Reflecting on the Freezing Homeless Child Experiment

Many of you may have seen this video that went viral in the past weeks.  If not, watch it first so I won’t spoil it for you..


I first have to say there is something questionable about the older brothers getting their young brother to freeze in the cold for what apparently are hours (!!!) for an experiment. But okay, let’s trust that they didn’t coerce him and that he didn’t get seriously sick or frostbitten from the exposure to cold. I don’t think I could have filmed someone I cared about shivering so intensely. That kid was really cold, not just acting. If it is true that it was -5 Fahrenheit (for those of us living in Europe that means minus 15 degrees Celsius!!), that is not just cold, it is dangerously cold – with frostbite and hypothermia risks that can do permanent physical damage. I can just imagine a mother’s voice shrieking when they all got home “You did what???”

Looking in the Mirror

Of course, it can also be seen as quite strong and brave of him to sacrifice his ordinary, middle-class comfort for a day to make a statement, and the statement is powerful. How many of us have walked right by the invisible homeless?  Do we see our own indifference reflected in the mirror? Or perhaps our own busy lives that keep us so focused on our own stuff that we just don’t have time to stop and deal with the suffering of others. The thought of it overwhelms us, and we hurry past because we don’t have time now. Or do we see our own powerless? Our irritation – why does this problem exist? Why doesn’t someone DO something…..

Little brother

But I just LOVED the warmth and humanity of the homeless man that stops and sits right there on the ground beside him and slides an arm around him. His first words “You all right little brother? What’s the matter – you homeless?” “What happened to you?”  have just been resonating in my mind for days since I first saw the video.
Little brother. Little brother – with those two words – what a connection. This is the reality – everyone is our brother, our sister on this planet. Why do I forget that? Instead of saying girl, boy, lady, man etc I used to use just brother and sister when referring to others. Somehow, in the process of assimilating a new language in Romania, it slipped away and I hardly ever say it anymore.
I try to imagine myself, often at a loss for how to avoid the traps of powerlessness, pity or indifference when confronted with a homeless child on the street, saying just that “Hi liittle brother, little sister” and making a connection that dissolves the dehumanization of the situation.

Reaching out to make human contact

Though I also have moments when I am so wrapped in my own busy-ness that I recognize myself in the people that just walked hurriedly past the freezing kid, it isn’t so hard to also reach out and do something different. Every now and then I manage to make small steps to connect and just talk with someone who is begging.  I was once  was in the Gara de Nord train station, in Bucharest, sitting on a cold metal bench waiting for my train when a little girl with glowing brown skin,  large luminous brown eyes, pigtails and a scuffed up pink dress ran up to me asking for money, stumbling through a few memorized words. Such situations can be so uncomfortable. I often feel trapped and unprepared, caught like a deer in the headlights between just ignoring the person or giving something quickly with mild annoyance – in both cases the interaction leaves the unsatisfying feeling of a big human gap. A transaction in which both sides are just playing out pre-recorded roles, neither one relating to the other person in an authentic way.
However, this child had shining eyes and a lovely, bouncy smile, and hadn’t quite mastered the de-personalized ritual drone of asking strangers for money with a memorized phrase. She was only about four years old she reminded me of the children from our kindergarten that I am used to talking to every day. I came down  to her eye level and said in a warm and playful way – „How old are you? „  she was suprised, as people often are when things don’t follow the expected script and she looked a bit shy averting her eyes.  I continued to stay engaged and interested, smiling as I asked „Are you four?” and then she melted into a smile and said „Yes I am four years old!” „What is your name?” „Maria” she said rocking from side to side.  For a few seconds, a human contact had been formed that went outside of the usual pattern and we were both delighted as we had entered into a fresh, open space where something new might happen. However, a lady sitting on the bench next to me hurriedly pulled out a candy and gave it to Maria and she skipped off. The spell was broken and the script restablished itself immediately.

Have the homeless become invisible?

