Jonathan Likeke Scheuer on the Urban Whole Thinking Retreat in Detroit

Posted by Jonathan Scheuer on Wednesday, September 25 2013

Editor's Note: 1998 Switzer Fellow Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, Ph.D. was born and raised and lives in Hawai`i. In his roles as a consultant, on the board of the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, and as a member of the O`ahu Island Burial Council, he works with Native Hawaiian and broader communities to develop strategies to avoid, manage, and/or resolve conflicts over resources. Executive Director Lissa Widoff nominated Jonathan for one of the competitive spots in this Whole Thinking Retreat in Detroit, so we are pleased to present this piece, where he contemplates the experience and how it has changed his work. Our thanks to the Center for Whole Communities, who gave us permission to reprint this article on our site.  We invite you to read Jonathan's original article and others in the Whole Thinking Journal Spring, 2013 issue.


It is mid-April, a weekday. As is often the case, I am working in a mild panic. Papers from too many different projects are stacked in inelegant piles across my desk in my home office tucked against a ridge in Mānoa Valley. My eye catches a few things: handwritten interview notes from a trip to Kaua`i to discuss the development of a water system for small farmers; bylaws for a land trust; an archaeological study and plan for the protection of ancient burials discovered in the course of building a hotel tower in Waikīkī; tax forms for my consulting business; a two-month-old, to-be-filled prescription for new eyeglasses. The unsorted sack at my right elbow nags at me. Some big deadlines are quickly approaching. My breathing is shallow, not that I notice. I drum my fingers, momentarily appreciating the work I did painting my desk top.

I stare at ninety-six emails in my inbox, eleven unread. My mind flits like a fly. I think about a potentially contentious meeting coming up. My client wants to protect a coastline from development impacts. My jaw clenches as I go over all the opponents who will be at the meeting. Then I see a Post-it with a shopping list out of the corner of my eye. What should I cook for guests coming over tomorrow? Need to go shopping. When will I pick up my son and visit my mom? Need bread. My mom used to bake bread all the time. Oh boy, am I distracted, I shouldn’t be this way. I must be less focused than other people. Guilt. I remember not being chosen for a job I applied for twenty years ago, and wonder if it is because I get distracted. Sigh.

Staring again at my screen I choose an email to respond to and drill down to writing the words needed for a response. It is a relief to focus, but the escape is temporary. The discomfort of being with these piles and emails will also be left soon, at least for a while, as I will have to be off on my errands.

Even while my mind is deeply wrapped in the writing of a long email, a few things flash on and off in the back of my mind, blinking like a charging light on a phone. I think about the possibility of attending a Whole Thinking Retreat on a fellowship I was recently offered. I am excited, as I have been a fan of Center for Whole Communities for years, and its vision of people connected to land and place and each other, across movements and other kinds of difference. That said, I have no idea really what to expect. After I applied, I was offered the possibility of attending the Center’s first Urban Whole Thinking Retreat in Detroit. Blink. Pause. Write. Blink.

My computer beeps. I send my missive and check the one that came in: email from Whole Communities. Detroit. I am going to Detroit! Detroit? Other work will wait. I immediately do three web searches: Detroit + progressive + conservation; Detroit weather in August; and Detroit + crime statistics.

We will be doing metta practice, so sit in a relatively comfortable posture. It’s difficult to wish well for someone when you are in excruciating pain. But you also want to stay alert...you have to find that balance. Take a deep breath, settle into your body, and just connect with being here.

It is now August. I twist my body as much as I can in my tiny airplane seat to see the ground. I’ve been in the air for four and a half hours from Seattle, just a few days after the six hours from Honolulu. Now below me stretches a vast, flat, green landscape, dissolving into haze. So different from O`ahu, green mountains and deep blue sea, the shadows of clouds dark on the curved plate of the ocean. I see below me some of what I had read about Detroit: large sections of city where perhaps one or two homes on a block are still standing, the rest grass and small trees. We are low enough now that I can make out paved roads cracked at the crown with weeds. A car drives below on these empty streets, and in the absence of buildings it seems like it is wandering.

Detroit. I had never, ever thought about going to Detroit.

Just feel however your body feels right now. Your feet on the floor; feel your contact with the cushion. Feel where your hands are touching.

