More than twenty-five years ago, Bo Lozoff paid a visit to his brother-in-law in prison. At the time, Lozoff was living with his wife Sita and their newborn son Josh in a yoga ashram, where residents adhered to strict rules and eschewed worldly comforts. Seeing the life his brother-in-law led, Lozoff realized that, on the face of it, his own existence wasn’t that much "freer": he and Sita spent all their time doing meditation, yoga, and farm work. The main difference was that their life was liberating, while his was oppressive.
"Just by stopping in one place long enough to face ourselves without distraction," Lozoff writes, "we were beginning to glimpse an inner power that had always been lacking." And having glimpsed this power, he was ready to turn back and face the world and look for ways he could make it better. Because he had a relative in prison, helping prisoners seemed the obvious thing to do.
Lozoff tried to get a job as a guard, but the assistant warden could tell right away that he didn’t want the position for the usual reasons. They ended up talking about "karma yoga," a path of service to humankind, and the assistant warden asked Lozoff to write up a proposal for teaching yoga and meditation classes in federal prisons. Spiritual teacher Ram Dass funded the work, and through correspondence with prisoners, Lozoff developed a set of spiritual practices tailored to a prison environment. He and Ram Dass called it the Prison-Ashram Project, because its purpose was to encourage prisoners to treat their prisons as ashrams, instead of just "doing time" until their release.
Neither of them could have anticipated the kind of response their efforts received. Within two years, the Prison-Ashram Project had become Lozoff’s full-time job.
Since that time, Bo and Sita Lozoff have helped hundreds of thousands of prisoners in at least five hundred prisons to do their time as "prison monks," rather than convicts, and to find peace and joy despite captivity. As Lozoff puts it: "We can experience the wonderful mystery of our lives only in solitude and silence. Prisoners have the opportunity to dedicate themselves to this inward journey without the distractions and luxuries that occupy many people in the ‘free world.’ "
An important part of Lozoff’s work with prisoners is his philosophy of forgiveness and redemption. "Every great spiritual, philosophic, and religious tradition," he writes, "has empha- sized compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and responsibility. These are not suggestions; they are instructions. If we follow them, we will thrive; if not, we will suffer. The socially sanctioned hatred and rage that we express toward criminals in modern times violates these timeless instructions. We are breaking a fundamental spiritual law, and the price we are paying for it is increased crime, violence, depravity, hopelessness, hatred, and rage.
"Many of the greatest saints and sages were once criminals, drunkards, prostitutes, and even killers. Saint Paul was once Saul of Tarsus, a vicious persecutor and killer of Christians. Religious history is filled with such redeemed, transformed sages. As we give up our belief in redemption and transformation, we become poorer indeed."
A former "bad boy" himself, Lozoff hasn’t given up his taste for motorcycles and rock-and-roll, but he has taken his rebellion much deeper. For him, the cause of all of our problems, personal and political, can be summed up in a single sentence: human life is very deep, and our modern lifestyle is not. His goal in life has been to help others realize the depth of their existence — and not just people behind bars, but also those of us living in prisons of our own making.
Bo and Sita Lozoff currently live at Kindness House, a spiritual community they created on thirteen acres in central North Carolina. They have received numerous humanitarian awards, including the Temple Award for Creative Altruism from the Institute for Noetic Sciences. Last year, Bo was given an honorary doctorate by the Chicago Theological Society, one of the oldest divinity schools in the nation. Bo and Sita currently run the Human Kindness Foundation (P.O. Box 61619, Durham, NC 27715, www.humankindness.org), which encompasses their prison work, publishing projects, and a number of other ventures.
Bo Lozoff’s book We’re All Doing Time — which some have called "the prisoner’s bible" — has been translated into several languages and distributed to hundreds of thousands of prisoners worldwide. He’s also the author of Lineage and Other Stories and Just Another Spiritual Book. (All three are published by the Human Kindness Foundation.) Lozoff’s most recent book, It’s a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice (Viking), is a practical guide to a happier and more fulfilled existence. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said of it, "Anyone of any faith, or none, can benefit from the universal ideas and realistic advice in this book."
I spoke with Bo Lozoff in San Francisco while he was in the middle of a national book tour. He was tired, but thoroughly warm, courteous, and engaging.
Jensen: You’ve said that we all come into this world to accomplish one particular task.
