Zen and a Part of Life. I like these stairs in the Museum of Modern Art. Visiting the Museum was the one thing all my friends had in common when they responded to my question: NYC – what to do? Like all museums, it requires more lifetimes than this one to get through and more brain space in which to store all the visual and tactile sensations. But I like these stairs. They go places without moving.
I like these stairs too. They are somewhere in NYC’s Chinatown, I think. I was on the upper level of a double-decker tourist bus, cold and not paying too much attention. They are a part of life lived which is why I like them. No pretensions – just stairs that will take you from up to down or vice versa as the situation demands. I want a life like that. Functional and with potential.
For one of my field trips, I decided (well, actually Roshi Joan told me to) visit a homeless shelter. Luckily, one of my colleagues works in just such an organization. So we made a date to meet, do a walkabout and have lunch with the Chaplain at the shelter. It was all very intimidating but Roshi J. was right in asking me to push the edge of my comfort. Funtionality and potential are fragile and easily fractured points of our lives.
I find my way into the building and was asked to wait inside the reception section where I watch a bank of monitors. Scenes flash of the street corners, back alley, Chapel, dining hall, and waiting room. People mill about and the Chapel fills slowly. I learn later that attendance at Chapel (it’s a Christian-based organization) is required for a lunch ticket. My friend, M., comes to get me and after a quick description of the shelter, we do the walkabout.
We climb several flights of stairs, winding our way through the dorms and health units. The shelter houses 221 men and at night there will be many “sitting sleep” in the waiting room. It’s the nature of the homeless situation across the city; all the older shelters are overflowing and even the new ones are rapidly filling to capacity. I recall the man standing at the reception divider. He looked like any number of men who might work in my building filled with health care professionals – catastrophe is equanimous. M. and I weave through a press of bodies gathering for lunch. They serve 1200 meals a day, the cook tells me. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served for the residents and at 3PM there is an open dinner for the public. 1200 meals each day. He invites me to join him for cooking lessons; I accept. The dining hall is packed and the food smells and looks delicious. People eat and leave the building; no one is allowed to stay during the day. The shelter also trains people in skills they can use when they transition out: cooking, administration, trades skills, anything that will lead to self-sufficiency. There are drug rehab programs and work placement programs. The shelter is a life retreat center where the capacity to live with not knowing is cultivated and one must re-enter the marketplace.
The hospice is 9 years old and full; we peek in from the edge of the nursing station. In the Chapel are panels engraved with the names of all those who have passed away in the care of the shelter. I recall that while waiting in the reception room, the family of one of the hospice patients came to the desk and asked where to find him. They had been told he was here, they said. They smiled with relief when told he was upstairs and they were shown the way to the unit. My brain can’t process this or the back story about living and dying disconnected from those who love me.
I have a teaching story I tell my patients that is meant to demonstrate how quickly our minds can take us to a catastrophe. When something happens that is difficult to manage, I immediately write a story about my demise which culminates in living under the Rideau Street Bridge in a cardboard box. People resonate with this fear. I joked recently that my catastrophe had become worse because the Rideau Street Bridge was now closed off so homeless people would not collect under it. Now I have nowhere for my cardboard box, I say. Suddenly, it’s neither a catastrophe nor a comfortable teaching story anymore.
The Chaplain is a round-faced, jovial man who is curious about Buddhism and what it means to be a Buddhist. We talk about honouring the sacred in people and, like Hakuin, offering they need to sustain faith and hope. Their transitions up and down the stairs of their lives are teaching stories for all of us and we share our the belief that our role as care givers is only to bear witness to their strides – whatever the direction. He enjoys his life as Chaplain, all the while aware of the thin membrane of chance that separates him from the people who come to the shelter. He talks about the Buddhist men in the shelter and points out that his “service” is just a short piece of music and a few words about self-forgiveness or living well as best one can. Twenty minutes and no more, he says, the spirit cannot be fed when the body is too hungry. I share about original goodness and self-compassion. By the time I have to leave, he’s talked me into offering service once a week.
I find my way through the maze of people and corridors, texting Frank who is supposed to pick me up: Coming out now.
He replies: Here I is.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
Thank you for practising,