I was in La Conner, just outside Seattle, one of my favourite places in the world, at the end of a weeklong retreat to raise my consciousness level. It had been a wonderful experience and I was positively glowing from all the insights I’d been sharing with like-minded people, coaches and trainers.
There’s a wonderful fish market in La Conner and on this particular afternoon I happened to be standing outside it, just biding my time, waiting to hail a cab. Across the street from me I caught sight of an elderly black man, clearly homeless by the look of him. He had a long straggly beard that was streaked with grey and he was dressed in the shabbiest clothes that appeared never to have been washed. He saw me and returned my gaze before I could look away. I was silently cursing myself as he continued to stare and then, inevitably it seemed, started to cross the street, walking straight towards me.
I love America, and I always feel perfectly safe talking to people wherever I go. I’ve never bought in to the notion of the States being a violent place, because some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met are Americans. On top of that I was decidedly chilled from my time on the retreat and at that point pretty much in love with all humanity. Nevertheless, I was an Englishman abroad, and very smartly dressed in comparison to this man approaching me, a man you might describe as a tramp or ‘hobo’, (if that word is still in use today). I briefly wondered if I should duck back into the market, before shrugging off that idea as paranoid and silly. But I have to say it didn’t help that as he got closer he appeared to be staring at my shoes. Was I about to be mugged?
‘Can I help you?’ I offered, in an effort to sound casual.
‘Nice shoes’, he said, and then we had a conversation.
Any concerns I’d had were quickly defused when it turned out that this man – he called himself Shayne – was perfectly harmless and just as friendly as any American I’d ever met before. He didn’t want my shoes; he was just passing the time of day, same as me. Shayne had lived on this street for years and was very happy. He told me that he wanted for nothing, that he got by okay, helping people out with little errands for which he would receive a few bucks. Living this way was stress free. He had no fear of the world because there was nothing that could be taken from him. He had the stars at night and the sun – and rain – in the day. He was joyful. I could see it in his eyes. This was a happy man. Let me say it again …
Living this way was stress-free!
I’m not advocating homelessness as an option, but the experience had a profound effect on me. I’d just been learning about how we create our reality from the inside out, that happiness and joy are innate, our birthright, and can’t be affected by outside circumstances unless we allow that. Here was living proof. Everything – everything – that I’d ever learned about how to live a successful, happy life was challenged by this man’s pleasure at simply being alive. I felt extremely humble.
Where does our joy go to? Most of us, even those with disadvantaged backgrounds, can remember childhood joys, the simple pleasure we got from discovering and then playing with a world that was full of magical potential. But as the years go by and we enter the education system, learning more each day about how the world apparently works, about the pattern that our lives are supposed to follow if we want to be happy, that pleasure can gradually turn to fear and anxiety. As Syd Banks reminded us, happiness is never more than one thought away. The certainty that we can never feel joy again now that we’re ‘all grown up’ with grown up responsibilities, is itself just a feeling, stemming from thought. Nothing more. Take away that thought and replace it with a better one – the magic returns!
The joy never left us. It was there all along.
I think I may well have given Shayne my shoes if he’d asked, instead I opened my wallet. There was cash in there. I offered him some money for his story but he refused even a lousy ten dollars. He thanked me, told me he was fine, complimented me on my footwear once more then took his leave, crossing back over to the opposite side of the road.
I needed to go home, but he didn’t. He was already home.