opening to the unknown

life in community. an interview with bo lozoff
Bo Lozoff has never been a traditional kind of guy. Coming of age in the sixties, Bo and his wife Sita were counter-society young people of that eraótravelers, adventurers, hippies, activists. Later this calling lead them to more formally structured spiritual practices like meditation and yoga, and to living a simple life in an ashram. Both Bo and Sita quickly saw the joys of community life, and realized that a life focused on satisfying their needs rather than their wants was inherently more satisfying. As Bo puts it, "we could see that everything beyond, shelter, weather and food is just gravy." †

With the pull to service growing stronger in him, and after many visits to a relative doing time in prisons, Bo and Sita saw the similarities between the lifestyle they were living in the ashramóno movies, TV, sex, social life or drugsóand the life of prisoners. With the help and support of Ram Dass, the Prison-Ashram project was born, and little did they know at the time where this one idea would lead. The project has now become a worldwide organization that has helped countless prisoners. Their work involves mailing free copies of Bo's books (We're All Doing Time, Lineage and Other Stories, and Deep and Simple) to thousands of prisoners, corresponding and providing spiritual support to those inside, and giving talks at prisons throughout the country. They also invite prisoners to come stay at their community after they are released, and one former prisoner has now become a central part of the organization. In Bo's most recent book, It's a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice (Viking Penguin, 2000) he directs his teachings to the general population, and gives a profound look at what it means to live a meaningful life in our day and age.

About seven years ago, Bo and Sita took on a new experiment: the Kindness House, an intentional spiritual community in North Carolina where people from all walks of life come to live simply and do the karma yoga that runs the organization. Bo has said that, initially, it was not easy leaving his home with Sita to start an intentional community, but something stronger was calling him to provide a place where both former prisoners and karma yogis could come live together and serve the greater good.

Bo was one of the main inspirations for me and my friend Andrew Getz to start our own non-profit, The Lineage Project, which works with incarcerated teens. In fact, we got our name from the title of his book of short stories, Lineage and Other Stories. From my interactions with Bo over the years, I knew that in our interview he would not just say what he thought people wanted to hear or what would be popular. Due to this focus, I have not always found Bo to be the "easiest" person to talk to, but he is one of the people from whom I have learned the most. I was lucky to catch Bo right before he was embarking on a year in silence, starting with a 40-day retreat in a small cabin. In this interview, however, Bo has a great deal to say about the benefits and challenges of community life.

Soren Gordhamer: There have obviously been many rewards from your work at the Kindness House, but what have been some of the difficulties of community life?

Bo Lozoff: Any ashram is going to have an enormous amount of difficulties because ashrams and communities draw people who are looking for an easier way, where everything is always going to be nice for them and they donít have to challenge themselves. And of course, any true spiritual community is exactly the opposite. You come into a spiritual community and everything begins confronting you, your frailties and your weaknesses and your vanity and your arrogance and your ego. A true spiritual community is a place where you go to annihilate your ego, not to fulfil it. So ironically, and poignantly, Iíd say the great majority of people who are drawn to a spiritual community are people who arenít right for it at all. Theyíre looking for an easier way, and itís a harder way. Itís easier, spiritually, to be out there living as a nuclear unit. You have freedom of choice, your own vehicle, your own income. If somebody says, "Iíve just never been able to hack it in that dog-eat-dog world," we just know theyíre not going to hack it here either.

The difficulties have been many. I donít know of another ashram or community that deals with the community that we deal with. We have convicted killers coming here after 25 years imprisonment, and we have college students coming for an internship and a retired school teacher coming. So itís a mix of populations, and itís been challenging.† Kindness House has been around for a little over seven years now, and weíve gone through probably hundreds of people who thought they wanted to live here.† Right now we have a group of about 15 very harmonious, mature spiritual people who have made an informed choice of why they want to be here.

And the fifteen of us live and work here as a family. It is NOT egalitarian, it is NOT a democracy. I want to be emphatic about that. It is a spiritual community. I am the director. We have a board of directors over the whole organization. Because itís our nature, we try to empower people to take responsibility, but we are not really interested in what people want. We assume that people who want to live here already have a good feeling for the flavor of the Human Kindness Foundation and the general drift of committed personal practice and committed service. We assume that people understand that there is no one right way to run a community. There are many reasonably good ways, and we have one of them. And we make it clear when people come, that weíre not really interested in their immediate contributions to making this a better place. They need to learn how to be the new kid on the block, do things exactly as we do without saying, "this might be a better way." We ask people to not make suggestions for the first three months, because we find that most people do not last three months.

S:† So, they are being asked to trust the community and trust the people who have been there longer.

B: Yes, and trust is an enormous factor when youíre in community, especially spiritual community. Somebody the other day asked, "How is your daily work schedule made? How are decisions made?" Itís hard to answer those questions, because the whole thing just flows so fluidly. Decisions are more of a recognition than a few people who coordinate things. If someone doesn't have trust, they won't last more than a few months. If there is trust, there will be true consensus. None of us care more about the object of a decision than we care about the process of each other making that decision.

