On Wednesday our downtown Zen meditation group had a delightful meeting. It gave me a deepening, visceral conviction that homeless or not, whatever someone’s history or current challenges, people are just people. This means they live a complete life with its own rhythm, richness, joys, sorrows, views, philosophies, hopes, regrets… you name it.
This may seem like a pretty stupid realization – I mean, isn’t it obvious people everywhere are just people? However, I have realized that when I feel concerned about someone’s suffering, I sometimes do them the disservice of imagining their life is homelessness, poverty, mental illness, social isolation, physical pain, or illness. I imagine them with an impoverished life experience centered on their difficulty – an experience somehow utterly alien compared to mine. This makes me think I will be unable to relate to the person, and therefore that any gesture I make based on my human intuition will fail to make a connection or be of benefit. Fortunately, this whole line of thinking is erroneous – and how joyously so! True, we can never fully understand the experience of another, and sometimes we have to carefully consider how different someone’s experiences or challenges are from ours. But fundamentally… well, people are just people.
When I arrive early to set up for the downtown group, I walk into a situation of fairly high energy and controlled chaos. “The Underground,” a hospitality center for people 25 or under, meets in the church fellowship hall, and I walk through the hall to get to the sanctuary where the Zen group meets. This means I carry my Zen gear though a group of 30-50 young folks eating, socializing, playing games, and just hanging around. The energy spills over into the sanctuary until our group begins at 6:30 pm.
Once in the sanctuary, I don’t know who’s going to show up or what their needs are going to be. I make a circle of wooden chairs, put out our buddha statue, and try to answer questions and meet people as seems appropriate.
This Wednesday there were seven people at the group, most of them attending because they know and trust Rev. Paul. It was me, Paul, Susan (a St. Stephen’s member who has done centering prayer in the past and is eager to reestablish her practice), two openly homeless folks named Rusty and Brittany (each of them with a large backpack and a large black dog wearing a coat – note, that means two large black dogs wearing coats), Jenny (an energetic and talkative formerly homeless gal who had to be convinced that Zen was not a cult), and a fellow named Bennito none of us had met before who spoke Spanish but almost no English.
We started with a brief intro to Zen meditation, and then sat for 10 minutes. During the instructions I had explained the Buddhist idea that there are three levels of mental activity: 1) pure perception, 2) naming or categorizing, and 3) elaboration or commentary. As usual, when I talked about this I used the example of hearing a dog bark. At the first level of mental activity we simply perceive a sound, at the next level we identify it as a dog barking, and at the third level we start analyzing or commenting on the experience (“that’s annoying, I’m trying to meditate, why doesn’t someone do something about that, I should say something but I’m too shy, come to think of it I need to work on my confidence, maybe I should…”). Our third-level mental activity can go on and on as an endless train of thought.
During our brief ten minutes of meditation we got to observe our levels of mental activity through an actual dog barking, an owner going over to tell the dog to be quiet, a loud fart, and an exit to the restroom.
After meditation we shared and discussed our experience a little, and then took a break for refreshments. This entailed Paul and an assistant going to the other part of the church to get a crate of snacks from the food pantry, two carafes of hot water, tea bags, and paper cups. I would have preferred to have all of this set up ahead of time to minimize disruption but I hadn’t had time. So I rolled with it and concluded that sometimes not being prepared is better. Not only did someone get to help out gathering the snacks, this meant there was a natural social break for everyone. Susan tried to engage with Bennito using Paul’s iphone translator. Bennito wasn’t able to say much of anything to us, but he showed us the two buddha pendants he was wearing around his neck. I talked with Rusty about the value of listening and the sacredness of silence. Jenny expressed excitement about her upcoming second wedding anniversary, and how Rev. Paul had performed her wedding ceremony for free.
People seemed to appreciate the reading and discussion that followed, about how the practice of mindfulness asks us to pay attention to our experience no matter how we feel about it. Several times the conversation seemed to be veering off-topic, but that only made me think on my toes and throw out questions I sensed would be interesting to people. We each shared a typical situation in our lives in which we find it difficult to be mindful (that is, to pay attention no matter what). People mentioned finding mindfulness difficult when they were angry, stressed, trying to get too many things done at once, and functioning in a situation where they disagreed with the way things were being done.
All in all it was a warm, friendly, sweet meeting. Not so different from the meetings at my Zen center, except maybe people, in general, had less to prove.