A Street Retreat Reflection by Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community resident, Willie Kunert
Departing out of Penn Station on the train, as I rushed through the crowds to catch the train, I found myself wondering, “Who am I?” There are whiffs of an eerie underworld in the question, mixed too, with a taste of freedom. These past four nights and five days have felt like discovering another world that was always right underneath my nose. The pale comparison I came up with, that captures something true, and fails to capture much, is how I felt a month into parenting my daughter. “My god! There is a whole world of parents out here. A whole culture that has never been anywhere but right here, that I never knew was here.” The same is true of the culture I discovered on the streets. The pain, the sense of being lost, the beauty, friendship, joy, fear, and community. It’s all there, even if I never noticed it before.
I still clearly remember our first sit of the retreat. The chaos of New York and Washington Square Park. Our group of twelve assembled there, we did brief introductions and then entered a period of meditation. I sat, and brought my attention to my breath. Immediately, I noticed panic rising, those tremors in my belly, and my heart racing. The fear of the coming retreat, and the chaos around me pressed in.
I thought back to my teacher, and the conversation we had back in the silence and privacy of my clean apartment – that one must eventually cease blaming the world for the dissatisfaction one feels. That I have the power to free myself and lift myself up, right now.
I calm. I notice the subtlety of my breath, trying not to control anything, and bringing gentleness to my awareness. My world opens up as I calm. My awareness shifting moment to moment from the gentle movement of the breath in my nostrils to the world around me. A child runs behind me giggling loudly. The perfume of marijuana being smoked wafts by. Someone plays a piano in one corner of the park, a saxophone is being played in another. I am surrounded by people! A thought intrudes upon my awareness, “People must be staring at me, thinking I look weird!” I return to my center. This is my practice now. The coming days will be filled with activities I would normally never want to perform in public: begging for money, sleeping on a sidewalk, discovering levels of my own body odor I have never known before. Can I remain centered, calm, aware, open, in the midst of all this? I settle further, and a simple dynamic openness arises. The chaos around me, and within me, accepted. The world feels vast and wide. A bells ring to end of the sit.
One man has joined our group at the last minute, he introduces himself simply as Batman, and he is warmly greeted by our group’s leader, Joshin. Batman, also known by his Sufi name of Hamza, is a powerful contradiction from the start. His skin is ebony black, but his eyes are a piercing sky blue. He is a man I come to know well, or perhaps not, over these days. He is both wise, and lost. Both deeply tortured and free. He is our local guide of the streets, having spent over thirty-five years sleeping on the streets of New York. He is half-Cherokee and half Algerian, a towering figure, certainly well over six feet, and slumping some as he heads into his seventies. He was one of the original students of Bernie Glassman, the founder of this street retreat practice, who found him on the street, and trained him in Zen. While living on the streets, Batman sewed his rakusu, a symbol of commitment to Zen practice. He knows the streets of New York like the back of his hand, and spends the first night sleeping on a metal grate over the subway for warmth. His big toes both point sideways, crushing all his other toes with every step, after they were broken, he says, by his torturers as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. He walks with us, guides us, and wanders off at times too. He claims his daughter is now a professor of mathematics at NYU, and that some multi-million-dollar business ideas about how to help the homeless were stolen from a computer he had years ago. He is an enigma, teaching us both about pain, and about freedom, something I come to slowly learn the streets can teach us too.
We head to dinner, a several block walk to the Bowery Mission, a church that has served the homeless for well over a hundred years. We are directed into a dimly-lit room – a chapel – where two women are performing modern flute music. The large crowd of mostly black and brown skinned people, interspersed with elderly Asian-Americans, sits quietly, almost like school children forced to watch something they don’t care about; many sleep. I feel like we are cattle, as we wait to be directed into the dining hall.
Fear grips me that I will be called out as a fake. This was perhaps the most challenging part of the retreat for me, how do I feel authentic and truthful in what I am doing, and yet have as authentic an experience of homelessness as possible (in other words, not to just tell everyone immediately that I’m not actually homeless, just on a Zen Street Retreat, not that anyone on the street has any fucking idea what that means either!) This is a part of the practice I hope to continue practicing with. On this retreat, it led me to quietness and shyness much more than I wish it would have. Afraid to spark up conversation or join a conversation fully, out of fear of being ‘found out’. By the end, I began to have an inkling of how I would like to move towards that authenticity more, but I rarely embodied it to the degree I wished.
This is not to say that we didn’t make true friends. The slightest connections were treasured deeply, for we had only other street people to take care of us on the streets. I asked a kind-faced man from Peru one day as we ate lunch in the large hall of a church where he recommended for dinner. As I waited in line that night at his suggested location, he passed by. I called out, and he came over with a large smile on his face and shook my hand, asking where my mother was (an assumption he had made about the older woman sitting near me at lunch. I decided it wasn’t worth correcting him and pointed her out.)
