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Bo Lozoff, Director of the Prison Ashram Project was a dear friend (and friend/guide to so many more). He was also someone from whom I learned a tremendous amount. He died in a motorcycle accident in 2012, but not before leaving a prodigious cultural legacy.
In 1973 former Harvard psychology professor and current spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, had been sending his book Be Here Now into prisons and receiving many letters back.
Incarcerated inmates wrote about their personal transformations and also asked a variety of challenging questions. Ram Dass"-informed Bo and his wife Sita that he was overwhelmed by the prospect of responding to them all. Bo and Sita had felt a personal connection with Ram Dass's book, as well as with the prison population, because their own brother-in-law who was incarcerated. They realized that prisoners were essentially leading a monastic life rather similar to the one they were living at an ashram in North Carolina."-In this way the Prison-Ashram Project was born.
By 1987, the flow of requests had grown so large that they formed their own foundation, The Human Kindness Foundation, and focused on responding to letters from inmates, teaching yoga and meditation in prisons, writing spiritual books, sending them to inmates, and preparing inmates for leading a life of service-whether they ever got out of prison or not. The goal was helping others use this unique "opportunity" for personal transformation. Inmates could choose to be "cons" - or monks/nuns in an unusual and difficult situation. It was up to them.
What followed was more than 30 years in which Bo traveled around the world giving talks in hundreds of prisons, churches and community centers. His various roles included author, spiritual teacher, friend, counselor, musician, and modern-day mystic/awakener.
Bo's focus was on those most shunned by society. The genuine wisdom and love that passed through him flowed onto the pages of his books, the letters he exchanged (and published in his books with permission) and into the hearts of people locked in cells - or in their own minds.
Bo's uniqueness isn't easy to define. I can describe him as a "street-wise mystic." He was able to go toe-to-toe with rapists, murderers, etc. - speaking their language and meeting their challenges - while clearly articulating a non-denominational, heart-centered spiritual context for their lives - and to do so with love, humility and wisdom. Speaking simply as a human being, he was able to embrace both the potential for light and the deep darkness within individuals.
Bo was by no means a perfect person. He did not always handle the power he possessed well. In spite of his flaws, he was able to reach countless people who all else had abandoned. He made a powerful contribution to "the least of these," in enabling them to radically transform their lives. And he held out the promise of genuine enlightenment for prisoners, prison workers, prison clergy, and many others.
My Prison Work
Bo inspired me to teach and offer psychotherapy in the prison system. I found it incredibly rewarding (even though inmates desperately wanted out, and I voluntarily entered the high security lock-up every day!).
I had a mental-set that worked for me. I saw some inmates as soaking wet wood: no one would be able to light a fire of awareness in them any time soon. If I had encountered them in the past, I would simply wave when I saw them in the yard.
I perceived others as crisp, dry wood. They were ready for transformation. All that was needed was a match. I regarded a third category as "damp wood." With multiple attempts to light the fire of love and awareness in them, some would finally burst into flame. It was the pain of incarceration that acted as a goad to encourage growth and change. As the saying goes: "A diamond is a piece of coal that made good under pressure."
Anyone who is familiar with the American prison system is aware that it is a hell-hole. While there are kind and honest correctional officers, I had to agree with a colleague who described many of them as "criminals with badges." This is the way of "retributive justice," that pervades our penal system.
It did not deter Bo from offering inmates the opportunity to use their suffering as a form of Grace and a fire of purification.
Sample letters from inmates:
"But something kept telling me not to just read this to help pass the hours away but to read it and keep it in my heart and mind. So, each day I've been applying some of the things that I read to my daily life, and I've been like a new person.
"When I got your letter today, I noticed my hands were shaking as I was taking it out of the envelope. Well, as I started to read, I felt a warmth come over me as I have never felt before, and a voice within stilled my fears and seemed to say that at last you're coming home and you have no need to fear ever again.
"As I read on, I noticed that I kept having trouble seeing and my face felt like it was on fire. So, I reached up and started to rub my eyes and it was only then that I realized that I had tears in my eyes and running down my face. Then they came freely as I knelt and thanked God for that little book and for you and all the others that are trying to bring the world together to live in harmony with each other and with God.