Lozoff: Actually, I was quoting the Persian mystic poet Rumi. He said that life is as if a king has sent you to a country to perform one special task. If you go there and accomplish a hundred other things, but not that particular task, then it’s as if you’ve accomplished nothing at all.
What is the task? All the sages tell us that we’ve come into this world to realize God. Buddhists, of course, would not say "God," but "Buddha nature." Or they might say that the task is to become fully awakened.
There are three fundamental rules that all the wisdom traditions say will help us accomplish our task, if we follow them. The first is to be cautious about materialism: Don’t want too much. Live modestly. The second is to dedicate yourself to something you believe in, something you think is beautiful and important. The third is to commit yourself to a personal spiritual practice that you can follow every day, even if just for a few minutes. Devote some part of your day to sitting in silence and saying, "Here I am. Guide me."
The point is that if we search outside ourselves for the meaning of life, we’ll probably never find it. But if we center ourselves and look for meaning in life, we’ll find that it’s waiting for us right here in the present moment. And I’m not just talking about the popular notion of "seizing the day," which sometimes can mean little more than eating dessert first. I mean that a more profound spiritual power and freedom are available to us; that we are much deeper than we usually let on.
Jensen: You place a lot of emphasis on community. Where does it fit in?
Lozoff: It fits into the second idea, about dedicating yourself to something larger than you and your family. You’ve got to feel that connection, that link to the larger community, and then you can pick the piece you want to work on. Your piece might be forest issues or the exploitation of the poor. My piece is working with prisoners. But the key is to work on something you believe in, something you think is important.
Jensen: How do we figure out what our piece is?
Lozoff: We just need to know how to look for it. That’s why I’m such a strong believer in spiritual practice, because meditation quiets the rational mind, which has been filled since birth with "want this" and "avoid that": desire and fear. And the intuition — which is our link to the intelligence behind life — is a quiet voice. The purpose of spiritual practice is to still that noisy mind so we can hear our intuition and follow it.
Jensen: What do you mean by "practice"?
Lozoff: There are innumerable practices. Some are from ancient times, like meditation techniques. Meditation is a cornerstone practice of every great wisdom tradition, whether it’s the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree, or a Native American sitting on the edge of a cliff, or Mohammed sitting in the cave receiving the revelations of the Koran.
In my new book, I also suggest some practices that are more geared toward modern Western life, such as setting aside an evening for sincere reflection about your job, asking, "Is it a good fit for me?" and, "Do I believe it benefits the world?" Another is a daily vow of marriage, looking directly into each other’s eyes, holding hands, and promising to cherish one another, knowing this may be your last day together. Yet another is to take one evening every month to watch a video or read a book about the life of a sage or a saint — one of those people who have devoted their lives to lovingkindness. Think about how you can follow the sage’s example in your own life, however modestly.
The real point of all this is to empty ourselves of ego. This strengthens our ability to hear our intuition, which will tell us our calling. I never made a conscious decision to dedicate my life to prison work. My wife Sita and I just took one step into it because some family members of mine were in prison, and we felt that something needed to be done and we were the ones who should do it. Twenty-seven years later, we look back and see that this is all we’ve done in our adult lives.
Intuition is murky. People say, "I want to be certain," but intuition doesn’t work that way. It’s more likely you’ll say, "I don’t know why, but I think I ought to do this."
Jensen: But given the fact that we live in a deeply violent culture with many wounded people, how does one tell the difference between the intuition and, say, the internalized voice of rage that tells you to hit your kid?
Lozoff: By having a spiritual practice. Mystical experiences aren’t relative to our frame of mind. When our hearts open and we see life from an intuitive perspective, we all experience the same thing, just as Buddha and Jesus didn’t see fundamentally different things. If the inner voice tells you to smack someone across the face, then that’s simply not the intuition speaking.
Jensen: Years ago, I interviewed social psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, and he said that, before you can commit any mass atrocity, you must convince yourself that what you’re doing is in the best interest of the world. So, in the minds of the Nazis, they weren’t killing Jews; they were "purifying the Aryan race." And the people today who say, "Let’s throw all the drug offenders in prison," are convinced they’re acting for the common good. It’s an issue they "believe in" and "think is important."
