Your December 2000 issue got me through a long day of jury duty. Derrick Jensen’s interview with Bo Lozoff [“Getting Free”] could not have been more timely. When I was called into the courtroom as a prospective juror and saw the three defendants sitting there, I burst into tears. I wasn’t asked to serve on that jury, but I believe I would have been a more compassionate juror as a result of reading The Sun that day.
I was both touched and saddened by your interview with Bo Lozoff: touched by his commitment to his spiritual path and the valuable work he is doing in the world; and saddened by hearing him speak some “truths” that are not so clearly true.
I do not agree that one of the basic tenets of spiritual life is not to want too much, to live modestly. I agree that letting money be the primary focus of our lives distracts us from our deeper work as spiritual beings, but Lozoff’s words rang with martyrdom to me. Poverty is not a requirement for “being spiritual,” nor is frugality. I was particularly disturbed when he discredited certain spiritual teachers on the basis of their having vacation homes in Maui. Is it wrong for people who devote themselves to spiritual work to have beautiful vacation homes? (No, I don’t currently have one, but I’d love to one day.) I believe a healthy relationship to money is possible, and that relationship includes having some! Each person’s path to God is unique. For some, learning to be OK with less money is valuable; for others, learning to be OK with more money is equally valuable.
I also agree with Lozoff that, ultimately, a spiritual path obliges us to serve. Yet I think service that is truly helpful must come from a deep place within us, and cultivating a relationship to this place takes time. Serving prematurely may not be true service. Until we are really grounded in God (or oneness or consciousness) our service is primarily self-serving. Perhaps the most important way we can serve our fellow man is first to take on our own spiritual growth.
I have been reading about Bo Lozoff for years now. I have also attended talks he has led. While I admire his message, I am tired of hearing Bo talk. I am curious about what his wife Sita has to say. I am ready to hear her perspective.
I find it troubling that Bo and Sita present their work through Bo’s voice alone.
I want to thank Bo Lozoff and his wife for caring enough to give their time to prison work. I sincerely wish that more “free” people would offer their gifts to the forgotten ones who fill our swelling penitentiaries. Prisoners need to realize there’s a third way to go, neither marching blindly in step nor lashing out in ways that harm themselves and others.
But as Lozoff surely knows, volunteering at a prison isn’t the same as being locked up against your will, even for a day. You might get patted down at the gates, but no grinning guard will shove his gloved finger up your ass; your chances of being raped or stabbed are considerably lower than an inmate’s; and you can take your “it’s all an illusion” rhetoric with you when you leave at night. Nor is being locked up for a week the same as being incarcerated for a year, or five, or ten, or life without parole. There is nothing more decidedly real than a cell, and no place where talk of transcendence is less appropriate.
Don’t get me wrong, meditation can help slow your pounding, anxious heart, quiet your thoughts of the girlfriend who no longer writes, or keep the galvanized steel walls from closing in on you. But, meanwhile, someone is still being coerced to his knees in the next cell over, the law still favors the rich, wives still send Dear John letters to their prisoner husbands, white collar criminals still rip people off and destroy the environment, and misfits and minorities continue to be railroaded by the penal system. Making prison more tolerable isn’t really the point. And the best way to teach prisoners the important message of self-worth, awareness, and compassion is in the context of engagement, resistance, and reform.
I appreciate Lozoff’s message about “making the prison a better place” than you found it. This could mean touching another prisoner’s heart, or kindling discontent in a guard. I can guarantee, however, that the quickest way to become a target in prison is to be caught sitting in lotus or rapping about forgiveness and grace. New Age missions, twelve-step programs, and Catholic services (which even pagans attend, just to get out of their cell blocks) have one disturbing thing in common: they’re all pushing a “way out” — out of dysfunctional habits, out of the joint, out of sin, out of this world, and, now, a way out of the body. Better to talk about getting in: involved, insistent.
Even if Eastern visions of “maya” are correct, they don’t resonate in the department of corrections. The reality of imprisonment is more real than anyone on the outside can imagine, no matter how many times he or she might visit. And real, too, is the work we need to do to change our lives, and to overturn this imprisoning modern paradigm.