After dinner the first night, as the sun set, and the cold began to deepen, we went looking for a place to sleep, and for cardboard we could carry to sleep on. It felt a bit like a game, searching for the best cardboard and pillow substitutes we could, to keep us comfortable. This dynamic of feeling like we were on some fun little tour, and then feeling guilt and remembering the seriousness of the streets, but then seeing other street people laughing and having a good time too, was a constant back-and-forth we all struggled with. Multiple times every day, we gathered as a community, and checked in through the practice of Council – deep listening and deep sharing from the heart. This kept us grounded, kept us real, and helped us feel supported and less alone. The first night I was restless, like most people. The light from the street shined brightly in our eyes, constantly fooling us into thinking it was daytime in the middle of the night. The cold was hard to escape, and my ribs and hips hurt against the small pad the cardboard provided. Nevertheless, the last couple hours of the night I slept soundly, and awoke with joy that the first night was over.
The next day we wandered from one soup kitchen to another, past the gaping wound of grief of the world trade center memorial, and back up town to a small sufi temple on a little busy street that had invited us to spend the night. The sheik, or leader of the community, had once done a street retreat with Bernie Glassman, decades ago, as a student of his. They gave us sandwiches, sweet black tea, and dates. I have rarely savored a fresh sandwich more in my life. They invited us to participate in Zikr, a swirly, trance-like prayer that would go late into the evening on the first floor. We all looked into our weary hearts, and some went to bed upstairs, I decided to participate.
We gathered in a circle, and began singing, slowly, rhythmically, and repetitively. Heads move together, side to side. There was both an incredible sense of dignity and modesty to these people as well as a wild and free sensuality. There were people who spoke no English, people from the streets, deep Sufi practitioners, my smelly crowd, and everything in between. Heads side to side, we hummed deeply and rhythmically. We slowly rose, and began moving in a circle as we sang. The sheik, a beautiful and elderly lady, who spilled out love, guided this increasingly chaotic ritual with confidence. The rhythm and intensity increased. She guided us to feel the emptiness in our hearts, and to go inside ourselves. We held each other in a circle, and moved in and out. Increasing rapidity, until we eventually split apart and all began gently twirling. Ecstasy. Transcendence. Embodiment and sensuality. I had ready plenty of Sufi poetry about the wine of Allah, but never before had I experienced it firsthand or in my heart and body. When we finally stopped it was nearly midnight, time had flown by. We ate nut bread with a cheese reminiscent of feta, and retired to our pads upstairs, as the other homeless people remained downstairs to sleep. As I fell asleep I wondered to myself, what is this experience I am having? The wild diversity, generosity, discomfort, and newness of it all was scraping the callousness off of my heart and opening me wide. So much I had never experienced before, and I was plunging in…
The next day I finally built up the courage to engage in my first experience with begging. I tore off a piece of cardboard, and wrote as best I could in my sloppy hand-writing, “anything helps” followed by a drawing of a heart. We were across from Grand Central Station, and I split from my peers to go alone briefly. The simple act of sitting down on that ground made blood rush in my ears with panic and shame. For years I had been taught not to touch the filthy ground of a city. I sat, and felt walled by the shame. I couldn’t help but lean back against the stone wall behind me for support, I breathed heavily, my eyes watered, and I struggled to keep it together. It felt hard to lift my head, to find any voice.
I put out a cup with a penny and quietly asked a few people if they could spare any change. No acknowledgement. I breathed again, and remembered my practice, but it was hard. A man in a uniform slowly walked up, and asked me to move, I couldn’t help but get irritated, to where?! But he was polite, and asked me just to move down a little so as not to trip anyone who might round the corner. He assured me, “It’s not you, I love you guys! I just can’t have anyone tripping and then suing the company for a million dollars.” His kindness struck me. After this river of people has ignored my entire being, to have him say, “I love you”, however casually, made my heart soar, however briefly.
I couldn’t help but let resentment and rage build inside me as I continued to be completely ignored over and over. My already quiet voice began to shrink further and further under the weight of the shame, until it was totally inaudible. By the end of the ten minutes, I was frozen, unable to move, the weight of the shame sinking like concrete. The stream of people washed by, none looking at me, and I felt myself disappearing further and further. My peers came and gathered me, only one of the other four in my small group had tried begging that day, the others kept time for us so we did not miss the soup kitchen hours. As I rose, and walked with my peers through Grand Central Station, I felt a deep rage at the world, at this sea of people to whom just a moment ago I was nothing! For the first time on the retreat, I didn’t feel as though I was pretending to be homeless, but instead that I was pretending not to be. I identified with the street people, those who saw me, and who shared this new world I had just discovered with me.
