we plunge into a setting that may be overwhelming or confusing to us, and in doing so we may find that we have no choice but to drop our conditioned and habitual thought patterns. We may also confront our anger, our numbness, our sense of injustice and our tendency to divide so-called bad guys from the good-guys, us versus them; we may find ourselves wanting to turn away, or we may also become aware of our own discomfort with directness, being associated with others, or feelings of impotence in the face of such huge forces.

We are endeavoring to cultivate a not-knowing-mind, one that is open and receptive and not limited by our ideologies, agendas, and assumptions. In this way we become intimate with every aspect of the situation. We welcome everything and push nothing away. We may ask, how do I take it all in and see the world for what it is, in its systemic complexity? We allow the situation itself to inform our actions.

In bearing witness you may notice that a range of feelings, emotions and thoughts arise – identification with some group, reactivity and discomfort, rage, indifference, and sadness. Whatever arises, we notice it and attempt to not identify with it, letting it arise and fade away so that we can have some unobstructed view of the entire situation. This can be very challenging, and the challenge itself provides a valuable instruction.  We don’t stay in empathy; rather we allow empathy to prime or fuel compassion – the ability to show up for any being with an open heart and a strong back.

Bearing Witness is not passive, nor is it quietist. We bring to it the vivid awareness that we bring to zazen (zen meditation) and actively engage in each moment, moment by moment. It is a way of developing personal and systemic insight and moral sensitivity. In Bearing Witness we attune to the cognitive and affective features of another individual or system in a way that connects with our own deepest character and in alignment with our values. Therefore, we may in time become aware of the right action to take as an engaged practitioner who experiences intimacy with the situation rather than an outsider’s analysis of it. We are working from the inside out.

But, as we like to say, there are many dharma doors that any one of us can walk through. The ways of engaging in loving action are endless, and we seek ways that align with our values and with the needs of others. Loving action is that natural, uncalculated place where one’s open heart and strong back meets the world’s great need. Trust in the bearing witness practice to lead to action is an act of faith.

The way each of us bears witness and takes loving action will be unique to each person. We have to do it from a place of freedom and insight and context. The way you feel into the moment will be unique to you; what you see will be shaped by your own experience and the chemistry of the specific encounter you are having; and what you choose to do with it will also be born of the insight that is unique to you, and the resourcefulness that you find within yourself. It won’t follow a prescribed code, but rather it comes from a place of very deep integrity as well as intimacy with the situation. In the days, weeks, months and years ahead you may find that compassionate action emerges as a result of your bearing witness practice. For now, while we are on the streets, we encourage you simply to cultivate a mind that un-knows what you know, endeavor to see as many aspects of the situation as you can, and set the intention to, as Bernie says, “groc” the situation – become it.

Some people on street retreat can feel uncomfortable witnessing such suffering – we have to differentiate between the practice of bearing witness and our tendency toward voyeurism. Bearing witness empowers those we are bearing witness to. It allows them to explore and expand, to go deeper and become bigger. The questions that arise in bearing witness are not about gaining an answer for yourself or to satisfy a personal or intellectual curiosity; rather you bear witness to help yourself and the others open up to the truth as it presents itself in this particular moment, with all of its unique context. We are dropping the self to become present to all things, to become open and vulnerable and porous. In becoming porous we become the thing itself while preserving our own being.  

Throughout the week we will engage in Council practice, Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy, and renewal of the precepts as a way to frame our practice in the context of the Zen Peacemaker Order and Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community. We will wander aimlessly, sleep with our shoes under our heads or our feet, and we will beg for our livelihood.

In the end, bearing witness practice allows us to open our awareness to the joy and suffering of the universe, and to realize and actualize the oneness, diversity, and interdependence of all aspects of life for personal and social transformation. We do this with the intention of liberating all beings.”

Continue by Continuing

My wish for you is that you continue.
Continue to be who and how you are,
to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.
Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.
In doing so, we heal and become stronger.
We can interact with one another without hesitation
and our communities will be nurtured. 
We've all been reminded of how tentative we all are; how short our time is.
May the footprints we leave in this world for our youth and those not yet born lead to healing, wholeness, and fulfillment. 

~ Maya Angelou "Continue"

As I read these beautiful and poignant words by a great Black writer, I am reminded of how simple it really is. Just continue to continue what has been started and what is yet to be. Pay attention, be humble and full of gratitude. We did not start all this and we will not finish it. We are just continuing and carrying on but we do have the choice of what to continue, what to carry on. Do we keep carrying pain and the wounds of the past? Do we continue to bring forth hatred, bigotry and small-mindedness? Or do we let go of these ghosts of the past and continue that love, kindness and beauty that also is a part of our common humanity? The choice is ours but we cannot make it if we aren’t paying attention, if we don’t know ourselves, if we are distracted all the time.

A friend wrote to me today and said “It seems odd and too bad that if we are condemned to think all the time that we can’t at least think about miracles rather than problems.” What we think all-too-easily becomes the world that we (think) we live in. Can you focus on the miracles? Can you let the world delight you? Do you see beauty and connection everywhere?

If not these things then I know that I can continue to remind myself that there is more to my life than I think or that I am even capable of thinking. And if that doesn’t work, I can simply focus on breathing, which makes me wonder, “what is breathing and where does the oxygen come from?”

Out of tiny holes, which we call stomata, comes
all the oxygen we could need.  Breathing in
breathing out.
Amazed at the ease
of plants appearing from, where?
out of thin air
the atmosphere
they grow
connecting earth, water and
Fiery oxygen
fuel, food and heat.

by David LaFever

Takin’ it to the Streets

In June of this year I will join a small group of Zen practitioners to experience homelessness as first-hand as we can think of during a four-day retreat on the streets of Seattle. I will only be able to take $1.00, a blanket, a poncho and the clothes I am wearing. I will have to beg for money, find places to shelter, get food, and figure out how to use the bathroom without getting arrested.

Now at this point you may be thinking, “you are nuts, why would you want to do something like this!” Yes, I am a little “different” as I like to think of it, but as to why I am doing something like this, well, that is a complicated answer. I bet I will understand it more clearly as it unfolds over the next several months and after the retreat itself.

I don’t really know why, but I know that I have wanted to do this for a number of years now. There is some part of me that wants to experience things that are, well, beyond me or at least beyond the usual, everyday me. To stretch myself in order to understand myself better I guess you could say. To see myself reflected in others, especially in others that I may have thought were quite different, and to recognize common humanity.

Also there is a part of me that wants to understand lives much different than my own, which I have learned over the years makes me much more open and compassionate. Living in this way for a few days, I suspect, will have the affect of forever changing the way I see, react to and relate with a homeless person. The the root of the word understanding is “standing with” or “standing among”, not standing beneath as many believe. Standing, sleeping, walking, eating, and begging with will likely engender great compassion and understanding thus changing the nature of my relationship with homelessness, and probably to myself as well.

To begin practice begging, which I will need to do on the street, I am asking for money. Whatever money I raise will be given to the organizations and charities that support the homeless in Seattle. At the end of the retreat, as a group we will decide where that money goes. I ain’t keeping any of it. My goal is to raise at least $500, so you got any spare change? Can I bum a ten-spot or a twenty off of ya?
With each donation I will put a wooden bead on a string thus making a mala (prayer beads). I will take this with me on the Street Retreat so that you will literally be with me and I will feel your love and support, which I will surely need. My hope is to take as many of you with me as possible so just give a little and come along for the adventure!

Let me know if this is something that you are interested in supporting and I will let you know how you can do that. Please check back for updates, both before and after, to see what I am thinking and what I experienced on this street retreat.

by David LaFever