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Why Oscar-Winning Actress Ellen Burstyn Slept on a NYC Street

Why Oscar-Winning Actress Ellen Burstyn Slept on a NYC Street

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

We all dread stepping out of what is familiar and known: your comfort zone. But when we do, we can discover enormous reserves of strength within ourselves, as actress Ellen Burstyn told us after she experienced being homeless.

Most of us have a deep fear that the unthinkable could possibly happen to us, such as becoming homeless. In today’s economy, many people are finding themselves on the street through no fault of their own. Yet how many of us acknowledge street people as fellow human beings with needs no different from ours, simply without the means to fulfill them? Instead, how often do we avert our eyes when we pass them by and pretend they do not exist?

In an attempt to find out what it would take to see homeless people as being no different from ourselves, Rev. James Morton, the dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, began an experiment. Morton designed what he called the plunge: an act of diving into unknown waters and getting completely whacked and disorientated so you can orientate yourself in a new way. And he applied this to the street by sending his ministers out without any money, no place to live, no identification, just like the people they were serving. The first thing they did, quite naturally, was to go to the churches and ask for help, but, very few would help them.

From here developed the idea of street retreats: living on the street for a few days as a spiritual practice, intended to bring people into the very midst of society’s neediest, and by doing so to seek a place of inclusivity.

Bernie Glassman, founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, talked to us for our book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You and the World. He said that homelessness that exists in our society is due to treating people as throwaways, and it will only end when we stop seeing them as garbage. Street retreats are where we live and practice meditation on the streets, begging and sleeping rough just as any homeless person would. We meet for meditation periods together and then disperse to do what we have to in order to survive, such as finding food to eat and boxes to sleep on.

Bernie went on to say that he included meditation as he wanted to show that meditation is not just sitting on a cushion but reaches out to every aspect of life. It is a way of bringing us into a state of inclusivity and of not-knowing, and when that happens, the experience of oneness arises. But at the same time we have the experience of not existing. When you are homeless and begging, people walk past you, you are completely ignored, you simply do not exist. When you have been so ignored, it is impossible to do that to another person. You can no longer look away from anybody or anything.

Ellen Burstyn had this experience of being ignored when she did a street retreat and lived on the street with the homeless. She shares her experience in our book: I did the street retreat because I was so afraid of it. I could physically feel how much fear I had about being away from my comfort zone, my bed, and especially not having any identity. The whole idea of begging was terrifying. The first time I did it, I had to a cross a street to a restaurant with tables outside. Two women were eating there and I decided to approach them. As I walked toward them, I felt like I was crossing over some line that I had consciously never known was there. I was purposefully stepping through my ego to experience what was on the other side. I approached the women and simply asked, “Excuse me, but I need a dollar for the subway. Could either of you spare a dollar?” The woman closest to me reached into her pocket and handed me a dollar without taking her eyes off her companion’s face. I said “Thank you” and walked away. I felt a strange pride that I had really accomplished something, but then enormous sadness as I realized that neither of the women had looked at me. I had got what I needed, but I had been disregarded, I had not been seen.

This invisibility is one of the biggest difficulties for the homeless. As Grover Gauntt, who is a street retreat leader, says: Just a day can seem like forever as it is so intense. Suddenly, you do not have the money to get home, buy a cup of tea, make a phone call, or do anything. Fear rises as you are without any identity, any way of saying you are who you are. How do you relate to this world now? You have to find a place to sleep; you have to beg for food. And you watch people move their eyes to avoid seeing you. When we don’t have the experience of something, then we tend to negate or categorize it. Homeless people get categorized as being alcoholics, drug addicts, there to rip you off, or just plain crazy. But every homeless person has a story and a history, just like we do. Before I first took the plunge, I was fearful of confrontation, but I learned that confrontation is just disguised fear. I rarely pass a homeless person now without saying a few words and acknowledging him as a human being. Taking the plunge into the unknown is an expansion into a different way of seeing, an acceptance of all states of being beyond one’s own limitations.

Doing anything outside of our experience is a plunge, especially stepping into places that we resist or are fearful of. The added ingredient of meditation to the street retreats was to deepen the experience of inclusivity, that we are all a part of each other, whether we are homeless or not. Such retreats, now held in many cities across the country, confront our fear and in so doing embrace our shared humanity.

Do you have stories of when you were able to step out of your comfort zone? Do comment below.

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Ed and Deb Shapiro

You can learn more in our book, Be The Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors Marianne Williamson, Jane Fonda, Ram Dass, Byron Katie and others. Our 3 meditation CD’s: Metta—Loving kindness and Forgiveness; Samadhi–Breath Awareness and Insight; and Yoga Nidra–Inner Conscious Relaxation, are available at: EdandDebShapiro.com

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23 comments

+ add your own
1:17PM PST on Dec 2, 2012

Take a moment or two to sit with a street person. I never ask why they are there I just talk to them 'in the moment'. Some of the conversations have been eye opening.

9:42AM PST on Dec 2, 2012

Thank you for sharing!

6:17AM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

Thanks for the article.