To make it to the retreat on time, I arrive the day before. Off the plane, through the terminal, grab my bag and catch a ride downtown. The taxi driver was born and raised in the city. She is Black (I’m White); around my age (forty-three) but a grandmother (I have a three-year-old); lost two brothers to murders (I can’t imagine); mostly enjoys and appreciates her job that pays slightly more than minimum wage (I earn far more).

She wants to know more about why I am coming to Detroit. I am not that clear; I say goodbye, afraid she has ended up with the impression it is some sort of service trip. Before we part, she kindly and enthusiastically offers to show me some sights before my retreat starts tomorrow.

Why am I here? Why is it so hard to explain why I am here? Well, here I am.

And then just feel your breathing, allowing the breath to come naturally.

Before settling in for the night, I have dinner with the only person I know who lives in the Detroit area and some of his friends, all of whom live north of the city. They are all White, almost all in their twenties. We meet for really good barbeque at Slows; true to its name, we have a long wait and talk at leisure. Tired from travel but anxious about tomorrow, I pepper them with questions about the area. I ask them if they would consider moving back into Detroit proper. No. Maybe if there were good jobs, if it was safer. One of them stares at me and says: “No one lives in Detroit.”

Back at my hotel I collapse into my bed.

The first part of the metta practice is actually to bring your heart to the right space for doing this practice. So one of the preliminary practices is to take some time to appreciate yourself, for your own good qualities.

The next day I catch a cab that takes me for a ten-minute ride from downtown along a freeway to Wayne State College. The driver drops me off at the end of a mall and I roll my suitcase down the walk to find the dorm entrance. It is a typical urban college campus. I get buzzed in the front door, check in at the front desk, fumble for a minute to figure out how to use the key card to call the elevator (are things so dangerous here the elevators need to be secured too?), and find my room. No one else is there; I smell the smell of a dorm that is the smell of dorms everywhere — alcohol, mildew, and cleaning products. A handwritten sign near the elevator says to meet in the lounge down the hall in two hours. I unpack, and then wander a couple of blocks to a coffee shop to catch up on emails that are piling up. It is a quiet day on campus, and I see a few folks at the next table and wonder if they are in my group. I do not introduce myself.

Later I walk back to the dorm lounge where a group of about eighteen people has gathered and we begin to introduce ourselves to each other; I see some of the folks from the coffee shop. People seem nice, and it is a very mixed group — race, age, gender, presumably sexual orientation. There are folks from Detroit, as well as people from all over the United States. We will head to the Cass Corridor Commons in a little while for dinner and the beginning of our retreat.

The Urban Whole Thinking Retreat in Detroit (Photo:Taz Squire)The walk there takes us from the actively designed environment of the University into the city. It is not alarming, but we are clearly in a place that has its challenges. There are many vacant lots, buildings are not well kept, the streets have many potholes. On the streets are working folks, as well as folks who clearly have no work. Once at the Commons, we share exercises to get to know each other. I am quickly amazed by the other fellows. It is only the beginning of the week, and I hear about some deep struggles folks have gone through. I pair with one person who warns me that I may not want to talk to him after hearing his story, and he tells me of a troubled youth with crime, addiction, family estrangement, and redemption. His energy and smile make it clear that his presence is a great gift, and after we share stories we embrace.

These are folks with amazing lives, and the little I hear of their work awes me. The spectrum of work represented is broad. There are folks who work with land trusts, someone who works with inner-city youth on gardening, a filmmaker, a planner, a dancer, a healer, a policy maker from DC.

Perhaps there is a place for this short, White, half-Jewish guy from Hawai`i who works as a consultant, mostly on environmental and Native Hawaiian issues. While the challenges of my privileged life seem to have little to do with the struggles many of the others have faced, at the same time there is great warmth from the teachers, the participants, and the Detroit hosts. We are fed a meal by the People’s Kitchen almost all made from food from the area. We are paired up with a “buddy” for a walk back to the dorms. I don’t feel so out-of-place. Maybe.

This may not be something that you are used to doing, but just reflect for a moment on what some of your own wholesome qualities are. Drop your attention to your heart area, feel yourself appreciating. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing. It can be just some small act of kindness. . . . If voices of doubt come up, or criticism, try and let them go — just soak in an appreciation of your own goodness. All of us have this beautiful purity of heart that becomes obscured.

