09/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Oscar Winning Actress Ellen Burstyn Slept On A NYC Street: Stepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone

We all dread stepping out of what is familiar and known: your comfort zone. But when we do, we can discover enormous reserves of strength within ourselves, as actress Ellen Burstyn told us she did when she was homeless.

Most of us have a deep fear that the unthinkable could possibly happen to us, such as becoming homeless. In today's economy, many people are finding themselves on the street through no fault of their own. Yet how many of us acknowledge street people as fellow human beings with needs no different from ours, simply without the means to fulfill them? Instead, how often do we avert our eyes when we pass them by and pretend they do not exist?

In an attempt to find out what it would take to see homeless people as being no different from ourselves, Rev. James Morton, the dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, began an experiment. As Zen teacher Grover Gauntt told us:

"He designed what he called the plunge: an act of diving into unknown waters and getting completely whacked and disorientated so you can orientate yourself in a new way. And he applied this to the street by sending his ministers out without any money, no place to live, no identification, just like the people they were serving. The first thing they did, quite naturally, was to go to the churches and ask for help, but, of course, very few would help them."

From here developed the idea of street retreats: living on the street for a few days as a spiritual practice, intended to bring people into the very midst of society's neediest, and by doing so to seek a place of inclusivity. Bernie Glassman, founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, talked to us for our book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You and the World. He told us:

"The homelessness that exists in our society is due to treating people as throwaways, and it will only end when we stop seeing them as garbage. Street retreats are where we live and practice meditation on the streets, begging and sleeping rough just as any homeless person would. We meet for meditation periods together and then disperse to do what we have to in order to survive, such as finding food to eat and boxes to sleep on."

Bernie continued: "I included meditation as I wanted to show that meditation is not just sitting on a cushion but reaches out to every aspect of life. It is a way of bringing us into a state of inclusivity and of not-knowing, and when that happens, the experience of oneness arises. But at the same time we have the experience of not existing. When you are homeless and begging, people walk past you, you are completely ignored, you simply do not exist. When you have been so ignored, it is impossible to do that to another person. You can no longer look away from anybody or anything."

Ellen Burstyn had this experience of being ignored when she did a street retreat and lived on the street with the homeless. In our book she told us:

"I did the street retreat because I was so afraid of it. I could physically feel how much fear I had about being away from my comfort zone, my bed, and especially not having any identity. The whole idea of begging was terrifying. The first time I did it, I had to a cross a street to a restaurant with tables outside. Two women were eating there and I decided to approach them. As I walked toward them, I felt like I was crossing over some line that I had consciously never known was there. I was purposefully stepping through my ego to experience what was on the other side. I approached the women and simply asked, 'Excuse me, but I need a dollar for the subway. Could either of you spare a dollar?' The woman closest to me reached into her pocket and handed me a dollar without taking her eyes off her companion's face. I said 'Thank you' and walked away. I felt a strange pride that I had really accomplished something, but then enormous sadness as I realized that neither of the women had looked at me. I had got what I needed, but I had been disregarded, I had not been seen."

This invisibility is one of the biggest difficulties for the homeless. As Grover Gauntt, who is a street retreat leader, says:

"Just a day can seem like forever as it is so intense. Suddenly, you do not have the money to get home, buy a cup of tea, make a phone call, or do anything. Fear rises as you are without any identity, any way of saying you are who you are. How do you relate to this world now? You have to find a place to sleep; you have to beg for food. And you watch people move their eyes to avoid seeing you. When we don't have the experience of something, then we tend to negate or categorize it. Homeless people get categorized as being alcoholics, drug addicts, there to rip you off, or just plain crazy. But every homeless person has a story and a history, just like we do. Before I first took the plunge, I was fearful of confrontation, but I learned that confrontation is just disguised fear. I rarely pass a homeless person now without saying a few words and acknowledging him as a human being. Taking the plunge into the unknown is an expansion into a different way of seeing, an acceptance of all states of being beyond one's own limitations."

Doing anything outside of our experience is a plunge, especially stepping into places that we resist or are fearful of. The added ingredient of meditation to the street retreats was to deepen the experience of inclusivity, that we are all a part of each other, whether we are homeless or not. Such retreats, now held in many cities across the country, confront our fear and in so doing embrace our shared humanity.

Do you have stories of when you were able to step out of your comfort zone? Do comment below. You can receive notice of our blogs every Thursday by checking Become a Fan at the top.

You can pre-order a copy of our book at: BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You and the World. It will be published Nov 3.


Ed and Deb Shapiro's new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors such as Marianne Williamson, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Beckwith, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jane Fonda, Jack Kornfield, Byron Katie, Ed Begley, Bernie Glassman, Russell Bishop, and others, will be published Nov 3 2009 by Sterling Ethos.

Deb is the author of the award-winning book YOUR BODY SPEAKS YOUR MIND. Ed and Deb are the authors of over 15 books, and lead meditation retreats and workshops. They are corporate consultants, and the creators of Chillout daily inspirational text messages on Sprint cell phones. See: