San Francisco Street Retreat: A Christmas Story
Once upon a time four curious, somewhat fearful and very excited people decided to join the homeless population in San Francisco for three days and nights in the Christmas season.
Some people thought this idea was quite strange.
Some thought it heroic.
Some thought it disrespectful to the “real” homeless.
Some were inspired, others grateful.
In this, the darkest time of year, in which many world traditions from Pagan, to Christian to Jewish, to Hindu, to Kwanza and others celebrate the season of Light, we decided to live without money and only our clothes plus a light blanket to experience life on the streets. We had no illusion that we were really homeless, we were simply wanting to learn from living in this way.
The learning was and is profoundly moving. The essence can be described as meeting the generosity and oneness of life in very basic ways or great generosity and infinite kindness amidst the deprivations. Sharing cardboard with others, exchanging food at the missions, looking for something to give back when given something, this was the etiquette of the people living on the street that we met.
- The street, both the ground itself and life on the street, is very hard.
- Dry cardboard is a life-saver for protection from the cold.
- Getting wet in pouring rain is uncomfortable.
- People on the street help each other.
- People love to give.
- Being really seen is more important than receiving material gifts.
- People deeply appreciate and long for being heard and valued.
- Giving and Receiving are a pair that create each other.
- One cannot distinguish who is giving and who is receiving.
This last point is most important to me and in a way sums up the whole experience. When receiving a cup of coffee or a dry pair of socks on wet days, one gives their gratitude. Humbly asking for help, gives the possibility of service and connection to the “giver”.
One night, after being awakened by two kind-hearted, twenty-something people who were distributing gift bags, I knew the great joy THEY were feeling in helping us. I am usually them, the person caring for others. True receiving requires an open-hearted humility, in some ways it is easier to say “I don’t need that, thank you”. I know this habitual response very well, there is an arrogance in “I do not need any help”. Receiving from them was a double gift - opening to their kindness while enjoying the material goods AND knowing that they were receiving the opportunity to touch that place in their hearts that wants to give. This is humanity at its best. We fulfill each other. We cannot separate the giver and the receiver. We are one.
I am also one with the young woman who cannot look at me as she goes into Starbucks for her latte, I am her too. Or the dapper man in his fine suit who fearfully averts my gaze as his body tightens, I know this in me as well. The angry, meth-addicted, ranting man turning over garbage cans is also me when I am consumed by my personal “hungry ghosts”. And then I meet the Street Ministry who have not missed a single night in fifty years of caring for homeless people, I see that they are me also.
I do not want to romanticize the experience. There is danger on the streets, one needs to be awake and aware. And yet, if one is paying attention there is much more kindness than danger. As one fellow retreatant said “I take days during a meditation retreat to get really present, connected and quiet, on the street it was almost instantaneous”.
When we told people that we were not really homeless but simply joining them for a few days to experience life on the streets they were so grateful that we were interested in knowing this directly. One woman, Mercedes who most called Mercy, said she felt so safe talking to us that “we were like a Christmas present” for her. When I gave her the candy cane that the street minister had given to me, tears welled up in her eyes. “I love candy canes and this is my first this year” she said. Then she gave us her wisdom about safe places to sleep.
Each person is doing their best given the ingredients of their life. We are all always cooking the meal called “our life”. Ingredients include mental capacity, life history, bodily condition, personality, possessions, everything. Before this experience I had unconsciously created a category called “homeless people” which allowed me to ignore the uniqueness of each individual. After many personal conversations and encountering similar challenges, I experienced truly seeing each persons individuality come alive.
One more thing- the street itself is ALIVE. The ground, though covered in concrete radiates support. It says, “You are here. Stand on me, sleep on me, sit on me. I am here to confirm, validate and honor your presence.” Sleeping on the street in a city, putting one’s whole body on the ground, created a surprising sense of deep connection to the earth itself.
Once upon a time, amidst the holiday shoppers and decorations, a group of economically privileged people received the deep honor of being accepted into a community of individuals who live in very different circumstances. A truly remarkable Christmas present that I suspect will stay with me for the rest of my life.
WISHING YOU A JOYFUL, DEEPLY CONNECTED AND LOVE-FILLED SEASON OF LIGHT.
San Francisco Street Retreat: A Christmas Story
A Caring Heart
And the light shines in the darkness…
This is the season of Light in many traditions. As the days shorten and the outer world becomes darker, our inner light can shine more brightly. Perhaps our potential is moving us toward becoming Beings of light in which love fills our hearts and informs our actions. Imagine a radiant center like a sun in your chest. Is this what the great teachers from Gautama Buddha to Jesus Christ are modeling for us? Yet there are so many examples of the opposite, of violent actions darkening our world. How do we manifest this light amidst such darkness?
Today I also read about a young girl, Malala Yousafzai who stood up for life by fighting for the right of Pakistani girls to go to school. A Taliban gunman shot her in her head. Many caring people from around the world, doctors, nurses, politicians, bus drivers, village elders, worked together to save her. She continues sharing her gifts and her love with the world and recently won the Nobel peace prize. How do we make sense of the brutal darkness that lives in humanity and the light-filled love of which the human heart is capable? What do I mean by ‘love’? For me in this context, it is simply a quality of caring that includes goodwill, kindness, deep listening and positive actions toward all of life.
An imagination of the Future
Imagining the future, I picture a global community in which love is the norm. We extend our generosity beyond our immediate circle towards all. The web of our caring includes the planet, the atmosphere, seas, plants, animals, people and all the rest.
The suffering of others produces a caring response in each of us. The joy of others is experienced as warmth in our hearts. In caring for life we spontaneously include the entirety of each situation: our personal needs, the needs of others, the social setting and the environment.
Beauty is deeply valued. Humor also, though not the cynical kind. Truth is earnestly sought though not as a weapon. Creativity is encouraged. The uniqueness of each person is valued.
Children have opportunities to bring their unique gifts into actualization.
Is this a utopian fantasy? What about our biological proclivity toward self-protection and tribal identity? Certainly, it will take time to balance the “fight for survival” impulse in our DNA with its lesser known companion “cooperation for survival”. We have both tendencies.