There was another video experiment I saw about the invisibility of the homeless that poses the disturbing question “Have the homeless become so invisible that we wouldn’t notice our own family members living on the street?”
Here’s the link if you are interested:
People were called to a video interview to talk about their relationship to person they are really close to – sister, husband, favorite uncle, etc.  Meanwhile, the film-makers had called those very same loved ones to the studio and dressed them up as homeless, placing them right on the pathway of people that had been called for the interview. From a hidden camera, they filmed the participants in the experiment as they unsuspectingly walked right by their very own family members and loved ones without even stopping to glance at them. Nobody realized it was their own, beloved family member sitting right there, on the pavement, as they walked past.

Sharing with empathy

Back to the “Freezing Homeless Child Experiment.”  After that deliciously cosy greeting, the man then says “Here I am going to make you feel warm.” and started pulling off his jacket and wrapping it around the child.  “You hungry?” he pulls out a few dollar bills and gives him a bear hug.  “You are here at such a young age. Why are you here?  You know, I can communicate because I am homeless. And you know we homeless people we have to look out for one another – maybe I can show you ropes – but you, you are too young to be out here.”
My spiritual master never used to pass the homeless and poor with indifference. He encouraged us to give food whenever possible, rather than directly giving money. He also had us open programs such as cheap or free canteens. To only take care of our own needs can increase selfishness – so he encouraged us to make it a regular practice to share a percentage of our income to do good in the world, especially by donating time or money to service projects. 
More importantly, he encouraged us to design economic opportunities, education etc for those that are the most neglected in society to solve the problem at its root. He felt that the existence the phenomena of begging was in and of itself a deep critique and indictment of the shortcomings of our current systems of government. Yet we should not blame the victims, and while working for more permanent solutions, to still remember that each homeless person that comes before us is giving us a personal opportunity to connect with them and relieve their situation in some small way. How often I have missed that opportunity. At the stop light, when they come to my window – I hesitate in those split seconds to open my purse and find some coins and the light changes.  
On the other hand, I have heard that when my master used to take his daily walk after work accompanied by disciples, he always kept a few coins in his pocket which he gave to the beggars.

Serving the beggar as God

In India they have a traditional teaching – that anyone who comes to the door should be welcomed as if it was God in disguise. There is common and well known Indian folktale that is told to children from a young age, about how Visnu disguised himself as a famished old man, and came to the door of a devout couple, Krupa Sindhu and his wife.  They themselves were on the edge of starvation and the wife had prepared the very last morsels of rice into a few rice-cakes – a portion for herself, for her husband and for his journey to ask some relatives for help. However, when the old man came to their door, clutching his stomach in pain, they both felt compassion for him, and recognized the opportunity to serve God. First the wife gave her portion of food, but still the man was hungry, as Visnu wanted to further test if Krupa Sindhu was truly free of selfishness and pure of heart. When he also gave up his own portions of food to serve the old man, thus ready to sacrifice even his own life, then Visnu revealed his true form. 
In the Christian traditions as well, that I grew up with, Jesus gave the teaching “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
When we serve people, not thinking that we are doing them a favor, but rather that Divinity in this form is giving us a golden opportunity to serve and express our humanity – then it transforms from pity to compassion. Pity, on the other hand, maintains a certain distance. We can only pity someone if we stay in the safety of our comfort zone, feeling sorry for those on the outside of our world rather than sharing the same space with them. Pity disempowers the person served, whereas compassion uplifts and affirms our connection.
Mother Teresa didn’t just serve the poor – she constantly practiced remembering that each and every person, no matter how degraded, dirty  or miserable was God, and that she was serving God, in the form of the suffering Christ, in each of these people. She practiced gratitude towards them, rather than expecting gratitude from them, and this is what made her acts of service so special.
 In yoga, this practice is called “Madhuvidya” – the knowledge (vidya) that makes life sweet as honey (madhu).
Once a disabled man – with one leg and a stump of an arm – sat on the sidewalk along the vegetable market near to our center in the north of Bucharest. He asked me for some bread. I told him I was going to the store and would bring him some.  When I did, I decided, not just to give the food and be done with it – but I squatted down near to him and started to talk to him. What was his name, what happened.  A scripted drone began about his pitiful condition – but I didn’t want to engage with him on that level – I wanted to establish a human connection. I told him I have friends who have disabilities and that I feel sad to see him sitting on the street – that he deserves better than this. I continued to chat with him for a few minutes – and when I left, his eyes were shining and he was smiling.