We walk back, and in my room I get ready for bed. I am still unclear on what we are doing this week, but I am excited as well. I tell myself to talk less and listen more; be open. Nānā ka maka, ho`olohe ka pepeiao, pa`a ka waha: Look with the eyes, listen with the ears, shut the mouth. Good advice I have been given in the past, which I am still learning, and which is ready to help me again.

The next day we go deeper into what we will do for the week; we talk about awareness practice, working with difference; story telling; creativity. I write things in my notebook, underline, jot ideas and phrases.

It quickly becomes apparent how much work has gone into this retreat. Our teachers have obviously done this kind of work a great deal, and they are clear in their words and warm in their tone. I am particularly drawn to Adrienne, a Detroiter, who brings great focus and energy to her role as a leader, but with a warmth and comfort with herself that suffuses any space she is in. Mohamad asks deeply pointed questions that move us forward. Ginny presses the edges of discussion ever outward with gentle probing. Taz teaches us to carve spoons with the gentle encouragement that makes creativity thrive. Anushka leads us in awareness practice, and I think all of us are already in love with her.

I have been in new situations before, I say to myself, so this should work out okay. I think about the events in my life and work when I have been the outsider, which is most of the time. Man, have I screwed up a lot, and it is easy to dwell on those times. But, I have also done some things well. My mind goes back to walking through a native rainforest with a Hawaiian leader who was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned trying to protect it from development decades earlier. He and I worked together with others to acquire and permanently protect the 25,000 acres for traditional Hawaiian use. The first time I met Palikapu, I was very nervous; but it worked out.

In the retreat, I try to be as present as possible, but my mind does move off. I think a lot of my wife and three-year-old son waiting in Seattle to go back to Hawai`i with me. Is he asking for me? How is she doing? I think about the ever-present piles of work on my desk as well; I need to get a PowerPoint draft done for a presentation on water law history next month. Then I breathe and manage to focus again.

The next preliminary practice we will do is a forgiveness practice. You can just repeat these phrases to yourself and don’t worry if it doesn’t feel complete; it’s just a way of opening the heart. There are three phrases we will use:

If I have done anything to harm anyone, intentionally or unintentionally, through thought, word, or action, I ask for forgiveness.

If anyone has done anything to harm me, intentionally or unintentionally, through thought, word, or action, I offer forgiveness, as best I am able.

If I have done anything to harm myself, intentionally or unintentionally, through thought, word, or action, I forgive myself.

We are doing awareness practice, and Anushka is leading us. We sit in a circle in the sanctuary of the church that hosts space with the Cass Corridor Commons.

It becomes easier to sit in the circle on the zafu cushion as the week goes on. This is physical as my body becomes used to sitting this way, but it is more as well. We are far enough along in the week that the fellow participants have become friends. The relaxed lines of one person’s cheek as she closes her eyes are familiar; I love seeing how another sits kneeling over a cushion with the straightest back. I know when a third friend will (as I have to) shift from one position to another after about ten minutes of sitting. I can tell that this week — back in April the idea of taking a whole week off seemed like too much — will go too quickly. We settle into our cushions, our chairs. Anushka asks us to connect with our heart center, and work on a forgiveness practice.

The words she offers resonate with the Episcopal confessional I recited almost every Sunday of my youth. “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

As I did those many Sundays, I feel overwhelmed. I consider the words. I think about the one definition of sin that has made sense to me: that which separates us from others and ourselves. There is so much to do in this life, so much to do in my home. There is so much left undone. There are so many ways in the past I could have done better. For a while it seems like even raising the idea of forgiveness brings up too many painful memories.

But we continue, eyes closed. Feeling the presence of the circle, for a moment I glimpse it — peace.

We will start the metta practice by bringing to mind someone it is really easy to wish well for; someone for whom our sense of love and happiness comes very easily when we think of them or see them.

We will start by connecting with our own well wishes for them; just as we want these things, the other person wants these things.

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be strong and healthy.

May you be safe, from inner and outer harm.

May you live with joy.

It is nearing the end of the week in Detroit, and we are doing metta practice for the first time. I am blown away with this way to wish well for others.

When we are guided to think of someone for whom it is easy to wish well, I instantly think of a woman we saw on our bike ride across inner Detroit.

