I wanted to write something more about poverty. I know I wrote a previous note on poverty called "Non-Duality, Poverty, and the Cross ", but it was a bit on the "cerebral " side. I know that this, like much of what I write about, is not a popular topic, but it strikes me that "living out " non-duality must at least accept poverty, if not "embrace " it.
I use the word "embrace " a bit factitiously. In an article in the Lincolnshire newspaper, our religious community was described as "embracing poverty ". Again, more recently, the idea of "rejoicing " in poverty came up in an interview. I have never wanted to give the impression that poverty is something that I either relish or look forward to.
I wanted to tell a couple of stories that I hope will give a bit of insight into how I see poverty.
When my partner and I were forming the Community of the Living Sacrifice, we were sent to live for a time with another Anglican Community. One of the things being "tossed around " in the community formation was whether we were going to adopt habits, and what they would look like.
While we were staying with the Brothers, we were all invited to the adjacent town to a church gathering. Their car having been recently in a collision, we all had to walk. It was asked by one of the monks, if they were to wear their habits, and the abbot insisted upon it. So we walked, maybe four or five miles, John and I being the only ones in "street" clothes. A whole new view of the monk's habit permanently entered my mind that day.
Needless to say, habits were not part of our community's rule.
We were observed like the circus had come to town! As self conscious as John and I felt, the monks seemed to relish the attention. As we walked through town, people would smile or make the sign of the cross, or back away reverently in a most embarrassing manner. These habits; these relics from the past, were once meant to be a willing acceptance of the clothes of the poor. Monks habits are replications of medieval "working class" wear. But in a modern setting, they scream out "Holy Man". They serve just the opposite purpose for which they were intended. Instead of allowing the monk to blend in, to be an unnoticed beggar, they now announce his "separateness", his "specialness". Needless to say, our community did not include habits in the rule.
The second story happened during one of our periods of homelessness. We were lucky in that we were always homeless with a car. On this particular occasion however, the car broke down on a sunday night. We were in Monterey, California, and knew no one there. We arranged to have the car repaired on Monday, so we could make it back to the San Francisco Bay Area, but needed to sleep in it for the night.
We found a Safeway store across from a public toilet, and decided to camp out in the parking lot for the night. It did not take long before we realized that we were not alone. At least another three cars came in and shut down their lights, their occupants attempting to get their heads down. And then we all saw the man with the keys.
They were shutting the toilets. A simple thing. Keeping the town clean. Keeping the homeless out. My God, that's me! This is poverty. This is the kind of poverty that I had hoped to design into the "rule" for the community.
I think a monk must understand real, human poverty. Not some "giving up", or wearing rough clothing, or even hard work, but the real degradation of poverty. Not having the simple dignity of a basic toilet. Being in a city and having to "make do". How often do we have the Grace to experience these kinds of things? Yes, I call it a Grace, because this is freedom. Not the grinding poverty or the humiliation itself. That stinks. But the ability to accept, maybe even thrive in those conditions.
You might inquire, "sure poverty may be great in Christianity or Bhakti Yoga, but what about advaita, or non-duality?" Poverty allows you to be open. As Bobby Dylan sang' "if you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose." And this applies spiritually as well. With no conceptual identification, there is nothing to "give up". To be willing to accept (not necessarily embracing), poverty, should it come, is the willingness to flow with the movement. Relax upon a sea of trust, worrying not for tomorrow.
This means, not only accepting physical, monetary poverty, but that biblical promise guaranteeing you will "posses the kingdom"; poverty of spirit. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their's is the Kingdom of Heaven". When you are down to you last dime, and the world holds you in contempt. This is poverty. When you are down to your last concept (I am), and the mind stops of it's own volition in a poverty of ideas, then the holy can enter; you can posses the kingdom of Heaven.
Poverty is the life of Oneness. Jesus, the Christ, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj all lived in, and accepted poverty. Sometimes they accepted what was offered, other times not. You must make your decision regarding this "practice" for yourself. I would only say that the amount of earnestness you give to your spiritual life will be shown in that living. Poverty need not be sought, but accepted with joy. The less you indulge the "I", the more readily it will take up it's place as servant to the Absolute.
The photograph of the homeless woman above always brings tears to my eyes. Not because of her poverty, but because of the determined way she eats her yogurt. I can feel the tear filled gratitude of each spoonful. I have known those tears. Those tears are mine. Poverty has removed the seperation I might feel from her. Poverty has given me the Grace to see her love, in the spoon, in the "earnest" way she keeps her things. Sadness here? Perhaps. But Love abounding, seen through the loving eyes of poverty.