Since going to Rwanda these questions live within me. My long term inquiry into forgiveness, redemption, gratitude, self-responsibility and interconnectivity have been going deeper and wider than ever before. A fundamental question for me, not abstractly but in a profoundly personal way is, who do I exclude from my field of care? Are there any individuals or groups that I do not include in my goodwill, i.e. my love?
The Complexity of Caring: A Personal Example
Most recently, while guiding a Gratitude and Forgiveness retreat, I was investigating this question of exclusion through a process called “Embodied Listening”. I discovered that I carried unacknowledged hostility toward a particular group of people: aggressive, narcissistic young men. I could also sense a deep fear lurking inside that was masked through my judgments and anger toward them. As I continued to listen to the ‘felt-sense’ under the surface, I found a feeling of shame toward myself as a young man.
Though never violent toward women, I carried many of the thoughts and images that were fed to boys of my era and indeed throughout most of human history. Two examples of many, I remember as a 15 year old in prep school, sneaking out for a night away when the man in charge of my dormitory who was colluding with my unauthorized adventure said “don’t come back if you don’t ‘get any’”. Even younger, at 12, I remember the brother-in-law whom I idolized saying in profane language that rather than seeking love, I should “try to have sex with anyone in a skirt”. Messages like this were rampant in my formative years and I internalized them.
I observed that my current commitment to supporting groups that are working for ending violence against women was connected to an unacknowledged sense of connection to the perpetrators. I too objectified women and learned to ignore the person and just see a body. I am grateful to the many sources of consciousness growth, particularly the women’s movement, for helping me to see past this numbing, heartbreaking conditioning . Finally, as a 62 year old relatively conscious man, a husband/father, I could see that my hostility toward this group of young men was connected to the reality that “this was me also”.
Everyone reading this probably agrees that violence against women whether on a university campus or in the Congo is horrendous and we must do everything in our power to end the complex conditions and conditioning that make this possible. Sexual violence is connected to and an instance of all forms of violence which are in essence the attempt to dominate another through force. I can imagine living in a world where acts of domination in any form are unthinkable. Human beings are currently far from this state. What steps are needed to heal our collective wounds?
Growing out of this inquiry is my first true sense of collective responsibility. Twenty-five years ago I first heard some of my German students speak of collective guilt over their countries history. Though understanding of their pain, I could not truly see how the “sins of the father were visited upon the child”. Now, something different dawns in my sensibility. My circle of care includes a sense of collective responsibility. As a man I am connected to the actions of all men. As a citizen of the United States I am part of the violent actions of this nation. As a White person I hold particular responsibility for actions against people of color. As a human being I am also responsible for the destruction of the earth perpetrated by my brothers and sisters. I am part of this whole system, not just the parts I agree with.
In my recent article on Forgiveness, I wrote about Simon Wiesenthal who as a prisoner of war lost most of his family to the Nazis and was being asked by an SS officer for forgiveness. After the war, Wiesenthal managed to visit the mother of the officer. A question arose for one of the commentators in the back of the book: what about the mothers responsibility? What about ordinary people who knew that something terrible was happening to their neighbors and did nothing? This week, reading the report about the CIA use of torture after the September 11th attack, I ask the same question of myself: what is my responsibility for these actions? What is ‘right action’ for me now?
At this moment in the United States there are many protests about the unfair treatment of Black people by various law enforcement agencies. We need this kind of collective outrage, as long as it is non-violent. Still, we must not create more fear and hatred by casting the perpetrators out of our hearts. This is an incredible challenge for angry, hurting people. Our future must include this capacity.
Diverse people of many social groups are wearing tee-shirts that say “I can’t Breathe” in memory of the dying words of a Eric Garner in New York at the hands of a “peace” officer. As one Zen teacher said, “if he can’t breathe than we can not fully and freely breathe either”. Can we accept that we too are part of the system that led to this moment? Without absolving the policeman at all, can we see that he is part of a larger system that includes all of us? The danger and stress that the police live with everyday is included in assessing the whole situation. Extending our field of care to the police officers as we hold them responsible for their actions is essential. Imagine if the protesters could include this sentiment in their hearts.
Similarly, what about people who “side” with the police? Can they also extend their caring to include all those who have been systematically victimized by domination systems, in the case the criminal justice system? Expanding our capacity to shine our light on injustice, to stand tall in its face AND not cast anyone out of our field of caring is the potential future of humanity. This is the hard, at times excruciating work, we all must do.
Responsibility vs. Blame
How do we live with awareness of collective responsibility at a time when we have access to so many of the horrific events from the whole world? It is not helpful to be paralyzed by self-incrimination and guilt. One key distinction for me is the difference between taking responsibility and blaming. In my inner language, responsibility is literally the ability to assume new responses to circumstances. How does my caring for all of life express itself in any particular situation? In addition to bearing-witness, prayer, communicating with others, perhaps sending money, what other actions are called for? To find helpful, non-violent ways of standing up for life is an essential, efficacious enactment of self-responsibility.
Blame is quite different, it has an implicit violence toward the target of the blame, whether self or other. Blaming oneself invites ineffective self-flagellation producing unhelpful guilt, rarely leading to effective action. Blaming others, as Buddha said, “is like picking up a scalding rock and throwing it, we get burned first.” Blaming creates unintended negative consequences that linger in the health and vitality of the person.
Moving beyond blame and ineffective guilt, how do we engender self-responsibility, radically condemning certain behaviors while not closing our hearts to individuals or groups? Separating the action from the actor seems key to me. Seeing the systemic, historical, biological and social antecedents of behavior while simultaneously holding each person accountable asks us to walk a courageous tight rope. Honoring the understandable anger of marginalized populations without exiling the perpetrators is our moral task. As the old expression goes, “to understand all is to forgive all”.
As my investigation continues, I see how those sexist, young men do not benefit from my derision or my exiling of them from my heart. They need my clarity, my care and my courage to shine a light on their faulty conditioning. Standing up in this way to the unconsciousness that perpetuates violent dominance is incredibly demanding and this is the potential of humanity.