We rode for almost fifteen miles, through many landscapes that looked like those I had glimpsed from the air while landing. Our bike hosts led us through a long itinerary. There were stops at an elementary school near an incinerator, the Heidelberg project with its post-apocalyptic decoration of abandoned homes; a gorgeous Earthworks urban farm site. The luxuriant midwestern summer vegetation seemed so exotic to me, in the way I imagine palm trees do to folks from here. In between our stops we rode through many neighborhoods with only one or two houses standing, or vacant high-rises. Our group of cyclists clearly stood out, and there was a bit of staring and occasional calling out. At each site we had deep conversations about what worked, what was provocative, and what was still needed in each of these struggles.

On our way back from the Detroit waterfront, one elderly woman walking home saw us, stopped, put down her groceries, and clapped. “I am so happy to see you! This is great!”

In our well wishing, I think of her.

Then my mind goes to the many other people we have met, folks who are doing progressive work here that puts other places to shame — urban gardening, art, food justice, environmental justice efforts. Detroit rocks. It is very easy to wish well for them.

Connect again with the heart, and this time send the wishes to yourself:

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I be strong and healthy.

May I be safe, from inner and outer harm.

May I live with joy.

I am leaving Detroit and am at the airport gate. I have just said goodbye to the last of my fellow fellows. I think about arriving in Seattle and then going home with my family, and trying to tell the story of what this was like — Detroit, the retreat, what I have learned. In some ways I feel as inarticulate as I did when I arrived. But I can say that I learned some real, practical tools that will help me in my everyday work. I can say the common story of Detroit with all its negatives is as off base as the stories folks tell of my home. I can see how in the work I share, where anger and pain are so common, how this effort toward wholeness is needed, and is accessible. It feels possible.

The question will be, can I hold on to this feeling and keep these practices? Can I care for myself in this way?

In the last part of the practice period, we will expand our sense of well wishing outward, out to everyone in the room here, and then to all beings. Just as we wish to be happy, and healthy, and safe, so does everyone here, no matter what the story of his or her life. The same is true for everyone in the world, and all the animals; they seek safety, happiness.

May all of us be peaceful and happy.

May all of us be strong and healthy.

May all of us be safe, from inner and outer harm.

May all of us live with joy.

It is a month later, September. I am back in Honolulu. It is 4:24 am and still tired I wake up, thinking about a presentation I have to give to a state commission that day. Wife asleep beside me, and son in the next room, I pad from our bedroom to the living room, nervous about the day ahead. We are asking this commission to take steps to protect a natural resource that Hawaiians depend on so they can exercise traditional and customary practices. Developers with billions of dollars in proposed projects, who would incur millions in costs if what we want happens, oppose us. On both sides are people I know well, in some cases have known for years and even decades. As we have been in dialogue over this issue for the past year, the anger and frustration of those opposed to us has been palpable and growing. As I first think of it my teeth clench, my breath grows shallow.

So I slip on my ear buds and snap them into my smart phone, go to Anushka’s website (www.anushkaf.org) and find one of her guided metta practices. I hear her kind voice, and begin the sitting. When I am at the main part of the well wishing, I envision each of the people I expect to see that day on both sides of the issue, and I wish them well.

Later that day, when we sit before the commission, we are calm. We are happy. Rather than being nervous, I am glowing with pleasure at the chance to be there. I greet the folks I know warmly.

After the meeting, one person who represents a developer begins to verbally attack me. He tells me how wrong our points are, and I listen, but I smile; I firmly but gently make my point. He finally stutters, “this conversation is over!” and stomps away. Aloud and in my heart, I wish him well.

Expand yourself even further, out beyond the walls of this building...all the beings on the ground, in the air; expand further and include all on the great planet, from very small to very large.

May all beings be peaceful and happy.

May all beings be strong and healthy.

May all beings live in safety.

May all of beings be free from suffering.

In the months since that meeting, the struggles — internal and external — go on. It is not as if a little well wishing has transformed everything, or eliminated my desk piles. However, I notice a pattern to my interactions and work that is different, and awareness and breathing stubbornly creep into my consciousness. I see more outlines of a possibility that there need not be such a gulf between the nature of the goal, and the path to get there.

It is a cool afternoon, December. I am back at my desk. Just one year ago I was nominated to go to a Whole Thinking Retreat. I look at the papers on my desk and my emails, and smile; it is time to write something about my experience in Detroit. I wonder how to explain all that has happened, and then I begin to write.

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