Thursday, December 27, 2012

Meditation & Homelessness - An Interview with the Master Instructor of the Zen Studies Program in Rhode Island

If the name sounds familiar to you, there is a good reason - Cassandra Tribe is a RISD grad and Providence based Poet and Artist who not only enjoys a healthy international reputation (as the "Demon of Providence"), but who also teaches at the Learning Connection, volunteers with Beacon Hospice and served as a writer and managing editor of StreetSights, Rhode Island's newspaper for homeless advocacy, for over a year. So where did she go when she disappeared from the masthead? To 1282 North Main Street, right next door to MCHA/Oasis, where she has opened up The Zen Studies program in Main Street Martial Arts. What is starting to happen at the Zen Studies program is unique, powerful and accessible to everyone.

SD - What is the Zen Studies Program?

CT - It's a program designed to introduce people to the practice of meditation and teach them practical methods of learning to live a compassionate life. As I was looking around the city I noticed that there are very few non-religious centers to go and learn how to meditate. Meditation doesn't have to be religious, but all religions do have a form of it. Also, I found that in my daily life and particularly through my experience with StreetSights, that I kept hearing the same thing from people, "But I don't know what helps and what makes the problem (of homelessness) worse?" A large part of the Zen Studies is showing people how to increase their ability to feel and express compassion - once you begin to practice that on a daily basis - knowing what helps in the moment is easy.

SD - How does this relate to homelessness?

CT - Oh gosh, in so many ways. On a very esoteric and spiritual level, we are all homeless. It is not really a big stretch to connect to the kind of compassion and empathy that allows you to understand the realities of not having a home, of having no safety and of being socially rejected or placed at the mercy of "help" that takes away your sense of self-worth - if you really dare to be honest with yourself, this is a situation that we all experience in some way. The trick is to step beyond being able to relate to it from a personal standpoint and to become willing to stand within the experience of someone who is homeless. It's the difference between saying "I feel your pain," and being able to say "I have can't imagine what you are going through, what can I do to help." One remains rooted in selfishness, and the other is an expression of compassion and unconditional love. You can ask the question because you share the experience on some level but you don't stop at the shared experience, you recognize that you have no idea of the realities of homelessness and can offer help that is defined by the person who needs assistance, not something you decide they need.

On a practical level, our doors are open to everyone and because we are next door to MCHA/Oasis, and because of my history with StreetSights, quite a few homeless have felt comfortable coming in to be a part of the program.  Everyone who walks through the doors becomes part of a community that includes every aspect of our society. At the Morning Practice, which is done 7 days a week at 6am, you will find a 6 figure captain of industry playing GO with someone who spent the night on the street and when the time comes - we all meditate and then we all pitch in to keep the dojo in good repair. I don't care who you are or where you slept - you can dust. Before you dust, you get a chance to relax, be safe, be served some tea and a small snack and rest within your being. Everyone who walks through the door has something of value to offer to the community and everyone has a different skill set. The dojo, Main Street Martial Arts, is a very unique place and we try to provide for them as best we can. They are a family community center and non-profit and have a lot going on for people in the area that helps create a community that everyone can come to and grow with.

SD - What exactly is the program?

There are three main parts to the program - the Morning Practice, the Mid Practice and the Studies. The Morning Practice is 7 days a week at 6am and has 20 minutes of Ki exercise (gentle movement very similar to Tai Chi), a small break and then 20 minutes of silent, seated meditation. The Mid-Practice happens Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 1:15pm and this is 45 minutes of walking and moving meditation. It is entirely silent (except small instructions from me) and is considered the oldest and purest form of meditation. The studies are individual sessions where I can help someone find ways to meditate that really work for them and address any issues that they want to focus on. For a lot of people, just being in a space for 45 minutes and knowing that someone will not let anyone or anything interrupt them while they relax can really do wonders. Even though the focus of the program is on the Chinese and Japanese forms of Zen, I am a certified meditation instructor and have familiarity with all styles and can help people explore all the different forms until one feels just right.

SD - How is meditation good for you?

CT - (laughs) how isn't it good for you? Really, from a physical standpoint mediation can help to lower blood pressure, increase circulation, increase oxygen levels in the blood, manage blood sugar levels and decrease stress. Psychologically it can help order and calm the mind. It has been clinically proven to help with anxiety, depression. PTSD, ADHD/ADD, Substance Abuses issues, mood and personality disorders. Meditation is also used for pain management especially for those with chronic pain and the terminally ill. Spiritually - it can serve to deepen your commitment to and understanding of your faith. It doesn't matter what your faith is, the fact that you begin to get in the habit of focusing on it is truly a beautiful experience.

SD - How is all this paid for?

CT - We have no funding and everyone does pay to help support us, but the form of the payment will vary from person to person. The monthly membership cost is from $25 to $125 per person. It does not matter what you pay within that range you can then come to everything or just one thing, have a private appointment a week or none at all. It is something that the person decides what is realistic and affordable for them - you just sort of walk in and tell me what you are paying and you are good to go. The website is even set up so you can enroll through there so it never even has to be directly discussed - this is all about value and honor. For people that money is a very serious issue for, we have tons of things we need from repair work to supplies to food that does just as much, if not more, than money will to help us stay open. 

Money can be a serious issue for far more reasons than just a lack of it. I mean, you can be homeless and be working full time as well so it is not so much about a lack, but a matter of placement of value. The way I explain it is that I may have someone who earns $600,000 a year and has no bills to speak of but pays for their monthly membership by keeping us in tea because no one sees them as a person anymore, just a source of money. What has value to them that they can offer is the ability to find and select a beautiful tea and then get enough of it to share with everyone in the community. Sharing the tea becomes an act of mindfulness for the rest of us that interrupts our focus on our problems and we rest.

I have some people who participate who are on very limited incomes because of disability and they choose to pay $25 per month because it is important to them to do this because they don't want another benefit because our system of providing benefits has made them feel less than valued. It is different for every person, you have to sit and really think through what you have that you value that you are willing to give in return for something of value.

Money - has no value - it is something that represents value and is only a tool that is occasionally necessary for some things. If you are very aware of the sacrifice you have made to earn it, it can very well represent a value far beyond what you could tangibly give.

 I also have someone who is currently homeless who shows up on occasion and she "pays" by teaching any kids there how to do Sumi painting - that is a skill that no money could buy and in my eyes - is priceless.

The Zen Studies Program is located at 1282 North Main Street in Providence (inside Main Street Martial Arts). There is free parking in the back of the building and it is on the 99 line (the Gregg's/Subway Stop by the old Sears). You can find out more by emailing or by calling or texting 401-213-9784.

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