Bo Lozoff: The Kindness Cure

Bo Lozoff: The Kindness Cure2020-02-02T20:43:23+00:00

With few resources besides their own commitment and compassion, Bo and Sita Lozoff have been shedding light into some of the darkest corners of the criminal justice system.

The new office of Bo and Sita Lozoff’s Human Kindness Foundation sits on thirteen acres of woods and wildflowers in the heart of North Carolina’s fertile Piedmont region. It’s a half hour’s drive from here to the city of Durham, but philosophically this place is a world apart from the rest of modern-day America. Here, inside this cluster of simple buildings, you’ll find two people working to be not tougher on criminals, but kinder to them. You’ll notice that the walls of the newly constructed office have been sheathed with bare wood. Bo explains that this provides a more durable surface for tacking up the thousands of letters and works of art sent each year by the incarcerated men and women whose lives have been transformed by the newsletters, books, and tapes that the Foundation sends them, usually for free. Adorning one corner of the office on its own small mantel is a clock, exquisitely crafted from a dark Indonesian wood. A prisoner in Thailand carved it by hand, then shipped it to Bo and Sita at his own expense. Above the clock face are engraved the words, “We’re All Doing Time,” the title of Bo’s most popular book of street-wise spiritual wisdom, and a credo whose message continues to resonate both inside and outside prison walls.

For more than twenty years, Bo and Sita Lozoff have been offering a striking counterpoint to what Bo calls our “socially sanctioned hatred” of criminals. Their work is based on a precept that most of us know to be true, but few have the strength or courage to follow: Until we reflect kindness in every facet of society, our legal and political solutions to the world’s problems will continue to be fleeting and fragile. “Hurting people who hurt us just perpetuates a lot of hurting,” Bo notes. “Prisoners, prison workers, and the general public must begin to see how crazy it is to attempt rehabilitation without valuing kindness above all other forms of training, education, or therapy.”

All this talk of kindness might tempt you to think Bo is some kind of a bleeding-heart softy. He’d be the first to correct that notion. “Kindness has taken a bad rap in many ways, being associated with weakness or meekness or labels like “goody-goody,” he writes in Just Another Spiritual Book, a collection of his talks and articles on everything from the beauty of the Mahabharata to the futility of the Harmonic Convergence. “But true kindness comes from strength and is full of life. I’m not talking about formula kindness or phony gestures . . . I’ve visited spiritual communities and ashrams where people came up to me all day long saying with obnoxious sweetness, ‘Oh, how nice to see you; is there any way I can serve you; you’re such a beautiful being.’ By the end of the day, I’m ready to pound somebody’s face into the wall just to get a genuine reaction!”

Bo’s no-nonsense message first reached ex-con Wyatt Miller while he was with a group of other convicts “stuffed three deep in single cells and sweating out the aftermath of a riot/takeover” in a Wisconsin maximum security prison in 1983. From the riot, Miller faced a hundred years’ worth of “new” time. Like so many others seeking direction, he wrote to Bo: “You know, I was going to wait until I beat these charges to get down and quit messing around. But something from your newsletter popped into my mind again and again. Do you remember the page from Spring ’83 called ‘Bullshit of the Month?’ Of course, you do, right? ‘I’ll be a lot more spiritual AS SOON AS . . . .’ I can’t think of many excuses that weren’t covered on that page!”

Wyatt decided he had to change. In the same letter he wrote, “Don’t spread this around, but I’m having a good time here . . . .When I first saw this guy smiling back at me in the tin mirror here in my cell I wasn’t sure who it was! Things are just clicking and happening. Life is a great adventure. I could be sailing the seas, or climbing a mountain, but I’m not. I’m sitting in this cell and that’s okay, too.”

Spreading this idea–that prison time can be an opportunity for spiritual growth, that the cell can be an “ashram,” and that a prisoner can be a “prison monk” working to transform and improve himself–has been the mainstay of Bo and Sita’s work. But even as the letters, as many as 50 a day, continue to pour into the Prison-Ashram Project, the couple is now moving their work in a new direction. Supported by a $120,000 grant from a millionaire benefactor and helped by the $10,000 they received as the 1994 recipients of the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ Temple Award for Creative Altruism, the couple last year purchased this thirteen-acre North Carolina property to build Kindness House, a transitional housing facility for newly released offenders.

Indeed, the Lozoffs’ work continues to impress both those who know prisons and those who know spirituality. Mind-body researcher John Kabat-Zinn calls Bo “a giant in the movement to turn prisons into true centers of growth and rehabilitation.” The Dalai Lama, who wrote the foreword to the latest edition of We’re all Doing Time: A Guide for Getting Free, notes that the Human Kindness Foundation “is very important to everyone concerned with prison life” and that Bo’s book “will inspire everyone who is as concerned with helping others in trouble as with their own personal improvement.”

