Zen and the art of paying £150 to be a beggar on the streets of London

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The next time a beggar approaches you on the street look carefully into their eyes. What will you see? It could genuinely be a homeless person in desperate need. But there is a chance that the person extending his tin cup will be managing a bank the following morning or running a large company.

The next time a beggar approaches you on the street look carefully into their eyes. What will you see? It could genuinely be a homeless person in desperate need. But there is a chance that the person extending his tin cup will be managing a bank the following morning or running a large company.

A fad that has been in full swing in the United States for a few years - the "street retreat" - is about to take root in Britain. In this topsy-turvy world, stressed-out executives submit themselves to the ultimate exercise in regaining their perspective on life. They play at being a street bum for a few days and nights.

Gaining in popularity in cities all across America, the retreats are designed to cleanse the spirit, but not the body. Indeed, participants, who must usually pay a modest fee to indulge, are instructed to turn up dirty and, if possible, a bit smelly. If you are going to be beggar for a long weekend, better that you actually look and smell like one.

Offered by church groups and organisations such as the Hudson River Peacemaker Centre in New York, these weekends are for those among us already tired of the more obvious alternative, a trip to the spa. This is the anti-pampering experience. Feel like a mud bath? That's fine, but you will find it in the gutter. Need to lose some pounds? A health farm can do that for you. But having no money to buy food is more efficient.

The Peacemaker Centre, which follows the tenets of Zen, has been organising the retreats on the streets of New York for a decade and has already had more than 300 takers. Usually, they are arranged in small groups of say about 10 people, each paying $150 in advance. And their hobo-holidays last from three to five days.

"You have one piece of ID, no money and you are living on the streets," Francisco Lugovina, a Zen teacher at the centre, says. "You do not know where you are going to get your next meal. You rely on asking people on the streets where the free lunches and the shelter can be found and you find they are very generous."

Another veteran of the Centre is Senso Grover Genro Gauntt, who has led retreats all over the city and elsewhere in North America, most recently in Montreal in March. But on the weekend of 24 to 26 June, he will guide his first "street retreat" in London. The centre is accepting applications now. The fee will be £150 and no more than 18 people will be allowed to join in.

"We will be living on the streets of London, experiencing the miracles of life that arise when we no longer attach to our comforts and patterns and our stuff," Mr Gauntt says on the centre's website. "Unpredictable and free, this is an opportunity to retreat in a real sense, within and without - to retreat to what is right here, right now - in challenging conditions."

The group will split up during the day into smaller packs to beg for money and forage for food. Everyone will reunite at night to sleep together. "A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown," Mr Gauntt adds. "As such, no one knows what will happen. We can't. It's an exercise in bearing witness to the joy and pain of the universe. A glimpse of living on the edge of creation. A powerful one."

There are several rules before turning up to start your "down-on-your-luck" weekend. They are meant to ensure your comfort-deprivation is as complete as possible. Thus, here are just a few of the regulations commonly posted by street-retreat organisers, including the Peacemaker Centre:

* Do not shave, or wash your hair for five days before the retreat. This will also start your street experience before you leave home;

* Wear old clothes, as many layers as you feel appropriate for the time of year, and do not bring any change of clothes for the retreat;

* Wear good, but not new, walking shoes;

* Do not bring any money, illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons, or mobile phones;

* Do not wear any jewellery, including earrings and watches;

* Besides the clothes you are wearing, bring only an empty bag (shopping, plastic) for collecting food from shelters, etc. You should not bring any books.

In theory, any of us can submit ourselves to a few days of street life without having actually to pay someone to show us how. Just walk out your door on a Friday evening and leave all your credit card behind. But Mr Lugovina says it is important to have the support of an organised group.

"What you are paying for is the fact that we have been doing this for 10 years. There are guidelines. There is also a spiritual commitment to what we do. And a safety factor because the streets are dangerous. You could do it by yourself and you might experience even more but this is a quasi-structured environment."

Several of those who have taken this advice and joined the retreats happily attest to their value. Charley Cropley, 57, a naturopathic doctor in Boulder, Colorado, was on a "street retreat" in downtown Denver in the last week in March. It was the generosity of strangers that he found most rewarding.

"I approached four women - normally I just asked men - and told them, 'I'll be sleeping on the street tonight and I'd like something to eat'," Mr Cropley said soon afterwards. "And they said, 'OK.' And one gave me $1. And one gave me $10. After that, I was just shaking with gratitude.

"It's hard for me to tell you how grateful I felt to those people. You think people despise you, yet so many people are not that way. The people that give you food at the shelters; what would you do without them? You would die without people's kindness. And there's nothing in it for them. There's no explanation for it. It's just kindness."

Leading article, page 32

Comments