Bo and Sita Lozoff founded, with Ram Dass, the largest prison interfaith ministry in the world. It is now in 60 countries with 50,000 prisoners on the mailing list. Bo’s book, We’re All Doing Time, now in its 17th printing, with half a million copies distributed, is referred to as the “prisoner’s bible.” Recently having completed a 22-month prison tour, Bo shares his notes from the road abut a spiritual journey that takes a hard look at the real meaning of doing seva (service) in the world.
Integral Yoga Magazine: How did you get into Yoga?
Bo Lozoff: My first Yoga class was with Swami Satchidananda in 1972 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There were 200 people in shoulder stand, and he’s walking in and out of the rows of students, and our two-year-old son is walking next to him like an assistant! I first started veering toward Yoga in the early 1970s, when I got a job in psychic research at Duke. I was the point man for yogis and swamis for the Psychical Research Foundation on the campus of Duke. Gurudev came down for an experiment when I was there. A local devotee, also participated. We put them in two separate rooms and wired them to EEG machines which measure brain waves. We showed Gurudev different photos—nice things, harsh things to see if his devotee, who was trying to tune into him, would have a parallel EEG. The results were mildly significant, showing some correlation. Eventually, I left because I was more moved by the swamis we tested than by the science! So I took a few classes from Gurudev. My 20-minute Hatha routine is based on what I learned from him. I’m not trying to become an advanced Hatha Yogi, I’m basically a Karma Yogi.
IYM: How did the Prison Ashram Project start?
BL: In 1972, somebody gave my wife, Sita, a copy of Be Here Now by Ram Dass which she recommended I also read. When I opened it, the first page was a photo of Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), Ram Dass’s Guru. I recognized him as the “magic man” about whom I had begun dreaming when I was eight years old. That got my attention! I must have dreamt of him a hundred times or more. I never could have imagined that he was real. I was 25 when I finally saw a photo of him and his face was more familiar to me than my own. Within a short time, I was a full-time yogi. We wrote to Ram Dass, and he visited us in 1973 and we became instantly connected. We talked about doing a prison ashram project. My sister’s husband was serving a 40-year prison sentence. I had no context for what I wanted to do in the prisons. We went to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to discuss the idea of offering classes. At the time I talked with Ram Dass about it, he was beginning to get correspondence from prisoners since they were reading his book, Be Here Now. He offered me some postage money to answer the letters. Letters started to pour in. We never planned to create a lifelong prison ministry, but that’s what happened. We just quietly started sending free books and writing to people.
IYM: You ran Kindness House and also just finished a long tour?
BL: In October 2007, I finished the longest prison tour I’d ever done: 22 months. I visited 300 prisons, spoke at Yoga centers, churches and gave hundreds of workshops. For 13 years (until last spring) we ran our program out of a community on 70 acres in North Carolina named Kindness House (KH). We were able to take people coming out of prison as part of their parole plan. They learned to build cabins and transition back. We got a lot of people out of prison who wouldn’t otherwise have been released because they had nowhere to go, and we didn’t have one person go back to prison. The vision for KH was that it would be an ashram, a spiritual community where people would live long-term. They would help run the Prison Ashram Project (PAP) and the Human Kindness Foundation. Everyone who had been in prison a long time, however, had a lot of needs and weren’t able to do service right away. These people thought they had no anger or authority issues and just wanted to do Yoga and serve others, but, when they got to KH, they faced having all kinds of adjustments they didn’t expect. So finally our board decided that our mission and our worldwide project was PAP, and we couldn’t let the 12 people at KH take up all the energy. At the same time, the parole program also was going through changes and not accepting applications for parolees to come to KH. We took it as a sign that we should sell KH.
IYM: So, what are you doing now?
BL: My life tends to run in tides of going inward and going outward. Every 10 years or so, I do retreats. In 2001 I did a year of silence. After my tour ended in 2007, I decided not to do public speaking or teaching in 2008. I’m now going into silence and rejuvenating my singing career, which was put on the back burner during the Kindness House years. When I went into silence in 2001, I didn’t miss talking, but I really missed chanting and singing. Within a few months I’d written half a dozen songs. The first song I wrote was “Magic Man.” I felt it was my Guru’s blessing, and so I put out an album entitled, Whatever It Takes, when I came out of the year of silence. I put out another album in 2006, halfway through the tour (Eyes So Soft). I plan to do another album now.
