Human Kindness Foundation
a little good news Spring 1995
COMMUNION AND COMMUNITY
"Those in future generations who study and practice the truth of these teachings will be blessed. ...They will attain the insight necessary to perceive the Great Truth. Following this truth with unabashed sincerity, they will become it: Whole, courageous, indestructible, and unnameable."
Lao Tzu, approx. 2500 years ago (translated by Brian Walker)
Religion was never supposed to be complicated, abstract or distant from our daily life. In fact, both religion and philosophy arise from the most real, most practical questions of our existence: What are we doing here, and how can we make life work? Every thoughtful person, not just intellectuals or preachers, wrestles with those basic questions at some time or other.
For thousands of years, religions, philosophies, saints and sages have tried to help us find the answers to those two simple questions. We have usually been content to argue and even kill each other over the differences in their teachings, but when we let go of such fearful separateness and look honestly at the similarities instead, we discover that the great "Wisdom Traditions" all point in exactly the same two directions: Inner transcendence (Communion), and unselfish behavior (Community).
What Are We Doing Here?
In response to the first question, "What are we doing here?," the Holy Ones have all said 1) Its way beyond your understanding, so give up trying to figure it out with the mind; and 2) Look within, look beyond the mind, be STILL, go to the Secret Place within the heart. In other words, they point to an experience of direct contact with the ChristAllahGreat SpiritThe Almighty -Yahweh - Buddha Mind, etc., which can only be found by going inside, past all our notions about self or God. Lao Tzus poem (below) sums it up perfectly: Learn how to remain in the Center, watching and then forget that you are there. A word for this which no tradition would argue with is COMMUNION. The Great Religions and masters tell us to diligently seek Communion.
The ego is a monkey catapulting through the jungle:
Totally fascinated by the realm of the senses,
it swings from one desire to the next,
one conflict to the next,
one self-centered idea to the next.
If you threaten it, it actually fears for its life.
Let this monkey go.
Let the sense go.
Let desires go.
Let conflicts go.
Let ideas go.
Let the fiction of life and death go.
Just remain in the center watching.
And then forget that you are there.
How Can We Make Life Work?
In response to the second question, the holy teachings, once again, have each expressed exactly the same advice, the same ethics and standards for human behavior: Be kind to one another; love thy neighbor as thyself; do unto others as you would have them do unto you; live for a mightier cause than selfishness; serve the poor; make the world a better place. Another simple, unarguable word sums it up: COMMUNITY. The Holy Ones all tell us to dedicate our lives to the Community. Lao Tzu says it in a way that gives us no excuses:
Or, as Neem Karoli Baba put it over two thousand years later, "Do whatever you must with people, but never shut anyone out of your heart, even for a moment." Its all the same teaching.
As Soon As...
Its easy to think of family and friends as "community," and everyone else as strangers, associates, rivals or even enemies whom we just have to cope with in order to make a living, do our time, get ahead, etc. Its easy to think "Ill practice Community and Communion as soon as I get home from work, as soon as I get out of prison, as soon as my boss stops picking on me, as soon as things smooth out for me, as soon as, as soon as..."
It just doesnt work that way. Our community is exactly where we are at every moment during the day; exactly whom life places in front of us at any time. Thats the whole point! That idiot, that lecher, that bully, that pervert, that con, that cop, that snitch, that bureaucrat who drives us up the wall, that windbag politician on TV everyone we see, hear, or meet must be respected as a brother or sister on the path, even if they have no idea there is such a thing as a path.
Clearly, this practice of Community is not for cowards; its challenging and confusing, and its full time. The world has become quite a mess from people only practicing it on the Sabbath, or in places where its easy, or with people who are nice. We need some humble heroes who take it on full time. This means you. Now. Today.
Not as soon as, but now. Not when you get happier, but now. Not when people treat you more fairly, but now. Not when the world is a safer, kinder place. NOW. In the middle of the worst of it.
No one else in the world can play your unique role. God knows where you are, knows about your depression or anxiety, the people you face, your weaknesses, your past, your fears and doubts. Communion and Community are not for later, they are your ticket out of Hell! If you decide to devote your inner life to Communion and your outer life to Community, that little suffering self doesnt have anywhere to exist!
