A Ticket Home: Meditations on Homelessness

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What is a mindful approach to homelessness? Perhaps this story can be a meditation on the subject.

Once when I was 21, I saw a guy on the side of the freeway off-ramp with a cardboard sign that said he was stranded and hungry. My heart broke. He looked like a nice guy who just needed a break.


Discovering Darrin

Meditation

I turned the car around and picked him up. I bought him lunch. As we ate together, he told me that his name was Darren. He told me bits about his life, that he said he lived in San Diego, worked construction, and had recently traveled to Nebraska to attend his mother's funeral. He said that he had a wife and two kids at home but had become stranded in Utah and couldn't get back home to keep working. Without work he couldn't get home and all he needed was money for a bus ticket.


Just a week before, I had executed a brilliant plan to quit my lame desk job, take out a loan from, and travel to Europe to for 5 weeks to be my girlfriend. I didn't have much money, most of what I did have was borrowed, but my heart ached that I had the means to travel to be with the one I loved and he didn't.


So, with my travel plans imminent, pressing preparations looming, and two thousand dollars of borrowed money in my pocket, I did what any naïve 21 year-old, eager to solve the problems of the universe would do: I bought Darren a bus ticket home. I even bought him a ticket to the movies next door to the Greyhound station so he could kill some time while he was waiting the three hours for his bus to leave. I drove away from the bus station feeling great, like I'd really done something to make the world a better place and that I’d really helped someone.


Will Work for Food: Darren Double Take


I went to Europe, had an enchanting five weeks in Austria and Germany, and came back jobless and in debt but in love and happy to be alive.

I immediately began an all-out assault on the job market, desperate to join the ranks of that elite class of society known as “The Employed.” While driving around looking for anyone reckless enough to hire such an unfledged bohemian, I came off the same freeway off-ramp and to my great surprise, saw Darren standing there—same dude, different sign. And though I felt I might regret it, I did it anyway.


I turned around, picked him up (again) and took him to lunch (again). Darren didn't seem to remember me. I told him that I was the kid who bought him the ticket to San Diego about six weeks earlier and I didn't mind telling him that I was a little pissed off that he was still stranded in Utah when I had paid his way home. I asked him why he didn't go to San Diego. He said he'd lost his bus ticket while at the movies. I told him that I felt that he'd taken advantage of me. He just sort of shrugged and went about eating his Big Mac. We went our separate ways.


Lessons Learned

In the years that followed, I'd see Darren now and again. His hair would be longer and he'd grown a beard. Every time that I saw him, he looked older. Time on the street was certainly not being kind to him.

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Still, I couldn't judge Darren too harshly. Despite the fact that he took advantage of me, I couldn't help but worry about him, this guy I didn't know. The more I thought about it, Darren didn't seem all the way right in his mind, you know? How could someone who probably needed institutional help be out there at the mercy of the streets?


For me, Darren put a real face on the entire blight homelessness. He made something huge and abstract very small and personal to me. And I guess that was the deeper realization for this naïve kid who thought he could somehow fix the world's problems with a little pocket money: that homelessness is bigger than buying someone a Big Mac and or even springing for a Greyhound ticket for somebody.


Looking back, I have also learned that it's not bad to try. Even if the results are different than what you'd hoped for. I learned that the answer isn't to stop trying, but to try in better ways. How could I not try when Darren in out there somewhere?


More than 20 years later, even though I think it's wisest to donate time or money to the shelter, I still can't resist giving a few coins to someone down on their luck. And though I wouldn't do it again, I don't regret buying Darren a Greyhound ticket to San Diego.


Yes, I hope Darren gets what he deserves: happiness, a warm meal, and the chance to be with the people he loves.


I'm not the less for trying. Nor am I a saint. Who knows, someday if I'm down and out, maybe some guy named Darren will buy be a Big Mac and a ticket back home.