Lozoff: But when we go against our intuition that way, part of us knows that something’s not right, because self-deception doesn’t produce a unified, peaceful state. And this discontent may persist for the rest of our lives. We may never see it clearly — especially if we continue to distract ourselves with work and recreation. The Nazis weren’t living relaxed, balanced lives and also killing Jews. They had to undertake their murderous "purification" as an enormous, intense project, so that their frenetic activity would allow them not to perceive their self-deception.
If you sit still every day and honestly look at what your mind and body are actually feeling, the little disruptions and disturbances rise to the surface, because you’re not ignoring them or avoiding them. At first, you might know only that something is bothering you. But if you sit with it long enough, it will start to become clear.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. In 1990, I gave a workshop at a prison in Louisiana. The place was like a modern-day slave plantation; all the prisoners were black. This was in the heat of summer, and there were about sixty men in the workshop. One man stood up and said, in a quavering voice, "I just can’t believe that I’m getting to see Bo Lozoff in my prison. You wrote me personally one time." He held up a little scrap of paper as if it were a religious relic.
I did what I’d done many times before, something I was very proud of: I said to him, "You and I are just the same. We’re both seekers. What you’re feeling, you feel not toward me but toward God."
In other words, I cut his experience to shreds.
I’d been doing that for years, because I rationally believed that I couldn’t let people mistake the messenger for the message. I was very proud of my humility.
For a couple of weeks after I left that place, something was wrong in every one of my meditations. I had no idea what it was. Eventually, I began seeing this man’s face as I meditated. I began to feel worse and worse, as though I had sinned against this man. I soon came to realize that my professional modesty was a completely self-centered reaction. I should have made him the center of the experience.
There is nothing wrong with devotion, whether it’s to a human being, a deity, a tree, or a statue. It’s a wonderful and beautiful experience to have. It was important for this man in that Louisiana prison to express his admiration for someone who had helped him turn his life around, and I should have let him have that experience. I didn’t have to let it swell my head, but I had to let him have it. Instead, I cut him down. And that was wrong.
Because of that, I vowed never to go into a prison again until I was mature enough to allow people to express their appreciation, admiration, affection, and gratitude without worrying about what it meant for me. So I spent three years in retreat because of that one instance.
My point is that when we deceive ourselves, even in a way that’s popularly considered ok, our practice will point it out. If we have a fairly quiet mind, something inside of us seems to say, over and over, "You did something wrong. You did something wrong." We ask, "What?" And that something says, "Keep looking, and you’ll see." And then if you’re willing to act on what you’ve done, you may gain some understanding about yourself, and about the world.
Those three years of retreat were the hardest of my life. I’d been doing prison work for almost twenty years, but that one incident in Louisiana popped my balloon, and everything deflated. I had no energy. Had I been in a mainstream career, people would have pushed me to take Prozac. But I recognized that a very important spiritual development was occurring, and I needed to follow it to its conclusion.
Jensen: Tell me about your prison work. What exactly do you do?
Lozoff: I’m usually the first person who comes along in a prisoner’s life who doesn’t have a rehabilitation, vocational, educational, psychological, or substance-abuse agenda. All those things are important, but they ignore the spiritual side. I say to prisoners, "Life is deep, and you haven’t been acting like it. Most people don’t act like it. Let’s talk about what that means. Let’s talk about what the sages and saints and all the world’s great wisdom traditions have to say about what life is really about."
Even the most well-meaning people these prisoners have ever known have only encouraged them to earn geds and take vocational training, things that might somehow help them win their release. But instead of trying to change them for some external reason, I say, "Let’s talk about what life is about." Nobody’s ever said that to them before. They’ve just been told how to stay out of trouble.
What Sita and I are really doing is training and recruiting spiritual activists. For us, spirituality is not about gazing at your navel. The practical expression of any spiritual practice is what you do that helps the people around you. Even if you’re never going to get out of prison, even if you’re locked in solitary confinement twenty-four hours a day, you can still meditate on and visualize and pray for the well-being of the world. If prisoners are in open populations, I encourage them to become mentors. I ask, "Is this prison a better place because of the time you’ve spent in here? Why not?" No matter where you are, no matter what your calling, you can still translate it into activism.
Jensen: That reminds me of a quote by Wang Yang Ming: "To know and not to do is not to know."