9:04PM PDT on Sep 19, 2009

I have heard so many people ask why do we support other nations when there are so many here in The U.S. who are homeless. I say we need to find ways to support (or better yet end homelessness) in Every Country. I have ,Myself ,been Homeless . I have also visited Countries where many are homeless or so Impoverished, they are nearly homeless.Governments everywhere need to stop supporting leglislation that help big business (unless that legislation also supports the average person as well) . We also need to demand (even through rallies ) that Government do more to support families and individuals) not monetarily ,but in education and other ways .Churches need to do a better job as you have stated, in many cases they won't help the poor. They preach God, but would God approve of their refusal to help the poor?

1:37PM PDT on Aug 30, 2009

I've been thinking about this story since I read it the first day it posted. It just boggles my mind that we send so much money overseas to support a ridiculous war effort when people at home are starving and living on the street.

I try and speak to people asking for money but sometimes feel so overwhelmed by the amount of people in need. I'm ashamed to question their sincerity.... but I live in a city where people also make a business of not working because they can make more money panhandling on the street. It's sometimes hard to sort out who is really in need and who isn't.

I get approached regularly for money from panhandlers / homeless people, to sign petitions or give money to join organizations such as Greenpeace or the ACLU. I have my own financial issues and just can't give to everyone that approaches me.

I read a magazine article once that the author also felt overwhelmed by the need and gave a donation to the first person that asked once a month. Or if I have money handy in a pocket I will give it to someone. There was an elderly couple who got robbed when the man opened his wallet to give money to a kid who asked. The elderly woman chased the kid through the parking lot! The community banded together and collected the $200 stolen from the couple.

But I digress...... so many issues around this subject!

10:34AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

Oh, and my last post wasn't a solicitation of kudos. I always keep random acts of kindness my secret. I posted in hopes of encouraging others into positive action. It really doesn't take much. Often just eye contact & a warm smile. God bless you all!

10:29AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

When I was released from the hospital, I had nothing. I did still have a roof over my head. I went from working two full time jobs, to losing my van & susiding on $115/mo. I was severely crippled, physically & mentally. One day, a homeless man knocked on my door, asking to use my phone. I didn't have one, but I did offer him some coffee. I call him my angel. I then offered him some chili, that I had just made. While we sat on the porch, eating, it had occurred that he was about my height (I had lost 50lbs while in my coma). I excused myself & gathered up various clothing that no longer fit, and a few pairs of shoes & socks. Good thing I wear men's clothing. He was ecstatic. Sated & with a new wardrobe, he bade farewell, saying that he'd never forget me. I've never forgotten him. He reminded me that even though penniless and disabled, I had much to give thanks for.

After that, whenever I took the bus downtown, I made it a point of having maybe an extra pair of gloves, scarves, or a jacket to hand out. I did so by sitting with my 'target' and talking to them... with eye contact, and always saying that I am repaying a kindness given to me, in the past.
I donate clothes to a local shelter, and buy my clothes at a local thrift stoe that benefits a veterans organization. Just trying to keep the circle intact.

12:31AM PDT on Aug 21, 2009

i think it's partly distancing yourself. when you live in the bubble of your own little world, it's easy not to think about the outside. i have friends who don't read the paper or watch the news because they don't want to hear about problems. when you join clubs or church groups and you see struggling families in the food line, it's hard to stay uninvolved.

another possibility- how much is enough?
my mom never gave to charities because she was always afraid of what giant expense might be around the corner, although she lived a frugal life.

i think the people who have alot and spend alot truly believe they deserve it because they work hard. i've heard celebrities point out how hard they work, as if anyone deserves 10 million dollars for six months of work. the janitor working all day, every day doesn't work just as hard? doesn't he deserve just as much? celebrities are just lucky enough to have talent in a field that pays so much. people act like their intelligence, resourcefulness, talents, etc. are something anyone could attain if they just tried hard enough. the minute you realize that you are fortunate to be born with marketable qualities, and that you don't deserve any more than any other person, your priorities change.

finally, it's good that we give to other countries. suffering has no borders. i think the reason we do give to third world countries when we have our own homeless is because we assume our needy have options that don't exist in other coun

12:28AM PDT on Aug 21, 2009

i think it's partly distancing yourself. when you live in the bubble of your own little world, it's easy not to think about the outside. i have friends who don't read the paper or watch the news because they don't want to hear about problems. when you join clubs or church groups and you see struggling families in the food line, it's hard to stay uninvolved.

another possibility- how much is enough?
my mom never gave to charities because she was always afraid of what giant expense might be around the corner, although she lived a frugal life.

i think the people who have alot and spend alot truly believe they deserve it because they work hard. i've heard celebrities point out how hard they work, as if anyone deserves 10 million dollars for six months of work. the janitor working all day, every day doesn't work just as hard? doesn't he deserve just as much? celebrities are just lucky enough to have talent in a field that pays so much. people act like their intelligence, resourcefulness, talents, etc. are something anyone could attain if they just tried hard enough. the minute you realize that you are fortunate to be born with marketable qualities, and that you don't deserve any more than any other person, your priorities change.

finally, it's good that we give to other countries. suffering has no borders. i think the reason we do give to third world countries when we have our own homeless is because we assume our needy have options that don't exist in other co

7:54PM PDT on Aug 20, 2009

gosh I have read all your comments and I am blown away by the heartfelt stories and amazed by how many people have experienced homelessness. I am particularly touched by this point,"why are there so many people who are homeless in the US when we give so much to other countries. I would add why are ther so many people who have more than they could ever dream and need and allow others to go starving?

Does anyone know why?

Peace,

Ed

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