Dont just say it or plan it; act on it today even in the tiniest ways. If you are in prison, think about how long you have been there, and then ask yourself honestly whether the prison or anyone in it is better off because you have been there. Get to work. Make Communion and Community real. If you spend even a moment in humble silent reflection, if you help even one person or creature to feel safer or more loved, you will be on the road to the Great Recovery.
The Great Recovery
The Great Recovery is from the terrible addiction of self-centered living. Thats the recovery all the prophets and sages have encouraged us to seek. Our whole modern world is hooked on looking out for #1, yet the more we do it, the worse we feel. So we up the dose of selfishness. Its classic addiction.
If the ancients are right that Community and Commu-nion are the only ways were ever going to feel the joy of being alive, then imagine how it might feel if a whole nation lost touch with both Community and Communion. What would that be like? Well, as the late American sage Joseph Campbell said, "Just pick up the New York Times or turn on the TV. Were living in what it would be like."
And its pretty sad. It reminds me of the dogs at the race track who never get to catch the rabbit. Not only do they not get to catch it, but it wasnt even a rabbit in the first place just painted plywood! Thats how we and our kids are getting ripped off daily by chasing after all the "stuff" thats supposed to make us happy but never will.
The only way we can restore Community and Communion in our society is first to restore it in our own lives: Just practice community in everything we do, and take time each day to seek communion beyond all names, forms, or identities.
Going It Alone
Few of us are ever in the ideal situation where everyone around us changes at the same time, or all the rules suddenly become fair. Most of the time we have to start this humble heros journey by ourselves, with little or no support.
But then we receive the invisible support of Truth itself, because Community and Communion are a truer way than fear and selfishness. As Malcolm X discovered in prison, there is soul-power in taking a True Path. The harder it is, the more soul-power we gain. If it werent so hard, we wouldn't gain so much commitment, courage, and faith. If it werent so hard, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha and the rest would have preached to us from comfortable thrones instead of showing us the way through persecution, discomfort, rejection. Its hard because thats what it takes to move us beyond the ego; once we do, life isn't so hard anymore; even with all the same conditions in place, we find true peace and dignity.
Is There Truth In Your Goals?
Sita and I have visited a lot of treatment programs lately, both in and outside of prisons. Weve spoken to a lot of people who have been through the doors not just once, but two, three, four, five times good people with decent hearts and a lot of sincerity, but who seem to keep finding themselves caught in addiction.
They ask why? Why cant I lead a good life? Why do I keep screwing everything up? I asked many of them what their treatment goals were, and received the same answer Ive heard for over twenty years: "I just want to stay clean and sober, get a decent job, get back with my family, have a nice little place to live, a decent set of wheels... Im a good person; I deserve it, don't I ?"
Those goals sound right, dont they? They would be applauded on Oprah or Donahue. But are they enough to create a happy life? "Me and mine" is basically what they amount to. "Me and my family." The practice of Community gets reduced to just a few people you love the most. And Communion gets shoved aside by the never-ending effort to catch all those plywood rabbits. Even if youre chasing them for your family and not yourself, theyre still just plywood.
The fascinating thing is, if you investigate the anatomy of recovery failures and most recidivism in general you find two types one which occurs during the first year, and the other between the second and third years.
The people who go back to using drugs (or other crime) during the first year seem to crumble because they fail to achieve one or more of those standard goals: Their spouse kicks them out, or they can't find a decent job, etc., and they give up pretty quickly. It seems like an easy situation to understand: They didnt reach their goals, so they got discouraged and gave up.
But heres the fascinating part: The people who crumble between the second and third years, seem to fail because they reach the goals. Everyone has been there for them, gone out on a limb for them, theyre loved and fed and employed... and that old constant craving begins again, and they keep it as a deep secret, until they are filled with shame and guilt, thinking "I must be a really horrible, ungrateful person to be craving drugs again after everyone has helped me so much; I must be rotten to the core." From there its a pretty quick slide to "I may as well go ahead and get it over with; Ill never be any good, and they all may as well find out already."
