Bo Lozoff: Prisoners and Spiritual Life Bo Lozoff co-founded the Prison Ashram Project with Ram Dass and the Human Kindness Foundation. In this interview Bo talks about three surprising realities of ...
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The following is a sample of Bo Lozoff's writing, followed by letters from inmates, which he, with their permission, published in his books and newsletters.
Lozoff and I held the following observations in common.
Growth and transformation, at times, can be catalyzed by suffering.
In every spiritual tradition crisis is seen as an opportunity to see the reality of ourselves, to live more truthfully, and see the world with new eyes.
As it turns out, the world as a whole is beginning to go through a similar process. We stand on the threshold in which the old does not work any longer and the new has not emerged yet.
Holding on to an outmoded system of meaning about the world and ourselves prevents new thinking from coming to fruition.
"Truths" we have believed all our lives, when superseded, are often experienced as a threat.
Transformation relies on the power of the heart, and the realization that we are all interconnected.
An Essay by Bo (and Letters)
From Human Kindness Foundation Newsletter
a little good news Winter 1999
Final Endings and Fresh Beginnings
As this whole millennium draws to a close in just a few days, the comedians and columnists, the talk shows and merchants and beer companies, the party stores and cruise lines, will be having a field day making money off the whole thing, and I guess there's nothing wrong in having a great excuse to party.
But you can use this major event in deeper ways as well. You can look honestly at your own life, at the parts that bring you shame, despair or frustration, and the parts that spark your hope and faith and determination. You can look at the best and worst of yourself, and create a ritual of some kind to leave the worst behind you, and create a new and better life in the next millennium.
Changing for the better is one of the most fundamental human urgings, yet we are more sophisticated about how to use high-tech cell phones and VCR's than how to change bad habits into good ones. We may go round and round the same circles all our lives rather than consider that we're not seeing our behavior patterns clearly, or we may be failing to respect the process of change itself.
This is not new territory. Two thousand years ago, St. Paul lamented:
'My own behavior baffles me. I find myself not doing what I really want to do, but doing what I really loathe. "I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power. That is, I don't accomplish the good I set out to do, and the evil I don't really want to do I find I am always doing. What a wretched man I am!'
Romans, 7: 15-24
Is there even one of us who has not shared St. Paul's frustration? Yet we know that changeeven major, enormous changeis still possible. Let's not overlook the fact that, for all his self-proclaimed wretchedness, Paul went on to become a saint.
So, how about you? How about, for the sake of the world, leaving behind the biggest things that keep you feeling small, weak, wretched, unholy? How about entering this new era with firm resolve to bring your life in line with your deepest, noblest beliefs? If you dislike yourself for smoking, then make this the last and final time you stop smoking. Same with drinking, drugs, stealing, scamming, and anything else that makes you feel low. Seize this opportunity to make a new beginning. Say it, do it, and stick to it. We need you to become your true self!
We have a saying around Kindness House: You can do hard. The reason we say this is that in modern times, the words "it's too hard" have become an anthem for giving up. The message is: Have an ache or pain, reach for a pill; get depressed because you lose your job, take Prozac. A friend once confided to me that she regretted divorcing her husband. She said the only reason she did it was a prevailing attitude among her friends that "If it gets really hard, why make yourself suffer?" Maybe we have become convinced that we can't do hard things.
You can do hard is a way of reminding yourself that you need not run away in fear just because something is greatly challenging. You can do challenging. It might even be scary, but you can do scary. You can do hard. Really, you can. Don't let a shallow culture fool you into thinking you'll crumble when the chips are down. Human beings were designed for the chips to be down sometimes.
Imagine a runner who begins a race and, after running twenty yards, has to jump over a hurdle. Damn it, what's this thing doing here? It's in my way! Another twenty yards, another hurdle. Damn! Then another, and another. His annoyance grows into anger; he loses focus; he risks injury; he loses steam.
But knowing from the outset that the race is actually a hurdle event puts everything in a completely different perspective, doesn't it? The same effort is required, the same hurdles need to be jumped, but now they are part of the challenge instead of being unwelcome obstacles. Bad habits and qualities or situations that need to be changed are hurdles in our lives, not obstacles. We waste enormous power if we misunderstand this.
