By Brian Kosho Durel, Upaya Zen Center
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO, USA. Over the last year I assisted my friend and mentor Joshin Byrnes in leading Street Retreats in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and San Francisco, and now it feels like a ripe time to share some thoughts on the cultivation of my Bearing Witness practice. The practice keeps evolving, and my intention is to carry it on for some time. We will do street retreats in Denver, New York and San Francisco in 2017.
Joshin and I held our last Street Retreat in San Francisco this year. After flying into Oakland and a brief prelude in which Joshin lost his wallet (a synchronicity if there ever was one), we took the BART train to San Francisco’s Glide Church, a historically progressive Methodist Church attending to class, race, gender and LGBTQ justice. Walking through the Tenderloin District to a late afternoon dinner at Glide, we saw many of the people – estimated to be between six and ten thousand – living on the street there. We saw drug use, litter and pollution, crumbling buildings and crumbling bodies. At another level of seeing, I was told by one of the first people I met living on the city’s streets that I could get anything I desired in the Tenderloin.
Reaching Glide, we received our meal tickets at the front door and descended into the basement cafeteria, a room with high walls, 30 feet high painted a sanitizing yet unclean pale blue like a waterless swimming pool. The floor of course is concrete, and the tables and chairs are made of plastic and metal. Joshin and I sat at separate tables to speak with people besides each other, but nobody was talking at Glide. A couple of volunteers were pleasant, but people’s heads were mostly turned down. There were fifty to a hundred people eating on our meal ticket shift. Because the homeless population is so large, there are many shifts at Glide, and people are pushed along quickly to make room for the next group.
Sobered, we emerged and made our way to Civic Plaza in front of the United Nations. There, people smoked crack by the fountain, people moved along in wheel chairs or took rest, and people with mental illnesses wandered. Others sat on the concrete chatting. A pillar in front of the fountain is engraved with The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts [and so on],”
Young professionals, mostly men, walked by with headphones plugged into ears, plugged into smart phones without the slightest recognition of another person, and I thought, “This is it. We’re doomed.” The tech firms have headquarters literally right across the streetcar tracks from the Tenderloin, the city’s most impoverished neighborhood. I imagined that these young men are making six and seven figures. To the South, block after block is currently being redeveloped with new glassy, plastic, metal, and blandly modernist apartment buildings to house “the privileged.” The people on the street in the Tenderloin have witnessed housing costs skyrocket. To have shelter in this unwanted neighborhood, people have to pay $1,500/month for an efficiency apartment or be fortunate enough to have government assistance. Maybe you’re feeling a bit of my moral outrage.
And yet, in the ethical sphere of our Zen practice there’s a vow to not hold onto resentment or rage. There’s a vow to be aware of all the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that come up. There’s a hypothesis that if I allow all experience – the whole plaza – to penetrate me, then I will be transformed. This is the work of uncovering and releasing our biases and prejudices, so that we can be responsive rather than reactive.
But I’m human, and I have this class trigger that gets pulled, and then I just want to keep firing. It’s a manifestation of anger reinforced by what I’ve seen and how I’ve seen throughout the three decades of my life. Maybe it’s fear that narrowed my sight. Seeing everything as us versus them can be a way of coping with pain and feeling safe, but it’s in the avoiding of feeling the pain of privilege and oppression that suffering emerges. With many people who participate in Street Retreats there is an impulse to help and to fix, to be the savior for the victims. Participants might try to give money that we have begged for to feed ourselves to someone else who is begging, which reifies the identity of the helper and the helped. So, there’s suffering. Less often, I’ve seen participants with the revolutionary desire to attack the young professionals, a mythic narrative that under certain conditions possesses me. During each of my five street retreats to date, both the fixing and fighting modes of behavior arose when I made my home on the street. I can make strangers by means of unreflective, reactive helping just as much as I can from waging war; and even when I don’t act, divisions are drawn in my mind. My mind and my body can be and has been complicit in setting up boundaries and breaking down neighborhoods, but I don’t think that it has to be this way.
On Street Retreat we are encouraged to suspend action, to drop our formulaic beliefs about right and wrong and to let the need to know fall away. There’s a great opportunity that arises from this process. We see things just as they are without the filters of guilt and blame. I’ve felt that underneath the anger is grief for the pain of sickness, old age and death, and underneath that is sadness, and encompassing all of these emotions is a sense of actually being connected, of being one body. Then compassionate action can arise out of a pure motivation to befriend all of my neighbors, whether they experience affluence or poverty, giving and receiving what is needed. This is deep relationship, action that heals each other and ourselves.
It is possible to learn what we do not know, to see clearly and to act creatively. On retreat we bear witness and suspend to see our community from higher up and see the holes that if filled would create systemic change. Bearing Witness is not passive. The action may unfold as volunteering in a soup kitchen (as Upaya Zen Center’s resident body is doing as an outgrowth of our Santa Fe Street Retreat), of becoming involved upstream in policy change, or simply changing how we show up and be present with people from all walks of life. It depends on the causes and conditions of each participant’s life.
Back at Glide’s cafeteria and every other soup kitchen I have eaten in, I wonder what kind of environment are we creating with our neighbors on the streets? Through my own struggle with addiction and my studies of neuroscience, I know that context influences the potential for positive changes and the feeling of agency in a person’s life. There is free will, but it is relative to environmental factors. If a person is ill and drug addicted, what happens when drugs, dealers, and other users surround them? If a person has no legs, gets around in a wheel chair, and doesn’t have a society that offers a bed or even have a neighbor to give them a blanket to stay warm, what opportunity for safety is there?
I’m also considering that when I invite friends, family, and neighbors over for a meal, I clean up, I’m hospitable, and I (try to) make good food. Is it possible that when we do this, we re-establish our in-group, strengthen our collective support network, and encourage success in each other? If so, then as Bernie says, what if I expanded my group to include everyone? What if soup kitchens didn’t look like prisons, but instead had comfortable furniture and healthy and tasty food? What if hospitable neighbors with homes served the food and ate with their neighbors living on the street? Changing the context of homelessness services into spaces that we would actually want our family and friends to be in is an intervention in our neighborhoods that could be healing for us all.
Of course, this is just one response among many. It is my discernment process, my opinions, naturally arising from bearing witness. Joshin and I will continue to offer street retreats, because again and again it offers the perspective of a wider view. It in itself is healing. Fleet Maull gets to the essence of this when he says that when we’re really in relationship, which means withdrawing psychological projections and tapping into our “basically good nature,” it becomes very difficult to act unethically. This is the gift of Bearing Witness – to learn about our nature, to stop reactivity, and become responsible. For me, Bearing Witness is the definition of continuous practice. It’s alive on the street. It’s alive in my home at Upaya Zen Center. It’s everywhere I show up.