Compassion for The World Starts Within

I believe the entrance into compassion for the outside world is to first develop a ready and familiar compassion for Self. Yoga is the best way I know to honor and nurture all aspects of Self. It may seem oblique, but in this light, coming to yoga practice or practicing yoga on your own is a powerful preliminary to helping solve the world's problems. It doesn't preclude us from lifting a finger in other ways, it just helps us lift said finger from the place of a clear mind, strong body, and a pure heart.


Scott


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A Moveable Feast

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.”

~Earnest Hemmingway. Excerpt from A Movable Feast

New York Yoga.jpg

In Paris, we rented a very small and completely perfect half-room apartment on the third floor. To call it a one-room apartment would be to grossly exaggerate its scale. Our only window looked out onto a common space, a sort of chimney of light that allowed each apartment both the pleasure of natural night and the pleasure of being a voyeur into the lives of our neighbors. For breakfast we ate warm omelets with fresh melted goat cheese that Seneca cooked on the hot plate. Seneca said the cheese was too strong and tasted like a sheep’s utter. I loved the strong cheese and we both swooned over a small salad of fresh arugula and the freshest tomatoes and strawberries so flavorful that it made me feel like I’d never before eaten something called a strawberry.

Photo by David Newkirk

Photo by David Newkirk

After breakfast we left the apartment and descended the old but sturdy stairs down the narrow, winding staircase and made another day of walking the streets of Paris. Walking down our street I again felt like a voyeur looking into the lives of the people around me, like those sitting outside in the small seats of the Café Italien on the corner that served fresh-squeezed orange juice and delicious smooth coffee by the owner who was as warm as her coffee one day and as cold as her orange juice the next. Sitting in his usual seat was the middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and neat moustache who seemed not to mind to run the errands on his scooter, nor mind being readily criticized by the other regulars of whom there seemed to be the same three or four, always with their commentary of the goings on in their petite corner of the world. We walked along the Rue Du Pont Aux Choux to Rue Vieille Du Temple, the small road which seemed to my navigational senses a main artery into the colorful quarter of the Marais and 3eme Arrondissement with its small, bright shops, historic buildings and boulangeries. This road led us directly to the Rue Des Rosiers, the small jewel of a street, like a vein of gold in the rough, that was home to the both the orthodox Jews and the gays, a street that served the finest falafel from boisterous Israelis, and where you can find the tidy shop of the most master crêpe-maker I believe I will ever know. 

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Later that day as we left the Musée d’Orsay, the canvas of our mind painted by the colors of Cézanne, Monet, Van Gough, and Renoir, we walked down the narrow streets searching for the artisan pâtisserie and some mineral water. Looking around, the thought entered me that people are just people wherever you go. Whether in Paris or anywhere else, people need to belong. We all need to be loved. We all need to find purpose and beauty in the world whether that is through art, music, architecture, numbers, teaching, children, nature, or all of it. And looking around at this city showed me the miracles that people can perform when they believe in something. Everywhere I turned, I saw a spirit of strength and determination and capacity for beauty and meaning. I saw it in their architecture, their cathedrals and palaces and their houses and most poignantly by simply watching them live out another day in their regular lives. I saw it in the way they decorated their little shops and showed great care about their cafés and restaurants, the prim waiter with his pressed shirt and manicured mustache and his full-length apron, standing at elegant attention hoping to show off his mastery of service because that was his art, to impeccably serve un café and croissant and make correct change and whisk you away when you were finished with a polite “Merci. Bonjour!” The next evening we sat in the small wooden pews of Nôtre Dame at the free organ concert. Here, I felt the beauty and strength of the human spirit, past and present, like a weight in my heart and lump in my throat as the deep pedal tones of that organ shook that holy palace at its foundation and opened my eyes perhaps for the first time to the height of the ceiling and light of the stained glass windows, a peach sunset at our backs making color dance upon the giant grey stones. I felt the strength of those rough hands that built that edifice of solid rock hundreds of years ago which stands in the form of a giant cross to remind us all what is directly in the center of vertical and horizontal, that magical place between what is spiritual and what is temporal, that place that is now. And whether on the yoga mat or at Nôtre Dame, presence allows us the same vision into the divine part that is within all of us.