Similarly, when we exile the other perpetrators of violence in the world today do we help them to heal? Since the terms “healing” and “whole” derive from the same root, I believe that unless all of life is included as part of our collective whole, as part of our field of care, then we are incomplete. How do we include members of ISIS in the human family, understanding their pain and their needs while simultaneously doing all we can to stop their brutal actions. Demonizing the enemy is the classic way of making it possible to exclude certain people from our caring and to treat them as sub-human. We must learn to evolve further if we are to survive and heal this planet. Can ALL of life be included in our circle of caring?
There are no simple answers or formulas. One key is learning to listen deeply to self and others. If we can enter into any important dialogue with a truly open mind, i.e. not assuming to know the truth or the answers and really hold presence (bearing witness) for all elements of the situation then person by person, we will forge our way into this evolving ethos. Through reflection and growing awareness, the painful contractions of our hearts will be sensed and overcome. Assuming responsibility and eliminating “us and them” mentality will help a great deal. In my vision, we will stop blaming anybody for anything while still holding self-responsibility as a high value. Extending our self-identity to include all of Life will lead us forward. Kindness will guide our way. From an integrated, Embodied Life perspective doing this requires the ability to sense deeply into our bodies for the contractions and patterns that underlie our thoughts and feelings. To be whole requires integrating bodily sensations, feelings, images/thoughts while simultaneously being permeable to the outer world. This outer world includes what I call “the greater body” which transmits the transcendent or spiritual world. “Embodied Listening” is one path to opening our contracted hearts.
We can feel great encouragement from leaders like the current Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis. Heroes like Mahatma Gandhi , Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King also pointed in this direction. These capacities need to grow one heart at a time.
I am inspired by the Buddhist concept of Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is an awakening being (Bodhi=awakened or awakening, Sattva= Being) who dedicates her-himself to the awakening and healing of all life. Rather than entering the nirvana of endless bliss and liberation the Bodhisattva vow says: “I can not be free until all others are free because I am not separate from any part of life”. This is our direction as human beings.
Today, the great challenges on our planet, both in terms of ecology and human behavior will push us either over the brink or into a new world with love as the basic operating principle. This is our potential. This journey is the most compelling and dynamic trip we can take. For some of us maybe it is the only journey worth taking. In this season of light, we can dedicate ourselves to the hard work of growing a caring heart. Let’s move forward in creating the kind of world we wish for our children’s children.
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The Possibilities of Forgiveness
As I prepare for my upcoming “Gratitude and Forgiveness” retreats, I am resounding with the transformative potential living in each of these qualities. In the past I have written about gratitude numerous times, today I want to write briefly about perhaps “the most profound expression of love possible”- forgiveness.
We carry the past in our bodies. All that is unresolved in our heart lives in the tightness of our tissues, in the heaviness of our movement, in the cast of our eyes and in the tone of our voice. Unprocessed guilt lives as a weight and often includes a need to remain hidden from view. We don’t want to be seen or to see ourselves. Within forgiveness lives the possibility of resolving our past. It holds the potential for freeing past karma. The radiance of our life-energy, our aura is transformed through this noble act. If there was no forgiveness on this earth, we would live mired in hatred, pain and untold sorrow.
Do we carry self-blame for our inability to act differently in the past and for the pain that we have caused?
Do we carry blame toward others for the pain they have caused?
What are the “right”, effective and life-enhancing ways of acknowledging our errors?
At what point is forgiveness for our own misdeeds acceptable and helpful for a maturing conscience?
What does it really mean to forgive yet not forget?
It seems to me that when we are “off the mark” (which is the original definition of “sin”), regret is an important part of that acknowledgement. That human beings feel sorrow for causing pain to self and others seems a necessary evolutionary step in consciousness. When we cause hurt, it is “right” to feel the pain of those actions. Moral learning requires this capacity. The question becomes one of timing and amount- when do we allow that energy to transform through our forgiveness?
Simon Weisenthal the famous “Nazi hunter” wrote a tremendously moving account of a profoundly disturbing event while a prisoner during World War 2. He had lost many loved one’s and experienced unspeakable atrocities. One day while being forced to clean up refuse at a military hospital, he was invited into the room of a young SS officer who was dying. The soldier had a deep need to repent for his sins and to receive forgiveness from a Jew. In agonizing detail, he told of his participation in horrific deeds. At the end he asked Wiesenthal for his forgiveness
so that he could die in peace. What would you do?
The last half of the book, “The Sunflower”, consists of many deep, thoughtful people writing about how they might act in such a situation. This is an instance of humanity struggling with an issue that confronts us all. Everyday we cause some kinds of harm to ourselves and others through our thoughts, words and actions. What is the accurate role for forgiveness in relation to the large and small misdeeds that inhabit our lives? Are there limits to forgiveness? Is “blame” ever necessary or helpful? Can one hold oneself and others responsible without blaming?
While in Rwanda last April these questions arose deeply for me. Listening to the stories of brutality that my new friends had experienced, hearing of their struggle to live amongst the people who killed their families and listening to the killers trying to make sense of their own actions and find ways to live as ‘normal’ people again brought new levels of anguishing reflection for me. While the situation in Nazi Germany and Rwanda are obviously extreme, can we see these as hyperbolic examples of our own challenges?
Forgiveness is essential for freeing our burdened hearts and adding light into the world. Self responsibility is essential for our true maturation as human beings. Acknowledging our mistakes, our sins against life, feeling deeply for the pain we have caused AND freeing ourselves from the life-killing aspects of the unforgiving heart is a necessary task for evolving humanity. If gratitude is the front door to the loving heart then forgiveness might be considered the back door. I invite you to join in these reflections.
Last month I announced a new experiment for the Embodied Life School. December 17-20 we are hosting a Street Retreat in San Francisco in conjunction with the Zen Peacemakers. The response has been intriguing. A few people want to join us, a few have reservations about the whole undertaking and many have expressed gratitude for the way their perception of homeless people has been influenced just from reading the invitation.
Today, I am writing to tell you more about the retreat and to invite you to join us. In addition I will respond to some of the questions that have arisen.
The street retreat was created by Bernie Glassman Roshi as a way of expanding the usual Zen practice of meditation in cloistered settings to experiencing life on the streets in metropolitan areas around the world. Zen is the study of living and dying. Bernie saw that living in more vulnerable, insecure ways could be illuminating for his students.
