For over fifteen years Bo Lozoff, as director of the worldwide Prison-Ashram Project, has been the main support for prisoners seeking to use their time for inner growth. While Bo’s writings, workshops and correspondence have long been legend among the prison population, his recent book, We’re All Doing Time: A Guide for Getting Free, is spreading his lighthearted brand of dharma teachings beyond the walls. Bo—who Ram Dass once called “a con man for God”—is a colorful and outspoken writer and speaker. His manner is calm yet strong, with a rough-and-tumble grace. Over the years Bo has been a weight lifter, a sea-bound adventurer captured by the Cuban Army, a fiery S.D.S. radical, an early Haight-Ashbury hippie, founder of the first head shop in the South, and finally a spiritual teacher trained in many traditions. I spoke with Bo in the North Carolina home he built with his wife Sita and son Josh.
Howard Rubin: Taken one way, the title of your book, We’re All Doing Time, seems rather depressing—as if we were all as limited and confined as people in prison are. What do you mean by that phrase?
Bo Lozoff: What I mean is that the situation is really the same for all of us. We can each look at our lives and see that because of who and where we are—in prison or out, rich, poor, white, black . . . whatever—some things are easier for us, and some things are harder. We’ve all got some advantages and some disadvantages, but regardless of what those particulars are, we’ve all got work to do in order to get free.
I don’t think that pretending we’re already free helps us. To me the aim is first to be able to see that we’ve all gotten stuck in the world of appearances, and in that way we are all doing time. From there we can begin to free ourselves. I mean, every mystic, holy man and holy woman has given us a wink and a nod that said, “Hey, don’t be deceived by appearances. There’s something entirely different going on here.” In my prison talks, I like to call that something different the fourth dimension—the dimension of the spirit.
HR: So your work with prisoners involves helping them see that there really is more to life than the bars around them.
BL: Exactly. I remind people that beneath the apparent tragedy of their situation, there is an indescribably beautiful, hilarious, mystical experience taking place, which makes all the rest seen like absolutely nothing—no matter how good or bad. Prisoners say to me, in effect: “We’re living a two-dimensional life here behind bars. If we could only live that three-dimensional life out in the world, then we’d really have it made.” My job has been to go in there and say, “Guess what? Three-dimensional life sucks also; you have to live a four-dimensional life. This is where you remain responsible and responsive to what’s going on around you, but you never, ever lose that deep sense of wonder and adventure and awe and excitement about the great mystery. This option to live as a spiritual warrior is as open to you as it is to me, and it makes everything about your life—even here—meaningful and sacred.”
HR: Are you saying that you basically see no difference between living a meditative life in prison or outside?
BL: Right. Like everywhere else, in some ways it’s harder, and in other ways it’s easier. Picture being locked up in a space smaller than this room with eighteen adult males, all from really brutal backgrounds, all of them with radios, and you’re talking about doing deep inner work. It’s harder in those and other ways, but somebody who begins to work on himself in prison can experience in six months the sort of maturity and benefits that it would take you or me twenty-five years on the streets to experience. Because in prison, every day he’s faced with challenges that you and I face maybe once in a lifetime, like somebody wanting to rape you. What you can get out of it by trying to do it all spiritually is incredible. I’ve known thousands of prisoners over the years who have discovered that the terrible, isolated, hostile, cruel life of prison is powerful fodder for their journeys toward awakening.
HR: How did the Prison-Ashram Project get started?
BL: In 1969, Sita and I spent almost a year working on a sailboat cruising the Bahamas. The captain was trying to get up enough money to sail around the world and concocted a scheme with my brother-in-law to smuggle in 1,400 pounds of pot from Jamaica. That didn’t feel like a good way to earn the money to us, so we sailed down to Jamaica with him and then flew back before the pot got on board. Everybody in that whole thing was busted and got probation, but then they did it again right away and got busted again. My brother-in-law got twelve-to-forty in a federal prison.