Whether it’s the tourist who snaps a photo of the Mona Lisa on their phone and rushes off to something else hoping somehow to take it now and maybe look at it some other time, or it’s the local who never takes the time to get up into the mountains because there will be plenty of time later, it all speaks to the same thing: presence. It’s about this moment which if lived fully might express itself into something that could last into centuries or if wasted by living too much in the future or past never really happens. Without presence, we will never have our movable feast, we will never taste the cheese, see the stained glass, or feel the beauty of anything.

I invite you to come to yoga this week and practice presence. I invite you to move about your daily life with presence and experience your own movable feast. 

 

It's Been a Year

Scott & Charity

It's been a year . . .

Hey everyone. Today is the one-year anniversary of my sister Charity's death. She died one year ago today,  unexpectedly, in a motorcycle accident. Above is a picture of us in Central Park, on our way to my yoga retreat in Spain last year. It was taken about two months before she died. Who knew that a year later I'd be living in NYC and visiting Central Park regularly?

My heart is heavy and my throat is thick today thinking of her. But mostly I'm grateful for the awareness that the experience of her death has given me, the awareness of life's beauty and fragility.

It's easy to get rubbed wrong by the dense throngs of people in NYC, out in mass, surging to get to work. Often during the morning commute, people's coffee hasn't kicked in and many people left their goodwill towards others at home.

But I've been doing an experiment, one which has everything to do with remembering Charity. Whenever I find myself getting a little frustrated about all the people in the subway or miffed at some people's rudeness, I start to go out of my way to look at people in the face, the big tough agro dude, Rude Guy, the strung out homeless person, and the struggling single mom, and imagine each person as a brand new baby, held in the arms of their mother, and I remember that the strung out homeless person was once the most important thing in the Universe to that mama. I remember that every single person has needs, fears, loves, and hopes. I remember that every single person, sometime or other, will face death. And I remember that every single person has the capacity to reach their highest self. This changes my attitude from bugged to love.

Charity's death reminds me that love matters most. The legacy that Charity left behind was her unparalleled generosity, unyielding loyalty, and unabashed love for those around her.

May we see everyone we encounter, both the grouchy and the grateful, through the lens of love and light. And because we never know when our number will come up, go out and live the life you've always wanted to live. Let everything you do be driven by love and no matter what happens, you will have no regrets.

Hey, I love you. You're an incredible person.

Scott


"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return."

~Nature Boy written by eden ahbez and sung by Nat King Cole

Lionel Richie is My Guru

Lionel Richie Plaque.jpg

A few years ago, my wife and I were driving home from dinner at my Dad’s house.

During dinner my dad was playing what I felt was some god-awful, nails-on-the-chalkboard, Soft Rock musical desecration on the stereo, Lionel Richie’s Greatest hits or something, I can’t remember, but on the drive home, I couldn’t stop going off about how terrible the music was and why was it that my dad even like that shit in the first place, and bla bla bla.

After several long minutes of spewing my terrible opinions about the music I felt I’d been subjected to, it was suddenly as if the Universe had heard enough of my verbal vomiting and pushed mute on my mouth. With a stroke of sudden self-awareness, I heard myself blathering on about something so inconsequential and for no reason other than to satisfy some habitual downward spiral of negativity. With clarion insight, I checked my complaining mid-sentence and the next words that came out of my mouth changed my life: “I don’t need to have an opinion about that.”

This phrase immediately canonized into my mind as my new mantra. At that moment, I saw both how useless my ranting was as well as the immense energy I was putting into spewing my acrid opinions all over those unfortunate enough to be in my company. God bless my wife, Seneca, who said nothing the entire car ride home but who, I’m sure, was enduring every Soft Rock epithet with thinning patience.