After starting in New York, these retreats have taken place throughout the world for the last twenty years. All participants live without money, dependent on the goodwill of others for three days. Living in such dependency and without any goals other than simply living can be quite challenging for most of us. Also, the requirement that each retreatant raise at least $500.00 to be donated to homeless organizations from friends and family and not from their own funds creates quite an challenge for many. Most participants are economically comfortable and often self-identified as the people who take care of others.
First, my favorite questions: what is the point? Why put yourself in such an uncomfortable and dependent situation? Do you think you are really experiencing homelessness?
The first and most accurate answer is “I don’t know”. I imagine that the learning will be different for each person. The "point" may reveal itself after the retreat, right now I just have some ideas. I see that there are many potential opportunities for learning while living on the streets. There is no illusion that this is the same as actually being homeless. Homelessness usually includes a sense of hopelessness. All the retreatants know that a warm bath, plenty of food and a comfortable bed await them after these three days. There is no illusion that we will know what true homelessness feels like.
For me the most important experience that comes from meditation is not bliss, it is the sense of interconnectivity with all of life. To be “One with All” is not an abstract concept, it might become a living experience. The street retreat is an opportunity to experience one’s connection with all of life. What is it like to depend on others for everything? What is it like to be ignored, scorned upon or given to? What happens when “those people” who seem so dirty and dangerous are not “other”? Is it possible to include all beings in one’s field of care? This is not a sociological experiment. This is not to show that we can do it. This is a way of growing our capacity for connection to life.
Don’t you disrupt the lives of the actual homeless?
This is a key question for me. I have connected with a few people who work with the homeless and learned a bit about life on the streets. People on the streets often have their own corners for begging. We always respect these territories. While we learn about free meals and beds offered by churches and other organizations, we are mindful of the needs of the truly homeless. We will access these offerings with consciousness of the needs of others.
Where do you sleep and what do you take with you?
Part of the day is finding cardboard and locations for sleeping in the cold winter night. We use shelters if there are enough beds. We only have the clothes on our backs, plus a thin blanket and possibly a poncho. We don’t shower and men don't shave for the week before the retreat and we all wear old, dingy clothing. We don’t take anything else other than prescription drugs and one piece of identification.
Where do you find toilets?
Anywhere we can.
Is it safe especially for women?
In the twenty years of doing these street retreats no one has been harmed. We all travel with a buddy so we are not alone and we don’t wander too far from the whole group. In addition we meet at least twice a day in parks to share our experiences, meditate and do other practices together.
What do you hope to learn?
My hope is to learn about living without any direction or goals other than living. In most of my life there is an intention, a direction, a purpose to my day. Even on vacation I am intending toward enjoyment or relaxation. What is it like to just live? Isn’t this the main purpose of Zen retreats, to discover what it is just to be alive?
Who can join the retreat?
All are welcome.
If this feels right for you, please contact my office at office@Russelldelman.com
Why do you collect $500.00 per person?
The idea is to ask your circle of people to support the retreat. The intention is two fold: first the money is sent to organizations working with homelessness. This benefits many. Second, as I am discovering, it is challenging to the "ego structure" of many relatively successful people to ask others for money. It would be easier for most of the participants to pay for themselves. Each participant creates a mala- a string of beads- as a remembrance for the retreat. Each donation becomes a bead on the string thus we carry our supporters with us.
If you want to donate to my mala please see the following instructions. Maximum donation I am accepting is $20.00.
- Send a check made out to Russell Delman and send to 2836 Bloomfield Rd Sebastopol, CA 95472 OR
- use PayPal and send to firstname.lastname@example.org (note "street retreat")
- Transfer funds to German Account:
Account (konto.) 90122987
Account name: Russell Delman
Swift / BIC: SSKMDEMM(XXX)
IBAN: DE15 7015 0000 0090 1229 87
Wishing you well.....Russell
December 17-20, 2014 San Francisco, California
Led by: Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt
Retreat Coordinator: The Embodied Life School (Russell Delman, Founder; Valerie Nordby, Administrator)
To Sign up: Please email email@example.com
WHAT IS A STREET RETREAT?
A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown. It is an opportunity to go beyond our imagined limits. It's the barest poke at renunciation. We will live on the streets of San Francisco with no resources other than our true nature, experiencing homelessness first-hand, having to beg for money, find places to get food, shelter, to use the bathroom, etc. By bearing witness to homelessness, we begin to see our prejudices and boundaries directly and to recognize our common humanness. It is a way to experience our interconnection and realize our responsibilities.
"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
In doing a ‘street retreat’ we are not under the illusion that we know what it is to be homeless. Having homes with showers and beds to return to is quite different than living on the streets without these possibilities. As Bernie has made clear, if asked, we do say that we are homeless rather that we are part of a spiritual retreat of people from many faiths living on the streets for a few days. Our intention is to bear witness to: 1) asking for help, 2) the people in our community who live on the streets and 3) learning from the streets.
San Francisco Streets Preparation- “Taking the Plunge”
Meeting Point: We will meet in Dolores Park at the corner of 18th and Dolores Ave.
Duration: The retreat starts on Wednesday December 17 at 3:00PM and will end on Saturday the 20th by noon.
Street Retreat Logistics: Our group will be together most of the time, breaking into packs for short times during the day and always secured by buddies. We will meet twice a day for meditation, liturgy, and council. Partial time participation is not an option. You can only join for the entire retreat. At the beginning of the retreat, we will conduct an orientation. You will meet your street cohorts and facilitators. We will discuss what to expect, but the unexpected will be our root teacher on the street.
1. Do not shave, nor wash your hair for five days prior to the retreat. This will also start your street experience prior to leaving home.
2. Wear old clothes, as many layers as you feel appropriate for the time of year, and do not bring any change of clothes for the retreat duration, except, possibly, for an extra pair of socks. Be prepared for weather extremes. 3. Wear good, but not new, walking shoes. We walk a great deal. 4. Bring one piece of Photo ID only - your Driver’s License or a government issued I.D. with your picture on it. 5. Bring a Poncho for rain. Mandatory.
