Sita Lozoff is the spiritual director of Human Kindness Foundation, whose primary work is the Prison-Ashram Project. The project encourages incarcerated men and women to use their time in prison for spiritual growth, as if they were living in an ashram. Sita and her late husband, Bo, began the Prison-Ashram Project in 1973, as part of spiritual leader Ram Dass’s Hanuman Foundation. In 1987 they founded Human Kindness Foundation to continue the work.
Over the last 40 years, the Human Kindness Foundation has published and distributed spiritual books by Bo Lozoff and others. The books are free for men and women behind bars. Bo’s book, We’re All Doing Time, which the Village Voice called one of the 10 books everyone in the world should read, is in its 21st printing, with half a million copies in print. Other books include Deep and Simple, It’s a Meaningful Life, Just Another Spiritual Book, Lineage & Other Stories, and two children’s books, The Wonderful Life of a Fly Who Couldn’t Fly, and Little Boy in the Land of Rhyme (all available at www.humankindness.org/shop/).
The staff and volunteers of the Human Kindness Foundation also respond to the letters they receive from inmates seeking help with the challenges they face walking the spiritual path in a place as unsupportive and frequently hostile as prison. They share some of these letters in a newsletter, A Little Good News, which comes out three times a year, and is sent to prisoners, friends, and supporters. The books and newsletters have also helped many non-incarcerated readers—including this writer—on their spiritual journey. The books are interfaith, advocating no path to God over another, but instead focusing on the often difficult work of taking responsibility for our actions, loving our neighbors, and forgiving those we believe have wronged us.
Bo was the more visible half of the Lozoff partnership. However, since Bo died in a motorcycle accident in November 2012, the work of the Human Kindness Foundation has carried on. I wanted to speak with its “silent partner,” Sita, on how she came to devote her life to helping those most of society has repudiated. Sita was kind enough to speak with me on three occasions by telephone. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: How did you and Bo meet?
Lozoff: I was a student at the University of Miami in 1965. He was recovering from a head-on car collision that almost took his life. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel and driven head-on into a Mack truck. He attributed his survival to the fact that he was a healthy bodybuilder; nevertheless, it took him years to recover and he had lifelong back pain as a result of that accident.
His family was from Miami, so he was living there while he recuperated. On this particular day, he was driving by and saw me. The rest, as they say, is history. (Laughs.) We had some karmic work to do together I guess. He was 19 and I was 21 when we met, more than 50 years ago! We married a year later.
The MOON: How did you come to devote your life to the work of redeeming convicts?
Lozoff: In 1973, Ram Dass was sending his famous spiritual book, Be Here Now, into prison libraries all over the country. That same year, our brother-in-law, Pete, received a sentence of 12 to 40 years for smuggling marijuana from Jamaica. That may seem like a harsh sentence, but Pete had been given probation the first time he was arrested, got caught doing the exact same thing and came before the same judge, who was angry that he’d shown leniency once and Pete hadn’t learned his lesson. So he sentenced him to federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Pete actually served five years. When Bo and I visited him in prison, we realized that he was leading an ascetic life rather similar to the one we were living at an ashram in North Carolina. We encouraged Pete to use his sentence as an opportunity for spiritual growth and to be of service and we gave him a copy of Be Here Now.
Bo and I had been so inspired after reading Be Here Now that we invited Ram Dass to speak at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. That was in December 1973. Ram Dass told us he was getting letters from men in prison who had read the book and that he was overwhelmed by the prospect of responding to them all. After visiting Pete, Bo said that he felt drawn to serving inmates, so Ram Dass said, “Why don’t you take these letters?” That’s how the Prison-Ashram Project was born—as a project of the Hanuman Foundation, Ram Dass’s foundation. By 1987, we’d grown so large that we formed our own foundation, Human Kindness Foundation, and focused solely on responding to letters from inmates, teaching yoga and meditation in prisons, writing spiritual books and sending them to inmates, and preparing inmates for leading a life of service—whether they ever got out of prison or not.
We’d come to North Carolina when we were a young family—our son was a year old—and were looking for the place we felt called to settle and begin our life’s work. Bo had written a letter to Dr. J.B. Rhine, who’d coined the phrase ESP for “extra-sensory perception” and whose research foundation was located in Durham. Bo was interested in ESP, so when Dr. Rhine wrote back suggesting we join his community here, we moved to Durham.
Prior to that we were basically hippies—traveling the country, looking for a home after we were married in 1966. Bo’s brother Mike worked in northern Georgia, organizing women who worked for Levi Strauss, which had a factory there. It was a company town that pretty much exploited its workers. Mike invited Bo to help him with his organizing work, which is how we came to be in San Francisco for the Summer of Love in 1967. We went to ask Jefferson Airplane, who had just done a commercial for Levi Strauss, to consider supporting our work and to make an anti-Levi commercial in solidarity with the women who were organizing in Georgia.
That didn’t quite work out, however. [Laughs.] Nevertheless, it got us to San Francisco in 1967, where we became very taken with the whole “Peace, Love” movement. We brought it back to Atlanta, Georgia, in fact, opening the first ”head shop” in the South. Hippies were not very welcome or treated very well in the South, which prompted us to become a little more political and a little more spiritual.
The MOON: Will you tell us a bit about your spiritual journey?
Lozoff: Bo and I were both born Jewish, but we were essentially raised without religion because our parents felt betrayed—as did many Jews—that God could have allowed Hitler and the Holocaust. But during the Summer of Love, Bo and I took some LSD, which has been called “God in a pill.” We both had the profound experience that there is more to life than material reality; that there is Consciousness underlying all that we typically perceive as “real.”
So that was the context in which we read Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. Ram Dass, we felt, put our own LSD experiences into words. He became our first spiritual teacher, showing us a way to experience God without the use of LSD.
I just want to say that, at this point in my life, fifty years after beginning the Eastern practices Ram Dass introduced to us, I feel as connected to Christianity as I do to Eastern religions. I love Christ. I believe in the resurrection. I also love St. Francis. I just finished reading Kazantzakis’ St. Francis, which I’d recommend to anyone, of any faith. It is deeply moving; I’ve read it three or four times now. Kazantzakis says, “God is an abyss. Jump!” I love that. To me it’s a reminder to have the courage to take that leap of faith when appropriate.
The MOON: What draws you to Christianity at this point in your life?
Lozoff: When my guru, the Indian saint, Neem Karoli Baba, was asked how Christ meditated, with tears rolling down his face he replied: “He lost himself in love.” When I was leading a workshop at San Quentin a couple of years ago, and an inmate there asked me what I thought was Bo’s favorite saying of Christ’s, I could easily reply, “Love one another as I have loved you.” I experience Christ as love, and I think that about sums up the heart of our work and my life’s calling which is to share that divine love with people who feel unlovable.
The MOON: Please tell us more about your prison experiences.