That night we slept on the steps of a large church. Lights overhead. We had learned by then to cover our eyes with bandanas or sweaters in order to sleep. The avenue just beyond the steps was four or six lanes wide. A demonstration raged on early in the night as we tried to sleep, cop cars flew by, people’s conversations and drunken laughs woke me from my sleep, and I worried about how close these people were to me. But I slept well. I felt safe with my community, with Batman, with the others sleeping on the steps that night. A kind, older black woman who helps us understand the territory we inhabit for the night, a man who shows up late and goes straight to his spot with cardboard, a woman with wild eyes and nothing other than a blanket who sleeps low on the steps, and a skinny, middle-aged white woman who has constructed a fort of cardboard in a corner, that she enters into late at night, and whom we’ve been advised to steer clear of, as she doesn’t feel safe when others come close. Early in the morning, a voice wakes me for moment, “care for a sandwich?”, I smell cologne, and fall back asleep. When I wake sandwiches are left beside every person sleeping there, not the only time this would happen on the retreat.
The next day we practice an afternoon of begging. I am renewed in my confidence, encouraged by Joshin to find our voice. Yet, the very first man who passes by me retorted brusquely, “get a job!” It was a stab to my confidence, but I remembered again my teacher’s encouraging words to find my dignity and spirit within. I work hard to make eye contact and ask audibly, “spare any change?”, but I earn nothing and was met with zero eye contact, a hard experience to carry. We move on further, split up, and tried again. I find a nice spot, just beyond a busy intersection, such that everyone who crosses the street can see me, without being in the heart of the pedestrian traffic.
As the crowds of people cross the street, I build up the courage to make sustained eye contact with people. Very few people even look my way. The perhaps five percent, which makes up dozens still, would typically meet my gaze with only the quickest glance, seeming to look away in fear, that if they held my gaze any longer something bad would happen, they would perhaps be forced to see the human sitting there on the corner. Occasionally, people would make quick glances back at me, even a total of three quick glances, part of them clearly curious, “who is this young man on the street, begging for help, with his clear eyes?” A part of them wanting to see who I am, wanting to look into my eyes to know me, but who turn away in fear as I return their gaze of intimacy.
I ask boldly, but as politely as I can, for spare change from the relatively select few who pass directly in front of me. One man replies, “man I’ve been on these streets for seven years, I ain’t got shit!” and takes a seat next to me. I laugh and say, “we can share the cup then.” He smiled and asked me where I was from. He joined me there for several minutes in my shame-soaked spot on the pavement, seeming to be the only one with the courage to sit next to me, and to greet me as another human. We talked about soup kitchens, and the abundance of fairly mediocre food; he instructed me about food stamps and social services I would qualify for and where to apply; and we talked about comics (he had two new comic books on him), and how much we each would love a shower and some shampoo. He wished me luck “with your coins” and bid me farewell. I felt buoyed, to the point that my eyes water now as I write about him, and my heart warms at the friendship this briefest of encounters offered me in the pit of my shame.
Two people gave me money that afternoon. The first man stepped out of a taxi in front of me, carrying what appeared to be a large stand-up bass or cello. He wore dress clothes, and looked to be perhaps sixty years old, with stylish glasses, something like the ones I wore, but much cleaner. I asked him for spare change, but he shook his head and he walked around the corner. I slumped back down as usual. In the brief eye contact we made, I thought of my dad for some reason, and wonder back if I reminded him of a son perhaps. He suddenly returned and put three dollars in my cup and disappeared just as quickly. My first donation. My heart exploded. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude, but most powerfully I just felt love. Not loved exactly, not loving, just love. The love between us that occurred in his act of giving. I thought again of my dad, and the profound love in that relationship, and tears began to stream down my eyes, as gratitude streamed through my body and heart. I looked down, afraid to show my tears at first, and looked back up at the sky, the desire to bask in this profound feeling of love and open-heartedness overwhelming the shame of crying in public. A Latina woman stepped out of a taxi and saw me, and I saw more pity in her eyes for me than anyone had offered me yet, and I thought of the homeless women I have seen begging on the street in tears. Yet she could only guess, and I am sure she did, that I was crying in anguish, when instead I was crying in bliss.
The final night was the climax of our practice. Whereas before we had worked with the mind of poverty (the felt sense of not having enough), tonight we worked with the mind of prosperity. We begged for extras at the end of the local farmers market and pooled what money we had earned collectively to buy multiple blocks of nice cheese from the whole foods. We assembled these gifts at the top of the southern plaza of Union Square Park onto a red cloth and made a truly beautiful tapestry of lettuce, carrots, loaves of bread, radishes, cheese, and a cornucopia of other varied goods. We would dine on this food, and invite anyone who walked by to eat as well, donating everything that remained to those in the park.