6. Do not bring any money, illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons, or cell phones. Do not wear any jewelry including earrings, bracelets and watches. 7. Besides the clothes you are wearing bring only an empty bag (shopping, plastic) or small (not new) day pack for collecting food from shelters, etc. Women may bring one change of underwear.
8. You should not bring any books or personal items such as a toothbrush.
9. Necessary prescription medication of course is permitted. 10. Be sure to practice rooting through garbage cans and picking up pennies on the street. It keeps us humble, and, truly, the treasures are unbeatable. 11. Bring a water bottle if you like. They are available in trash bins. 12. Bring a light blanket that will roll up - or you can wear it.
Raising a Mala
On this street retreat we will be supported by social service agencies and public non-profit organizations. Since we are not truly homeless, we need to make donations to those who will be supporting our lives. For all of the street retreats that organized by Zen Peacemakers, a donation has been requested of the participants in order to be able to offer donations to the social service agencies that support us. Prior to this retreat we ask that you each beg of your family, friends, associates or just on the street for $500 – to be distributed to those social service agencies that have helped us.
We as a group will decide at the end of the retreat where two-thirds 2/3 the offerings should go. One-third of the funds will go to the social service activities of the Hudson River Peacemaker Center.
It is not acceptable for you to use your own funds for this purpose. To sincerely engage in this experience we need to humble ourselves at the outset, attempt to explain to others our reasons for participating and beg for their support. This is a hugely challenging and ultimately hugely rewarding experience. You need to ask at least five people – more would be great. Your donors could give you cash, or give you checks made out to the Hudson River Peacemaker Center.
In our Zen Buddhist practice we call this assembling a Mala – prayer beads. If you assemble a Mala of 18 or 108 beads, for example, you could beg proportionate donations for each bead. Your mala could also be, say, five or ten beads. Sincerely promise your donors that they will be traveling with you on the retreat and you will personally tell them about your experience when you return home. It is a lovely gesture to label the beads with your donors' names and wear them during your time on the streets.
Once you have raised the funds, make a check to "Hudson River Peacemaker Center" and mail it to:
The Embodied Life School
c/o Russell Delman
2836 Bloomfield Rd
Sebastopol, CA 95472
To give others the opportunity to give is a true gift. Don't doubt it. When we are truly and selflessly motivated, people will support us. Trust in this all your life.
Thank you for considering joining us on this retreat.
Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt
The following story is an example. Enjoy and hopefully be inspired.........
Inside the Stone Buddha was a Golden Buddha. It was so clear, one Buddha housed in the other. This incredibly beautiful, vibrant, warm and radiant Being was living inside the Stone Buddha. At first I thought with joy and relief, 'ah, this is the real me, I am seeing my True Self'. Then with great clarity and a sense of wholeness, I realized that I was all of these: the Stone Buddha, the Golden Buddha, the one witnessing both of these images AND all the voices, opinions and reactions to them. In this moment everything inside me seemed to have value and importance not only the Golden Buddha (though I must admit THIS Buddha was especially welcomed)!"
My good friend Rebbe Zalman Schacter died July 3 in Boulder, Colorado. He was a man of great influence for literally hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world for the past 50 years. He is a great model for me of a life lived with courage, joy and love at the center. I am so grateful for his presence in this world and in my life. A biography will follow my reflections.
I can not describe his importance to my inner life. Though I never practiced or identified as Jewish, he did not care. He saw into my essence before I did. Despite his huge following, great number of dedicated students and many obligations throughout the world, he always had time for me. We Skyped a few weeks ago, making plans for my visit in August. I miss him very much right now.
My heart is a large, empty/full space filled with loss, gratitude and, more than anything, love. Zalman befriended me in 1978 when he came for Feldenkrais sessions to help his ailing back. Each week we would meet, of course, I received more from him than he from me. One day he said "Russell, please come to my week-end retreats and help the people get into their bodies on Friday night so my work is easier for the rest of the week-end". Can you imagine an acclaimed rabbi having such an insight about embodiment and making such a request?
He was always so supportive of the changes in my life.
I am remembering my 30th birthday party, back in 1982 when he led us in a raucous dance around our whole apartment, joyfully, loudly singing and shaking his large body.
Back in 1984, this orthodox trained, Hassidic Rabbi agreed to perform a completely non-sectarian, universalist wedding between my Christian wife and mostly Buddhist me. When he realized that our wedding would occur when he was on sabbatical in Israel, he taught two of his ordained Rabbi's, a couple, how to perform a wedding for us.
When I was forming The Embodied Life School, he assured me that this is the direction Moshe would have gone.
When I left my Zen teacher of 30 years, he was a rock of support for my new direction. He thought my allegiance to traditional Zen and to my teacher was holding me back. He saw something that I could not see.
After a wonderful session back in 1980 he said: "when I am dying, G-d willing, I hope to have your hands on my head so I can just float away".Many times over the years and during our most recent conversation he repeated that request. I can feel his sweet head in my hands right now, how I miss that we never shared that moment.
OH, he had such a heart, I can feel his loving embrace in my chest right now. Our world lost a light that will shine forever............
My heart is so full of gratitude and love and loss..............Russell
A bio: "Reb Zalman" (1924-July 3, 2014) Born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna where he was simultaneously immersed in both traditional Judaism and secular modernism by attending a yeshiva and a leftist-Zionist high school. After fleeing from Nazi advance and imprisonment by the Vichy-French government, his flight from Europe led him to New York City when he was 17. He entered the Lubavitch Yeshiva and was ordained in 1947. He received an M.A. in the Psychology of Religion (Boston University, '56); Doctor of Hebrew Letters (Hebrew Union College, '68).
For 20 years he was Professor of Religion and Head of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba, Canada. In 1975 he became Professor of Religion in Jewish Mysticism and Psychology of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia where he was Professor Emeritus. In 1995 he was called to the world Wisdom Chair at Naropa University and later joined the faculty in the Dept. of Religion. He retired from the faculty and was also emeritus at Naropa University.
His own experience of aging and eldering compelled him to found the Spiritual Eldering Institute in 1989, encouraged and assisted by professionals and colleagues in the field of aging. NOTE: Reb Zalman was a founder of the Legacy of Wisdom project, archiving and publishing his own Legacy teachings.