Within the next couple of years Sita and I went further into meditation, and when we went up to visit my bother-in-law, we got the idea to do some sort of service in the prison world. We had been in touch with Ram Dass for a while, and one day, in 1973, he asked me if I would take over his prison correspondence and send out copies of Be Here Now to prisoners. He started sending me about a hundred dollars a month out of his pocket to pay for postage and printing. It was a project before we knew it.
We didn’t have a very succinct idea of what we were doing. We thought that the people we were going to be dealing with would be mostly white, fairly well-educated, middle-class, drug abusers: people who knew what meditation was all about and just needed a support line outside the prison. Within the first six months we saw how radically different it was from what we’d expected.
We had started with the general idea that prisons were a lot like involuntary ashrams. But as I began going to more prisons, I found that this notion was at best slightly naive. Prisons—with their atmosphere of hostility, hatred and suspicion—are unlike monasteries in more ways than they are like them. So you have specific things to work on. We also found that of the prisoners who wrote to us, most were thirty-five to forty-five years old and some had been in prison up to twenty-five years already.
Many of these people didn’t have the slightest interest in meditation or yoga per se. They were desperately looking for something to hold onto, something that could help them remain sane and reopen their hearts. We saw that it was a much more creative job than we had imagined, a process of helping them figure it out from scratch like pioneers, because nobody really knows how to live a spiritual warrior’s life in a prison. We became specialists. We tried to say, “Have a sense of humor, have a calm and clear perspective . . . All you’re trying to do is open your heart and quiet your mind.”
HR: I saw a wooden plaque in your office that was made for you by a prisoner. It reads: “To have more, desire less.” Dealing with desires is major work for all of us. It must be that much tougher in prison, where most of our objects of desire remain tantalizingly out of reach.
BL: Again, it’s harder and it’s easier in prison. On the street there’s an endless array of objects of desire being hawked at you from every direction, night and day. It’s hard to take time out from our busy day to meditate or pray. In prison, it can be a little easier to turn the power that we usually reserve for fulfilling those desires inward. You can tell yourself that since you can’t really get what you want anyway, why settle for a meager prison substitute. If you want booze, why settle for the Xerox fluid? If you want intimate companionship, why settle for the kind of jive relationship most people have in prison? It’s easier to turn away from the desire system there because you can’t get satisfying hits from it anyway.
HR: Of course, the hits aren’t truly satisfying out here either. Perhaps in prison, it’s just harder to sustain the illusion that these objects of desire are really what you need to fulfill you.
BL: No, actually the illusion is all that’s sustained. In prison you can do a lot of good work on yourself, you can give up chasing after desire, but there’s still a small closet in your mind that stays closed. It’s that part of you that says, “This meditation and stuff is great for now, but if I could only get out of prison and get what I really want, then I’d feel fulfilled.” What happens is that some people become perfect prison monks, but they then get out and write back to me a month later from their next prison cell: “I don’t know what happened. Somehow it all turned black again. It all turned crazy. I can’t believe it.” There have been people I would have sworn to you would never be back in prison. They were so illuminated, so insightful. But for almost everyone, there is still that little closet that doesn’t open up until you’re out on the street. They get out and again fall prey to the illusion that something outside of themselves is going to satisfy that inner itch. And when they go scratching it, before they know it every bad habit they thought they had overcome is back in full swing—from drinking to extreme violence.
On the street, it’s easier to eventually dispel that illusion, because you can run through every enticing possibility pretty quickly and grow weary of it all. You can get to a point where you have to admit to yourself, “I’ve already seduced the best women. I’ve had the very best dope money can buy. I’ve wined and dined myself until I was sick. I’ve made my fifty grand a year. And you know something, the Buddha was right. Without that fourth dimension, without tapping into the spirit, life really sucks, no matter how many desires you satisfy.”
HR: Admitting it is one thing; remembering it is another! There’s an old saying that if you really want to learn something, teach it. What are the most powerful lessons your work in prison has taught you?
