Street Counseling. It's pretty simple. It's me, standing on the street, in the heart of San Francisco’s business district, with a sign that says "Fast and free counseling. A lot can change in 5-10 minutes." That's just the hook. Street Counseling has become my experiment to find out what it takes to really help someone. Does it require the structures of professional counseling? Is it possible for an interaction between strangers on the street to change someone's life for the better? What kind of connection makes this happen quickly?
And, Street Counseling is also the pursuit of an adventure without a destination, of doing something without fully knowing why.
It's a major edge for me, to stand on the street in one of the busiest places in San Francisco and offer myself as someone who thinks they can actually help people. I keep going for that edge. I was one of those people in the endless sea of activity, on my cell phone, rushing from work, to the gym, to bed. At some point my hunger for a richer experience of life became bigger than my fear of looking stupid, being exposed, failing, or seeming New Age-y in the eyes of people whose respect I wanted. Now I’m fueled by this radical feeling of pushing my own edges while boldly pursuing what I love.
BRINGING MAGIC TO THE STREET
Maybe I keep going out there because counseling is a magical process. To me, getting someone's counseling consent, is an agreement to experiment wildly, play with what we generally accept as true, and discover dimensions beyond our ordinary reality - and somehow, it often helps.
Yet on the street, consent does not come easy and is constantly in question. Getting a stranger to stop is hard enough. Once they do, my challenge is to remain authentic while they determine in each new moment if I’m still worth engaging. I have to get it uniquely right for each person, right away, and be attuned enough to know when I’ve missed it, owning each mistake. For me, Street Counseling has been a boot camp in humility and integrity that sometimes kicks my ass.
I'm out there a couple times a week, for a few hours each time. I'm often mistaken as a panhandler and get a lot of looks from people confused by a well dressed man in his early 30's with a sign on the street. People check me out from a distance, or inquire and thank me for my offer. They are curious, but don't trust me, and I don’t blame them. It’s kind of odd what I’m doing. Others are eager to play and ready to start. I'll have a handful of sessions each time I'm out, of varying lengths of time. To begin, I’ll create some structure to help people understand how we might work together. Once we start I'll take down my sign so no one knows we're in the middle of a counseling session, and soon the endless sea of busy people induces some strange level of privacy.
We often begin standing and talking, but soon are moving around, playing, and using the environment. In the words of Steve Bearman, founder of Interchange Counseling Institute, my approach is "to notice what's trying to happen, and help it along.” This has led to holding ceremony with someone as a way to mark the end of a relationship and phase of life, screaming at the top of my lungs with someone, receiving never told secrets, holding someone, crying, laughing wildly, praying, time traveling. That’s just a small window into the richness of Street Counseling.
INHABITING TWO WORLDS AT ONCE
You might think that a busy street would be a challenging place to do counseling, but that's precisely the paradox I love. For me, the constantly busy environment demands and somehow creates a laser-like focus. Amidst the random sirens, horns, screeching brakes and engine roars, people mostly rush around on their cell phones, doing whatever they can to avoid making contact with each other. Every once in a while, someone walking by will indulge their curiosity and glance long enough to notice something extra-ordinary is happening between my client and I. This looking in helps me widen my focus for a moment and notice the intense field we’ve created amidst the chaos. It’s like inhabiting two worlds at once, and the deeper we go, the more surreal the contrast gets.
My clients thus far are people who call themselves schizophrenics, addicts, child molesters, manic depressives, chronically homeless, techies, executives, retirees, teenagers, parents. On one level, they all have very unique personal struggles, and on another level we all grapple with similar core issues. Yet there is no one-size-fits-all solution to our common challenges. That’s why my aim isn’t to fix someone, or solve their problems, but to help deepen their relationship to the problem, so they might find their own way through.
I feel honored that anyone would decide to trust me with their struggles, even if I’m the only schmuck who will listen. In return for attempting to support anyone who crosses my path, I get to learn about life faster than I ever have. The most consistent lesson I learn is that something deeper and more interesting than our default program is almost always available. All it takes to access this often hidden world is some curiosity and willingness to risk going there. In that depth is where people come alive. From where I’m standing on the street, this kind of shared depth seems endangered AND deeply craved.
It’s thrilling to attempt to take counseling into the real, raw, everyday world. Although sometimes necessary, I’m learning firsthand that making a difference for people does not need to include the structures of professional counseling. Being human doesn't have to be so formal. It doesn’t take much to be supportive, that’s why a lot can change in a short amount of time.