"How scary, entering the classroom for the first time. Will they make fun of me? Will they hurt me? Am I safe?"
"Knocking at the door, an anxious, shy look in her eye. Not knowing - would the one who opened the door be welcoming?
"Stepping on the crowded bus, few seats remaining, he catches the eye of a passenger who has her suitcase on the seat. Will she make room for him?
Our lives are full of these moments. Are we welcomed, rejected or simply unacknowledged?So much turns on these interactions. Whether we are a child or elder we seek inclusion. We all have these very sensitive antennae, quivering with information about the friendliness of our environment. Our nervous system, being deeply social and always concerned with safety, listens fervently to these cues.
In my opinion, this exact same process occurs with our inner life. The thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise are like guests, wondering, "will I be welcomed", "is this a safe place" "is this a friendly host"? IF safety is the first and primary concern of the nervous system, which I suggest it is, then becoming a friendly host for all that arises in your inner world is a most important thing.
Hosting the moment . . .
I like to imagine that I am hosting this moment. The moment comes, a rich plethora of everything- sun-light, shadows, pulsing excitement in my chest, car horn blasting, bird chirping, person talking, smiling face, uncertainty lingering, an itch, a mosquito buzzing, a phone ringing, thirst, swallowing-on and on and on. What is it like to be a friendly host for all the visitors that come?
For me this is a beautiful way of describing a central element of The Embodied Life- how to be a welcoming presence for all that arises? I call this Presencing. It is learning to be a friendly host for all that comes into our world. Inner world and outer world become one world-, which is none other than our living experience. Being friendly does not mean liking or approving of, it means relating to "what is" as our ground. This is the aikido of everyday.
Imagine- this moment and everything in it are your True Life. You are living in the actuality, right now, right here, so obvious yet so elusive.
Being a friendly host helps enormously to encourage us to come alive to the reality of our living experience. Buddha suggests that we can trust this moment. Even though "bad" things happen, we can learn to find our safety as well as our joy and peace and love itself in this present moment. Where else will we find it?
This is the third in a series of writings about my experience from a “Bearing Witness Retreat” in Rwanda.
Recently I heard this story: A woman’s son is killed. The killer is convicted and sent to prison for a 10-25 year sentence. The distraught mother visits the man in prison trying to make sense of how he could do such a thing. After numerous visits, the woman’s heart softens to the man. She eventually adopts him. Upon release from prison, he lives with his new mother.
As I reflect on the impact of my journey to Rwanda, a huge question emerges: how does a person live with an open, loving, heart that includes the rampant violence and suffering all around us? How does one live with a heart that has been broken open?
Opening the newspaper this morning I see: 31 killed by a car bomb in Bagdad. Unlike in the past, before turning the page, I reflect that each of them was a father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter. Being in Rwanda creates this sense of intimacy, recognition that each of these victims are real people, like you and me. How did I filter that out before? How do I let that in now? 31people do not constitute genocide, but they are 31 individuals with pain and joy and dreams. Can one experience this and still turn the page? How can we live as empathetic people without turning away from this reality? This is a deep question living in me right now.
When overwhelmed, humans have three stereotypical reactions: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Our biology leans toward self-protection and protecting our identified social group. The impulse to fight, unless tempered by a sense of inter-connection will result in some kind of violence that perpetuates what we are fighting against. Fleeing or running away from the world by turning a blind eye to the violence around us creates an implicit sense of disconnectedness and isolation, a strategy with painful results. Freezing in shock hurts the frozen one and offers no beneficial action to the world. Sitting here with the morning newspaper I think, what is “right relationship” to all this? Or how does one open to the reality of 31 people dead and still enjoy the gift of the tulips sitting in front of me blossoming in the sunlight?
Safety and Freedom
I see that it is only because of my privilege as a physically, economically, and socially secure human being that I can even contemplate these questions. One must be free from survival needs, especially immediate threats to life, to have the freedom to ask these questions. This is the second profound learning that comes to me from Rwanda: before freedom can be experienced either individually or in social groups, one must feel safe. Safety precedes freedom! This is so simple, yet it is important that we remember this.
In the U.S. we can see that the attacks on September 11 created enough fear for our collective safety that we were very willing to curtail many of our basic freedoms. The fear based reactions to this traumatic event still lives in many people and in our leadership. We can see how it influences behavior today. As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Still, there needs to be enough safety to move toward freedom. Traumatized individuals will often bond with anyone who offers a feeling of safety, even those who have hurt them. Hostages often become aligned with the kidnappers who have been feeding and caring for them.
In Rwanda, the sometimes-fascist, violent government of President Paul Kagame creates enough sense of safety for most people that some degree of normalcy can return to social interactions. I feel a need to say that this is politically complex. Some astute people believe that this government is the source of current genocide in Congo and resent the fact that the world has accepted Kagame’s sophisticated propaganda. Still, the fact that most Rwandans feel safer with this strong leader seems to create enough security for daily functioning. I believe a sense of safety is a requirement for life to unfold, even as this tight-fisted control creates limitations on freedom of speech and self-expression. Each of us individually and collectively works with this dynamic relationship between ‘playing it safe’ and ‘speaking/enacting our truth’.
Presencing: In and With
Bearing witness to the great suffering within and around us is essential for human life to blossom. Bearing witness or what I call “presencing” is like the radiant sun and a healing balm. The only other option that I can see is a closed, defended heart. For me “presencing” has two interconnected aspects. First is the sense that we are not turning away, we are turning toward, we are entering into the situation. Rather than running from the places of sorrow, we embrace them, we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow. Embracing does not mean that we like or want these feelings, rather that we welcome them with a warm heart as we might meet a good friend who is in pain. I call this being “in” the feelings or “in” the situation. Second, presencing means being “with” the sorrow not only “in” the sorrow. “With” implies enough distance that one can offer the challenging situation the light of our presence. In classical spiritual language this is called cultivating a witness or the capacity for witnessing. “Challenging situation” refers to both the external situations that we encounter and the internal feelings/voices that one experiences. If one is lost inside the suffering, it becomes too difficult to take care of that situation. We need some space- too much space, we become disconnected- too little, we become lost in it. In a paradoxical positioning, to be “one” with something we need to be both “in” and “with” it.