When we have our board meetings every couple of months we remind ourselves at the beginning of the meeting that we are not here to make decisions. We are here to collectively intuit where God wants us to go next with the Foundation. Weíre here to collectively intuit what our guidance is, rather than knocking heads to make decisions. So our decisions are always consensus. And itís not a formal consensus like Iíve done in some other groups, itís just effortless, itís natural.† All of us know that when there starts to be a little bloodshed in the discussion, that weíre missing the point. When the object becomes more important than the process, we say, "Wait, whatís happening here?" Last year we bought 55 more acres of land.† Thatís a big decision. And we had disagreements. At some point one of us has to be insightful enough to remind everyone to take a moment of silence. We all know that we donít want to just get what we want, we want to come from a deeper place. And then weíll quiet down and come back at it from a different angle. Itís a recognition rather than a decision. And thatís our consensus.

That process takes an enormous amount of trust and intimacy. Everybody whoís come here from prison, at one time or another, has said they'd rather be in prison than here. Everybody whoís come here from prison, has said that this is harder than prison.† And Iím talking about people who have been raped, people who have been brutalized, people who have seen their cellmates killed over a pack of cigarettes.† They have come to Kindness House and said, "This is harder than it ever was in prison." Every single one of them. Dozens.

S: What do they mean by that?

B: I think in a true spiritual community, you have to open into a trust of not knowing. In prison itís exactly the opposite. You are totally responsible for figuring out your own survival, what you need spiritually and practically.† Although prison life is very difficult and you may be completely unsupported and you donít have any other resources to draw on, at least you understand the decisions youíre making.† †

S: What does the community do to maintain harmony?

B: We have meetings every Friday night, we call them tunings. Itís like tuning a guitar.† You have six different strings on a guitar, and they can sound pretty awful with each other, or they can all be different and sound in harmony. We try to look at whateverís come up and really be open and communicate. We remind ourselves of what it is that we really want here and what weíre doing here. It's not always to respect each othersí boundaries, itís not to interact with each other in a way that always makes you feel good.

Sometimes I feel like the whole American spiritual community has been taken over by psychological or psycho-emotional pampering of each other. There's an attitude of† "oh, sorry, I donít want to say anything to upset you." Well why not? Iím on this train to the end of the line, Iím not just trying to make the ride comfortable. Thereís somewhere weíre going with all this. So we try to look at things like that in the tunings. As well as open up and say what's bothering us, like "so and so said something to meÖ" And you know the vast majority of the times, itís misperceptions and misunderstandings. When you bring it up in open communication the other person says, "Oh, Iím sorry, I didnít mean it that way at all!"† And you say, "Oh well gee, Iím glad I said it."

The two main community practices are karma yoga and good will.† What we mean by karma yoga is that every job merits equal respect and equal mindfulness and capability. That thereís absolutely no difference to us between writing the books and washing the dishes. And that itís not a matter of what I like doing and what I donít like doing. You donít come to a place like this to talk about what you enjoy and what you donít enjoy, because we are able to enjoy any task that needs to be done.† We are able to see it as Godís work. And the goodwill practice is simply that we do not justify a resentful, angry feeling towards another.† We may naturally have them, and experience them, but when we do, thereís some spiritual work to do to regain the goodwill between us.† The square one of goodwill is that weíre all good people and donít mean each other any harm.

S: I know that a lot of people, particularly in mainstream society, want more of a sense of community in their lives, but theyíre not quite in the place to move to a spiritual community.† What do you think these people can do that might help bring a sense of community into their daily lives?

B:† To be really truthful with you, I feel itís very difficult to bring much sense of community into the typical nuclear kind of mainstream life. That lifestyle is a brutal consumer of time and resources. Internal resources as well as external resources.† To pay all of your own bills, to have all of your insurance, and to maintain your vehicle and do your shopping and cleaning and cooking.† For each person or small family to do that by themselves is just brutal. I just spoke with a woman last night who lives in Indiana, who said, "I work a forty hour a week job, and thereís just no time for anything else. Between getting there, getting back, doing my shopping, doing my cleaning. I donít know how to do other volunteer work, I donít know how to have a community."

We all pay for what we get.† If we want the freedom to have all of that personal choice stuff, then you have to be willing to give up some of the pros of living in a community with people. Here, if a car breaks down, itís not one person's stress. Itís just a car, and thereís usually somebody whoís the one to wind up taking it to get fixed. So it doesnít destroy your whole day. If you want community like that, you have to be willing to accept that you donít just hop in the car and go ten miles to Dairy Queen just because you feel like having a cone. We have to pay a price for what we want.