The real tragedy is, theyre not horrible people, they simply didn't understand that their "me and my family" goals were simply not big enough goals. They got what they wanted, and something inside was still empty and craving, because "me and mine" is not enough to make a whole, happy human being. Not wickedness, but simple ignorance, was responsible for their failure. Has it happened to you, too? Will it happen next time?
Hit The Ground Running
If youre getting out soon, what has been your attitude about life on the streets? Has it been about showing up in your neighhood and saying, "Sorry Ive been gone; how can I help out?" or has it been more like "First I want to... and then I want... and boy, Ive missed... and I hope that I can get... and thered better be some good programs for me....and my family had better help me..."?
Please try to understand that your family and friends have probably been struggling just as much as you have; life is pretty hard everywhere. If you want the soul-power of truth to be with you, then show up and start helping out. Hit the ground running. Make it clear that their lives will be easier now because youre home, not harder. Apologize for being away while they needed you.
Plug into the problems in your community and share your experiences and ideas. We need you out here, I assure you. The kids in your neighborhood especially need to meet some truly good people who are not lily-white goody-goody, but are real, like you. Neither lie about your past, nor carry on about it. Let them meet a real adult who has been humbled by his or her pain, and is transforming it into compassion, peace, and simple happiness. Give your life away to your community and see what you get back.
Breathing Out, Breathing Out, Breathing Out.....
But remember Communion as well as Community. Trying to dedicate yourself entirely through outward activity, no matter how much you seem to be helping others, will sooner or later chew you up and spit you out if you dont take time for inner silence. Its like trying to breathe out all the time without breathing in. How long can that last? Be sure you breathe in, too, so that youre helping others from a deeper place.
Now Youre An Expert On Religion
If you know really know that all religions boil down to Communion and Community, you could meet the Pope or the Dalai Lama, an imam or minister, rabbi or shaman, and they would welcome you as a holy friend and agree that you understand the heart of their religion: An inner journey beyond all words, and an outward path of devoting ourselves to others. Countless different methods, but they all lead in those same two directions. Now we know the road. Lets travel it together.
All My Love,
Up there each one gets what he wants. I came there a wounded man, sorely hurt by my brothers. I went to the well as directed and shouted down: "Solitude!" And thats what I got. What a relief! You have no idea. How I needed that rest.
After a few years, however, I began to long for community. I thought of the example and teaching of Christ. Was it right to be alone so much? So I went to the well. "Community," I shouted. I got it. Beautiful -- for a while.
Well, there were ups and downs. At one point it got so distressing that I went to the well and shouted, "Death." I died. Peace at last. My troubles were over. I really enjoyed it.
It wasnt long, though, before I got to thinking, "Well, life -- at least youre alive -- it isn't all that bad. Its up to you. Its what you make of it. And you can help people. Here -- what can I do?"
I began to wish I could go to the well and get back my life. But I couldn't get there, and if I could have, I had no breath to shout. I was just dead. Couldn't someone else go and shout for me? It didn't seem to occur to them. They saw me lying there, but no one thought to bring me back to life. Why were they so thoughtless, so selfish?
At last someone did think of it. He went to the well and called down, "Life for my brother." I rose from the dead. Oh, to be alive again, to breathe, to see, to walk, to hear, to relate to people.
But where was that man who raised me up? I asked everyone I met, "Have you seen the man who raised me from the dead?" They thought I was crazy. "No one comes back from the grave." "Called down the well for you? You call down for yourself, not for someone else." I searched all over. And you know, I passed many a grave before it finally occurred to me that someone else might be longing to return to life. I ran to the well. "Life for my brothers!" Ah, then I saw in the water way down there the face of the one who raised me from the dead.
from Tales Of A Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk
available in our catalog
TONGLEN: GIVING & RECEIVING
Tonglen, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice which is frequently misunderstood, can be very powerful as a way of maintaining and strengthening a constant attitude of kindness. I asked Evan R., a prison friend at FCI-Englewood who is a serious practitioner of Buddhism, to write this brief explanation from his own experience of adapting Tonglen to prison life. I hope it encourages you to try it.
