No Money. No Sleeping Bag. Sleeping Outside. Begging.
These are the experiences of my first Street Retreat in 2011. Click here to read the experiences of the second one in 2014.
From July 9 to July 13 2011 I’ve lived on the streets of Bielefeld, Germany, without money, without a sleeping bag, sleeping outside. Accompanied by 6 friends and under the guidance of Zen-Buddhist Monk Claude AnShin Thomas, this activity is called Street Retreat, a spiritual Zen practice.
For preparation, we haven’t showered, haven’t brushed our teeth and haven’t changed clothes for 5 days before the start. Another part was the fundraising of 1080 Euros as a preparation for our begging practice on the street. Thanks to wonderful support of family and friends — especially business friends — the fundraising wasn’t as hard as expected, even though I procrastinated quite a bit out of fear of shame and humiliation. The purpose of these funds was the donation to non-profit organizations after the retreat, based on our experiences.
A Special Zen-do
As our domicile the local organizer Sonja MyoZen chose the Bürgerpark — also known as Oetkerpark or formerly known as Adolf-Hitler-Park. It was a very nice park a little aside downtown with a very nice water fountain, dozens of ducks and crans. As our Zen-do (meditation hall) we chose the platform in the upper part of the park — a platform where supposedly Adolf Hitler should have held propaganda speeches.
The retreat started on Saturday at 5pm. After Claude AnShin gave us instructions, we first walked to Bürgerpark. Then we had 30 minutes to start looking for a place to sleep and to beg for dinner. The recommendation of AnShin was to find a place with a porch roof — for people living on the street the goal is to never get wet. Luckily my expedition partner and I have quickly found potential sleeping places nearby. After revisiting the place with AnShin’s assistant KenShin we decided to stay there for the first night. In the meantime another group — begging should be never done alone — was in charge of getting dinner. They got a salad, cooked and fried potatoes and a bottle of mineral water. Unexpectedly, this was more than enough for the group — we even had to throw part of the salad away the next day.
The Waste of Food
This is one of my most important learnings. When you share, there is always enough for everybody. And even people living on the street do throw away food! And now imagine how much food is thrown away by stores/restaurants and regular citizens. See also food waste statistics. A lot of stores who refused giving us some food ended up throwing it away in the evening or the next day. Of course, plenty of food goes to food distribution organizations like Bielefelder Tafel, yet still A LOT of edible food is being thrown away. Part of the situation is of course also caused by strict rules of the Public Health Department and the resulting fear of fines and punishments. The point is: Giving away a little food has NO negative business consequences, as plenty of the food ends up at Bielefelder Tafel or the trash anyways (instead there even might be positive consequences — see below in the part about ‘Begging’).
How Fast We Forget
Claude AnShin is a Vietnam combat veteran who returned with major physical and mental wounds, being unable to live a regular life and eventually ending up using intoxicants and living on the street. Therefore street retreats for him are not at all some weird form of vacation or self-discovery feel-me-touch-me event. It it serious business. It was his life for quite some time. And he made it clear from the beginning that we should take it very seriously and that not so long ago even in Bielefeld, during the Second World War and after the war, many people weren’t living much differently than we were about to live. How fast we forget!
Street Living 101
Claude AnShin was committed to keep us safe. His street living 101 included having a whistle around the neck for self-protection, never to go begging alone, always tell the group when you go using the bathroom, only enter sleeping places in darkness, enter the sleeping places very carefully without attracting attention and immediately lay down and sleep. Also for preparation against attacks, always keep your shoes on and not slip into sleeping bags, instead use them as blankets. The latter two recommendations came from an experienced homeless person whom we met. The person also told us that homeless emergency accommodation places are not recommendable — you are often confronted with violence, theft or just very hostile conditions. Luckily, we had absolutely no problem with violence nor the police. The other thing the person told us is to be very careful with your diet as a homeless person: try not to eat bad or unhealthy food, as sicknesses like diarrhea can be VERY dangerous and unpleasant on the street.
What we also did, we didn’t pretend to be homeless, as we’re not. When begging, we simply said something like: “We are currently living on the street, without money, sleeping outside. We are currently collecting vegetarian food for the group. Would you mind giving us something?”. And when someone asked why, we explained what we did and why we did it.