“I don’t need to have an opinion about that. Who cares if my dad listens to Lionel Richie’s Greatest Hits?!” From that moment forward, I decided that Lionel Richie was something I simply didn’t need to waste calories criticizing. And more importantly, I discovered the magical truth that I have the choice to turn my opinions off and that when I do, I feel empowered, unperturbed, and frankly happier. So simple!

Can I suggest that you begin using this mantra immediately for massive and astounding results for not only your attitude toward the world but also the world’s attitude toward you? I’m really not over selling this.

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The people with whom I’ve shared this mantra are loving it. I shared it at a meditation event I cohosted a few weeks before the holidays last year. A few weeks later I received a message from a couple who had attended the event and who said that the mantra, “I don’t need to have an opinion about that,” had single-handedly saved Christmas. Another woman wrote me recently to say that as she was driving to do be interviewed on television, she confronted the nervous knots in her stomach with “I don’t need to have an opinion about that,” and watched her nervousness completely dissolve. These people are not alone. In fact, since I’ve been sharing this mantra, I’ve received such a preponderance of positive feedback from it that I’ve decided this mantra deserves its own post.

Simple mantra. Profound implications. One reason it’s profound is because it provokes us to change our identity from one that defines itself by the mosaic of our ever-changing opinions, to one that identifies with the unchangeable Observer Self.

The credo of the Opinionator is “I critique therefore I am.” But the Opinionator fundamentally misunderstands their identity. Despite the fact that negative opinions are insidious, addictive, and low-vibration, opinions are fundamentally changeable so identifying with opinions and indulging in their fleeting existence sets us up for a massive existential disappointment.

Instead, identifying as an observer, even momentarily by doing something like repeating this mantra, is identifying with something much more real, what sages and spiritual traditions like yoga call the Observer Self, or True Self. The Observer Self is larger than our opinions and has the presence to pause and watch an opinion form and perhaps even choose to let it float on by down the river of consciousness.

This practice of merely observing something rather than reacting to it with an opinion is what Krishnamurti meant when he said, “The highest form of intelligence is observation without assessment.” Practicing this kind of intelligence leads us toward experiencing the state of our true inheritance, that of boundless equanimity, a state that can’t be shaken, not even by the immense weight of Lionel Richie’s Greatest Hits. Boundless equanimity is the natural comportment of our Observer Self and practicing identifying as the Observer Self rather than the Opinionator not only feels better but will also lead us to deeper stages of consciousness that can only come by deep observation.  

As your consciousness develops by practicing and living this mantra, you’ll feel more at one with the world and it will feel more at one with you. You’ll be surprised to see new and old friends materialize around you, friends who maybe shied away from the cantankerous person you used to be. Suddenly you’ll have friends again, and together you can talk about Lionel Richie!

Since Lionel Richie was the guru to bring me to this practice of objectivity, then perhaps I should be dancin’ on the ceiling . . . or place a shrine for him on my alter . . . or at least not be such a hater.  

Truly at the end of the day, I realize that with a little distance and some objectivity about my opinions, I actually really like Lionel Richie’s music. He’s a happenin’ soul artist whose work has endured for decades. My previous opinions were undoubtedly wrapped up myriad other things that had nothing to do with Lionel. Once I could get some breathing distance from my opinions, I could recognize that.

Yes, yes, yes. It is true that we do need some of our opinions. It’s true that we must very deliberately add our conscious opinion and deliberate action to help make a better world for everyone. I would proffer nonetheless that the more we practice the no-opinion mantra about small stuff, especially stuff around our family (man, that’s a difficult practice!), the more we will be able to apply our energies toward those issues that truly deserve an opinion and action. And we will act from a conscious place of response rather than unconscious reaction.

Plus, as practiced Observers, we will gain the compassionate ground to discuss and even debate important issues from our highest nature, with respect for those who have different opinions. And as practiced listeners and not reactionary opinion-spewers, maybe we’ll be able to inspire a similar respect from others.