When being present with anything, finding the most helpful and accurate spatial relationship- not too close, not too far-is most important. In my experience, this sense of right relationship is a dynamic, ever-changing, living process. Sometimes we need more distance; sometimes we need to be right in the middle of the situation. Ultimately, and again paradoxically, we might find that being ONE with something has a simultaneous sense of in and with. One finds oneself in a large field of awareness that is simultaneously much vaster than the immediate situation, yet right inside it also. This difficult to describe experience creates a deep sense of intimacy.
Bearing Witness to Blessings, Cultivating Gratitude
The Zen Peacemakers speak of bearing witness to both joy and suffering. It seems easy to forget the joy when overwhelmed by the suffering. In my practice, this means to experience the shower of blessings inherent in every moment and thereby cultivating the field of gratitude.
As I reflect on Rwanda, I am reminded of my first years as a Feldenkrais teacher. As a young practitioner, I felt overwhelmed by the suffering of the people who came for help. I am remembering the young quadriplegic man who following an automobile accident, lost all functioning below his neck. Next I recall the parents of a brilliant, beautiful, severely brain injured teenage girl who suddenly had a devastating stroke. There are many others. There was a part of me that just wanted to run away from all this, something went a little numb in my heart.
Quickly, I came to see that to live well with all this suffering I needed to grow my capacity for joy. The most direct and simplest path for me was through the experience of gratitude. I saw that gratitude is our spontaneous response when something wonderful occurs. When surprised by an unexpected gift, even a parking place in a crowded parking lot, “thank you” arises. When a potential disaster is averted, say an imminent automobile accident, even the most committed atheist is likely to utter ‘thank you’. I saw that I could experience a sense of gratitude just by giving my attention to the small gifts that seemed to always be present. I call these gifts “the shower of blessings”. When I give my whole-hearted attention to anything for even 5-10 seconds, a color, a sound, a breath or the smile on someone’s face, I experience a feeling of being touched by life. This is a blessing and gratitude naturally arises.
Working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta produced an identical lesson. She would always say: “if there is not joy in the action, there is no love”. Whether working with the brain-injured children in her center or navigating the suffering on the streets, blessings were always available when I learned to attend to the world in certain ways. To perceive a situation directly and not be lost in mental stories about the situation almost always allows the shower of blessings to emerge.
Something similar occurs now in integrating my responses to Rwanda. At first I could sense how my troubled heart could darken a bit, as I struggled to include the suffering into my sphere of caring. Yet, the joy, love, bright eyes and positive intentions of all the people I met enlivens my heart. I see this as one of the current challenges for awakening humanity: to open to the world’s pain and to keep experiencing the constant blessings that are showering at each moment.
Lessons from Rwanda: Growing your Sphere of Caring
In the Buddhist world, the Bodhisattva (Awakening/Awakened Being) of compassion goes by various names: Avalokiteshvara, Kanzeon, Kannon. Avalokiteshvara is pictured as a Being with 10,000 ears and 10,000 arms: the former to hear the cries of suffering and the latter to take action to ease the pain. She is a model for current and future humanity whereby all of life is cared for and all people live together in brotherly and sisterly love.
In esoteric Christianity she is called the Mother of All Peoples or Sophia. One form that Sophia takes is that of Mother Earth, the great Being who carries and feeds us. She also bears witness to the suffering of all her children. Her tears are endless. Can we, ordinary people like you and me, grow this spirit of great compassion for all the beings in our world? This is the unfolding of Love as our basic condition, the ground state, as we enter our potential as truly human beings.
Learning to open my heart toward the unthinkable darkness that can inflict humanity is one important lesson for me from Rwanda. Recognizing this potential for darkness in myself seems vital. Seeing the beauty, joy and courage of my Rwandan friends amidst their life situation is another lesson. The human need for safety as the ground for freedom becomes tragically clear to me. Recognizing my own life in their suffering and joys invites a profound sense of closeness and inter-being.
Even as our biology veers us in the direction of self-protection, self-interest and narrow group identities, our task is to widen the sphere of caring to include ALL of life. To include the earth, animals, people of every culture, even those who out of ignorance violate others is our collective direction. I can imagine a world in which the intentional killing and violation of others is unthinkable. How many life times will it take for enough of us to experience unconditional love toward all? I have no idea… but what other direction could possibly be worthy of awakening humanity?
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This is the second in a series of writings based on my recent experiences in Rwanda
It is the last day of the retreat; I am walking with Claudia (name changed for confidentiality), a new Rwandan friend. Earlier in the retreat, she asked for guidance in meditation to help with painful thoughts that won’t stop. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some guidance.
On this day she tells me about the killing of her parents and four of five siblings when she is about 6 years old. A Hutu man protects her. Later he is killed by other Hutu’s angered at his kindness. Luckily she meets her one remaining elder sister who can take care of her. Being with this tender young woman, bearing witness to her courage, pain, intelligence and life-forward intention my heart is deeply touched.
Zen teacher Bernie Glassman has created forms for bringing the practice of sitting meditation into social action. The “Bearing Witness Retreat”. For more than 20 years, the Zen Peacemaker Order (ZPO) has been conducting these retreats at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the concentration camps in Poland. About 6 years ago members of a Rwandan reconciliation group, Memos-Learning from History attended the retreat and asked for something similar in their country. This retreat grew from that request.
ZPO has three main views or tenets: 1) Not-knowing (putting aside all opinions, conclusions, and certainties), 2) Bearing witness (being present with all the joy and sorrow within the situation you are in and 3) Loving actions (if some beneficial possibility arises to offer your care).
At Auschwitz the practice is to invite healing by being present with the suffering of all beings: prisoners, guards, survivors, the dead and the land itself. Through meditation, chanting of names of the deceased, respectfully walking around the entire site, the history is recalled and experienced with tender, open and broken hearts.