What struck me the most was the generosity of the shop-keepers. Frankly I expected a success rate of 5-10 percent, meaning asking 10-20 times before getting anything. In the end, we had a success rate of more than 50 percent. And most of the people who gave us something were very happy to help us out. In Zen, generosity is the most important virtue, and the most important source of happiness. So when begging, we were not subordinating ourselves — in the contrary — we would give the people the gift of experiencing deep happiness themselves. After the first successes my shame went away and I really enjoyed begging and experiencing warm interactions with very kind people, giving and receiving pleasure and happiness. What I also learned, that friendliness and a positive body language were important success factors. I also experimented with asking for specific things — making the giving decision as simple as possible for the giving person — with great success. Being tired of tap water from the public bathroom I successfully begged for a bottle of Apfelschorle. I also got a nice piece of watermelon from the market. When receiving a “No”, we accepted it and moved on. The next day we might come again and give them another chance. For getting popcorn we had to visit the same cinema three times. The first time we went, the cinema employee said they would simply reheat the remaining popcorn the next day — yummy! I really hope he was just pretending to get rid of us. If not, this is bad karma. And bad karma means bad business. After the retreat I of course bought my travel sandwich at Subway — it was the only place at the train station that offered us something. This is an example of good karma resulting in good business ;). (Karma is simply a fancy word for the Law of Cause & Effect — yet I like the term ;)
This is the place where we slept for three nights. It was the front-entry of a school building, covered by trees and a parking space. Even though being pretty well covered, we had some nightly visitors. In the first night AnShin was awake all night, getting a feeling of the city’s nightlife. We supposedly were approached by a group of young people, yet after AnShin stood up and took a few steps towards them, they turned back and disappeared. One night when I couldn’t sleep I saw a bicyclist stopping and looking a little puzzled at us, then turning back and disappearing. So when living on the street, it helps to not sleep alone — although I am aware that most homeless people are completely on their own, being exposed to potentially dangerous situations.
The six participants have collectively raised 6000 Euros. After the retreat we went to the Schlosshof — a formerly famous eatery that was used from 1940-1943 as a brutal working camp for over 200 Jewish people. Based on our experiences, we have decided to donate the funds to eight non-profit organizations with the bulk of the money going to small organizations in strong need of financial resources. The money wasn’t distributed evenly. We used a democratic approach to first decide which organizations to include. After deciding on 8 organizations, everyone had 8 votes that could been placed freely, and out of the votes the contributions were calculated:
(1) Bahnhofs-Mission Bielefeld help for homeless (250 Euros)
(2) Kinderzentrum e.V. help for children (1000 Euros)
(3) Sterntaler e.V. Grief-work for children (625 Euros)
(4) Frauenmantel e.V. mothers who are psychologically ill (500 Euros)
(5) Mädchenhaus Bielefeld e.V. House for abused girls (625 Euro)
(6) Tabula e.V. childrens after school care (500 Euros)
(7) Zaltho Foundation for ending violence (1.750 Euros)
(8) Heilsarmee Bielefeld (750 Euros)
True to Their Word — Salvation Army
Personally, I only had direct experience with Heilsarmee Bielefeld. We were welcomed very warm-heartedly, weren’t doubted nor questioned and didn’t even had to explain ourselves. Heilsarmee offers every day free breakfast, free lunch and free coffee during the day for people in need. They even offered us three sleeping bags — of which we accepted only one and which of course we will donate back after having it washed — we’ll do that with every blanket we have received.
Business Goes Street
Interestingly, all male participants — including Claude AnShin Thomas — have studied business and have or had an entrepreneurial background. They are or were consultants, sales trainers, founders or M&A executives. Several times I got the giggles trying to see us from an outside perspective and seeing us laying on or wandering around with cardboards — ‘if people only knew’ I thought to myself (also meaning: don’t underestimate or misjudge people on the street). Speaking of cardboards: These are one of the most important utilities on the street. They are lightweight, have excellent isolating qualities and are versatilely usable, e.g. as blankets or eyeshades. If possible I recommend two to three layers of cardboards to make the bed a little softer.
The first night we have spent completely without blankets or sleeping bags. Most people used a second cardboard as a blanket, which worked well. What also works well is to sleep very close-by. All female participants have done street retreats before so they immediately cuddled up to each other. All male participants had some reservations — or stated differently: needed their ‘free space’ ;) — and ended up freezing badly. Lesson learned: Male started cuddling the next night too.
Another learning was that nights can get cold all year — even in summer. Around 4am it was usually the coldest. Fortunately I made the right clothing decision: I brought long thermal underwear, an undershirt, a t-shirt, a thick hooded sweatshirt, a winter jacket, a scarf, a winter cap and a rain shield. Also useful would have been gloves and a baseball cap. During day you can tie the clothes around your hip or shoulders or use them as pillows.