BL: When Sita and I started this project we were fairly typical, conformist spiritual seekers: wearing all white, living in an ashram, having a strict discipline of spiritual practices, a strict vegetarian diet and very rigid ideas of what a spiritual person did and didn’t do. We thought we had already become the nice middle-class spiritual people that everyone was supposed to be. When I walked into Central Prison in North Carolina, I saw people who were clinging with their fingernails to their last shred of sanity, being locked in a cell twenty-four hours a day, being led into a shower three times a week in handcuffs and feeling no other human touch. These people were looking to me for guidance, and there I was with a zillion rules about what a spiritual person needs to do, none of which these people were able to do in prison. I mean, if a man tried to wear all white there he’d become a target. If you want to have a particular, wholesome diet you can’t do it. All you’ve got left is what is basic to every human being in the world. You’ve got some kind of food and shelter, and the ability to communicate and respond to others.
Right away, I had to start changing all of my ideas about what you need to be spiritual, because I knew in my heart that everybody has an equal opportunity to live as a spiritual warrior. I began tearing down my own rules, and seeing that I didn’t need any of them. If I was getting something out of them, fine, but I didn’t need them in order to live spiritually.
Prison life is so brutal, with the issues so life-and-death, that fads and trappings can’t stand up. Because of this, prison work has helped me to distinguish these outer trappings from the essence of my spiritual life. All the stuff that wasn’t quite real for me, I tore down. I can’t think of any greater blessing that I could have had. I’ve been able to get stuck in all the glamorous spiritual trappings that afflict us out here, and then time and time again, walk into prison and get it all stripped away. Basically that’s the best that the prison work has taught me: to be an ordinary human being on a spiritual quest, with a great deal of sensitivity to the spiritual glamour and fads that go on in our culture.
It’s funny. Most people in the outside spiritual community see the prison work really as a one-way street, and people eulogize me and Sita for being these incredibly nice, warm people who are so compassionate that they go into these terrible prisons and work with hardened prison inmates. It’s really just not that at all. It’s the most powerful ashram that I’ve been privileged to be a part of.
HR: A fierce ashram.
BL: To me the journey is fierce, and it’s taken me many years to accept that as my nature. To accept that I don’t have to become some plastic, peaceful person who just says nice things about everyone and never, ever, raises his voice.
HR: I get the sense that these prison offenders simply don’t offend you, and that’s probably why they don’t eat you alive like they do many counselors and spiritual teachers who try to work with them.
BL: I think they can tell they don’t offend me, although I do get road tested quite a bit. Often, the first time I’ve gone into a prison, people have really put me through the wringer. They expect to meet someone who, without really understanding their situation, is only going to quote platitudes to them, so they immediately act defensive and hostile. That’s the juiciest part of my spiritual practice, to walk into that situation cold and really be with them. That’s like the thrill that the race-car driver gets when his adrenaline’s pumped, because I get to lay my ego on the line to see whether, without expectations or attachment to what’s going to happen, I’m still just being straight. I’ve found that if I’m just being simple and honest, then I don’t have to be intimidated by anybody in any environment.
For example, one of my favorite workshops every was in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in the prison for the criminally insane. The administration had circulated the wrong poster throughout the prison. They had circulated one for the talk on prison reform that I was giving at Harvard the next day called “Toward a Consciousness of Crime and Punishment.” So, rather than getting the people in this prison who were interested in meditation or in talking about the spiritual journey, I got the leaders of all the ethnic and political groups who were concerned with crime and punishment.
I walked in there prayerfully, with a friend of mine who was a Buddhist monk—with a shaved head and an orange robe. We sat down quietly in front of this group of big, angry, politically oriented prisoners. I said, “Hi, I’m Bo Lozoff and this is my friend Bhikkhu Piyavanno (now vipassana teacher John Orr). We could talk about meditation, or we could talk about becoming a spiritual warrior, or we could talk about yoga. Whatever you’d like.” One guy stood up with that wrong poster in his hand and said, “I want to talk about the fascists who run this criminal justice system.” I saw what had happened and said, “You know, actually you have the wrong poster; that was for a talk I’m going to give at Harvard. Here, I was going to talk about the spiritual journey.” They he got even angrier. “Why don’t you give that talk at Harvard,” he said, “because they’re the – – – -ing fascists who keep us in these places.” He went on and on, yelling, and soon other people joined him. It was very angry. I just got right into it. People were calling me names and I was saying, “Hey, don’t call me names; that’s not who I am.”
