Thursday, 8 October 2015

Zen pilgrimage walk: Sleeping rough

Earlier this summer I did a 4-week pilgrimage walk through the country as a Zen monk – carrying no money, just living from my alms bowl. So far I've written a number of articles about the walk (including why I would even do such a thing, the pain in my feet, and how I lived from the bowl on people's generosity).

In this post I'd like to share a little bit about the nights when I didn't have anywhere planned to stay.

The route for my journey was organised around people and places I wanted to visit. But I didn't have a bed lined up for every night. The other nights I had to have to find shelter for myself.

I've done some wild camping in my time, both here and abroad – but that was always with a tent. On this trip I took only a sleeping bag and a roll mat so on those nights I didn't have a bed, I had to find somewhere under-cover to protect myself from the elements.

The first rough night

The Post Office sorting office in Fordingbridge

The first night I slept rough, I ended up in a lovely small town called Fordingbridge in Hampshire. That evening I limped into town with my feet hurting to such a degree that I couldn't spend ages searching around for a place. After a short recce up the high street I spotted a covered porch outside the post office building. Actually it was a sorting office and parcel collection place, and the front of the building had a ramp up to the porch with a door in the corner that looked very unused. There were cobwebs all over it. It was ideal – a good roof, mostly hidden from the road, and not too dirty.

As I unrolled my mat and sleeping bag, I took note that the office opened at 6am, so I set my alarm for 5:15 to make sure I was up and out of there – just in case.

The town quietened down by about 9:30-10pm, with only the occasional car carrying it's driver up to the chippie round the corner. It was strange to hear the road so loudly as I was dropping off, and I think I remained quite vigilant to being noticed for quite some time. Eventually I fell asleep.

I woke up with the alarm. Just as I was rolling up my mat at about 5:45 the door in the porch started to unlock. Shit... I was convinced they're going to shoo me away and report me to the police! But so what if they did? – that would just be part to the pilgrimage. But I didn't think like that at the time.

So the door opened and out leaned a postie. "Do you want a cup of tea?" he asked. I was blown away! "That'll get you warmed up for the day!" he continued. Wow! So I sat there drinking my tea in a warm glow of incredulity and gratefulness to the kind postman.

That's how it continued really! I slept in someone's garage, under some scaffold, in the awning of a disused cafe, in a church doorway. I never had any major problems finding shelter.

The night of the Waitrose bridge

One evening I was walking into Newbury. On these days where I knew I didn't know where didn't know where I was going to sleep, the anxieties usually started arising at about 3-4pm when I still had a few hours walking to go. First would come the (re-)realisation that I didn't know where I was going to sleep that night. Then would come the thoughts – could I sleep in that bus stop if I had to? What if I was in deep suburbia and there was nothing but rows of houses? Where would I find then? That place looks good, but I can't stop now, it's too early. What if I can't find anywhere? Etc, etc.

Walking into Newbury I remember checking out some hedgerows, and some emergency stairs at the back of an office block. Them, as I was walking past a brand new Waitrose I noticed they had a delivery entrance on the other side of a short bridge. I surreptitiously snuck through some undergrowth to have a look under the bridge and happily found a nice bit of fairly clean, flat concrete between two pillars. I unrolled my mat as you can see in the photo.

A while later as I was in my sleeping bag, just nodding off, a couple of homeless people brushed past. I pulled up my head and the lady said "alright mate, we won't be long." They went round the corner and proceeded to have a blazing argument with lots of effing and blinding. This was the only time on the walk where I really felt vulnerable. Should I leave? It would take me at least 15mins to get dressed and pack up my stuff, and it would be very obvious to them what I was doing. I decided to just keep my head down. To them I was probably just another homeless guy – why should they bother me? And they said they wouldn't be long...

The argument continued for some time – but they did leave eventually. It was a strange feeling to drop off to sleep in that situation. I kept telling myself to relax, and whatever was going to happen would happen. Trust in the universe! I had an alright nights sleep in the end. The canal my route was
following was only 30secs walk away and it was a beautiful morning.

The night of the Church Doorway

Later on in the walk, I was looking for a place to kip in Balsover, Derbyshire. After some time looking around the edges of the town, I spotted a church doorway. I'd often stopped in church porches for breaks or to shelter from the rain, so when I saw this doorway I felt compelled to investigate!

As I approached, an older couple came out of an adjacent doorway of the church. I had to explain myself: "I'm a Zen monk... Would you be ok if I slept in this doorway?" They weren't exactly encouraging, but said it would be fine – as long as I didn't do any graffiti or get caught by the police.

What I learned

Before this walk I'd never slept rough. Granted when I was on my walk it was summer, and the nights weren't too cold, but I found it a surprisingly comfortable and very liberating experience. By the end of the walk I had quite a good eye for spots to shelter in – both in the town and out. My absolute ideal place to sleep would've been a barn full of hay. I actually found one once, but sadly it was the middle of the day at the time. Only once did I feel slightly vulnerable, but that was just my anxiety towards strangers. I should've just got up and had a chat to them.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Ever had a similar experience? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. I'd be curious what you think of the following article, given your experiences:

    1. Thanks. Yes, I saw that article when it came out. Thankfully there have been petitions and efforts to remove this kind of defensive architecture (,, etc). That said, I didn't encounter any anti-homeless spikes on my journey, but I was never in any big cities.

  2. well done Mark! impressed!

  3. Mark ... from the start of reading this story, the question of 'where/how did you find places to sleep' was always in my mind. So your account is interesting. I was most take by the 'older couple' who barbed their approval of you sleeping in 'their' church doorway with " as long as I didn't do any graffiti or get caught by the police ". Being caught by the Police would be entirely out of your control .... but to tell you not to do an graffiti - and as an obvious Zen Monk! - I think is most insulting. Respect to you for 'taking that on the chin'.