Dale speaks with Melanie Bien, who has dedicated herself to working on the street for the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team.
The two met a few years ago at a retreat led by Dale, after the death of Melanie’s mother. Melanie and Dale discuss how the practice that she has cultivated counterbalances the deep suffering she is exposed to on a daily basis. Reminding us that to have love and compassion means giving it to ourselves and our enemies as much as anyone else.
“Love is contagious, those who haven’t got it catch it from those who do.” – Meher Baba
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00:30 – Melanie describes working at SF General as a palliative care social worker. What it is like being exposed to the depth of human suffering, and not being able to do much about it.
Working with the patients at SF General was a fantastic job for Melanie, but once her Mother passed away, Melanie left the hospital to work for the SF Homeless Outreach Team. She is now working on the street every day, doing outreach with the highest risk and most vulnerable people in San Fransisco.
Being in the middle of the suffering of others the way Melanie does is hard on the heart. The spiritual practices that Melanie has learned have become mandatory to perform the kind of work she does.
06:20 – Melanie and Dale have a laugh at Melanie’s habit of forgetting to be consistent with her practice and include spaciousness in challenging moments. Gurdjieff had a similar problem; he tried many ways to get himself to remember to keep his practice at the front of his mind. Ultimately, what got him to remember to practice in the moment was suffering itself.
In a situation like Melanie’s, getting grounded and finding refuge inside one’s self in is essential to keep from becoming overwhelmed by the fact that she does not have the ability to help everyone at a deeper level. Melanie has discovered that she has a naturally open heart. She is now learning how to take this open heart and practice the things that allow her to have the boundaries and groundedness that she needs. Dale has helped Melanie understand that if she withholds compassion from herself and only gave it to others, then she is not truly practicing compassion.
11:20 – At the time of recording, we are in the heat of a divisive presidential race in America. Mentioning Donald Trump, in particular, seems to evoke an incredible reaction, one way or another. However, most of these responses come from a closed heart. Dale reminds us that we can’t love ourselves until we love Donald Trump alongside everyone else. You can love a lot of yourself, but the place that you don’t love Trump is the place that you can’t accept something in yourself.
15:30 – Melanie discusses the lack of education in regards to compassion and emotional intelligence. These are vital skills to have in the fields of medicine and government. However, there is not much being done to instill these skills the same as we teach logic and communication.
Being someone who focuses on the heart first, Melanie is a bit of an outsider at her work. Many of the people who choose to work in her occupation have the tendency not to want to work on themselves. They find the people that need help the most and pour themselves into others instead of helping themselves as well. There is a disconnect between what they are doing for other, while totally neglecting themselves.
18:45 – Melanie discusses the tools that she uses in her practice. Speaking to how compassion can bring us on the same level as someone, as opposed to simply showing compassion at a distance.
She has learned from Dale to bring in spaciousness. While Melanie is working with someone, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by their suffering. When we open our hearts fully like Melanie does, it is natural to become flooded by the pain and want to distance ourselves from it. Bringing some space around that feeling of wanting to separate allows Melanie to stay with the suffering and be with it on the same level as the person she is helping.
25:25 – There are two levels of practice. First is the active part of the practice, the doing. Engaging with life as it happens and developing skills to better do so. Underneath that is the absolute practice of just being spacious.
28:25 – The importance of having an inner contemplative practice combined with an intimate relationship with the fragility of life, is pointed out by Dale . Coming from a background of palliative and hospice care, Melanie is passionate about bringing the same level of hospice care to the homeless which is afforded to everyone else. All over there are homeless people who are eligible for hospice and palliative care who are not aware of the help available to them.
There is no good sales pitch for end of life care. Many of those on the street suffer from lifelong addiction, which centers around detaching and disassociating. Asking this kind of person at the very end to be 100% present and with their pain is more than most can do. However, there are some who connect with the practice and understand the philosophy of what it means to be awake at the end of one’s life.
32:35 – Dale sees Melanie as a deeply heartfelt person, who doesn’t have enough inner support for her heart. She is such a caring person that he sees her becoming thrown off balance by life. Part of what Dale has been trying to teach Melanie is to create more of a foundation and centeredness inside herself.
Creating this foundation inside is something that most of us need to work on, including Dale. Despite decades of practice, he still finds himself not retreating within when something is especially challenging. Dale reminds us that we need to start believing the true heart, instead of what our mind is telling us.
36:30 – Heart and mind are intertwined. The heart is the depth of the mind, and the mind is the surface of the heart. Dale finds more and more that it is not about changing the heart or mind but allowing ourselves to have a flood of feeling without judgment or resistance. Learning how to be with our feelings and not lose our seat on the bucking bronco of life that is throwing us all over the place.
Photo via Lawrence University