Nature is Wonderful
The most incredible thing to learn was that living on the street and particularly in nature is a wonderful source of happiness, well-being and pleasure. I enjoyed it very much. And I learned that my body liked it too very much. It’s the simplicity, the slowness, the sounds of nature, the fresh air and the infinite space that lets the flower of happiness blossom.
Our Daily Routine
We had plenty of free time. We got up after sunrise at 5:30am and went to bed after sunset at 11pm. In the morning we would go to the park and clean up some trash. An important Zen practice is to appreciate the places that we use and to always make an effort to leave them in a better condition than before. We also did that with the public toilet, our Zen-do and other places we have been. At 7am and 7pm we had our practice times with Zazen and recitation. Sometimes 15-20 additional people joined us. After the morning practice we had breakfast and after the evening practice dinner. Usually from 11am to 1pm, and from 5pm to 6:30pm we would go begging. The rest of the time we have spent in the park, doing naps or watching ‘television’: the duck channel, the nature channel, the sports channel or the citizen channel. One time we borrowed a frisbee. Most of the time we rested or had conversations.
A Common Prejudice
When you see homeless people sleeping during the day — be careful what you think. Usually our prejudices go in the direction of “they must be lazy”, “they must be drunk” or the like. But in many cases the reality is quite simple: As the nights tend to be cold and therefore not very restful, these people are simply JUST tired. Usually we took two naps, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Doing that I had no problem with sleep deprivation — in the contrary — it was a very relaxing and resting retreat.
Where to Invest the Hours of Your Life
We lived completely without money. We begged for food directly. I learned that I REALLY only need very few things in life: food, water, clothing, rain protection, cold protection, social interaction. It looks that a life with only these things cannot be other than basic or okay at most. This is not true. This life is not bad at all. Happiness is not dependent on material things, not dependent on money, not dependent on success. I’m not suggesting that everybody should go live on the street. This is not the point. The point is to realize that most of our life we live in an illusion. An illusion that success, power or money is important or even a prerequisite for our happiness. Intellectually we usually understand this illusion. Yet still we spend most of our life’s energy chasing exactly these things. I am no exception. It is very refreshing to see that we can safe ourselves a lot of trouble: Instead of working oneself to death and then realizing that this might not have given us what we were looking for, it would be a lot easier to realize it sooner :). Of course it’s nice to have a hall being named after you (e.g. Rudolf Oetker Halle), yet I start questioning more and more whether the investment is really worth the return. Of course there are examples of very successful, wealthy and deeply happy people — yet I would claim that the majority of the people spending their lifetime working very hard to achieve these goals just seem to be happy from the outside — behind the curtain they might be deeply unsatisfied, sad, frustrated or simply unhappy. I am no exception. It’s not about working hard. It’s about the motivation that drives us. You might perfectly call people like Ghandi or the Dalai Lama as workaholics, yet the motivation was different, and therefore the result in terms of happiness and fulfillment was different. There is nothing wrong with dedication and hard work.
Man — what’s up with all the bread! We learned that it is VERY easy to get bread on the street. And that you end up with tons of bread. And that after a while you get really sick of it. So I mostly stopped eating it. Instead I fed the ducks with it and changed my diet mostly to fruit. So please, never give homeless people bread!!! They might already have more than enough. Instead, buy them a piece of watermelon or a fruit juice. An insider recipe from our Italian friend if you end up having hard or old bread. Bread cake: Soak the old bread with soy milk (e.g. vanilla flavor), let it soak for a couple of hours, put in a entire egg, put in chocolate, nuts or whatever you like, mix it, and bake it for 20 to 30 minutes. We tested the recipe after the retreat and it was very tasty!
Not so Bad
No showering and especially no teeth-cleaning for 10 days. I expected it to be much harder. Of course, after four days you start somewhat smelling, but truth be told: the tenth day wasn’t much worse than the forth day. You really get used to it. And I also kinda liked it. Particularly I never got so fast out of bed and into bed as during these 10 days. It is so much simpler. You just don’t have to worry about things any more. Nevertheless I really looked forward changing my underwear and brushing my teeth :). What was interesting that I enjoyed taking a shower much less than expected. Teeth and underwear were more important to me.
