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Telling strangers, "I'm hungry"-2009 (65)

Attending a nine-day residency course with Byron Katie in Los Angeles

I’d read several of Byron Katie’s books. I decided to do her nine-day Los Angeles residency program, with gourmet vegetarian buffet meals included. I flew from Shanghai, China. 

Going on a four-hour field trip to Santa Monica after two days of fasting

All-in-all it was a great program. I’ll just share one amazing adventure/experience. Perhaps five days into the course, when the 200+ participants showed up for breakfast, there was no breakfast. We were informed, without prior warning, that we were fasting. Of course, we had the option to buy other food to eat, but we were encouraged to “follow the program,” if we could. It was no problem for me. 


We didn’t know when the fast would end. On the third morning of the fast, after assembling in the hotel ballroom, we were told we were going on a field trip, taken by buses and dropped off for four hours near an ocean-front beach in Santa Monica. Then we would be bused back to the hotel ballroom in Los Angeles. 

You cannot speak, except to say...

We were instructed that, from the beginning of the trip on the bus until we returned, we could not speak, with two exceptions. Once we were dropped off in Santa Monica, we were allowed to speak two things: “May I join you?” or “I’m hungry.” No other words were allowed. Byron Katie did some mocks with a staff member to demonstrate how it could be done. 

We were penniless

We were also instructed to leave all money, identification, and valuables in our room. We were told that we could not go to a soup kitchen or solicit food from a restaurant. If we got picked up by the police, that was our responsibility. A city law prohibited begging on the street. That may have been why she told us we could say, "I'm hungry," instead of "I'm hungry and would you help me with some money or food." Literally speaking the first statement was not asking for anything.

Starting four hours of...

It was about 10:30 am when we were dropped off at the beach-side park and the 200 of us fanned out toward the east onto the sidewalks of Santa Monica to interact, or not, with the soon-to-be-surprised pedestrians or bench-sitting denizens of Santa Monica.

Some of the class members stayed in groups of two or three. I wanted to go it alone. For the first hour, I just roamed and explored, noticing the others passing or sitting on benches. I also noticed I was delaying or avoiding approaching anyone with one or both of the two things I was allowed to say. 

Feeling nervous, I started with, "May I join you?"

I started with, “May I join you?” It was pretty easy and a few people said, “yes.” But, since I couldn’t really start a conversation, I could just try to listen to what others were talking about together.

Choosing more courage to say, "I'm hungry"

Then I took the leap. I said, “I’m hungry,” to one guy eating a hamburger, even though I really wasn’t that hungry. At least for me, once I’ve fasted for two days, most of the hunger goes away. Apologetically, he explained how he was tight for money and how I could go down to the soup kitchen. He even gave me general directions.

A bus lady feeds me

About ten minutes later, I sat down on a bus-stop bench, to the right of a woman, about 45 years old, waiting for the bus. After a minute or two, I said to her, “I’m hungry.” She apologized for not having more than bus fare on her, and she quickly reached into a paper bag she had beside her and pulled out a power bar and a small sandwich that she had bought, handing them over to me. Without being able to speak, I bowed to her and expressed my gratitude as much as I could in body language.

I say "I'm hungry" to a young man

After eating the power bar and sandwich while sitting on the bench, I walked further until I saw a young man, maybe about 22-years-old, talking with two others, a man and a woman of the same age. At first, I just asked, “May I join you?” After a few minutes of listening to them talk, I said, “I’m hungry.”

"Choose what you like under $10...I will pay..."

The first young man immediately led me to the door of a delicatessen we were standing in front of. He said, “I’m a student. I don’t have much. But you can buy whatever you want as long as it’s under $10.” I smiled with gratitude as we moved toward the selection window. I pointed at a soup and a sandwich combination, which kept the total under $10. He used his credit card to pay for it. While we were waiting for my food, he shared with me how he was part of a church group from an east coast university participating in a Christian retreat in the area. He accompanied me to my seat and, again, I expressed gratitude as much as I could without words. Curiously, he made no comment about why I didn’t say anything more after saying, “I’m hungry.”

The three of them asked if they could join me at my table

The young man went over to join his two friends, the woman and the other man, at another table in the restaurant. Within a few minutes, as I was continuing to eat my soup and sandwich, the three of them came over to my table and asked if they could join me. I eagerly, and non-verbally, welcomed them. The other man and woman sat across from me, with the girl to my left. The man who had paid for my food sat just to my left.

I listened especially well since I could not speak

They continued to chat, not as if they were talking among themselves, but directly “to” me, even though I could only respond non-verbally. I suspect that, because I was unable to speak, I was intent that they could feel my interest in listening to whatever they said by how I looked at them and by my facial expressions. 

