The Practice of Being 'Present'

When Phyllis Cole-Dai was moved to spend the Lenten season with a friend on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, in 1999, she had one primary intention.

The Mount Blanchard, Ohio, native was determined "to be as present as possible to every person we met," she said, explaining being "present" to mean "trying to keep my mind and my heart where my body is."

Phyllis Cole-Dai with Jackie WellsNot allowing one's mind to wander at any given time is easier said than done, she admitted. But four elements—eliminating distractions, assumptions, judgments and agendas—form a "package deal" that results not only in greater presence but also in compassion and even spiritual power "that can change lives and the world in big and small ways," she asserted.

"When we're engaged with a person, we give them our full and undivided attention" and don't allow ourselves to be distracted, regardless of who the person is, Cole-Dai said. That's particularly difficult, she pointed out, in American culture, which celebrates leaving the here and now.

Electronic "gadgets" have that effect, but they aren't bad in and of themselves, she said. They are, however, tools to be kept in their place, and if they're alienating and distracting us from the world, "then I think we've got a problem," she continued.

Being present, Cole-Dai said, also means not relating to someone on the basis of assumptions or stereotypes—something that she and her friend, James Murray, considered before setting out on the streets of Columbus for 47 days. (Their resulting book, The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets, was published in 2004 and was Bluffton's first-year class summer reading selection last year.)

Though neither of them had any history with the homeless, they had heard the negative stereotypes about people living on the streets. "These ideas are in the cultural air we breathe," said Cole-Dai, also a "grass-roots humanitarian" and a musician. "They become what we think we 'know' about homeless people, but we don't know," she quickly added, citing as an example a homeless woman who "could be so lonely that she would repeatedly ride a shopping mall elevator up and down just to be close to other human beings."

All people have lives with value and shouldn't be judged because of the way they live, she stressed. When we meet someone, it's only human to look for differences and to elevate ourselves while putting the other person down, but "it's the better part of being human to learn how not to do that," she said.

It's also difficult not to impose an agenda on someone else, particularly when we want to make a difference in that person's life, Cole-Dai said. We sometimes confuse care with control, and we've "got to separate the two," she maintained.

When they were on the streets, she and Murray were surrounded by people who wanted to help them and presumed they knew what the pair needed without asking first, she remembered. In that situation, Cole-Dai said she started feeling like public property, unable to say no to people who wanted to give her something and feeling disempowered and dehumanized. She likened it to being a character in someone else's play—and the other person wrote the script.

"This is tough, this practice of being present," and it's undergirded by getting to know one's own heart and mind better, she said, urging patience and persistence.

The Toll from the Streets

Before leaving their homes for Lent, Cole-Dai said she and Murray did not investigate resources that would be available to them on the streets, wanting to be as ill-prepared as other homeless people who never thought they would be in that situation.

Their families "thought we were absolutely nuts," she added, saying that she and Murray went at noon each day to the Ohio Statehouse's Peace Statue, where they could make eye contact with family and friends who would sit or stand nearby, keeping silent vigil with them for a half hour of prayer and meditation. It was meant primarily to help their loved ones get through the separation; "ultimately," she conceded, "James and I needed that to keep going."

Her husband, Jihong, was stoic, she said, but he also drove around Columbus hoping to see her. He got a photo of her one day, and took comfort, she believed, in being an informal reporter who sent daily reports to other family members. They talked on the phone regularly, but that became tougher as time passed, she said, explaining that she didn't know how to talk to him after a while. That all homeless people still know how to relate to their families after being on the streets is another false assumption, she noted.

After the experience, "I was a wreck," said Cole-Dai, describing herself as "a different person" who was mentally ill, needing knee and back surgery, claustro-phobic and untrusting of others. Her husband did the wise thing, she continued, by giving her the space and resources she needed to start healing—a process that she's not sure will ever end, she said.

She had counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, and a circle of friends arranged body massages—a drastic change after not having been touched kindly or having an outlet for stress for nearly two months. "I wept through those massages," she said, recalling a woman friend who, while massaging her, said she smelled like a dumpster, even two months after leaving the streets.

She has also cried in church when singing hymns with words "too close to what I'd experienced," she added. "I never know when it's going to hit me. You just have to learn to let it come up."

Another such time was at the North Market in Columbus, about a month after she returned home. Cole-Dai thought she saw one of her best friends from the streets, but when the man didn't recognize her, she realized that she had just wished it to be her friend, hoping he had escaped his homeless life and was sharing her world of privilege. "I was so shocked, I broke into tears and ran out of the North Market," she said.

She and Murray were tempted every day to leave the streets that Lenten season, she remembered, but "symbolically and spiritually," they felt they needed to stay for the people they had met. When Easter came, they were able to go home, but "it still haunts me," she admitted, "because I don't know what happened to any of those people I cared about."