In the unique situation of Rwanda, where every person is carrying the trauma of the recent past (see previous writing), sitting with the intention of Bearing Witness is a huge challenge. Our group of about 56 was equally divided between Rwandans, plus two Congolese and westerners from seven different countries. We went every day to the Murambi Memorial Site, a place where 50,000 people were massacred.
Each day we would start “council” sitting together around a candle and some sacred objects with the intention of speaking from our hearts. Being in the presence of authentic, heartfelt, truth telling allows an intimacy and trust to grow. Bearing witness to ourselves and to each other creates a healing environment. The power of humans connecting from their hearts cannot be underestimated.
Each person, African or westerner, was processing deep personal and societal wounds through the power of the Memorial site. In numerous rooms, lying on wooden tables, there are many skeletons including babies and children that have been preserved in lime emitting a sickening stench. The smell lives in my nostrils. The bits of clothing and tufts of hair make this so indelibly real. The idea is to make the reality undeniable. As with the German holocaust, there are those who will deny or minimize the horror. We must create conditions so that humanity never forgets that this is possible.
In the first days we meditated by the mass graves sometimes in silence and at other times reading the names of the dead. It took some time to realize that this was socially inappropriate and very frightening for the Rwandans. The next days we sat in a more neutral setting at the Memorial Site and spoke the names there. For me, saying and hearing the names was very important. As I said in my previous writing, I cannot process a large number of deaths, my body goes numb. With each name, I can sense this one individual and my heart gets torn open. Maybe this kind of remembering brings some kind of solace to the soul of that person, this I do not know. I do know that in the process of remembering, in experiencing our heart connections to unknown people, we become more human. I had the added potency of reading names on Good Friday, recalling the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross in this Christian country added a whole other level of meaning.
In the evenings we would hear “testimony” from members of the three groups: Survivors, Perpetrators and Rescuers. Hearing the stories of people who I was getting to know was the most compelling, heart wrenching part of the whole retreat. People just like you and me went through these experiences. I could feel my deep inner connection to each person and each story. Each individual is part of a whole family of tragic stories. Through the eyes and words of one person, their relatives also somehow appear in the room. This experience lives deeply in my heart.
(In the following examples from our group, I altered their names for confidentiality. Some of these stories are very challenging to read, some readers might choose to skip this section. I offer them not to shock but to awaken our hearts. Listen well to your inner life and take breaks as needed)
Anna tells her story of hiding in the marshes, crawling in the mud with snakes for many days. Dead and dying bodies would surround her. Teeming with lice and desperate with fear, she experienced the daily struggle to survive. As she spoke, sitting nearby was Aaron the man who cut off her hand and helped kill her family. Aaron expresses sorrow for his actions yet his testimony, which includes various deflections, does not satisfy many of the Tutsi’s who are present. Is the greatest expression of human compassion, forgiveness, even thinkable?
Rosanne, a Hutu sat with Theodore, a 31 year old Tutsi man who she saved when he was 11, at the immediate risk of her own life. Her husband was scared and angry that she was saving Tutsi’s. Theodore’s family had been killed while he escaped by running and hiding. After 5 days without food or water, Rosanne came upon him. Rather than turning him in, she sheltered him. How does one person find such courageous kindness when almost all others cannot?
Jeannette, participating in the retreat with her 21-year-old daughter Paula showed us the place where she hid 20 years ago holding Paula to her chest. She had watched as her husband and two sons were killed nearby. She was attacked with rocks and barely escaped. What lives in mother and daughter after such an event?
Roland is an ex-Belgian soldier who tried to help in Rwanda gave his harrowing, tearful story for the first time in 20 years. What does it mean to help in such a situation? The Belgian government was part of the horrific, colonial history that created the great division amongst these people. What is our collective responsibility for the actions of our governments? As an American, I have my first experience of collective shame for the actions and negligence of my country as I sit with all these people.
Can we see that every one of us is a survivor, a perpetrator and a rescuer? Can such an extreme situation as Rwanda help us to reflect on our own life?
Within me is one who has survived challenging situations. I am also a survivor. Raised by alcoholic parents, my mom dealing with manic-depression, I witnessed some harrowing scenes. Attacked at gun point while counseling a distressed ex-convict at a drug rehabilitation center, my life was threatened. As with all of us, my list goes on. While my challenges were not near the level of my Rwandan friends, it is not helpful to compare suffering. Mine is mine. Yours is yours. Had I been born elsewhere I might have been one of the survivors in Rwanda.
I have perpetrated violence on others in my life. Whether through word, thought or deed I have violated others. At times I have asserted my desire to dominate others, through the use of my voice and intellect. As a young man I hit people with my fists. I have often treated the earth with carelessness as if I had dominion over it. Also, who has not violated their own bodies, by treating it as an object to be manipulated. Who has not violated their own inner life with vicious judgments? Our self- talk can be filled with much violence. For deep healing to occur these perpetrations must be seen, acknowledged and alternatives uncovered. From my point of view, we do not have the right to violate the sanctity of LIFE even when it appears to be OUR life. Life is a gift that requires our care. Seeing all this, I recognize that had I been born elsewhere I could have been a killer. It is the same impulse toward domination of life that exists in me acted out in another social milieu.
I have rescued others in my life. Who has not served as the dove of peace and healing in at least some situations? Who has not protected the weak, fed the hungry at least some of the time? I have been blessed many times in my life with opportunities to offer healing, solace and care. Had I been in born in another place I might have saved some threatened people.
In The Embodied Life work we speak of being present with all that arises in body, feelings and thoughts. I use the term ‘presencing’. This is the same as “Bearing Witness”. Holding presence for our inner world and/or our external situation is the essential ground for healing. Anything exiled from our care will remain unprocessed and therefore keep us from feeling whole. All that is rejected must be carried as a kind of tension in our bodies and will create a closing of our hearts. Opening to the entirety of life, to the inner and outer suffering as well as to the joy is our collective direction.
Integrating my experiences from Rwanda brings vivid questions to the fore: when do I turn my back on life? How do I turn away from the suffering within and around me? What in my inner and outer world do I exile from my realm of care? For me this is clear- bearing witness or presencing is the ground of true healing for individuals and for our world.
In my third writing, I will explore the process of integrating this learning and implications for the future.
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