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.”

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