IYM: What do you talk about to the prisoners?
BL: The only thing I feel I have to share is my seriousness about the spiritual journey. I have nothing to sell, no philosophy, no teachings to give, no special path. What I do and what I encourage others to do is to go deep on their own spiritual path and journey. I haven’t created Integral Yoga or Vipassana. I’m like Mr. Rogers to convicts: I’m me, so I have to follow that journey. My tide goes inward and outward. I think everyone is doing what they feel is right for them. When I went into silence in 2001 and I told my mother I wasn’t going to speak to her for a year, her reaction was, “You are 55-years old, and you have done so much good; why can’t you have just relax and have a good time?” I said, “You’re right, mom, but I’m hardwired to do these things.”
I’d hesitate to give any formula for how someone can translate idealism into service. I’ve given away hundreds of thousands of dollars, homes and copyrights, not because I think everyone should do that, but because I’m disinterested in material security. I don’t want to know that I will be taken care of or be okay. To me, life is a daredevil adventure. People offer me all kinds of things, but the fun in life is living according to your beliefs, doing what you feel is right and taking what comes. If you want to be a heart surgeon, you will probably become wealthy. If your genuine interest is to be a songwriter, you’ll probably be poor. It doesn’t matter. Follow the energy and take the adventure. The surgeon doesn’t have to give away his or her money. The songwriter working for UPS as a day job isn’t in any worse shape.
IYM: How do you find balance between taking care of yourself and service?
BL: For me there is no balance. No matter how eloquently you phrase it, what we are really talking about in regard to balance is me vs. service. I think that is a flawed perspective. My life is meaningless if I’m not of service. I have people tell me all the time, “Take some ‘Bo time.’ You do so much for others, you’d better get a massage, take a break, take time for yourself.” It seems almost a vicious attack against service! I don’t live in a world where my service is martyring me. I live in a world where I don’t serve well enough. I have friends who have fallen into a world where they change the words of the song, “Amazing Grace,” to be politically correct. They sing: “To save a soul like me” (instead of the words, “To save a wretch like me”). What should we be looking for: mediocre, reasonable grace, how sweet it is? I deal with wretches—people who have killed and raped, but who are worthy of grace. It wouldn’t be amazing grace if it was about a parking ticket!
Fr. Murray Rogers, a Christian holy man who was a monk in India for many years, visited Kindness House. He was a radiantly simple holy man who traveled the world and who carried nothing with him. He spent three weeks at KH, and a lot of people wanted meetings with him. At the end of his stay, he and I were talking and he said, “You know Bo, I wonder if Americans are psychologically healthy enough for the spiritual journey.” I asked him why he was asking that question. He replied, “Well, it seems they must feel good about themselves all the time.” How far can you get on the spiritual journey if you must feel good about yourself all the time? When we fall into pop spirituality, then we focus on loving ourselves, taking time for ourselves, nurturing ourselves. It embarrasses me to hear a spiritual seeker talk about self-care!
IYM: Is there something wrong with taking care of ourselves as we serve?
BL: There’s too much apprehension about doing seva and worrying about security issues! When you worry about giving too much away, you’re missing the point. Just be careful when you think your service is a big deal. I’m doing what I’m inclined to do, and I’m not sure I’m are doing my seva well enough, but I’m doing what I can. Yoga and all wisdom paths tell us that our needs are met when we give it all away. I don’t want the apprehension that comes with worrying about my wellbeing in my life. When you accept the core spiritual principle that you are gonna be sliced, diced and crucified, that no one gets out alive—when you accept that you are perishing as you speak, then everything falls into perspective. Service isn’t something to take care of when you get everything you want! Service is why you are here! My mother and my family are asking me the opposite—“Why aren’t you taking more time for yourself?” I don’t see any balance needed.
