Note: I wrote the following essay in the summer of 2014, while visiting a friend in a Honolulu hospital. Buddhadharma Magazine published a much-shortened version of the text the following year. The reflections I sought to express at that time mirror in their own ways a radical self inquiry, which the heart of deep coaching invites us to. Enjoy.
On meeting myself
It’s a Tuesday morning in downtown Honolulu, shortly before nine o’clock. I join a group of commuters gathered around the bus stop on Liliha Street to catch Line 54. The concrete sidewalk crumbles amid broken glass. Traffic drones past our toes. On the median strip between lanes, an elderly man wearing rags shuffles across gray stubbles of weeds. He holds a cup in his hand. Folded into himself. Strands of dirty hair dripping from his scalp. Nearby lie his belongings, tied inside plastic grocery bags. None of the commuters at the bus stop nor the drivers in the traffic passing by look at the man.
In his poem In this passing moment, the Zen priest Hogen Bays writes: If there is pain, I choose to feel. Whom I encounter, I choose to meet. I try to apply these lines at the bus stop and fall short.
Honolulu does not hide its homeless people. It cannot. Its unfortunate denizens sleep on the sidewalks of world-famed Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki and in the parking lots of shopping malls. They congregate near Liliha Street, where Chinatown offers the comfort of narrow alleyways and the company of gamblers. Those in the world who have fallen out of favor, luck, solutions, healthy choices, paying work, mental health or simply enough money to pay the rent, find in Honolulu spacious parks and beaches. With temperatures that seldom dip below the 60s, one can survive without freezing to death. The Island of O‘ahu, where Honolulu is located, counted 4,556 homeless people in 2013 on an overall population of about one million.
I am not a tourist yet don’t live in Honolulu. I don’t run the City Council, a shelter, a soup kitchen or a church. I am simply visiting my 97-year old father-in-law. While waiting at the bus stop, I am aware that the interpersonal and personal complexities of the homeless situation in the city are too vast for me to comprehend. So then what can I do? I try to practice. I try to stay present, breathing in, breathing out, feeling my body, aware of sensations.
On his median strip, the crippled man trudges toward the cars that pass him. He half-falls toward their closed windows like an ailing Lazarus. Some drivers hastily switch lanes. Almost all turn their heads. Cars that must come to a complete standstill due to traffic lights leave an empty space where the man stands. The drivers may have facts about this man that I don’t have. Even so, I know that no one would ever deliberately choose this kind of life. We all wish for ease and happiness. For a moment I imagine this man as a baby, imagine his mother, who, for better or worse, gave birth to her child. Hopes and dreams that have risen and shattered. I feel my body contract.
If I were a driver this morning on Liliha Street, what would I do? Appallingly, I dismiss the question too quickly. I tell myself, I am not behind the wheel, I am exempt of making choices. But then I recall how ten minutes earlier, while waiting at a pedestrian crossing, I had stood beside a couple of other homeless folks. I had made the same choice as everyone else, pretending I didn’t notice them, uncomfortable. They were waiting like the rest of us, human like the rest of us, waiting to get to the other side.
Care is a universal quality. I like to think that the mere fact that we turn away with discomfort at all reflects the stirring of our caring consciousness. I can numb it. I can investigate. I do have a choice.
But investigation is risky and inconvenient, taking me to inner places that scare me, where I cannot so easily scurry off. Like many, I suspect, I have solid walls around my heart that try to protect me. It’s time for me to see that the walls have outlived their usefulness. I do want to care and know what a compassionate response might be.
And so I practice the way I have been taught by the Buddha’s teachings, by my sangha. These days, my sole task when faced with discomfort and as I have come to understand it is to care. To care for the darkness that is my own as much as my capacity for compassion. To stay present so that caring may unfold. These are the sore spots that I face as a human. Tender and okay. This then is the truth even as I continue to struggle with feelings of inadequacy and aversion. I continue to question and hold on with fists of fear. Dare I orient myself toward compassion for fear itself? Is that a good start? I think so. It will be weeks before I return to Honolulu. Wherever I am, meanwhile, I will remember: In meeting whom I encounter I meet myself and choose to find an opportunity to grow and be free.
- End -
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