We went on like that for over an hour, and when the first guy got up again and said something about the – – – -ing fascists at Harvard, I realized that we were beginning to go around in a complete circle. I said, “Listen, I’m really sorry about the mix-up. I’m still glad that I met you, and as far as I’m concerned, no hard feelings. We’ll take a five-minute break just to clear the air, and if there’s anybody who does want to learn how to meditate, how to quiet their minds and develop more inner power, then come back after the five minutes. If not, I understand.”
Out of thirty-five people, thirty-four of them came back. I couldn’t believe it! These people who had just been shouting angrily were now sitting quietly while Piyavanno led them in a meditation practice. I went to the back and looked out over the sea of tattooed and scarred heads and shoulders, everybody sitting perfectly straight and perfectly calm with eyes closed. It was so pure and so powerful; I just about floated away. It was like the privilege of being on the mountain and seeing the burning bush, because it was that much of a miracle. And that’s just from letting the situation be, without having any preconceptions about how it should go. So, that’s about the most intensive that I’ve been road tested, and one of my favorite memories of prison work.
HR: It’s hard to match this “burning bush” view of prisoners with the public view of the callous, hardened criminals who repeatedly commit hurtful acts and need to be locked up. Are you saying that all of these people are just that close to being peaceful, respectful citizens?
BL: Let me make it clear that I’m not trying to present the picture that every criminal is suddenly a saint in my hands. There are a lot of people who break my heart as I walk through the halls of prison, and I see what a wall of anger they have built up around themselves—a wall that there seems nothing I could do to reach through. While there are these extremely dangerous, vicious people who we need to keep out of society, and who we may not ever be able to reach, we can never assume which people these are going to be. There are people you’d assume would be unreachable, like David Berkowitz—Son of Sam—who killed six women in New York. He’s one of the people I correspond with, and he’s a sensitive, intelligent spiritual seeker. He writes me very compassionate letters about how hard prison life is for many of the other prisoners. He doesn’t expect to ever be out of prison, and that’s okay with him. He can’t forgive himself for what he did, and he certainly doesn’t claim to understand it.
What I’m saying is that, if we can stay open to each individual person we meet, without preconceptions from what they’ve done in the past or what they look like, then we can spot those people who are reachable, who are ready to turn the corner and redeem themselves in some way. Those are the people I work with. Admittedly, I work with a small percentage of the prison population, although as the number nears fifty thousand, to me it seems enormous.
HR: Looking at the staggering rate in which released inmates return to prison, it seems a small percentage who get rehabilitated in any respect, not to mention a spiritual one. Our prison system seems to block the rehabilitation that it tries to offer. I mean, a man commits a brutal crime, so we put him in a brutal prison for a number of years. When he gets out he’s twice as angry and vicious. What do you make of this?
BL: Pat Norris, who works at the Menninger Foundation, wrote that the goals of rehabilitation and punishment are really mutually exclusive. She’s right; they can’t coexist, although our system assumes that they can. As a society we have to decide whether we really want vengeance or whether we want to make society safe in the future. Because nearly everyone whom we put in prison is going to be back on the streets one day. If we are interested in our safety as a culture when they are let out, then we have to try to understand them, and to provide a creative and informed and compassionate environment for them to be able to heal themselves in.
The crimes people commit show a lot of unhappiness and things in them that are in need of healing. Everybody wants to feel good. People have a crazy way of going about it. Some people kill nine people thinking that’s going to make them feel better, but there’s no other reason that they did it except that they want to feel good and they want to feel loved. Almost everyone in prison wants to figure out why their lives are going wrong, why they keep taking paths that lead to dead ends, why they’re so unhappy, why they’re so addicted to self-destructive behavior. Unfortunately, instead of providing an environment conducive to such healing, we have prisons that are so vicious that they not only can’t provide any real rehabilitation, but they make people almost unable to heal themselves. Our prisons provide punishment, and when people get out they often punish us back. My job is to help prisoners break this cycle on their end, and many have.