I "cheated" a little

They told me about their lives back at the university as well as a bit about the religious retreat they had come to California for. At one point, I “cheated” a little by disobeying Byron Katie’s instructions by writing on a piece of paper that I was visiting the Los Angeles area, that I lived in Shanghai, and that I owned a cat. But that was all.

"Join us for ice cream!"

After thirty minutes and I had finished my eating, they said that they were going across the street to buy some ice cream. They wanted to treat me and invited me to join them. Even though I was completely full by this time (remember I was breaking a fast and had also already just eaten the food that the bus lady had given me), I eagerly accepted as I wanted an excuse to visit with them more. In the ice cream shop, I pointed to the ice cream that I wanted, the least expensive one I could see. It still cost $4. 

Going from penniless to $11 in my pocket

As we were waiting for our ice creams to be prepared, the young man who had previously bought my soup and sandwich, pulled me aside as the other two were busy in their own conversation. He took $11 out of his pocket and said that this is all the cash he had now. He wanted me to be okay. I tried to express how touched and grateful I was non-verbally, but it seemed so inadequate. 

They pray for me

After we all got our ice creams, we sat at a small round table on the sidewalk just outside the store and the three of them continued to share about their lives with me. When the time came that they had to leave to attend a meeting, the girl asked us all to bow our heads and she said a few words of prayer in support of me being taken care of and being okay.

Young woman gives me $20

As they waved goodbye and were walking away, the girl held back and put $20 into my hand, wishing me the best. I was almost in tears.

So awkward for me to be unable to give back or to explain

Near the end of the visit I had wanted so much to ask for their email addresses, but I didn’t think I could manage to do that without resorting to writing. I was already feeling a bit uneasy with myself for having bent the rules earlier when I let them know that I lived in Shanghai. I knew if I had their email addresses I could later reassure them that I was okay and at least offer some value to them in return through my coaching abilities. I was noticing how difficult it was for me to not be able to return their generosity with an expression of my own. Also, I felt that I needed to somehow explain to them later why I was not able to talk when I was with them in Santa Monica.

No evangelizing

Another thing I was surprised by was that, even though they shared a bit about their Christian beliefs and activities, they did not try to convert me to being a Christian. Perhaps they had just assumed I was already a Christian. I don’t know.

My surprise was different from the others

After all of us had been bused back to the hotel ballroom in Los Angeles, Byron Katie asked us to share our experiences. As she had predicted, all the sharing from others was about their surprise at discovering how “human” and friendly everyone was, especially for those who approached men and women who were homeless and living on the street.

I wasn’t surprised by that. I already know that from my own experiences before because of my habit of choosing courage to approach strangers and talk with them. Also, my attitude was probably influenced by something my mother would often say, “By in large, people are decent.”

What I was surprised by and touched deeply by was the physical generosity, that is, giving me food and money. In just two hours, from the first time I choose courage to say, “I’m hungry,” I had gone from an empty stomach and not a penny in my pocket to being overly stuffed and having $31.

Why was I so touched by physical generosity?

One reason this may have touched me so much is that, in most circumstances, I am not physically generous. For example, I don’t recall a single time that I have given money to a street beggar, no matter their presenting condition. What I have done is to show respect and friendliness to beggars. Sometimes I have stopped to try to talk with a beggar to see if there were some way I might otherwise be of value. Most often they showed no interest in talking with me. They kept insisting that I give them money.

I am more generous with listening, coaching, sharing ideas, showing respect to everyone

Several times I have given beggars on the street here in Kunming my card, which invites them to my free life-coaching class. And just once, a beggar showed up. When it was time for the class members to share their problems with me, he raised his hand and asked for my help in what he could do to find a place to live. I coached him a bit, presenting several options for him to explore, which he said he would. After the class finished, a few of the other participants were also offering him help and providing suggestions. I don’t know if he ever followed through or what happened to him.

I do recognize that physical generosity is one type of interaction with others that is important, especially if the “giver” ensures that they are taking care of themselves in the process. It just doesn’t normally fit for me. I can be most selfishly generous with others with my listening of others, my coaching of others, my sharing valuable ideas with others, and always showing respect to others. I relate well to what Jesus said, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." 


My brother said that I changed

After the nine-day residency program with Byron Katie, I flew onto Nashville, Tennessee, and then drove 80 miles in a rented car to visit my mother and brother where they lived on the beautiful Cumberland Plateau. After visiting with my brother for an hour, he surprised me by telling me that he experienced me as more present and listening deeply to him than ever before. I suspect that this behavioral change, that I was not self-reflectively aware of, flowed out of participating in the Byron Katie experience.

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