Freshness and a Special Correlation
It is very seldom that I was as fresh and fit in the early morning as during the street retreat. Sometimes I got up at 4am or 5am and was very fresh. Unfortunately I had big pains in my back that sometimes forced me to get up very early. The last night we begged for a sleeping place at a church. We approached three churches and got two acceptances. So we have spent the last night inside in a nice side room of an Evangelical Church. As the room was also used by a Zazen group we had the great pleasure of putting meditation mats under our cardboards, bringing our backs and hips great relief. What was strange that this was the first night were I was dozy and not fresh in the morning. There seems to be a correlation between ground-hardness and freshness. The more comfortable the bed is, the more difficult it is to get up in the morning — at least this is my experience.
(1) A young lady who happend to live right in the house in front of our Zen-do brought us a very nice breakfast the first morning: cereals, milk, tea, apples, cucumber — all served on very nice tablewear. She was very gentle and caring.
(2) A female employee of a cafe asked us in a very caring way what we would lack the most in the moment — then she gave us two Apfelschorle on the house. The next day she saw us on the street, asked us how we were doing and offered that we can come anytime if we should need anything (as far as I know we didn’t accept this offer — usually we didn’t want to exploit the goodness of people too much, instead offering the opportunity of generosity to others)
(3) A young female employee of a restaurant reacted with “Ohhhh!?” with much care and compassion and immediately asked the kitchen to prepare a little something for us
(4) A female managing director of a Starbucks immediately accepted our wish for a Chai tea — and ended up offering us two. Our pitch was very straightforward and even included the word ‘gift’: “Hello, we currently live on the street, without money, we sleep outside. We wanted to ask if you would give us a Chai tea as a gift?”. She immediately said yes.
Business Model and Competition
The homeless person that I mentioned above in the 101 section was collecting and returning bottles. A big blue bag would bring him 7 Euros. Some days he collected as much as six bags. We told him about another homeless person that collects bottles before 6am in the same park and whether he would perceive him as competition. He said ‘no’, and added that ‘there is always enough for everybody’. Bottles with refundable deposit therefore are a very important income stream for homeless people in Germany (which is also referenced and integrated in games like Pennergame.de).
Drugs and Alcohol
The same homeless person said that he doesn’t use intoxicants. They would destroy him if he would use them. Yet he acknowledged that many despaired and suffering homeless people fall into this trap. Especially in the area around the train-station. We went there the last morning to end the retreat with a Zazen period and a final recitation. It was 10am and nobody was around. AnShin explained to us that homeless people using intoxicants are not yet awake. That must mean that the person who collects bottles at 6am can hardly be an addict.
This was a recurring topic. Our park was officially called Adolf-Hitler-Park. From our Zen-do Hitler held propaganda speeches. The Schlosshof was a working camp. And also from the Bielefeld train station in the time from 1938-1945 at least 10 deportation trains have left to various concentration camps. How fast we forget.
It’s important to drink enough. I didn’t. I only drank 1-2 Liters per day, where 3-4 Liters would have been much better. The consequence was occasional head-ache and digestion problems. Even though the water from the public bathroom tap was fine — the idea of it coming from the bathroom resulted in some resistance.
One of the things I enjoyed the most were the personal conversations with the participants — especially during our begging walks. We had no iPhone, no internet, no newspaper, no television — just ourselves. It’s very nice to really have the time to get to know each other. This is definitely one thing that I want to increase in my life. Funny enough, at least six of the eight participants own an iPhone. And as soon as the retreat finished and we connected to the wireless — all those disciplined Zen people starting staring at their phones. When asked — they were of course doing iPhone meditation — especially me ;).
It Can be a Choice
Another prejudice or tendency of many people is to start forcing homeless people into ‘normal’ lives. What most people don’t realize is: It can be a conscious choice to live on the street. True, most of the homeless people end up on the street because some sort of problems. But there is still a fraction of people who have a choice and choose the street. No one has the right to force his ideas onto another person. Sentences like “Get a job” or “Go to social welfare” cannot be declared as ‘advice’ or ‘help’. They are violence. Very subtle form of violence. Most violence is being committed in such subtle ways. And this is exactly the place where things like Nazism started. Seeds of violence are in all of us. We have to be very careful about these things. This is one of the main points of Claude AnShin. He’s been there. He’s seen it. Violence only leads to more violence. And violence is never a solution. Especially subtle form of violence like such sentences or thoughts.
We have built a very nice relationship with a duck family with two young chicks. We — especially Claude AnShin Thomas — fed them frequently and they would visit us regularly. Home sweet home — our park.
Further Reading: Claude AnShin Thomas has written the book At Hell’s Gate about his path from Vietnam soldier to Zen-monk and his experience with violence. (The book is available in German, Italian and further languages as well.)