Bo Lozoff responds:
I’m sorry my discussion of how the great spiritual traditions feel about money saddened Rev. Denning, but neither the great traditions nor I said anything about poverty being better, or needing to be martyrs. The point is not that money is either bad or good, but rather that it is thoroughly unimportant whether we have a lot or a little, as long as we don’t expend too much energy in that direction. I know this is unpopular with many modern people who have a vested interest in making affluence “sacred,” but none of the great traditions support that view. As for Rev. Denning’s idea that we must first work on our own spiritual growth before we can help others from a “deep place,” I hope she appreciates what a giant cop-out that can become for many people. Serving others is a tremendous component of our own spiritual growth. We must start serving where we are, or else we tend never to be “ready.”
Anne Hietbrink, who is tired of hearing me talk, can rest easy. I, too, am tired of hearing me talk, and that is why I am going into one year of total silence starting on September 2. Both Sita and I, however, are offended by the many people who insist that she talk, stripping her of the freedom to be a private person and not a public figure. If you think about it, it’s a chauvinistic view that the wife must dutifully follow her husband into a career of speaking and teaching whether it suits her or not. Sita is indeed a strong woman, and that’s why she will not be commanded to appear in print for anyone’s satisfaction.
Finally, to my friend who is concerned that I’m out of touch with the harsh realities of prison life: I said very clearly that our spirituality is not about navel gazing but about becoming spiritual activists. I also mentioned that I live in a community with a half dozen ex-cons who have done a total of about a hundred years’ time in some of the most brutal institutions in the world. They and thousands of inmates around the world disagree with you that “rapping about forgiveness and grace” is dangerous and inappropriate prison behavior. It is basic spiritual responsibility no matter where you find yourself. One of my staff, who spent twenty-three years in Alabama’s harshest prisons on a murder charge, was quite annoyed by your blanket dismissal of the ideas and practices that transformed his life and the lives of other cons he knew and loved. Please be careful not to assume that you speak for all prisoners. We know you are angry. We know how terrible prisons are. Yet we are not naive boy scouts, and transcendence is neither avoidance nor escapism. Some of the best people I know in this world are life-without-parole convicts who engage in constant prison activism and also regularly meditate and transcend as often as possible. There is no conflict between the two. I do understand the horrors of the age we live in, and yet we as individuals must still do our spiritual work without waiting for anything outside ourselves to change. We will not be held accountable for what was done to us, but we will be held fully accountable for how we did our time, whether inside or outside prison.
I wonder why Harold Glazer [Correspondence, December 2000] finds the nudity of the topless breast-cancer survivors in Art Meyers’ photographs [March 2000] “pornographic.” What about the authentic power of these women? Their courage? Their beauty? Would Glazer clothe them so they would appear “decent”? I suppose then the pathos of their situations would be hidden so we could respond to their plights in typically numb American fashion.
And as far as the Readers Write contributions from convicts being intended to “diminish the social stigma of the authors’ offenses,” I would remind Glazer that the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Rather than relegating these prisoners to silence, as our culture does, The Sun chooses to share their voices with its subscribers.
Perhaps it is the articulation of our common humanity that causes Glazer’s discomfort.
A week ago, when Vice-President-Elect-in-limbo Dick Cheney had a heart attack, I actually said to my husband, “Well, let’s hope the pressure of being vice-president will give him another.” I could feel the clunk after I said it, but I didn’t try to take back that evil little thought. I just let it go. After all, Bush and Cheney would do bad things to good people and good things for bad people, right?
This afternoon, I was on the last paragraph of Anne Lamott’s “Forgiveness” [November 2000] when a radio newscaster reported that Cheney’s heart attack had been a mild one and his recovery quite rapid. I found myself whispering, “Good. I’m glad.”
Lamott’s words had quietly brought my forgiving self to the surface.
I am a recently divorced single mother of two. I first received your brochure for The Sun during a very troubled time in my life. I almost threw it away, thinking it was “just another magazine.” But something made me pause, and I decided I would give it a try. After all, I could always cancel my subscription, right?
I now realize that not subscribing to The Sun would have been a huge mistake. I can barely wait for my next issue to arrive. The stories, poems, and essays bring out such emotion and deep thought that I’m left breathless. In my time of hardship and need, The Sun came through and touched me profoundly.
I plan on sending a subscription to my ex-husband as a Christmas gift so that, just for a moment, he may be touched as I have been, and perhaps will realize that anger is not the only emotion in this world.