All you really need to do is visit a prison sometime, and see the daily conditions in which people live, and it begins to melt any desire for vengeance you might have. Because when people are suffering themselves, they appear a lot different than when they’re causing suffering. You realize that it’s not what one human being should wish upon another, ever. That’s part of the problem with our system; people don’t ever see criminals on the other end of the cycle. The media and the legal system preserve the image of the lawbreaker at its most violent, hateful peak, and they don’t show the other side of when he’s a fellow human being with intense suffering and struggle.
To give you a positive example: In Boulder, Colorado, some years ago, the district attorney created a program in which he forced the victims of crimes to meet with the offenders as soon as the offenders were arrested. They all came into his office, and he introduced them: “This is so-and-so, the person who stole your stereo and broke into your home last month. This is so-and-so, the person whose home you broke into.” Most of the victims didn’t want to meet the offenders, because I think deep within them they knew that it was going to humanize a relationship that they didn’t especially want humanized. Again, as soon as you begin really seeing the other person involved, the desire for vengeance begins to melt. I support any programs in which all of the people involved in a crime are forced to spend more time with each other, and begin to see each other as human beings. I think that’s a tremendous step in improving the way that we deal with people who break the law.
HR: There are so many major problems and inequities in our legal system. In your view, does it have anything to do with justice at all?
BL: No, I don’t think our legal system has much to do with justice. Historically, it is based on the middle-ages English system of champions. In the feudal structure, when big landowners had any kind of grievance with each other, they each hired a champion. Whatever side’s champion was tougher was declared the side of right. Lawyers and district attorneys, are just verbal, nonviolent champions. It’s still a real might-makes-right situation. A defense lawyer’s job is to defend his client, guilty or not, and the prosecuting attorney’s job is to convict. Their reputations are based on winning in court, not on seeking truth. Justice must have some irrevocable connection with truth, but the legal system has very little. It is desperately, desperately in need of an entire overhaul. We could have truth-finding teams of people whose reputations would be based on their keenness and insight in discovering what really happened and determining a course of action that would preserve the social well-being and yet not destroy anybody’s life in the process. The whole thing is really a national disgrace, one of the worst parts of our culture.
HR: It’s easy to see why deep bitterness often sets in among people who have been judged by this system. You spoke before of a divine madness in life. What kind of madness can you offer a man doing nine life sentences, besides climbing the walls?
BL: Well, the only kind of madness I myself can offer is to help him to uplevel his understanding. But once he has, that fourth dimension really is quite wondrously mad, quite beyond reason. Let me give you an example of the kind of divine madness that sometimes intrudes even into the terrible level of reality of being in prison. A man I know named Clay Hines was on death row in California for nine years, just waiting to be executed. After about his fifth year there, he got our book and really became what we call a prison monk. He started using all his time as a monk would in a monastery. He meditated, did yoga, and straightened out his worldly affairs so that he was really ready to die at that point. After nine years on death row he was really calm and cool.
Then the Supreme Court overturned the California death penalty, so suddenly he was commuted to life. He got out into the general population of the prison, and after being locked in a solitary cell for nine years, this to him was like freedom. He easily adapted and was very happy to do the rest of his life like that. But after four years, with a total of thirteen years behind bars, he automatically came up for parole. He had been such a model prisoner that he got parole the first time around. He wrote me from the mountains of California, saying “You know, I can’t believe it. I’m sitting here looking out at the mountains with my girlfriend, in a cabin, and I’m thinking that just a blink of the eye ago I was on death row, ready to die. You know it truly is mad if you just allow it to be. I have no idea how or why it happened, but here I am, and it’s just great.” So there are those stories of madness.
HR: In the past couple of years you have been doing some rock and roll musical performances in prisons and you also just put out a record of your songs called Stumbling Toward the Light. How has the music become a part of your prison work?