The other part of our work, besides my workshops and visits, is distribution of my first book, We’re All Doing Time, which is an interfaith manual for getting free.
Jensen: Free of what?
Lozoff: Of the prisons of our own making. We’re all "doing time" until we find freedom within ourselves. Hopefully, the book reminds readers that life’s painful, scary, boring, and depressing parts don’t change the fact that it’s a brilliant story, an adventure; that while the answer to the Great Mystery can’t be found by seeking, only seekers will find it; that every thought, word, and deed is a seed we plant in the world. The book also offers a series of practices to help people change and become deeper. And about half the text consists of my correspondence with prisoners in every kind of situation you can imagine.
Jensen: I noticed that you sign your letters "love." I think it’s wonderful that you express such genuine care and concern for people who’ve probably not had a lot of concern expressed for them.
Lozoff: I have felt care and concern for these people since I started doing prison work in 1973, but it wasn’t until after that three-year dark period in the early nineties that I learned how to express genuine affection, like a father or a brother. I prayed for the ability to express affection. It really hurt me that I still held back a little bit. I had the dedication, compassion, and commitment, but I really wanted to feel straight-out affection. Now, when I hug prisoners, I often kiss them on the cheek, just as I do my son. And they deeply appreciate that.
It’s not only the affection that prisoners tell me they are grateful for, but also the respect — and not just from me, but from my wife and our son and our whole organization. We respect the fact that prisoners are deep people, and we help them learn what that means and how to act like the deep people they already are. We believe in them and are happy to know them. And, for our part, we’re not just doing them a favor; we feel privileged to be a part of their profound growth. They’ve had horrible lives and done horrible things, yet many of them decide to become classic spiritual pilgrims.
One of my chief assistants at Kindness House started living on the streets in Alabama when he was twelve. He was a drug addict, completely dysfunctional, crazed, violent. When he was seventeen, he was sentenced to life in an adult prison. He escaped after a couple of years, killed a man in a drug-related robbery, and was again sentenced to life. He was forty when he got out. Now he’s forty-two, and he looks and feels as if he’s just been born. I’ve known him for maybe fifteen years. He’s like a son to me. And just seeing him every day in his new life is a gift.
Jensen: What does he do at Kindness House?
Lozoff: We have an interfaith spiritual order, to give us structure in our spiritual lives, and he’s the manager of it. This is a guy who started out on the streets with little chance of surviving. He took a man’s life. Yet he has been transformed by the simple teachings, principles, and practices we’ve been talking about. That’s why it’s a privilege for us, and not a favor we’re doing for him. How many people get to see such a transformation?
Jensen: I’m interested in the notion of his being reborn and how death and rebirth fit into spiritual growth. I know that, in my own experience, for there to be any sort of real growth, something usually has to die. For example, when I really started to understand the destructiveness of this culture, I went through a period in which I broke down crying every day. My friends said, "Take it easy. Don’t think about it so much." But I knew I had to fall into it and keep falling.
Lozoff: People are always afraid to go into depression or grief. But if we see life as primarily a spiritual journey, with everything else as secondary — money, career, even what kind of spiritual practice we do — then we’ll expect our adventure to take us through periods of adversity, and we’ll know that there is a purpose to these struggles.
The greatest spiritual problem of our age is the widespread belief that we need to sedate our depression instead of working our way through it. There was a time in the sixties when I did a lot of lsd. I went through a year of real mental imbalance, but some part of me knew that if I stopped taking lsd too soon, I would remain unstable for a long time, if not the rest of my life. Several times, my wife and brother thought they might have to institutionalize me, but, as scary as it was, I knew I had
to see it all the way through. I "fell into it," as you said, and came out knowing that I didn’t need to use lsd anymore.
If I hadn’t gone into my mental imbalance — gone all the way into it — I don’t think I would’ve developed anywhere near the compassion or empathy that I now have for people who are mentally ill. I’m not saying everybody has to do it the way I did, but people miss the point when they try to be safe or distract themselves from the pain. The key is to remember that pain is not meaningless. Yes, it’s a drag, and it’s scary, but we can trust the process, trust that it’s important for us.
There’s an elderly monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky named Father Matthew Kelty. In his autobiography, My Song Is of Mercy, he says, "I hated Gethsemane for the first three years of my novice period." When I read that, I thought, How many of us are willing to go through something we hate for three weeks, let alone three years?
