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Compassion over Coffee

Today I witnessed an act of bravery, compassion and kindness at a cafe in San Francisco. While I sat conversing with a group of Zumba friends, I could see the tall, thin frame of a young Black man as he was running in and out of traffic while we drank our coffee at Dolores Park Cafe. Later I would see him on the corner, perhaps he was just waiting for the light like many others that were in my periphery? Then I began to notice passersby and customers perking up and watching this young man. Living in a city, one can see many people on the street corner that seem agitated, but we go about our daily lives. Sometimes "the universe" may say "stop, pay attention" and this one one of those moments.

It’s said that we are all sitting on a limitless well of compassion, but we just FORGET about it. Our mindfulness practice is really just the process of remembering - remembering our true nature underlies all the little things we get caught up in. In our “trance” of daily life, we go about our normal patterns: work, exercise, et cetera and we get stuck in the rut of trying to plan, achieve, etc. Lately, I had been noticing a bit of apathy, so I am so thankful I was in the company of people who reminded me that we can always access our compassion and kindness.

The issue of homelessness is complicated for sure, and it’s not even clear this man’s housing situation. But it was pretty clear that he was “going through something.” When we see someone in distress, our empathetic circuitry has already kicked in. Empathy simply just means we can recognize someone’s emotional state, regardless of how we feel about it. In a situation like this, some may be concerned for their own safety, others may be indifferent and “can’t be bothered” and others may act with compassion, a sincere desire to end one’s suffering. A lot depends on what is going for us that day.

Many at my table were concerned with this young man’s welfare. Some took action by looking for a way to call the “community response team” and others tried to make the young man feel welcome by offering him a place to sit and to have a glass of water. I observed all of this happen and I could see that some were having signs of being emotionally touched by this situation, some nervously held their bellies, others cried because this young man reminded them of something they had seen previously. Others used welcoming words and inviting energy to help him find just a moment of rest as he sat with us, finished his glass of water and wandered off again.

Instead of the community response team, the police showed up. Many of us instantly realized that this may not turn out well for the young man. I know that many of us who have been conditioned to think of homeless or mentally ill people as “others” may simply write this young man off, and think oh he’s just “gone” and it’s someone else’s problem. I can hear the voices of people who might say, “Why would he just wander about in traffic like that? There must be something wrong with him, shaking their heads and moving on.” In this age of increased understanding of trauma, I was happy to see that the people around us instead were able to ask, “What traumatic event might have happened that this young man would come all the way from another city to zip about in the intersection like this?” Knowing too, that many LGBT youths come to SF thinking they will find refuge, we wondered collectively, “What might be happening for this young man? How can I help in a way that is comfortable for him and also minimizes risk to him?”

There can be many different responses to trauma, one of which could be to flee. It’s important to remember that everyone we encounter, even people who we think are “the worst of the worst” may carry unresolved trauma with them. In our practice, we remember to leave space for that which comes up – the positive, negative and neutral feeling-tones – so that we can eventually gain some semblance of equanimity in the face of difficulty. It also becomes apparent that our difficulties are also the difficulties of other people too. Leaving space for possibilities that are outside of your comprehension or bias is a really important mental framework that applies to your practice as much as it does to the real world too - take for example this Greater Good Science Center article about intellectual humility, a topic I hope to comment more on in future blog posts.

How did this situation eventually resolve? Well-meaning onlookers, those of us with some privilege that could be used in allyship, stepped in. In addition, another person, not in my group, offered to walk the young man anywhere he wanted, but in the end, he didn’t feel comfortable enough to take that offer. I may never know where that young man ends up in life, but his presence sure taught me a lot. His presence, and the compassion that I witnessed touched my heart enough, that it will be felt in my compassion practice for the rest of my life.

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