Spiritual practitioners often aspire to live alone in the mountains among wildlife, yet a city can be an equally or an even more supportive environment for practice. Unlike the wilderness, cities don’t have many trees, aside from those in parks, but they do have lots of people and—if you think about it—people are natural too! Because cities are filled with so many people, there are many more opportunities to practice kindness, compassion, joy in others’ happiness, and equal care for all.
In the city, even if we hole up in our apartment, we can’t escape the fact that others surround us. There is the old woman next door, a transient who sometimes sleeps on the stoop, and there is the drummer upstairs. If we try to isolate ourselves too much, we won’t be able to practice loving-kindness. If, on the other hand, we cultivate a sense of being interconnected—of being a part of our city in the same way that we are a part of our family—then we will develop loving care and kindness for all of our city’s people and we will have a lot of opportunity to practice.
Living in the city, we brush up against so many people each day. Sometimes just smiling at someone or opening a door can be the practice of loving-kindness. On the bus we can give an elderly person our seat. If we take a taxi or pick up our laundry, there is always a way to extend warmth in some way. There are many homeless people living on the street. Sometimes they sit with a cup or a hat in front of them, asking for money. Sometimes they hold signs that say, “I’m hungry, can you help me?” Sometimes they are friendly and sometimes they look depressed or cold. They often have plastic bags full of belongings. It seems to mean a lot to them when someone takes the time even to notice they are there.
When we have a family, we never get our monthly paycheck and think, “I’m going to just blow this!” We always think of our family—the rent, the groceries, and our children’s education. Knowing that our family depends on us, it is rewarding to see how our support benefits their lives. We never feel that our family members owe us something and we never question why we are giving them our support. A sense of responsibility sustains us, so that we feel motivated to continue.
Now, I am not suggesting opening our doors and inviting everyone in. Maybe that is not so realistic. People are complicated; it’s not always so easy to help. Yet there are small ways that we can extend warmth—small gestures that bring a lot of meaning to our lives and to the lives of others. Through participating in this way we help shape our city, our state, our world. If we adopt all the people of our city as our family, anything we can do for them brings fulfillment.
Mothers and fathers find so much pleasure in doing things for their children. They don’t really separate themselves from them. If their children feel happiness, it is their happiness too—pure joy. It can be the same with our adopted city-family. In a family every individual may not have the same needs. There are always some members who need more help, who may have an illness or run into difficult situations, and then there are always those who have an easier time supporting themselves or better luck with what they want to do. We try to do what we can to support everyone, to hold equal care for all.
Of course, when we approach homeless people on the street, we never know what to expect. Some may appreciate it when we try to offer them something, and they may even like to give us something back in return—an apple or directions—as this can give them a sense of integrity and an opportunity to be generous too. But because homeless people live on the fringe, they often don’t express themselves in ways that we feel comfortable with. Some of them look angry and unapproachable. Some of them curl up in a corner covered with blankets. Others might give us the finger and tell us to get lost. That’s their way of surviving, so we need to respect it. Whatever their actions, we can always extend kindness to them by genuinely wishing them well, hoping that they are able to stay warm and find enough food. This powerful method of extending care to all works to chip away at our own indifference and partiality.
Usually our principles guide us in a positive direction, but some principles can limit us. For instance, we may feel that people should go and get a job rather than beg. We may worry that if we offer money to someone who asks for it, they may buy alcohol or drugs. We may feel that offering money to those in need is condescending or we may feel that it’s a petty, superficial solution to a much deeper social problem—one that needs to be addressed in a larger way. Sometimes we may feel so overwhelmed by the suffering around us that we decide it is futile to try to do anything at all. Or, we may feel it is too much of a hassle to reach into our purse and search for some change—that it will attract too much attention.
But when someone literally asks us for our help, how can we ignore their request if we have the means? Addicts have to eat. If we feel concerned about offering them money, we can offer them food or blankets instead. They have a body and feel the hotness of the sun and the dampness of rain on their skin. We should appreciate any opportunity to respond, because it is so much better than walking around thinking about ourselves all day long.
It is most important that the heart responds when there is an opportunity—that we are moved to care for others rather than getting so stuck in our own head. If we can’t recognize opportunities to help people in need, mostly it’s our own loss. Small gestures of kindness transform us; they show us the best part of our mind and connect us to others in the best possible way.
What does it really mean to change the world? If we look around, there is always something we can do.