Homelessness…Mindfulness and Meditations

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Seventeenth century English poet Francis Quarles is credited with having expressed the thought, “Meditation is the life of the soul; action, the soul of meditation; and honor the reward of action.” Now in the twenty-first century, the relationship between meditation and action is being reexamined in the context of homelessness.

A June 6th column by Joy Eckstine on Change.org outlined and explored an organization called Ready, Willing, and Able in Harlem, which helps homeless men find jobs and housing. Recently, the agency has begun to teach meditation, the goal being “to teach stillness and breathing to a group many perceive as being about ‘hustle and flow.’”

Spearheading the initiative is multiply savvy entrepreneur Russell Simmons—co-founder of Def Jam and creator of the Phat Farm clothing line. In a recent video clip from an associated article in the Atlantic, Simmons is seen addressing a group of attentive homeless men at Ready, Willing, and Able. “You’re alive for a simple reason, and that’s to be happy,” Simmons avows.

Similar efforts to instruct the downtrodden in techniques to mitigate the myriad stressors of life on the street exist in other regions of the United States. For instance, at Haven for Hope in San Antonio, a group dubbed Homeless Meditation Practitioners Street Dharma also teaches meditation to the poor and homeless. This organization seeks to help ease “the daily struggle of just being Human.”

Interestingly, the intersection between homelessness and meditation has created a sort of interdenominationality in the realm of faith-based service provision. Such is the case when Christian organizations devoted to work with the homeless embrace meditation and other Eastern religious practices to spread a kind of inner peace that some individuals may not find in church basement Bible study.

Take the article published in the May 2004 edition of the Christian Meditation Newsletter: “The Bible study hour has just ended. Fifteen homeless men and women now gather in a circle preparing for silence and the weekly meditation together. A candle burns, quietening Taize chant soothes the loneliness and anguish of these lives.”

From my own atheist perspective, it is promising when faith-based organizations recognize the complimentarity between Christian dogma and other belief systems instead of proselytizing to people in need. What people on the street often long for—aside from physical necessities—is relief from psychological malaise. Whether this respite comes from a god external or an otherwise inspired inner calm seems irrelevant.

Increasingly, the field of professional psychology is embracing techniques culled from traditional Eastern meditation practices. Neuroimaging studies have revealed how meditation alters electrical brain wave patterns, is indicative of refocused conscious attention, and affects blood flow to different regions of the brain. Meanwhile, more broadly focused studies have found that meditation practitioners show distinct reactions to pain, that “mindfulness” practice changes how emotion is processed, and that training in this discipline can affect working memory capacity, according to a review published in the February 2010 edition of the journal Emotion.

On the one hand, it is refreshing that the Western culture so embodied in its science and religion of Christianity is beginning to recognize the validity of the products of alternative worldviews in enhancing quality of life. On the other, it is discouraging if meditation and “mindfulness”—practices established over centuries of careful and patient learning—become representative of yet another quick-fix solution to the ills of the American system.

To illustrate this point, consider what transpired at a two-day conference co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School on meditation and psychotherapy last year. The event featured the Dalai Lama as the main speaker—he disposed himself to answer questions by prominent scientists and clinicians, including Dr. Marsha Linehan, developer of a type of psychotherapy (Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT) that employs mindfulness as a “core exercise”.

At one point during the discussion, the Dalai Lama asked the audience, “What is psychology? What does it mean?” After a flurry of voices, Dr. Linehan quickly spoke up. “[It is] the study of the behavior of the mind and of behavior,” she replied. The Dalai Lama furrowed his brow, remained silent for a few moments, then muttered, “Now I am more confused.”

The point is that even when dealing with tremendously rich practices such as meditation, there are no quick answers to the many uncertainties and woes that humanity faces. I greatly appreciate the work that Russell Simmons and others are doing to teach meditation to individuals in situations of homelessness and poverty, and indeed hope that similar programs are founded. But I do not believe that individual-level mindfulness practice will ever eradicate homelessness from America when systemic deficiencies remain.

Appropriately, perhaps the best approach is one that values balance. While learning meditation could help homeless men and women to navigate and mitigate the stress and pain of street level existence, equally patient and wise social policies should focus on minimizing disparities between the haves and have nots and increasing opportunities for empowerment of the latter group.

If action is the soul of meditation, then let us be mindful together, to reap the honorable rewards of true justice.

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