Much of my early spiritual studies centered on persons who had lived a life of extreme renunciation. I was quite drawn to that way of life myself and even felt that perhaps I had lived as a wandering ascetic in a previous incarnation. Whether or not this was true my present incarnation put me in a comfortable suburban lifestyle. I wasn’t rich, but I had all the comforts of home. And yet I found my life nonetheless deeply dissatisfying. And I was constantly in search of deeper meaning. For a long time I had considered becoming a monk, and at the end of a decade long relationship, I was finally free to explore this possibility. And so I set off on a journey.
Initially I was planning to travel across three states and settle down at a monastery in the mountains. But just getting there would be a bit of a challenge. I no longer had a job or a car and my finances were close to depleted. I was extremely nervous. I wasn’t sure how I would get to my destination, nor where I would sleep along the way. I didn’t know what or how I would eat. I didn’t know how I might obtain money for food. I was venturing into the great unknown and there was nothing but uncertainty. I could, of course, return to my comfortable life, take up another job and have a bed to sleep in. But I was restless, and I knew I had to take this leap.
I hitched a ride with someone who would be travelling to a city quite close to the monastery. However, during a stop along the way I was left stranded in a small town. Not having any funds for transportation, I remained there for a time. Over the next couple of years my travels took me all over the United States, hitching rides with various people. Sometimes I slept on the street. Sometimes strangers opened their homes to me. Sometimes I begged on the street for money to buy food. Sometimes I scavenged food from dumpsters. Sometimes people gave me food to eat. And sometimes I fasted.
I never made it to that monastery, but overall the journey was profoundly rich with spiritual lessons which I could never have learned from living a cloistered life.
The greatest of these lessons was faith. In fact, had I not had any faith at all, I would not have embarked upon such a journey. However, my faith was quite small when I first started out. But having no stable place to sleep, and no stable source of food or income, I learned to rely on Divine Providence. Even when times were at their toughest, I never starved. Somehow, miraculously at times, I was taken care of. My needs, as meager as they were, were always met. Gradually, my fears subsided. On any given day I would have no money and no plan. I would simply put everything in the hands of the Divine and trust that whatever I needed would come to me. And so it was.
The second lesson I learned was humility. There is little room to carry pride when you are carrying all your belongings with you wherever you go, when you are sleeping on the street, and especially when you are begging strangers for change to buy food. But when you lose pride you also lose shame, because pride and shame are two sides of the same coin. What is left is humility. Humility is knowing your limitations. It is knowing your dependence others, on nature and on God. But there is no judgment in it. Judgement comes from shame and shame comes from having pride. So with true humility, you are simply acknowledging, without judgement, that you are limited.
The third lesson I learned was gratitude. When you are humbled, when you know your limitations, and when you rely upon faith in Divine Providence, whatever comes to you is a gift. Sometimes I would go the whole day without eating before someone would offer me food. It could have been anything, but I accepted it in gratitude. When you have not eaten all day, any morsel of food is a blessing. When we have money and choice we become so picky. Even the most lavish meal can be underappreciated. We have become so spoiled that we take so much for granted. It is often only when we lose something that we realize its value. Having nothing and not knowing how or when my next meal would arrive, I took great appreciation in whatever was given me, no matter how small.
The fourth lesson I learned was generosity. Now you might think this strange for someone who is living on so little. But living in poverty helped me to develop a greater sense of empathy toward others who were poor. In addition, I observed while begging, that poorer people tend to give more than those who are wealthy. There are a number of reasons for this, but one is simply to do with the fact that poor people have a deeper experiential understanding of what it is like to have so little, and therefore have a greater sense of empathy toward other impoverished people. Now, when I was living on the street I had very little, but I also had little to pay for, such as rent and bills. And my faith had shown me that I didn’t need to worry about what I would eat because food was always available. So if I ever had a little extra, whether it was food or money, I was happy to share it. Though I would receive nothing substantial in return for my offerings, there was much joy in seeing others well fed and taken care of. It was not until then in my life that I understood what Saint Francis meant when he said that “to give is to receive,” because whenever we bless others, we are also blessed.
The fifth thing I learned was an appreciation for simplicity. So many of us are trying to make life easier by employing more and more contraptions, but actually this makes life more complex and cluttered. When you are living on the street you learn very quickly what you can live without because there is only so much you can carry. I noticed, in my own experience, that over the months and years of travelling, my backpack shrank significantly in size. I also came to understand that there are only a handful of necessities in life. Everything else is luxury. For a time, I had only the basics, but this also meant that I had less responsibility. I had less to lose, and therefore less to take care of and worry about. The more stuff we have, the more room we need to store it and the more we have to work to maintain it. For some people there is so much time and effort spent on maintaining all of these possessions that there is little time or energy left over to do any inner work. I have observed that our outer life and our inner life are reflections of one another. A cluttered life is a cluttered mind, and visa vis. There was a time when I spent every night in a sleeping bag on a busy sidewalk in the city. And my quality of sleep was so peaceful. Why? Because I had so little to worry about. I had so little to maintain, apart from myself, and I had put everything into the hands of the Divine. The more simple our life, the more freedom we have. The less we possess, the more peace of mind.
6.) RETURNING HOME
In some sense we are all homeless in this material world, since in actuality we are spiritual beings. We might build shelters to protect our bodies, but as souls we seem to wander aimlessly seeking fulfillment and never finding it. No matter where we go or where we stay we feel restless and alienated. Nothing in this material world satisfies that craving, because what we are craving is not of this world. But when we realize this we also realize that what we were searching for was never lost. The only reason we’ve had so much trouble seeing it is because we’ve been looking outside, and the whole time it was within us. It is that connection to the Divine that permeates all living beings and binds the entire universe together. When we rediscover that connection, suddenly we’re not lost anymore. We’ve found our place, which just so happens to be wherever we are at any given moment. But most of all we’ve found our home.
There are a number of reasons why people are living on the streets. For many of them there is little choice. For me it was voluntary. I could have returned to my material comforts at any time. But it was a spiritual adventure, and a difficult one at that. In fact, some years have passed since then, and when I imagine living that way now it makes me uncomfortable just to think about it. I’ve gotten used to the comforts again, but now I’m more aware of it, and much more appreciative of what I’ve got. Something as simple as having a soft bed and roof over my head fills me with profound gratitude.
Many people are engaged in spiritual study and practice, but the greatest lessons come from life itself. And those who are very comfortable in their surroundings may be missing out on very important lessons. Of all the spiritual practices I have engaged in, living homeless was one of the most powerful. And while I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, what I do recommend is that we get out of our comfort zone now and then and experience the world from a different perspective.
If you want to develop a deeper spiritual connection, faith, gratitude and surrender, I recommend you put aside whatever books you have on these topics and go out into the world and live. You don’t have to go and live on the streets. You just have to pay attention to everyday life. We all have different lessons to learn, and the universe perfectly caters those lessons for us on a daily basis. We just have to pay attention.
For more information on these daily life lessons, please see my article entitled The School of Life