Several years prior to any formal spiritual practice, I was walking through New York City’s East Village one night during a particularly cold March rain. I was a starving artist on my way home from an evening of waiting tables, and I was experiencing great difficulty in my life. I was exhausted and on edge about my lack of money, I was dealing with a relationship that was beginning to sour, and, as a thin-skinned Californian, I was growing weary of New York’s weather. Depression and darkness had begun to settle in and I remember thinking how all I was interested in doing was hanging on to anything that could stabilize this increasingly chaotic life of mine.
Suddenly, the sight of a guy walking toward me with wide eyes immediately focused my mind.
“I’m young, homeless, and in need of spare change so I can get more crack. Got any extra cash?” he asked me with a growing smile. At least he was clear about his needs, I thought silently. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a buck.
“What’s it like?” I asked, giving him the bill. “Being young, homeless and addicted to crack, I mean.”
As soon as I’d asked the question I wanted to scoop my words out of the air and take them back. What was I thinking? Yes, I was curious, but asking like this was bad form. My attempt at play in the middle of the awkwardness must have sounded rude. Anyway, there it was. A big question, ready for the two of us to deal with in the middle of the cold, wet night.
“Some of us are young, but we’re all homeless,” he said with a slow-moving mouth made taut by the cold. “…and we’re also all addicted to something.” He then thanked me and walked away, shoulders high, chin to chest with his fists buried deeply into the pockets of his bomber jacket.
I let his words in and then hurried toward my apartment with questions flooding my head. Was his “all homeless, all addicted” point just sloppy commentary, or did he actually offer up something profound? My impulse to help him seemed appropriate, but by assisting his attempts to escape his pain I also might have just helped him diminish an opportunity for deepening his consciousness. How could I tell which path was right: give a buck, perpetuate his crack habit, or refuse to give cash, force him to deal with his discomfort, and maybe get punched in the process? Or worse? And what of his parting comment about all of us being homeless and addicted? My walk home continued, with both my teeth and my brain chattering.
Weary, drenched and shivering, I went into my apartment, slapped the lock shut and quickly made for the shower. Afterwards, I dried, put myself into my sweats and wool socks, and then made tea. How lucky to have a home, I thought, starting to cozy up alone on my couch, sipping liquid peppermint. As my mind stilled bit by bit, I noticed a feeling of safety expanding within me like a warm internal glow.
But after only a few moments of this felt sense of security, I saw that I couldn’t escape the truth of the crack-guy’s comment about all of us being homeless. I knew that I could very easily be in his situation. The fact that I had a degree, a job, an apartment, and no addictions to speak of didn’t make me immune from a life on the streets. If I allowed the truth of my situation in, I knew that I was one paycheck away from financial ruin. If I lost my job I really had nowhere to turn. I had no safety net. Scratching just beneath the surface of my cozy experience I could see that I was as alone as I’d ever been. I was a living disconnection that went through a daily grind in order to bring home his vegetarian bacon. Slowly, as I continued to sip my tea, I could see that I was addicted to a false sense of solitude. I was also addicted to a false sense of purpose. The whole, romantic, I’m-willing-to-suffer-for-my-art way of meeting the world was nothing more than an addiction that helped me avoid facing the fact that neither my acting career, nor my life, was going anywhere. I started to laugh a little, pondering the implications of actually being addicted to a false sense of home and a false sense of self. From the Really Big View, I was homeless. From the Really Big View, I was addicted to the really small view that I actually had a home.
“A deeper practice arises when there is no abiding mind,” my Zen teacher told me years later. I had no idea what he was talking about, but this was normal. I was a Zen mess on even my best days in my teacher’s company, never understanding more than half of what he said. Still, there was something about the whole “no abiding” idea that confused me beautifully, reminding me of the same fascinating disjointedness I experienced when I encountered the crack-guy all those years before. Just like that cold night on the street, I was now being reminded that I needed to uncover a certain kind of divine homelessness if I wanted to go deeper in my practice. I needed to get comfortable with the idea that there is “no abode” that could ever shelter me from the trials and tribulations of normal life. At least that was my interpretation.