Union Square Park is an extraordinarily potent symbol of New York as a whole. The plaza teemed with life, people of every color, religion, and community, gathered and walked through. Two BDSM-inspired dancers performed break-dance inspired dance battles and several passers-by entered the battle as they passed through. A young, determined-eyed man with dreadlocks flew through the crowd on skateboard attempting tricks on the steps, while someone else leaned back on his bike and steered with one foot. People yelled and screamed at each other in the background, unclear if it was in jest or sincere violence. The Muslim-American Institute of New York passed out fliers and offered to answer questions to any passerby, “ask a Muslim the questions you’ve always wanted to ask.” There were groups of all ages and individuals of all abilities who passed through and lingered. And there we gathered in a circle, smelling truly foul, but with smiles on our faces, all feeling nerves about performing this bizarre Buddhist-ish ritual designed by the founder of street retreats a couple decades ago, in this hugely public setting. We began, and fumbled our ways through ritual, doing our best to add spirit to it, some passers-by staring, many people paying no notice at all.
Then, it came time to feast. I suddenly felt self-conscious about this food in front of us, the truly horrid odor emitting from my shoeless feet, and this food on the ground. It looked gross. Nevertheless, I fulfilled the role I play at dinner parties, and led the eating. “Someone’s gotta start!”
We ate, at first, mostly in silence, looking around at the scene around us. I felt some sense of shame and self-disgust in the midst of it all. But then, our first guest arrived. A New Yorker through and through – the strong accent, the foul, direct language, and the surprisingly open heart. He brought his guitar, and asked if he could play us some music in exchange for the food we freely offered him. We gladly accepted. He sang his heart out to us, and then passed the guitar around, letting others play as he ran and got his harmonica and bike, yelling out to people he knew along the way about the weed he owed them. He sang, appreciated us, ate heartily, and I think helped invite other people in.
Others began to slow down and look at our musical feast on the ground. We invited them all, some just smiled and said no, others joined us briefly. A young, hip couple sat down, listened to a few songs, and dined on some of the locally-made chocolates someone had donated to us. A young film-studies major named Tristan joined us, ate and sang, and played guitar until late into the night as did others. Slowly the circle grew, drawing all sorts of characters and many musical performers. We all sang our hearts out to Hallelujah and Bob Dylan songs. A troupe from Troy, NY of one middle-aged man with two teenage boys named the Troylets (pronounced like Toilets) blessed us with their truly amazing talent after they ate with us too. The climax came when a heavy-metal guitarist showed up in the square, plugged in and let it rip.
The whole experience was immense, I took in the ripping sounds of the metal guitar, the rag-tag crowd around me laughing and getting along, the commotion still racing through the square under the night sky and city lights, the joy of sharing food with passers-by, and just felt my heart grow and grow and grow.
That night we slept in the same spot as the first night, but I slept soundly and well, dreaming of generosity, and waking to the deep feeling of joy in my heart. That morning we went back to the Bowery Mission for breakfast, back to the grind, back to the crowd, to the people talking to themselves, and the funny friendships that emerge out of such places, the workers kindly saying hello and then rushing us along as we ate, the feeling of being cattle waiting in the strangely narrow but tall room with scripture on the walls trying to convert us, and the comradery that occurs outside the building. It keeps going every day for all these people, these people I was beginning to recognize and know.
We ended with a council later that morning, and I felt such a complex set of emotions – rage and sadness at the conditions these people live in, gratitude for this heart-opening practice, for generosity, and for the comradery I had along the way. My heart had melted open, and I didn’t want it to end, I didn’t want to leave behind all these people I met on the streets, and the simplicity and power of the last few days. I thought about how I would share this experience with my teacher. The quality that was truly so beautiful to me was the dynamic open-heartedness and friendliness I began to touch into these past few days, opposed to opening my heart to some sorts of people and closing it to others. There was an intimacy and kindness that flowed, without boundaries and fear.
So, as I got on the crowded train back to Vermont, my body still smelling quite bad despite my attempts to hastily wash my armpits with some lavender soap in a friend’s bathroom before departing New York, I turned to the young woman sitting next to me on the train, feeling my heart open, and asked her where she was heading. The conversation was not long, but in this slight connection, as in the many I was blessed with on the street, there was nevertheless a feeling of love, of caring and being cared for, however minimally, that rekindled that flame in my heart, and gave me some courage going forward that this practice can continue beyond the messy, lively, complicated streets of New York City.