Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The alleyway depicted in this picture to the left is in New York City where it is believed that our new President, Barack Obama, slept just over 25 years ago.

It seems he had arrived in New York too late to hook up with a friend with whom he had planned to stay with overnight. He had very little money and no other friends in the city, so he had to find an alternative place to sleep. After considering a number of options, he had to settle for sleeping in an alley that night. The next morning, he washed up at a nearby fire hydrant along with a homeless man he met there.

One of the practices of modern day Bodhisattvas is called "bearing witness." What is bearing witness? It is our ability to function completely in the here and now ... to be totally present with whatever is appearing in this moment without entangling our consciousness with thoughts "about it."

As a Zen Peacemaker, I have attended several "bearing witness" street retreats in large metropolitan areas of this country; e.g., Manhattan, Boston, Springfield, etc. The practice involves begging the fee for the retreat from friends, relatives, and other kindred souls; not washing your hair or shaving for a week prior to the retreat, and taking to the streets with only the clothes on your back. You are instructed to leave your money, watch, cell phone, pager, ipod, etc., at home. From a material perspective, you go naked onto the streets.

Street retreats can last anywhere from one day to upwards of a week. During our excursions to the underbelly of urban life, we encounter the homeless along with many other inhabitants of the street life, sleeping where they sleep, eating what they eat, and hanging out where they hang out.

Almost everyone who is brave enough to give this form of bearing witness practice a shot, comes away from the experience transformed. Why? Because when you actually put yourself in the place of a homeless person, for that time you are in that situation, you experience what it is like to be on the outside of society looking in. It comes up on you real quick. All it takes is for one of your former peers from the land of plenty to reject you and your request for spare change. Suddenly, you feel the cold indifference and disdain embodied within the conventional wisdom that the "best" thing you can do for the homeless is to ignore them and not encourage them.

Suddenly it dawns on you that you are being related to as if you were human garbage. Your "sense of self" is assaulted by the conditioned responses evoked in others by your apparent social circumstance. Paradoxically, the people who treat you with the greatest kindness and compassion are the actual homeless people you meet on the street: like the man Barack Obama washed up with by that fire hydrant one morning many years ago.

I am so proud to have a President who has borne witness to life on the streets if only for one night. The length of his time on the streets is not important ... what is important is that he has some sense of the experience of being homeless. He knows, experientially, that the homeless are fundamentally no different than himself.

I hope someday people will visit that alley way where President Obama slept. Perhaps they will even place one of those "President .... such and such ... slept here", plaques to signify this instance of presidential bearing witness.

Better yet, I wish that all of the public officials in this country who have the elected responsibility of caring for the homeless would spend just one night on the streets like our new president did so many years ago. Perhaps then, their ideas about the homeless would be transformed by the experience of bearing witness to the reality of their lives ...

1 comment:

ikee said...

Joni Mitchell's song, Both Sides Now, was performed by Seiki at the Montague Farm Zendo, January 10, 2009. And even though these words cannot capture her beautiful heart felt presention, I post them anyway, knowing, "its life's illusion I recall I really don't know life at all."

Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons evrywhere
Ive looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on evryone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
Ive looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
Its cloud illusions I recall
I really dont know clouds at all

Moons and junes and ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As evry fairy tale comes real
Ive looked at love that way

But now its just another show
You leave em laughing when you go
And if you care, dont let them know
Dont give yourself away

Ive looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
Its loves illusions I recall
I really dont know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say I love you right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
Ive looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say Ive changed
Well somethings lost, but somethings gained
In living evry day

Ive looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
Its lifes illusions I recall
I really dont know life at all
Ive looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
Its lifes illusions I recall
I really dont know life at all