In these last days of 1999, there are far too many wars and prisons, far too much poverty and hopelessness; but also, many great things happening among committed spiritual seekers and social activists. You and I have an opportunity to be on either side of the balance.
The world really needs us to become joyful and enlightened human beings. What do you think? I beg you, for the sake of us all, to make at least one serious, major change by New Year's Eve. Step into the new century with renewed commitment to yourself and the world. The teachings, principles and practices are right here within your reach. And the need has never been greater.
Mindfulness as Shown by a Master
Thich Nhat Hanh's First American Prison Workshop
All of us at Human Kindness Foundation had a rare privilege recently: We brought the Vietnamese Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tic Not Hon), into his first American prison to talk with inmates and staff about the practice of deep mindfulness. We chose Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown for this special event because Bo had been there recently and had been very moved by the spiritual sincerity and strength of the prisoner community. Many of the prisoners have taken the Alternatives to Violence Project training and have been involved with our books and tapes as well. (Special thanks to Emma Lou Davis, of CCSC in Hagerstown, for coordinating the whole event).
About a hundred prisoners and two dozen staff and volunteers assembled in the chapel for Thich Nhat Hanh's talk. But before he said a word, the teaching had already begun merely by observing his presence, the way he walked into the room, the awareness and concentration with which he conducted himself in every way. Thich Nhat Hanh (called "Thay" informally, meaning "teacher") bases his whole life around the practice of mindfulness: paying utmost attention to everything you do; performing even the most basic tasks, such as walking or breathing or brushing your teeth, with the same quality of attention as if you were delivering a baby or saving the world.
Dr. Martin Luther King twice nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace work during the Vietnam War - for which he has been in exile from his country for many years now. This elderly monk has seen some of the most horrible and violent situations imaginable, and has responded to them with nonviolence and mindfulness in ways that have affected millions of people around the world. He bears genuine spiritual power and he attributes it all to the simple practice of paying attention to what we are doing. Here are some brief excerpts of his teachings.
[Excerpted from Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh]
"Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others. We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available.
"Although we walk all the time, our walking is usually more like running. When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth. If we can take one step like this, we can take two, three, four, and five. When we are able to take one step peacefully and happily, we are working for the cause of peace and happiness for the whole of humankind. Walking meditation is a wonderful practice.
"When we do walking meditation outside, we walk a little slower than our normal pace, and we coordinate our breathing with our steps. For example, we may take three steps with each in-breath and three steps with each out-breath. So we can say, "In, in, in. Out, out, out." "In" is to help us to identify the in-breath. Every time we call something by its name, we make it more real, like saying the name of a friend. If your lungs want four steps instead of three, please give them four steps. If they want only two steps, give them two. The lengths of your in-breath and out-breath do not have to be the same. For example, you can take three steps with each inhalation and four with each exhalation. If you feel happy, peaceful, and joyful while you are walking, you are practicing correctly.
"Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth. Now it is time for us to take good care of her. We bring our peace and calm to the surface of the Earth and share the lesson of love. We walk in that spirit.
"From time to time, when we see something beautiful, we may want to stop and look at it - a tree, a flower, some children playing. As we look, we continue to follow our breathing, lest we lose the beautiful flower and get caught up in our thoughts. When we want to resume walking, we just start again. Each step we take will create a cool breeze, refreshing our body and mind. Every step makes a flower bloom under our feet. We can do it only if we do not think of the future or the past, if we know that life can only be found in the present moment."
Dear Bo, Sita, & HKF staff,
Wow you guys are fast. I just received Deep & Simple and the new copy of We're All Doing Time I had requested. Thanks sooooo much! Actually, I hadn't expected to see them for at least another week or two; I know you guys must be awfully busy. Thanks again!
And Sita, thank you, for your kind note of inspiration; it truly meant a lot, possibly even more than you realized at the time of writing it. And you're absolutely right, everything IS second (or at least should be) to my spiritual work. It is hard enough, so very hard. Especially in here, dorm life is so loud it makes it hard to study, let alone practice meditation. But, then again, that's just another excuse, isn't it?
