Choosing to be a helper to serve humanity usually calls us to take the road less travelled. Such a journey demands the responsibility to engage in personal inner development. That pursuit, in turn, requires a continuing willingness to learn and grow, assisted at interludes by wiser and more experienced teachers and healers. In my journey I have encountered some of these individuals through studying their books, watching interviews and being in their presence at workshops and related events.
Before pursuing a conscious seven-year journey of healing and renewal some years ago – to shift from a focus on human suffering and struggle to a focus on healing processes and transformation – I already had experienced some of the most authentic spiritual teachers whom I ever would meet, most of them no longer walking among us. Special experiences with these Indigenous elders usually happened unexpectedly, in their communities or at traditional gatherings.
Such spiritually gifted individuals often had resisted, or were unaware of, the spiritual responsibilities given to them, until a crisis awakened them later in life to do whatever was essential to carry the mantle placed on their shoulders. They recognized that the true calling required humility and personal sacrifice. Furthermore, the role must never be reduced to the pursuit of monetary and celebrity status.
Of course, as one Indigenous friend once cautioned, there also are the “shake-and-bake shamans,” in other words, spiritual charlatans who are neither humble nor authentic. Sadly, those misguided personalities exist in every culture and have cheapened the higher, original intention of the `New Age,” otherwise known as the `human potential movement’ or `consciousness movement.’
Fifteen years ago or more, however, I recognized one human truth – healers and teachers are humanly imperfect too. Being authentically spiritual, indeed, for anyone who is on a path of deeper understanding, means that we never can assume that we have arrived, even at life’s end. More and more, the concept of reincarnation makes sense to me, because it is not humanly possible to figure out the complexity of fully developed spiritual awareness within a single lifetime.
Therefore, in reading life histories of the more renown `gurus’ in the consciousness movement, I never place them on a pedestal. Recalling a passage by one particular celebrity `guru,’ the memory stays with me because I was not at all impressed by what she declared. Apparently, she felt that she had reached a moment in her life where she no longer could find wise teachers to enhance her growth – in reference, it seems, to fellow gurus renown through the popular media and the conference/retreat circuits.
However, I found her assertion not only arrogant, yet also profoundly missing what, to me, ought to be an incredibly obvious phenomenon – spiritual teachers are among us everywhere in unexpected places.
To recognize them, we simply need to have the humility, the grace, the openness of heart, and awaken an inquisitive mind and all of our senses, to pay attention to the world around us, living in the moment. Doing so offers a bounty of rewards in regard to the beauty and courage of the human soul right in front of our eyes, in daily life.
My intentional encounters among the homeless are one example. By “intentional,” I mean the chosen moments when I consciously stop and speak to a homeless person, look him or her in the eye, engage in a bit of a conversation without violating privacy, in a way that seems to be mutually beneficial.
Particular moments of poverty, feeling abandoned, and having to resort to my own steadily dwindling material resources, have taught me through rude and heart-breaking awareness how sensitive individuals can be pushed toward the tipping point, mentally and emotionally, when threatened by the loss of basic material security – to end up on the street.
Since the 2008 financial meltdown, news stories tell us how increasing numbers of people have lost their jobs and their homes. Now, the folks living on the street, some living out of a car with their remaining worldly goods, also include well-educated, experienced professionals, in North American cities. Poverty can crush anyone, as can environmental disasters, which we now witness too.
Consequently, humility and gratitude are what I feel, as in: “There but for the grace of God go I,” when I contrast my situation in life with those individuals who have been less fortunate. No human is meant to be alone, regardless of how much resilience and inner strength a person can muster. The difference between preserving any dignity versus losing the capability of self-care, and the will to live, resides in the presence or absence of loving kindness and compassion received from fellow human beings.
The less obvious teachings from the homeless, to heed by the rest of us, become visible when we take the time to make a human connection, regardless how fleeting. Specific individuals have remained in my consciousness because of their dignity and grace expressed even through a few short moments and, on one unforgettable occasion, their kindness to me.
To illustrate, a few years ago I waited for a bus in a Toronto bus shelter already occupied by a homeless man, who was curled up in one corner. Even so, he still was endowed with sufficient pride to be reasonably well-groomed. His aura deeply touched me. I asked him whether I could help him in some way, offering bus fare. With genuine courtesy, he replied that he had enough money until tomorrow, and thanks but no thanks.
Something about his presence suggested that he formerly could have been a functioning professional person. I also sensed the possibility that he had come to, and tumbled over, the tipping point. In other words, an experience or accumulation of experiences had pushed him to the breaking point. He struck me as a gentle person who no longer could negotiate the ridiculous pressures to which so many people are subjected in our deeply dysfunctional globalized society, a society in need of profound systemic healing.
I could relate a number of stories about such encounters that provoke spiritual outrage within me, that this reality exists at all in the 21st century. Yes, the homeless have been among us for thousands of years. But, today, I would argue it is willful negligence and greed that perpetuates it. Human decency now calls us to challenge whatever forces around us influence how we, collectively and individually – and often unconsciously – are reducing our own humanity.
In my second anecdote, one day while still living in Toronto, my back went into spasm from a chronic injury, and I collapsed on the sidewalk, in a neighbourhood inhabited by the very affluent and the very poor. Barely able to raise my head, and in agony, I could hear the click of various sets of high heels and men’s shoes pass me by.
Then, two sets of strong arms gently lifted me to my feet, although I remained doubled over, unable to stand erect. As I slowly turned my head, I saw that my compassionate helpers were street people. They stayed with me through the next while, helping me get across the street and also climb up the steps of a streetcar, homeward bound.
What I understood, poignantly, was that how these street folks survive at all is through the vital gift of compassion that they bequeath to each other. Again, the poor and the homeless can teach us so much about how to develop the human heart, and what really matters in being alive.
I never have believed that any one person is any better than any other person, on the basis of roles of authority, privilege, money, education, and other common measurements of status that, frankly, ring hollow. For none of these measurements have anything to do with how effectively a person is exercising higher, spiritual qualities to create a better quality of life for the larger good and planetary well-being.
So I say, bring on the “Occupy movement.” Let us come together and welcome folks from all walks of life and diverse cultures, who recognize the richness of gathering good minds and caring hearts. Functioning from love and reconciliation rather than from fear and violence are the approaches required to create a new humanity, and work together in peace to heal an environmentally wounded planet.
Thousands of caring members of the human family are accomplishing amazing feats in the face of many types of adversity around the world. To be inspired, and see perspectives not commonly found elsewhere, I invite you to browse my blog posts through the past year. Most particularly, see “Blessed Unrest Heralds an Unnamed Global Movement.”
But, first, on this weekend of mourning, I want to acknowledge the unspeakable killing of 20 young children and seven teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. Let us send our prayers for healing to the families and community. Let us also embark on seriously examination of the root causes of the widening net of mental illnesses, and pray that America’s deeply embedded paranoia and obsession with guns can transform and fade out.