Jensen: This brings us back to the question of recognizing one’s intuition. How do you know whether the thing you hate is leading you in the right direction?
Lozoff: You don’t. But you guess. And the reason you want to maintain a wholesome life — a good diet, spiritual practice, good works — is so that your guesses will have a little bit greater chance of being right. Anyway, it’s not as if life is a multiple-choice test and God is some third-grade teacher always trying to come up with trick questions. A spiritual path isn’t safe, but we also have to believe it’s not random or chaotic, that there’s a guiding force behind our lives. And it seems to me that if you sincerely stick with a situation that just isn’t good for you — thinking that maybe it hurts because you need it to — then God’s going to give you more and more opportunities to realize that you’re not making the right decision. First, a small hint that you should get out. Then a bigger one, and a bigger one, until finally you know it’s time to leave.
The point is that, when we’re being sincere, I don’t think we can make a fatal mistake. I don’t believe that life is trying to trick us at every turn, or that mistakes are necessarily costly. One Hasidic rabbi put it this way: "The length of each of your footsteps on the spiritual journey is exactly your height, because the whole journey consists of falling flat on your face, then picking yourself up and falling flat on your face again."
Jensen: This reminds me of a time in my early twenties, when I was getting my science degree. I was very unhappy, and I developed the theory that increased awareness means decreased happiness. Then I had a dream in which I saw some baby cranes taking off and crashing, taking off and crashing. I said to them, "That looks like it hurts. Why do you do it?" One of them said, "We may not fly very well, but at least we aren’t walking."
Lozoff: I think there’s a common misconception that a spiritual state is somehow somber or unhappy. But when you encounter, say, the Dalai Lama, you discover that he’s the happiest person you’d ever hope to meet. He can hardly say ten words without breaking into laughter. I think we miss the point again and again with our stereotypes of how a spiritual person is supposed to act.
Jensen: I think my dream was telling me that increased awareness doesn’t make us less happy; it merely makes clear our preexisting unhappiness.
Lozoff: And once you’re aware of that unhappiness, you have the opportunity to do something about it. Because our essential nature is not unhappy. Our essential nature is quietly joyful. Although we may have to push through valleys of unhappiness, if we keep going, we will eventually arrive at this essential nature, which is fearless, joyful — and productive.
I’ve never stopped being a sixties radical: I just changed my understanding of what being a radical means. And one of the things it means is to have simple joy.
Jensen: Many people have written about "chakras," but your description of them was one of the most cogent I’ve seen.
Lozoff: Chakra means "wheel." They are wheels of energy. In the Hindu system, there are seven basic chakras, going from the tailbone to the top of the head. Essentially, they are filters for our experience. If we each have the exact same experience, chances are we will perceive it differently, depending on which filters we have in place.
The first chakra has to do with survival. If you perceive something as a threat, you’re seeing it through that filter. Now, this threat may be real, or it may be imagined. The point is not to avoid seeing things as a threat, but instead to avoid perceiving threats where none exist or failing to perceive a threat when one is actually there.
The second chakra is a little higher up the spine, behind the genitals. There, you perceive things in terms of whether they bring you pleasure or pain. Once again, this can be a very straightforward and natural feeling, or it can be mistaken: imagine perceiving everything solely through this filter.
The third chakra has to do with whether something threatens your ego, or sense of self. Does this experience threaten my sense of myself as an American, a father, a "good" person?
The fourth chakra — the first of the so-called higher chakras — is right in the middle of the chest. Here, you perceive experience in terms of empathy and compassion and are no longer worried about your own survival, pleasure, or ego. Instead you feel a Christlike love.
The fifth chakra is where you begin to see life as a journey of creative devotion to God. The sixth is where you start to get into mystical states. If you’re looking at a person with your sixth chakra open, you’re going to see the whole truth surrounding that person, including their past and future.
Finally, at the top of the head is what’s called the sahasrara chakra, where you move out of dualistic thinking and into unified consciousness. You’re not really looking at anything anymore. You become one with all that is.
Now, it’s rare that we perceive things purely through one chakra, but you might look at life more through the third chakra, and I may look at it more through the second, and this will influence our views. As Ram Dass says, if you’re hungry and you drive through town, you’ll notice the restaurants. That’s the chakra interpretation of reality.