BL: For a while I was getting pretty burned out and also having some doubts about what we were doing. I had begun to feel elitist. Because I would go into a prison that had a population of maybe 1,500 men and I would meet with fifty or sixty of them who were ready or sophisticated enough to deal with spirituality, but I also wanted to be in some loving capacity with the whole prison population. I wanted to find something that wasn’t exclusive and wasn’t requiring anything from the prisoners. Since I’ve always been into writing music and singing, we came up with the idea of throwing a rock and roll party in some really bad prisons, places that just don’t get any programs. And it was just what I needed, to be in a completely different role for a while—take a break from the spiritual “Dear Abby” and go and rock out with these people. And it’s great. We get to the prison early in the day and they send down maybe a dozen or so inmate musicians and singers, and we rehearse some things with them and sometimes work on their original songs. Then later in the day, when we do our concert for the whole population, in the second set we begin bringing those inmates up to perform. And there’s just so much talent and it brings out so much love in the whole population when they see their friends getting up and performing—it’s a tremendous feeling.
HR: It’s another way to open hearts, and at the same time create a sense of community.
BL: We also have another new approach, perhaps our strongest push right now. Since so many thousands of inmates have become interested in spiritual growth, our next push is to make sure that it’s not a narcissistic movement like everything else in the prison system. So we’re developing a book called The Freedom of Kindness documenting hundreds of programs or projects that prisons have been involved with that benefit people outside: translating into Braille for the blind, repairing toys for poor kids at Christmas, raising vegetables for nursing homes in the community. We have found that those kinds of projects that elicit a feeling of kindness are the most powerful rehabilitation programs in the prison. Everything else is oriented toward job training or education. We are trying to get people to see that spirituality and meditation do not stop with the individual, and that there’s a natural extension of lovingkindness that develops from finding that feeling toward yourself. People in prison feel there’s no way they can express their lovingkindness until they get out, and we’re suggesting that prison is an excellent place to practice kindness.
HR: At one point in your spiritual training, Ram Dass was your teacher, with all the glamour that implies. Looking back, how do you reflect on this relationship? How has it changed?
BL: Ram Dass introduced me to a particular spiritual lineage which continues to be central in my own spiritual quest—the lineage through Neem Karoli Baba, Hanuman and Shiva out of the Hindu tradition. He introduced me to a lot of ideas that I still work and play with. At the same time, in those days, he was very busy being his image of a certain kind of spiritual teacher or folk guru. I was very busy trying to surrender at somebody’s feet, because that was how I thought the spiritual journey was supposed to go. Ram Dass wasn’t really saying that I should look at him in that way but I was wanting it so badly that I kept trying to force him to be a kind of guru for me. That early feeling of inequality between us was the root of many problems in our later relationship.
Over the years we have been friends, enemies, and always, I feel, brothers. Although, frankly, over the past few years it’s been very rocky between us. That just humbles me more, because I see that it’s hard to be arrogant about how human relationships should go when two people like Ram Dass and myself can’t figure out how to get along with each other. This makes me a lot more open when people say they’re having problems with their friends or parents or husbands or wives. I think finding that kind of compassion is part of the purpose of our having these problems. Ram Dass and I have a lot of the same nature, a lot of the same teaching style, and a lot of the same sense of humor and madness. I’m extremely appreciative of everything that has happened in our relationship, both positive and negative. I don’t have a lot of contact with him these days but I certainly hope to be laughing with him again in the future, because we’re bound by something much greater than all of this.
Getting caught in those kinds of relationship problems is just one of the ways in which I’m doing time myself. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of patience and persistence to grope our way through. When we’re patient, we can just keep doing whatever we need to do, moment by moment, as awarely and compassionately as we can—with a deep faith in the awakening process that’s unfolding within us. We can turn—and let ourselves be turned—gently toward that fourth dimension.
All my life I’ve been working to nourish that dimension in myself. My prison work is simply an extension of that quest, sharing it with prisoners as honestly as I can. I share the ways in which I’m still doing time, and the ways I’ve found to get free. I remind them that this path of the spiritual warrior is open to all of us, wherever we find ourselves. As my life keeps changing, so does my prison work, but that message remains at the core.