I followed my teacher’s advice and worked to free myself of all forms of shelter only to watch my practice indeed evolve. It wasn’t a necessarily comfortable process since I was always seeing how I craved security, and shelter, from all the threatening things that life threw at me. The more that stillness and quietude infused my life, the more I realized that my mind was addicted to trying to stay secure by staying in control. Of everything and every one. The more that this view revealed itself, the more I started seeing that complete and total solace wasn’t some place, or some philosophy that could be used as refuge. Even Buddhism’s three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha pointed out that there could be no hiding from any aspect of life’s offering. It appeared that I was going to have to dig deeper if all of these hours on the meditation cushion were going to amount to anything other than sore knees and general crankiness.
I could see that I had been given an invitation to commit more fully to practice. My task was to decide if I was willing to accept the invite. Could I surrender everything that I’d ever known in order to live closer to some version of truth that defied logic and words? Could I allow the shelter and safety of an abiding mind fall away in order to make room for something unknown and unknowable? Was I willing to let go of the familiar in order to let what was totally unfamiliar dance through me? Would the Universe, the One-Song, support me? Would I end up alone, or All-One? Was there even a difference? With a great deal of trepidation and fear, I decided to accept the invitation, not because I wanted to, but because there didn’t feel like there was another choice.
These days, when I’m not chasing my kids around, I find myself sitting in front of people extending this very same invitation of surrender on a regular basis. That crack-guy’s words, as well as his suffering, are never very far from what’s at the core of any teaching I ever offer. What’s more, I’m continually reminded that my job as the Dharma dude is not to offer platitudes or give instructions on how to feel better. Rather my job is to remind people that so often we are all slightly different versions of the crack-guy; just like him, caught by our suffering. I’m guessing that most people in our sangha are not suffering from addictions to crack, but all of us, regardless of our station in life, cling to things in order to avoid facing the offering of enlightenment. Keeping the heat of spiritual practice focused directly at this avoidance is the work of any of us on the path. Getting comfortable with the pain, the uncertainty, the chaos, as well as the joy and the majesty of this life, all at once, is a challenge. But the more we dedicate our lives to living in this way, the more we see that this effort is something that we owe to the broader sangha of humanity.
I usually make at least some tangential reference to this precious teaching in each Dharma talk that I give. I have my exchange with the crack-guy and his offering to thank for its central point in my offerings. I often silently express my gratitude to him for his teaching and wonder about what he’s doing now. How is he feeling? Does his smile still radiate through his pain? Did he see through his addiction to crack? Did he substitute it for something else? Is he still alive? If not, how did he die?
Those that sit with me at Infinite Smile know how often I yammer on about how we are all, ultimately, meeting everything as Uncertain Grace. As an embodiment of this Uncertain Grace, we are not only free of our sense of home but we also find ourselves to be free of any addiction to anything, even a sense of safety. This isn’t always received well, especially in suburban San Francisco, where Priuses glide and half-caf, no foam lattes fuel lives. People everywhere like their stuff, and the ‘burbs cultivate stuff appreciation so much of the time. Stuff supports lifestyles and lifestyles support identities. And identities are the masks that egos decorate in order to lay claim to selfhood. With this in mind, I find again and again that suffering is potent no matter where or how we live. While it might appear to those viewing my sangha that none of its members has anything to complain about, I would propose that this attitude suggests another kind of attachment, or abiding; one that can’t see the crack-guy’s suffering in a wealthy suburban housewife.
Knowing that you are me and us is them, forces an engaged life of generosity where freedom meets the world through us as a timeless gift that we get to express and share. That gift looks just like what is reading these words right now, and its offering repeatedly reminds its recipients that just like enlightenment, suffering shines its light equally. The intensity and the variations may differ, but the light is the same. Becoming intimate with this notion as well as our addictions, whether we’re on the street, in a gilded cage, or somewhere in between points us to a home that we never expect to find.