Jensen: And that changes over time.
Lozoff: It can. It changes as your mind changes. And you can work on it consciously. The ultimate goal is to perceive what is actually in front of you.
Jensen: Let’s talk about grace.
Lozoff: I like what Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said: "Full experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental." But he also said that we can work to become as "accident-prone" as possible. That’s the purpose of the Ten Commandments, the Koranic injunctions, the Buddhist precepts, and other such guides. No spiritual practice will bring us enlightenment, but they will keep us from straying too far from the place where accidents can happen. Why, when, and how they happen are beyond our understanding. That’s where grace comes in.
There is a Talmudic saying that we have to thank God in advance for his gifts, because when they arrive, they may seem more like curses. And grace can be that way, too. Probably one of the first strokes of grace in my life was my father’s becoming totally paralyzed when I was eight years old, because it led me to become the kind of person I am now. Sometimes we can understand grace only in retrospect. If someone were to ask me what grace is, I would probably respond, "It’s all grace."
Jensen: I’m thinking about those fleeting moments when we are cracked open and see the world as a whole. That has happened to me a couple of times, when suddenly and for no reason, I’ve seen how everything fits together.
Lozoff: In the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna reveals his cosmic form to the spiritual devotee Arjuna. Arjuna has been begging for this vision, so Krishna assumes thousands of heads and arms and legs, and Arjuna sees in Krishna everything in the universe, from the insect being eaten by the bird, to the bird being eaten by the hawk, to the hawk being shot by the fowler. Arjuna and Krishna are standing on the edge of a battlefield, and Arjuna sees all of the soldiers from both armies marching into Krishna’s mouth and being gnashed and chewed up, then coming back out new and fresh. He sees that the sky and the sun and the birds and all the soldiers and their weapons — the very idea of war itself, the idea of violence — is all God; it’s all grace. Not surprisingly, he tells Krishna, "Please go back to your other form. I can’t bear this."
My guru once said, "To see God, you must have special eyes. Otherwise, you cannot bear the shock." Because the shock is that there is no Derrick and no Bo. It’s all grace, all the spontaneous movement of God. This leads back to what you were saying earlier: that we have to be willing for something to die in order to be reborn with new understanding. And what must die is the ego, the sense of self.
Jensen: There’s something about this line of thinking that disturbs me. One could say, "Because everything is God, we don’t need to work to stop child abuse."
Lozoff: If everything is God, then who is the "we" in that statement? As long as there’s a "we," there is child abuse, and "we" are supposed to try to stop it. If one really goes beyond the "we," then there is nobody talking and nobody listening, and it’s all just God. But as soon as you say, "Child abuse is an illusion," you are in the world of distinctions, and once there, you need to abide by the moral rules of duality. So saying there is no child abuse is nothing more than a rationalization. It doesn’t matter whether you understand intellectually that it’s all God; you’re still living in duality, and child abuse is still an offense to humanity, and you still need to do something about it.
Even when you become enlightened and see things as a unified whole, you do what any good person would do, only now you do it with what Don Juan called a sense of "controlled folly." You know that the child abuse is an illusion, and so are your efforts to stop it, yet you commit yourself fully, even put your life on the line, because you no longer have anything to lose.
Although it is ultimately true that the world is not real, it’s a very dangerous concept to play around with, because, for some people, as you say, it can become a rationalization not to do anything. Yet those people still go bowling, sky-diving, sailing, and so on. So the truth is that they are doing something, and if you’re doing anything, you’re supposed to be doing good works.
It’s a slippery slope, philosophically, but I’ve been on it for thirty years, and I am fully committed to relieving suffering in the world, even though I don’t believe in a world at all. In a sense, I don’t consider child abuse to be real, because I know that, ultimately, I’m not real. Yet as long as there exists this notion of Bo, I’m going to do good works and practice all of the great precepts, all the while trying not to take it very seriously.
I think one of the biggest problems in American spirituality is this kind of faux nondualism you’re talking about. There are a lot of teachers around who say, "None of this is happening. Just let go of the story, and you’ll be spontaneously enlightened." That’s easy for them to say, with their homes in Maui and servants who cater to their every whim. But when the great Indian master Ramana Maharshi had his spontaneous realization that he didn’t exist, he was so entranced by unified awareness that he sat meditating for a couple of years in the basement of a temple, not even fighting off the rats that came to gnaw away the flesh of his legs, leaving him permanently crippled. That kind of seriousness sets the standard for me on whether someone’s experience of nonduality is real or not. Otherwise, I feel nonduality comes dangerously close to consumer narcissism: "We don’t have to worry about all these poor disenfranchised people, because it’s all unreal anyway."