"It has been a long time since I was able to let my heart open up and let myself really be free and feel again. I sincerely believe that this would not have been possible had it not been for the prison-ashram project and for people like you."
""What I've read though seems to be what I've been searching for, for so long. I'm searching for my spiritual awakening that so far, I've not been able to find, but my life has come to a point where I need to find myself before I'm lost in the terrible maze of un-knowing.
"Let me take a few minutes to tell you a little about myself and my present situation. Hopefully it will help you to know what it is I'm trying to find. My name is Tommy, I'm in my mid-20's, born Sept. -, 195-. I'm presently in the Idaho State prison for first degree murder, two counts. I was arrested in November of 1974, taken to trial, found guilty and sentenced to death, March of 1976. In October of 1977, the Idaho Supreme Court vacated my death penalty, but I'm under review to receive a newly enacted death penalty in May of this year. At that time the courts will decide if I can be given the new death penalty or a double life sentence.
"These two charges in Idaho aren't the only ones I have. There are seven more in other states. Please let me explain why I did these cold-blooded, without any mercy, killings. In April of 1974, 11 men entered my home in Portland, Oregon, raped my 17-year-old wife, who was three months pregnant at the time, then threw her four stories out our apartment window"
May 17, 197-
"Your letter has touched me and Sita deeply.
You're a beautiful brother and we're very happy to know you. In one sense, you're coming from a very unusual place; yet in another sense, you're in exactly the same place we all are - simply a being who's becoming conscious of the journey to God, and wondering what you can do to get on with it.
"The first step is to begin quieting the mind, and this is what meditation is all about. All the answers you need are already within you (and always have been), but the noisy mind can't hear them clearly. Noise comes in the form of desire, anger, fear, greed, self-pity, guilt, shame, doubt, unworthiness, pride, selfishness, pettiness, envy, and so forth. The way most of us are raised, our lives are pretty much a confusing combination of such noise from the time we wake up in the morning until we drop off to sleep each night.
"No wonder we get so tired!
"Daily meditation practice helps us to begin hearing it all a lot more clearly, and also gives us the strength and discipline to live in harmony with what we hear. As one of our prison friends often ends his letters, 'No one said it would be easy.' But as our meditations deepen and we begin experiencing higher and higher states of awareness, these experiences help us to put our life-dramas in proper perspective. The physical world is not the whole show; this one body and lifetime are not what we're all about.
"The game is far bigger than we usually imagine, and every thought, word and deed counts; nothing goes unnoticed and nothing happens by chance. There's no slippage in the system whatsoever.
"So, I wake up after having fallen asleep at the wheel and crashing head-on into a tractor trailer in a 12- mph collision. My body is heavily damaged for the rest of this lifetime, at the age of 18. My choices are to regret, to 'cope,' to b*tch, or to simply see things exactly where they are and plan my strategy accordingly. Remember, no 'accidents.'
"You're in a similar position, waking up after having murdered nine people. You may never be allowed to live on the street again in this lifetime, which imposes certain physical limitations on you, much as my wreck did on me. Your choices are similar too. Funny thing is, though, that my wreck and your murder rap were the events that spurred us to get on with it. At some very deep points in meditation, we begin to see the irony that the parts of our lives which we had always considered our greatest tragedies were those parts that moved us closer and closer to God.
"Besides meditation practice (which you can easily learn from the enclosed materials), I suggest you study the principle of karma. For people with particularly heavy life-stories, I think it's important to understand karma as clearly as possible. It's far different from sin/guilt/repentance, and in truth there's not really such a thing as 'good' karma or 'bad' karma. Karma is simply a bundle of unfinished business which results from the things we do, think and feel.
"Part of the spiritual journey is first to recognize, then to accept, then to resolve, our karma. Since acts done consciously and without attachment create no karma, the strategy becomes a matter of working through more karma each day than we create. In this way, our bundle, or burden, becomes lighter all the time until we finally become "enlightened" of it all and are free beings like the Christ.
"Of course, all of this is much easier said than done. Have compassion for yourself and be patient, and remember 'no one said it would be easy.' In fact, it may be the second hardest journey in the world.
"But the hardest is to live in any other way at all. Nothing really makes it except to become whole. "Much, much Light for your Journey to freedom; please keep in touch."