Making Friends With Fear

What is your greatest fear? Ed’s mother died when he was only 5 days old. How does a child grow up without the fear of losing loved ones? Deb had an abusive father. How does she trust men to not be abusive?

It’s not unusual to live with a deep fear that a worst-case scenario, such as becoming homeless, could happen to us. Many people find themselves living 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? Recently, Ed was talking with a street person who turned out to be the son of an old friend. But instead, how often do we avert our eyes when we go by, pretending they don’t exist?

In an attempt to find out what it would take to see homeless people as being no different from himself, Rev. James Morton, the dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, began an experiment. As Zen teacher Grover Gauntt told us:

“He 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.”

From here developed the idea of street retreats: purposefully living on the street for a few days to bring participants into the very midst of society’s neediest, and by doing so to seek a sense of inclusivity. Bernie Glassman, founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, told us:

“Street retreats are where we live and practice meditation on the streets, begging and sleeping rough just as any homeless person would. I included meditation, as I wanted to show that meditation is not just sitting on a cushion but reaches every aspect of life. It’s 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’re homeless and begging, people walk past you, you’re completely ignored, you simply don’t exist. When you’ve been so ignored, it becomes impossible to do the same to another person, you can no longer look away from anybody or anything.”

We all dread stepping out of our comfort zone, of what is familiar and known. But when we do, we can discover enormous reserves of strength within ourselves, as Oscar winning actress Ellen Burstyn told us she did.

“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, “ said Ellen in our book. “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 as I walked toward them I felt like I was crossing over a 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’d got what I needed, but I’d been disregarded and unseen.”

This invisibility is one of the biggest difficulties for the homeless. As Grover Gauntt, who is a street retreat leader, says:

“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 or her as a human being.”

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 enables us to step beyond our boundaries and deepens the experience of inclusivity, that we are all a part of our shared humanity. Kiri Westby, a contributor to our Be The Change Meditate e-Conference, experienced this when she ran a shelter in Nepal for trafficked girls. “I needed to meditate before I could even leave my room in the morning. It gave me the strength to recognize that suffering is the human experience that we all have in one form or another, and not to feel overwhelmed by it, not to lose my balance. Without that meditation, without that space each morning, I would have been too filled with the suffering; I would have been paralyzed by it.”

How Fear Makes You Sick
Confronting Childhood Fears
8 Tips for Feeling Happier During an Unhappy Time


Be The Change Meditate e-Conference will uplift and inspire you. It includes Marianne Williamson, Congressman Tim Ryan, author of Mindful Nation, Sharon Salzberg, Gabby Bernstein, Gangaji, Joan Borysenko, Seane Corn, neuroscientist Richie Davidson who proves how meditation affects the brain, and us, Ed and Deb Shapiro, authors of the conference companion book, BE THE CHANGE: How Meditation Can Transform You and The World. Expect your life to never be the same again! Register now and be ready for lift-off March 4-8.

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Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

So we're protected

Charlotte A.
Charlotte A5 years ago

I've always looked at it like "There for the Grace of God go I". Terrible to be without a home, scary indeed.

Mary B.
Mary B5 years ago

Anne M. your posts are nearly always combative in nature. You do not add anything of valueable experience that we might learn from, just a lot of trashing the info the writers of these articles offer, and it's always the spiritual type people, yet you claim to be a Christian? Your tone is the same as any ill mannered fundamentalist whether they be religious or athiest.
Your agenda seems to be ridicule and insult to deliberatly stir conflict.No one has to tolorate your ugly behavior so why don't you leave because we are not interested in being abused.

Ed And Deb Shapiro

Anne M - of course fear is part of life that's fear 101 - anyone & everyone knows that - so what are you going on about? Don't understand what you are trying to say? Explain please.
May all beings be happy & free from suffering!
Treasure yourself,

Lydia Weissmuller Price

I always share what I have with the homeless. Some of them may be scamming you, but it is always better to err on the side of virtue than hardheartedness. When I go to the city, I take 2 sandwiches so I have one to share. I have given as much as $20.00 to street persons when my heart directed me. One time I was gratified to see the same guy an hour later leaving a store with a bag of groceries purchased with that money. Another man bought a weekly transportation card so that he could ride the trains all night because it was cold. I give change to alcoholics...who am I to judge their addictions and allow them to die in an alley from DT's? Until someone scoops them from the streets and provides them with warm shelter, food, detox, and a job, I will continue to help them as much as possible. I follow the Lord my God.

Nimue Pendragon

Stepping outside the zone is good, makes you appreciate what you have.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran5 years ago

There are professional beggars. one even wrote in to the paper to ask why he should work when he makes more begging!

Marquis C.
Marquis C5 years ago

Interesting. I feel sometimes that quite a bit of homeless people just screw you over. The other night, a guy approached us to my boyfriend and I needing food for his granddaughter since his daughter dumped her kid on him last minute. We went to the Wal mart to find him and we found out he played us when we were trying to be nice and help him out.

Honestly, it's very hard listening to people out there who are struggling to see if what they are saying is true or a story to get more money out of you as they can be very clever.

Ron B.
Ron B5 years ago

I don't know...with a friend like that, who needs enemies? I've tried this sort of thing before, but at my age I now prefer to stay mostly within my own comfort zone. Life's too short to deliberately make yourself uncomfortable. Whatever works for you personally.

John B.
John B5 years ago

Thank you for sharing this very thoughtful article.