James O. Smith, Director of the Division of Staff Development for the Board of Probation and Parole in Pennsylvania, observes that “in the criminal justice field, where failure is too often the expected norm, Bo’s efforts have inspired and motivated many prisoners to maintain a lifestyle as crime-free citizens who contribute to the social good.”

The Lozoff’s did not set out to become spiritual mentors to prisoners. The decision, in a sense, was made for them. In the ’60s, Bo and Sita were active in the protest and counterculture movements (“old hippies and radicals” is how Bo puts it). They opened the first Head Shop in the south, a business that was eventually closed down by political right-winger, Lester Maddox and the Atlanta authorities, but not before Bo had resorted to carrying a gun around for protection. In 1977 the couple narrowly escaped doing their own hard time by refusing to take part in smuggling 500 pounds of marijuana from Jamaica–a deal that ended with everyone else, including Bo’s brother-in-law, Pete, being arrested.

Soon after that fiasco, Pete was arrested again for attempting the same scam and was sentenced to prison for 12 to 40 years. Meanwhile, Bo and Sita settled in an ashram in North Carolina. When, a year later, they visited Pete in the federal prison in Terra Haute, Indiana, the parallels in their day-to-day lives were striking.

“We were waking up at four in the morning, wearing all white, working hard on a farm all day without getting paid and eating meals in groups and not having sex,” recalls Bo, “and we visit Pete on the prison farm and he comes out in all white, and he tells us how he has to get up at five in the morning, and he has to work hard on a farm all day, and he doesn’t get paid, and he only eats in groups. He has no sex, that he wanted to report anyway. We were struck with it. We got away and he got busted. He hated it where he was and we loved it where we were, yet we were living in much the same way.”

The visit with Pete made it clear to Bo that prisons were an area where someone interested in social change could do some good. With no degree or credentials, he figured he’d try to get in by working as a guard at a new federal prison being built near the ashram. The assistant warden doing the interview, sensing that something was afoot, kept pressing him to explain why someone like him would want to work in corrections. Bo, realizing he had no chance at the guard job, figured he’d level with him.

He recounts in We’re All Doing Time,”I looked into his eyes and told him that actually, I was a ‘Karma Yogi,’ that my spiritual path was one of service to mankind, and I thought that being a prison guard would be a good opportunity for doing service. To my utter astonishment, this crew-cut, cowboy-booted career prison official was suddenly all over me with questions and sincere enthusiasm and saying things like ‘…And you know what I think? I think reincarnation was taken out of the Bible hundreds of years after Christ!’ What a wild moment that was! I loved it.”

That unlikely meeting eventually led to Bo’s becoming a paid consultant to the US Bureau of Prisons, working to open “Ashram units” in prisons. The plan fell through before it could be implemented but “the bigger joke was on them because they had unwittingly made me an acceptable figure on the national prison scene,” Bo writes. After cutting his hair and cleaning up his act, he adds, “Prison doors throughout the world suddenly flew open for me.”

Around this time, Sita stumbled upon Ram Dass’ Be Here Now, a book that showed how to apply Eastern spiritual practices to contemporary Western life. The discovery would launch them on the next leg of their journey. “It’s hard to describe the feeling,” Sita says, “but it was one of coming home. I laughed and cried. I said, ‘Bo you’ve got to read this. There is something in here for us.'” Bo, as transformed by the book as Sita, invited Ram Dass to visit them in North Carolina. While on the visit, Ram Dass mentioned that he had been mailing copies of Be Here Now to inmates and asked if they would like to take over the correspondence. Bo and Sita agreed, and together with Ram Dass, they started refining what would soon become the Prison-Ashram Project. Initially financed out of Ram Dass’ pocket, the project eventually outgrew his earnings, and, in 1987, Bo and Sita started the Human Kindness Foundation to take over the work.

Today, the Foundation administers the Prison-Ashram Project (which now boasts a mailing list of 20,000 prisoners), as well as Bo’s workshops and seminars, a small direct mail book catalog service, and their newest project, Kindness House. Kindness House, which opened in May 1994, is a “simple-living and ego-reduction center” where people can live for up to one year in “a program of spiritual practice and sincere dedication to human service.” While anyone is welcome to visit, the residence also serves prisoners making the transition to the outside world, a transition that is “the biggest abyss in a criminal justice system full of big abysses,” notes Bo. “We take somebody out of a really brutal environment and throw them onto the street they came from and say, ‘Here’s a hundred bucks. Now you better straighten up and fly right or we’re going to put your ass back in jail.'”

In addition to the residence, the site now includes the Foundation’s offices and, hidden in the nearby woods, a small meditation cabin built last Christmas by Bo, Sita, and their son, Josh, who had returned home from Los Angeles. (Josh Lozoff, an actor, is probably best recognized for his role as Gino, Carla’s delinquent son in the sitcom Cheers.)

Since everyone who stays at Kindness House is there to learn a lifestyle that revolves around service, the Lozoff’s plan to turn over much of the administration of the Prison-Ashram Project to the Kindness House residents along with the daily activities of maintaining the facilities. Duties include handling the constant stream of mail, sending out packages of books, growing food for the residents, fixing vehicles of the Kindness House, and maintaining the grounds. So far, approximately 40 overnight guests have visited the facilities while 5 people have stayed for longer periods.