How to deal with people begging for money?

In general,  if I have food with me, I always willingly and gladly share it.   I don’t feel quite as good about giving money. Especially to children – because I often suspect that parents are using the kids to go out and collect money. Giving money just feeds the vicious cycle and keeps them on the street, whereas food is something they can eat right away, and if they are truly hungry – they often do. Sometimes, when someone asks me for money for bread – if I am near a bakery – I have gone back in to buy them some. There are other situations when asking for bread is just part of a  ritualized way to ask for money.  On the other hand, if I am one of the people that doesn’t give anything, it does not correct the pattern, nor does it teach anything beautiful or useful. 
It is natural that it is easiest to ask for money when in need. It takes away some of the uncertainty of having to trust someone else to actually respond in a human way to your needs, and gives some degree of choice in how to spend it. Revealing certain needs maybe embarrassing or difficult. Easier to ask for bread, than to ask for alcohol in order to self-medicate the misery of living on the streets, and sink into the oblivion of drunken forgetfulness.  And indeed, many of us would feel angry or used, to know our money is not feeding the person, but rather an addiction. But are we ready to get involved in a way that could help that person transform their situation, so they didn’t need to numb themselves just to face the day? Probably not, we have our own problems….so it is easier to give a few coins, and forget about it.  
Yet every time that I do that, or if I even ignore them and don’t give anything,  I think to myself – I must do something to stop homelessness.

Do something

I recently found a quote:
doing something
So doing something – even the few coins, is better than nothing. And no matter how small the action, if that something is done with love, then that is the key. Mother Teresa said “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” I think it is time for me to challenge myself to put the practice of Madhuvidya (remembering the Divine always and in everything) more seriously into action. It means I need to free myself from judging or blaming those who are in this situation. Rather, I need to remember to see the opportunity for serve another from a place of spiritual awakening. Doing something, and doing it with love, is a chance to keep my heart open.
Every time we ignore someone in need,  every time we protect ourselves with excuses, what actually happens is a small act of spiritual violence. We must close our heart, we must numb our feelings and form a protective callous.  Each action creates scar tissue over our innate  generosity and love.  These small acts add up and result in the invisibility and exclusion these people face as hundreds of people walk by and even the ones that do drop a coin in a cup, do it without stopping to look, to question, to connect, to talk.
Of course, I am not satisfied though with giving a few coins, a piece of bread, a few seconds of conversation. My spiritual master also encouraged each of us to take up a responsibility to do something concrete for suffering humanity. Those who had a responsibility for a particular jurisdiction like a city or state in the organization he created for starting up service projects and spreading spiritual practices, was encouraged to take on the spirit of ensuring that nobody in their jurisdiction should die of hunger.

Doing small things with great love

When I was a new meditator, I helped our little meditation group to take this on seriously – and we began to organize a weekly warm breakfast for the homeless on Sundays.  We simply made a big pot of oatmeal, and brought several thermoses of hot chocolate or hot tea, loaded it up into the back of a car  and drove to areas where there were many homeless people.  Several families brought their children along, who were so inspired and impressed. Maybe we helped only 20 people on those Sunday mornings, but it made our hearts sing, and we felt alive and joyful to be able to share something, rather than just feeling helpless about “the homeless”.  And while they ate their oatmeal, you could chat with them. All of this had been inspired by having met a  sister meditator in Los Angeles, who all of the homeless knew as “Mama D”.  She had organized a weekly feeding of the homeless every week for years. They were all her friends now, and she never went anywhere without keeping a few candies in her pocket to give away if she met someone on the street.

The story of the hummingbird

These types of service are indeed superficial and don’t actually transform or change the situation, but that isn’t a reason not do it.  There is a story of a hummingbird, who dipped her wings into the river and  flew back into the raging flames of the forest to release a few drops of water on the fire, while the great elephant with its enormous trunk looked on, ridiculing her for doing something that would make no difference. She simply  replied “I am doing what I can.”  The other animals who were just watching, then understood and began, each one, to do their best to extinguish the flames with as much water as they could carry