I think people who live in the mainstream sometimes pay too high a price. They would really love most of the benefits of living in a community with others, but they are just not willing to give up their freedom. "I want to eat what I want, when I want."† At Kindness House, we do not eat between meals, period. And for some people thatís like, man, why are you so rigid, why are you so institutionalized?† Weíre not institutionalized, we live on alms. We donít feel that itís proper to just open up the refrigerator because youíve got a little bored energy. People support us to do the work that we do.† And so we try to be respectful of that.† And we donít feel that itís a lack of freedom, but I can understand how somebody else could. And so you give up a lot of freedom to be in community.† Or, you give up a lot of the community benefits to get your 'I wants.' You just canít have it both ways.

S: Do you feel that by serving as an example of how community life could look, that you are helping others move towards more of a community life?

B: We receive hundreds of visitors throughout the course of a year.† I feel like thereís certainly an interest and curiosity among many people to visit communities and to get a taste.† A lot of times, itís somebody whoís been on our mailing list for a long time and theyíre directly curious about us.† But a lot of times itís just people who are doing tours of communities and they want to come and spend a few days in this one. And I think thatís a great idea. I think that people who have done that have really opened their eyes a lot. Theyíve had a chance to talk with many community members and have seen a lot of misconceptions about community life. Thatís one thing that people can do, is simply take a little time to go and visit different kinds of communities.† Even if itís not a community they think theyíd ever want to live in. Itís always educational to visit communities.

S: Is there anything else that you could say to someone whoís living their life and maybe feeling isolated, or lacking a connection with people throughout the day? What guidance would you have?

B:† Just acknowledging the situation that weíre in is helpful. We are in the most isolated era of human history. We have pseudo-connections through things like email and the internet. But thereís never a human touch. You donít see a face. People donít have to even go to stores anymore. Itís easier to just go on-line and buy it. So I feel that by first acknowledging that we're in a massively lonesome and isolated period, then at least we have sympathy for our position.

And then we can say, "I need to address this in some way, and how do I do that?"† You can read an appropriate book, you begin to take measures, you try to do some volunteer work, or you look up some communities, or you read an article like this one, and you say, "I think Iím going to go try to spend a few days at that place." Just to feel it, just to see. You know, we donít want everybody in the world to try to move to Kindness House, because we have hundreds of visitors a year, we donít have room for all those people. But after they visit, people can go back to where they live, and they look with new eyes, because we ask people to ask themselves the real questions. "What is it that my life is really about? And how does my daily life jive with that? If I were to die today, would it be perfectly okay because I know that Iíve really lived the way that I felt moved to live?" And you notice Iím saying things like felt moved to live, and what is life about, rather than, What do I want? What do I want is very misleading. Ask instead, What do I think my life is about? Am I living in a way that I feel called, that I feel drawn, that I feel moved, that I feel inspired?† Those are the relevant questions to me.

S: How do you live out these questions at this point in your life?

B: Iím trying to feel a very present, very real energy, an intelligent force that is moving me along on a path. And if I can get in sync with that force, then the whole world is my community, the whole place is my ashram. If Iím not in sync with that force, I could be at Kindness House for fifty years and feel isolated. So wherever we are, I feel like the work is always the same. Whether itís in community, or out of community. Do we still believe, like all the sages have told us, that life is about moving beyond the small, petty self? Or, have we changed our minds? Do we feel like the small petty self is actually really cool, and we want to work with it, satisfy it? I think thatís the crossroads that contemporary culture is at. Deciding, what do we really believe in? and is it worth it? And depending on what we say we believe in, is it worth a measure of sacrifice? †

Iím going into a deep retreat in September. Iím going into forty days where Iím basically presenting everything that I have been holding on to, for total ego death, for total ego annihilation. I really donít care to come out of that little cabin forty days later unscathed. I would like to either be carried out in a body bag, or come out really significantly different than I went in. For me itís down to, What do I believe in? What do I believe in? And I find that I really honestly do believe in ego annihilation for the benefit of all beings. Tukaram, the 15th century saint said, "The death of the ego is a festive occasion beyond compare." I really believe that, and so Iím going to present myself, saying, letís do it. Iím not holding out to see my unborn grandchildren, Iím not holding out for fifty years of marriage, Iím not holding out for watching more prisoners get saved or helped. This is it. Boís putting all of his chips in the centre of the table. Whatever the next stage is, letís do it. And I think thatís all that any of us can do when we feel isolated, when we feel like we need more of a sense of community. You can just open up the door and you donít have any guarantees of whatís through it, but you know that where youíre coming from is no longer satisfactory to you. And so you go in open. Leave behind what you know is not touching you in the deepest core. And donít worry about what lies ahead, but just be willing to leave that other thing behind.† Walk into the darkness.

For more information on Bo Lozoff and The Human Kindness Foundation,

Soren Gordhamer is the Director of the Lineage Project in New York City. He is the author of a meditation book for teens, Just Say Om! (Adams Media, 2001) and a contributor to Blue Jean Buddha edited by Sumi Loundon (Wisdom Publications, 2001). Both are due for release in October.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life