Bo expects it will take 8-9 committed individuals to maintain the operations once it is in full swing. The biggest difficulties for prisoners coming to Kindness House, according to Bo, is “adjusting to the peace because prison is constant drama. We say that life here is about waking up in the morning, taking reasonable care of mind, body, and spirit, doing work that you feel is of benefit to the world, and going to sleep at night. Basically, it doesn’t have to get more complicated than that, and we’ve seen people have difficulty keeping it that simple.”

And, of course, Bo continues to spend much of his time in prisons. A typical workshop will run two to three hours in length, with the first half of that time spent talking, as Bo says, “about anything and everything that anyone wants to talk about having anything remotely to do with why we are there.” It’s not unusual for the questions to come as challenges such as, “Excuse me, sir, are you a Christian?” or “Do you believe in reincarnation?” More often the prisoners talk about why they feel they can’t transform themselves because of all the ugliness around them.

Once the talking is drawn to a close, the second half is spent with Bo teaching them a simple form of breath-centered meditation. The workshop always ends with a very powerful eye-to-eye paired meditation practice where the participants are encouraged to pair up not with someone they are friendly with but with someone who is more difficult to be with. “This is always a very profound experience,” says Bo. “I lead them in ways of seeing each other and opening up to each other silently. No smiles, no touching, no gestures of ‘It’s ok,’ or anything. Solely through the eyes. It’s very difficult for them but extremely powerful.”

In talking to those who’ve been helped by the Human Kindness Foundation, the appreciation is palpable. “Bo and Sita have had an astounding effect on my life,” says Len, a former motorcycle gang member currently serving time in Kansas. “If there were any two people I could nominate for sainthood, it would be those two. Without them, I probably would have been dead a long time ago and I wouldn’t have grown to the point that I have now.”

But Bo’s work reaches beyond just a few individuals. Entire prisons feel its effects, as demonstrated by one of Len’s stories. His prison, he explained, is made up of rival gang members — Crypts, Bloods, Arian Brotherhood, as well as non-gang members of various races and backgrounds. When a black inmate in the clinic was dying from cancer, a group of inmates was approved to visit him. When Len arrived, he was amazed by what he saw. “Every race, color, creed was represented, and it felt like for a moment, time stood still and there was nothing but love and compassion for this guy. There was no static or tension in the room and I attribute that to when Bo and Sita came here and they showed everyone in one of their workshops that differences can be put aside and everyone can work in harmony.”

The effect is felt outside the prison cell as well. Shirley Leitch’s son, David, has been incarcerated since 1981 for second-degree murder. “Every time I would get one of Bo’s newsletters it would be so profound I would cry,” she says. “They were so meaningful for me. I’ve been on a spiritual path for a long time but Bo bridged the gap between my spiritual trip and the prison trip.” Bo notes that he often receives a large number of letters from people who are not in a physical prison but say they feel “locked in” by their fears, anxieties, desires, and anger. “Please help me,” they write, “to escape from this prison of my own making.”

Al Nagy, a psychologist at the Federal Correctional Institute in Bastrop, Texas has been involved in the prison system for over twenty years. As with many people, his first exposure to the Human Kindness Foundation was through Bo’s books. “The books are very simple to read yet they make a very profound message and have such a ring of truth for them. I think the vast majority of people who read them, whether they are incarcerated individuals or not, come away with a simple way of putting life, and it makes a great deal of sense.”

Not everyone within the prison establishment, however, quite knows what to make of this self-described “insurrectionary revolutionary.” As Nagy points, one problem is figuring out who should be inviting Bo in–the clergy or the psychologists. “Most prison chaplains are Christian oriented and while Bo is Christian oriented, he is also Buddhist oriented and you name it. It takes a relatively open-minded chaplain to work through that. There aren’t many willing to do that, so it often falls on the psychologist. Many psychologists have their own perspectives and if it doesn’t fit into their model, then it’s put aside.”

Smith of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole agrees. “The staff probably sees Bo as “New Agey,” and a bit far out. Ironically, this is often the treatment staff who are there to help the people receive. Bo’s methods are so unorthodox that a lot of the people who haven’t worked on themselves through meditation and inner work can’t accept him because of his lack of credentials or are threatened by his methods.”

If the work is so difficult and the support often lacking, how have Bo and Sita managed to continue their efforts for over twenty years? “Everyday it feels like the right thing to do,” says Sita. “We would stop if we got the feeling that it was no longer right for our spiritual path to do this work.” For Bo, the rewards are equally clear: “How many other people have something that really calls to them? I never dreamed I’d even be alive in my forties, let alone doing good to the extent that somebody says ‘he changed my life.’ I am eternally grateful. I don’t feel like I’m doing that much.”

Thousands of prisoners would disagree.

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