May we learn first to listen, to our hearts as well as those of others, and then respond to the call to action and not be pulled off our compassionate ground by circumstances, the rash opinions of others, or the incendiary sounds of Soft Rock. Practicing the no-opinion mantra is a powerful practice to that end.

I invite you to start using “I don’t need to have an opinion about that,” today, at least for the small stuff.

And if after all this, you decide that you’re really happy with your tired menagerie of opinions. . . well, I don’t need to have an opinion about that. 

Meditation

What It Means to Be a Man

Photo by Dallas Graham

Photo by Dallas Graham

Yoga means union, in part union of masculine energy and feminine energy. The marriage of these two seemingly different parts creates a whole that is both balanced and interdependent. What better week than the week of Valentine's Day to celebrate this union as we practice understanding the marriage of these energies within us through the practice of yoga. Let me be clear: we all have both masculine and feminine energy regardless of our gender or sexual orientation. This week, I want to talk about the masculine, and though we all have both, some of us exhibit more of the masculine and others more of the feminine. To make it simple, I'm going to label the masculine as "man."

To be a man means to be courageous. Courage literally means full of heart. Therefore, being courageous is being connected to emotions, not divorced from them. Embodying this kind of courage has been a theme in my inter-personal work over the past few years. To be courageous you must know your own heart and that means doing the work, getting in there and finding who you are inside. It means meditation and yoga. It means soul searching, often times on a solo retreat, or a daily meditation or yoga practice, sometimes for an extended period, then coming back to your family, your relationships, your work, passions, and hobbies with that courage, that conviction and that strength of spirit to share that knowledge and stability as a gift to the world.

To be masculine means to be conscious. It means being spacious, holding space for the dynamic and beautiful qualities of the feminine. The quintessential archetype for the feminine is the dancer, the beautiful, expressive, dynamic, and changeable presence. The changeable world-nature, time, and everything that moves-is part of this feminine realm. So, anything that is changeable is an expression of the feminine. And the masculine's job is to be able to stand and witness this beautiful dancing feminine, to look it straight in the eyes and let it dance. Hold space. Going into nature and witnessing that realm of growth, decay, expression, and beauty is a marriage of the masculine presence and the feminine dancer. Of course this consciousness also extends into the realm of holding space for the women in our lives with honor, love, and respect. To be a man means to appreciate and celebrate what it means to be feminine, in the interdependent balance of wholeness.

Men are protectors. But to be a protector a man must be vulnerable. Protecting means going into the darkness to explore the unknown in order to make safe what you love. It means leaving the warmth and light of the fire to explore the sounds coming from the dark woods. Nature is feminine therefore the masculine can help protect it by giving a shit about our air quality and natural resources. Being a man means protecting the feminine. Women are certainly powerful. Let's not forget that the lioness is the fierce hunter of the family. But like a pride of lions, the protective males respond to any abuse of the female. Like lions, men must help protect women.

It's a tragic truth that one out of three women in the world have been, will be, or are currently subject to physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Being a man means creating a line of warriors, of lions, that will stand up to any abuse and say, "not on our watch!" It means being conscious of a problem and saying, "no." It is about marrying the male consciousness and the feminine call to action in order to make a world where all our brothers and sisters can enjoy living safely and nobly. True strength is not about muscle, it's about courageously exploring your heart, it's about consciousness, and it's about being willing to be vulnerable in order to protect nature, women, and all of us by sometimes challenging the status quo. The yoking or yoga of these elements is the true expression of masculinity.

In the name of standing up in opposition to the abuse of women, I invite you is to look at this wonderful cause, One Billion Rising. This cause is dedicated to creating a voice for the abuse of women, raising consciousness, and making a difference in women's lives. Any abuse of any one of us hurts all of us.

Choose this Valentine's Day, the day dedicated to those you love, to evoke the spirit of masculinity and stand up for women.

Check out this beautiful video "Man Prayer," words by Eve Ensler. It made me cry.