Truthfully, I guess I've actually been hiding behind all sorts of "excuses." Excuses that have resultantly placed my spiritual work far behind ALL the "nonessential" things in life.
I am a reincarnationist - I believe in the laws of cause and effect. However, I also believe in the law of Grace. So, I am finally beginning to see that there is indeed a reason I have been brought to this unit. Your note of inspiration and Bo's words in "Deep & Simple" have pushed me past feeling sorry for myself and assisted me in opening my eyes to the fact that this is just another stepping stone in the school of life on my way to spiritual enlightenment.
Thanks to both of you, Bo and Sita, for providing me with words I obviously needed to hear in order to open my own eyes in order to see exactly what I had already known in my heart yet remained blind to in my mind.
Bo, your words at the bottom of page 38 of Deep & Simple were written, unbeknown to you at the time, specifically for me to read. "Even if you serve forty years in prison in this life, you won't remember it in your next life. But you will be the product of how well or poorly you used your time." This passage hit home. It literally stopped my reading COLD! I have 32½ years left to serve on a forty-year sentence. Thanks Bo! Thanks for opening my eyes to the light in my own heart. May God Bless you eternally.
Until next time, Peace be unto you all.
Dear Bo & Sita,
You haven't heard from me since 1977, when I was at the Diagnostic Center. At that time another convict turned me on to a well-worn copy of Inside Out. [Inside Out is no longer available. It has been incorporated into We're All Doing Time]. Using some of the tapes you sent, we started our own meditation class. Although it was only seven inmates, we had some powerful, wonderful experiences. Within a year we all transferred to different locations and the class was no more, but it was a huge success while it lasted.
I felt my spirit grow and I learned so much from you & Sita. But after being released somehow, I began to backslide. And now here I am doing time again.
I thought about you two many times over the years. And you have had a profound effect on my life. In your eyes what you do may not seem so significant, but please believe me, you are shaking people's lives to the very core. I consider meeting you the most important event in my life. Without you I would still be lost in the grind.
I had lost hope of finding you again, when out of the blue I stumbled across a copy of We're All Doing Time. And after all the nickel-dime novels - what a breath of fresh air! Thank you so much for doing what you do. You've given so many of us that little push we need to get us on the right path.
Bo & Sita, before I close, I would like to relate a little story to you about how powerful your work really is. It was Christmas 1977 and men were feeling low at the institution as is true at most prisons near Christmas. I'd been abandoned and didn't receive much mail - so when my name was called at mail call there was a little stir among the inmates. (The same inmates usually got mail over & over.) You and Sita had sent me a Christmas card - the only one I received that year. I was awed that someone I barely knew would take the time to send a card. I was yelling the news to a friend several cells down and my next-door neighbor overheard.
Now my neighbor was a very notorious individual. 300 pounds of pure hate. He would make Freddy Kruger seem like John Boy Walton! Anyway, he overheard about the card and slyly began questioning me. He's like - "Hey man let me look at the card - I just want to see if I know them." I pass the card over - he studies it for a long time and says something about you're just a couple of weirdos. I told him about your books and tapes but he made it very clear he wasn't interested. He was not the kind of guy you push so I just let it go.
News was all over the cell block about the card and it was passed around. Next day my book and tapes disappear while I'm on the yard. It was the first time in my life that it actually felt good to have something taken from me.
A week later the book and tapes mysteriously reappeared on my bed. No one ever copped out to taking them, but sometimes late at night I could hear a very low chanting noise coming from Freddy Kruger's cell. And did that dude ever change! He actually started being nice to people. He eventually dropped his tough guy image and within the next year became more and more like a giant 300- pound lamb. What a drastic change. And it all began with a Christmas wish and a little card from Bo & Sita!
I know firsthand the power of your lessons and your advice. And after 20 years you're still at it. Thank God for brothers and sisters like Bo & Sita. It's great to see some of your material again. We're All Doing Time is Right On!
Gotta go for now. Please take care.