31 December 2010

Feeding the Homeless Self

Yesterday, at an impromptu meeting about our homeless meal, our office manager suggested the importance of ensuring that our clients “gave back” by volunteering. I agreed with her, but I view it in a slightly different context. I believe we need to do anything we can to blur the hard contours between server and served. The times the meal runs best are when we have “clients” and volunteers working side-by-side and a hierarchy is less present. I am not serving you—we are all serving each other.

Many of us working in this field have connected with our own internal sense of homelessness, and at the very least have empathy for the people who walk through our doors due to our own experiences—internal and external—of homelessness. But I’m talking about something deeper. I believe this is discussed in the Buddhist tradition as “no boundary,” a space in which self and not-self merge, almost as the ultimate in empathy—yet empathy still implies a subject and object. And an inherent greater/lesser distinction. E.g., “I feel sorry for you.”

One of the most profound moments at our meal comes when the volunteers and staff sit down with the attendees and eat dinner. When I first arrived in town several years ago, it felt very natural for me to do this and, while I felt the usual trepidation when sitting down in a group of strangers, I never felt fear. I have since been told that many people are afraid to undertake this sort of intimate contact. I’m not sure what they fear, but they would rather express their generosity from afar. To me this seems as frustrating as writing a check to a charity and never getting to meet the people to whom it provides benefit. Sending money into the void has never felt very satisfying to me.

As humans, we spend a lot of time constructing false boundaries. People whose lives on the surface appear different from ours are often construed as scary. This “smoke detector” is mostly likely hardwired into our brains, a survival mechanism that may have outlived its usefulness. Depending on our feelings of internal security, we may have hair-trigger alarms, which get flipped at the slightest provocation. Person has different-colored skin. BRRRRNNNGGGGG!! I cannot imagine begging on a street corner. BRRRRNNNGGGG!!

So, we go off a lot.

But if we can take a minute, breathe, and try to imagine a connection instead of a wall, the brain can absorb some new information.

If we can find it in ourselves to sit down and share a meal with others whose lives are externally different from ours, we come to realize that we all have very similar goals: to be safe, to be loved, to be sheltered, to be fed, to be understood. And to take it a step further, we understand that even those of us who are fortunate enough to have four walls sheltering us are still homeless in an ultimate sense, that the fortifications we see as solid can only protect us from so much. And though the whole carefully engineered, painstakingly constructed bank vault we may have built around us seems pretty solid in the moment, as those who have survived natural disasters can attest, no one is exempt from the truth of life's impermanence.

It is good to understand how to survive without a home. It is good to realize that we already do.

18 December 2010

Photo of the Day - Colestin Valley, OR/CA

Late November snows on Mt. Ashland, at the entrance to Colestin Valley Rd., the route to the Buddhist monastery

16 December 2010

Lights & Virtues

Here's to lights and virtues
Here's to truths yet to be known
Knowledge to light the darkness
The search for things of your own

Here's to lights and virtues
Here's to reaching higher ground
A life of hope and purpose
Here's to strength yet to be found
Honor - though it goes unrecognized
And truth - though liars abound

The pleasure of love and friendship
The courage to be alone...
Jackson Browne