Ram Dass used to say, "Imagine you fast for three days as a spiritual practice, and then you walk down the street and a homeless man comes up to you and says, ‘Can you give me a buck? I haven’t eaten in three days.’ You’re not supposed to respond, ‘Well, neither have I.’ You’re supposed to give him a buck, because he’s not trying to fast."
Jensen: For the same reason, I would not lightly say to my writing students at Pelican Bay State Prison that the walls around them are illusions.
Lozoff: Even if you know it to be true, it’s not your place to say that to them. All you can do is lead them toward the possibility of having that experience for themselves. I’ve had prisoners write to me, after years of practice, and say, "These walls are all an illusion. It doesn’t really matter where I am. I’m freer now than I ever was on the outside." But I would never say it to them.
It might be different if I’d been through the prison experience myself — if I’d had guards mace and pepper-spray me for no good reason, if I’d been locked down. Then I could come back into a prison and say it’s all an illusion. But never having experienced that, I have no business saying, "Get over it."
At the same time, though, I don’t have to bow before prisoners’ experience either. That’s the line I’ve always walked with them, and they respect me for it, just as I respect them.
Of course, some prisoners say to me, "What the hell do you know about this? You haven’t done time. How do you say you love me? You don’t even know me." And I say, "But I do know you. I know everybody, because I know myself. I know that everyone wants to love and be loved, to respect and be respected. I know this because I discovered it about myself."
Jensen: Tell me about Kindness House.
Lozoff: After Sita and I had been doing our prison work for about twenty years, our organization became too big to remain a mom-and-pop operation, as we’d always preferred it to be. So we either had to fold or expand. Because we figured we could always fold later, we expanded. In 1994, one of our donors gave us the money to buy the piece of land in Orange County, North Carolina, where Kindness House is now located. Kindness House is an interfaith spiritual community where people from all walks of life — including former prisoners — can come and live a lifestyle of simplicity, practice, and service. Ten to fifteen people live there at any given time. Everyone abides by the same schedule, whether he or she just got out of prison or just dropped out of the corporate world or academic life.
Jensen: Are there a lot of people who want to live there?
Lozoff: We don’t actually talk about Kindness House in our newsletters, because if we did, no doubt we’d have thousands of people wanting to come, and many of them would have the wrong idea about what it’s like there. Most people don’t want to live the way we do. We have no personal money; we have three vehicles for ten to fifteen people; we work very hard and hardly get off the grounds to go into town.
Occasionally, however, somebody — say, a prisoner who’s due for release — writes us a letter asking if there’s a place where he or she could live in spiritual community and learn how to perform a service like we do. That’s when we tell them about Kindness House. But even after that, we have an application and interview process, mainly to screen out people who don’t understand what they’d be getting into.
We need more places like Kindness House. We need to show how economically people can live. The last time we tallied it, in 1997, it cost about $2,200 apiece to support the people at Kindness House for a year. That includes food, utilities, car maintenance, gas, everything. And we eat very well. We bake all our own bread and make our own salsa.
We also need places like Kindness House because, when you’re doing a spiritual practice, it’s wonderful to have what Christians call "fellowship," and Buddhists call sangha, and Hindus call satsang. Meditating with other people every day strengthens your own practice. And with the explosion in the prison population and the demonization of former prisoners, it’s crucial to have communities that are willing to welcome people right out of prison.
Jensen: What are the day-to-day operations of Kindness House like?
Lozoff: We have several guiding practices. The first is the practice of goodwill, which means that we really try to enjoy each other, and if something gets in the way of that, we talk about it. So we have weekly "tunings" — the way the strings of a guitar need to be tuned periodically — at which we talk about any difficulties anyone is having.