One time I was asked to give a talk to a group of graduate students at Penn State. It just so happened that I was visiting a prison just prior to my talk. So, I was going to Penn state from the state pen! During a dinner we had together, the students asked, “Our parents are concerned about our ambition, about our future security, and we don’t know what to tell them.” I said, “Your parents won’t like my answer.” I went on to share my view of the world, which is that it’s in very bad shape and we may not make it. So, why focus on your future security, why not live your most idealistic vision—with no thought of what you personally need? If the Titanic is already going down, go ahead and live every day pedal-to-the-metal in pursuit of your highest ideals and see whether you get what you need. I believe that caution is not merited by the times we live in.
IYM: You don’t feel the need to take care of yourself at all?
BL: The way I take care of Bo is to take care of others. I don’t see any merit to cautious ideas of moderation and making sure we take care of ourselves when our planet is dying. Let’s have a great time serving others and understanding tikkun—the Hebrew word for “world repair.” We are here to serve—to repair the world. This is seva, this is what we are to be dedicated to. What is our biggest view of how we see life working? Do we have to take care of ourselves? The people who love me convince me that I need to take reasonable care of the body and that I need to get sleep. At the same time, we need to really dedicate ourselves—without thought of balance. Yes, I need to do my Yoga, to eat right and so on, but not because it’s “me time.” That’s what I don’t like about pop culture spirituality. It takes everything and puts it in service of the egotistic self. That doesn’t work! That self will never get all it wants! That self has to die!
When people live in the kind of context that, my altar has to be set up just so, I need to feng shui my house or I can’t live there, I have to be comfortable, feel good—they can become very uptight. I think being a spiritual seeker means to become a humbler, quieter and more tolerant individual when we live in a place where it doesn’t all go our way. If you read all the spiritual books, do all the spiritual practice you are supposed to, how long does any unblemished period last before life intrudes and brings something very unwelcome? When I walk into a maximum-security prison, I had better find out if there is still anything good, if life is still worth living and, if I can’t find it, then I’m of no service to those prisoners. The little sanity Sita and I have is to be privileged to be with people who need spiritual truths to be true!
IYM: But isn’t it okay to be happy and to serve?
BL: Who wants to be in uninterrupted bliss in this world? That would be boring. The idea isn’t how Bo and Sita can get happy, but how we can humbly make sense of our lives and do what feels right and every now and then tap into a transcendent experience that shows us there are a lot bigger things going on. I’m interested in depth, not happiness. I am not against happiness but I’m interested in a deeper experience, not just about me, feeling good or having a good time. Holy men and women are deeper people; their lives are about something more than themselves. Their altruism isn’t motivated by self-centeredness. Service makes our life bearable.
When Joseph Campbell said to, “Follow your bliss,” he never added, “and the money will follow.” That was added by pop spirituality. I heard Campbell explain what he meant. He meant that if your bliss is to be a songwriter, even if you have to wash dishes for a living, if you are lucky enough to have a calling, that calling is your service to the world. The real bottom line is: Does life work or not? Is there anything besides me looking after me? If what all the sages say is true, that there is interconnectedness, that everything has a purpose and meaning, that even our worst times are guided, then I should have faith that life will take care of me.
We’re all going to go belly up like salmon at some point and it’s okay. I don’t know how long our Foundation will exist—it’s already existed longer than I imagined. If the money stops, we will get honest work [laughs]. I could be a full-time musician or carpenter. Sita is a stained glass artist. Our part is to offer the service, God’s part is to see that the resources are there. If they are, we take that as a sign to keep going. If the money dries up, maybe that’s as long as we should be doing this particular seva. I trust service, I trust life and I don’t have a sense that this work has to go on and it’s so important. That’s a huge mistake. I don’t know what is important, I know what I’m inclined to offer—but how useful or selfless my service is, is for others to decide. Let’s take the rhetoric about how great we are down. What I find lacking in American spirituality is humility. The most inspiring people like Swami Chidanandaji, like Swami Satchidanandaji are incredibly humble people.
For more information about the Prison Ashram Project, Human Kindness Foundation and Bo Lozoff’s books and music, please visit: www.humankindness.org
From the Spring 2008 “Living Yoga” issue of Integral Yoga Magazine