Our second guiding practice is karma yoga, the yoga of unselfish service as a path to God. Practically speaking, it means that every job, from washing dishes to writing books, is considered equally respectable, equally worthy. And so we allow no job preferences. Nobody comes to Kindness House, including me, saying, "I like doing this, and I don’t like doing that." Instead we ask, "How can I best be of service today?" The answer might be to go in the kitchen and cut up lettuce for salad. The truth is that cutting up lettuce for salad benefits all those forty thousand prisoners around the world who get our literature, because the people in the office producing that literature have to eat. Cutting lettuce may seem trivial, but the point is to realize that everything we do is part of the Human Kindness Foundation, and everybody is responsible for this beautiful work that goes out into the world. When you begin to realize this, you can really start taking joy in your work, because every task is equally respected by all.
We also have a mindful work practice, which means that we don’t chat while we work. We talk about what we’re doing, but we don’t just chat, even when we’re simply putting stamps on envelopes. When we label envelopes for books going out to prisoners, we look at each name and silently pray, "God bless you," or, "I hope you find what you’re looking for." The kind of energy and clarity and power that emerges from these practices is amazing.
C.S. Lewis once said, "I have nothing against Christianity; I’m just waiting for someone to try it." I think we really should try to live what so many have written about. I would like for people to visit Kindness House and then, instead of joining us, start their own community, by whatever name, wherever they are. Because it makes sense for people to come together and share resources and equipment and practice — to share life, especially now, when people are becoming more isolated all the time.
Jensen: You quote Mother Teresa: "The greatest disease in the world today is loneliness."
Lozoff: That’s true of us as a culture. It’s really atrocious how little intimacy we have with one another. Many of us might do volunteer work at the homeless shelter or the soup kitchen or the aids hospice or whatever, but then, on the way home, when we stop and get gas, we treat the person behind the counter as if he or she doesn’t count. We have to understand that a spiritual life is a seamless whole. Everything counts; everyone matters. Everyone’s holy company, and every spot is holy ground. We’re never off duty from being human.
Yet, as a nation, we’ve been off duty for so long. We’re afraid of each other. We don’t want to know each other’s stories. We don’t want human contact. And it’s killing us.
If you could follow somebody like the Dalai Lama around for a day, you’d see that he is delighted to meet the gas-station attendant: one more human being! To be present with every person you meet is to understand what life is about.
Jensen: On another subject, you quote a Carthusian monk: "The darkness of the future is the necessary space for the exercise of our liberty and our faith." What does that mean?
Lozoff: It means that, far from being upset about not knowing what’s going to happen, we should understand that our uncertainty is a gift of God, because it allows us to exercise free will and develop faith.
Many years ago, the Dalai Lama was on a panel at a conference in Switzerland, and the moderator asked the assembled experts, "In your best estimation, what will the world look like fifty years from now?" The Dalai Lama was the last to answer. After all of the experts had given their informed, intellectual predictions, he said, "Madam, I don’t even know what kind of tea I’ll be having for dinner tonight. How could I possibly know what the world will be like in fifty years?" And then he burst out laughing.
Not knowing the future doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what we do today. It’s exactly the opposite. We must exercise our liberty and our free will and act on our faith that life is inherently good, that there is order and intelligence, that we are able to do the right thing. We have to trust that the best within us will lead to the best possible future, even though we can’t know exactly what that future is going to be.
Jensen: And, in fact, to try to predict the future is to manifest the same megalomania that is ruining the world in the first place.
Lozoff: And what you find with someone like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa is a complete absence of megalomania. Mother Teresa was just picking up the dying people right in front of her. And the Dalai Lama is just doing his daily practice and working tirelessly for freedom from oppression, for the people of Tibet and for other oppressed peoples around the world. He doesn’t have to concern himself with where the world is going. If he simply does the best he can, that’s going to be the best thing for the world.
Jensen: Years ago, I came across this great line in a novel: "We can never predict the outcome of our actions, which is why every action must be acceptable in itself, and not part of a stratagem."
Lozoff: In my own life, I’ve never had a strategy. I’ve simply done the same thing for twenty-seven years.
The point is that, no matter what our circumstances, we can all become deep, joyfully aware spiritual seekers. Our civilization is in serious decline, and we don’t know whether it is reversible or not, but that doesn’t change what we have to do. There is a time-honored path that has been trod by countless men and women, and we, too, can follow it. That is our task, the one task we’ve been given at birth, and it is worth any sacrifice.
Originally published in the December 2000 issue of The SunFiled in Interviews by Derrick Jensen