Literally, "Tonglen" means "giving and receiving" in Tibetan. "Tong" means to give; "Len" means to receive. Although I have read many instructions for doing this form of meditation practice, as an incarcerated practitioner I have developed my own method that works very well for me.
It is important to have a clear state of mind before starting Tonglen, and ending the practice with the same clarity of mind. When practicing for thirty minutes, I like to just sit for ten minutes, do ten minutes of Tonglen, and bring the mind back home for ten minutes. I also break the Tonglen practice into four separate parts as follows:
Before you can benefit others, you must first have your own peace of mind. I start out by inhaling all of my own pain and confusion, filtering this "muddy" energy with love and compassion, and exhaling the pure white light energy that is inherently stashed away deep in our hearts.
As we all know, there is an enormous amount of suffering in prison. I like to focus on one noisy voice in the hallway or on the tier that is obviously driven by ego-ridden pain and confusion (Ive yet to have trouble picking out such a voice). Ill also sometimes think of some trivial altercation that recently occurred in the chow line, the tv room, etc. As I inhale, I concentrate on taking in all of the pain and confusion that feeds such altercations and noisy folks, and replace that pain on the exhale with warmth and compassion. With each breath, I move my concentration throughout the prison, even sharing some of this warmth with the hacks, who sometimes appear to be the most confused of all.
I then move my focus beyond the prison walls to my family and friends, and to others that I may have hurt along the way. I usually end up thinking about my young son, laying in his bed at night, wondering when Im coming home. Once again, on the inhale, I focus my attention on the muddy, smoky suffering, and I try to exhale pure white light bliss energy.
Finally, its time to shoot the moon. I give a moments thought to all of the confusion and pain in the world from the guy in the next cell to the starving children of Rwanda, and everything in between. Once I have a clear picture of this darkness, I again inhale the pain and confusion, filter it with pure unconditional love, and exhale compassion and warmth.
As stated earlier, I spend the last few minutes of my meditation practice just focusing on my breath, and bringing a sense of clarity back home.
The really neat thing about this practice is that its a complete tear-down of the ego. Rather than "looking out for number one", we are looking out for everyone else, by using our own heart as a filter.
The one warning I would give with the practice is not to get caught up in feeding the ego. It would be easy to give yourself praise for taking on such a practice at your own "expense." I think its important not to conceptualize the possibility of any merit gained, but to just treat it for what it is; a practice of compassion in the truest sense of the word, a practice.
I have about three years left on my sentence, and want to ask your advice on something. I was a paramedic for several years, then went to college and became a respiratory therapist/ trauma specialist. Back in the 70s, I hired on as "Activity Director" at a convalescent hospital. There were fifteen young men who were all permanently paralyzed from the neck down what is called quadriplegic from gunshots, car wrecks, sports accidents, etc.
I was clueless as to what my work could entail. I was not trained, nor emotionally/spiritually prepared for this job. There was something going on that took me quite a while to figure out. Its intense, fascinating, tragic. These guys were each developing a strategy to psychologically manipu-late me to kill them! To a man they all wanted to be dead. Their preference was an overdose of heroin, but theyd settle for anything.
Nobody warned me about this, so I went in blind and they each took their best shots at reeling me in: First playing hard to get, which made me really suck up to them to do my job; then the "getting to know you" phase, then the "best friend" phase, then "nobody cares about me but you, you mean more to me than my own family, I spoke with my lawyers to make you beneficiary of my $100,000 life insurance policy...", and so forth.
They would always close with, "How would you feel if you were in my position?" Mercy Bo, Id rather take the heroin too!" The job became too much for me. I wasnt going to be some great hero/mercy-killer, even if I felt it was right. But man, there wasnt much way you could argue with someone in that condition. I just didnt go to work one day, and never went back.
All these years, my mind has been burdened with what opportunities in life there could be for these "talking heads." Im going to try to enrich the lives of such patients when I get out, perhaps even make it my career. They lay in a room most of their lives, depending on others to feed them, bathe them, turn them.
My hope is to take them to the mountains, to the forests, the beach, let them smell, see, hear the outdoors, watch the sunset. I would like to get some pen-pals who are quads, to help me with new ideas. I am willing to give myself to this project and do the best I can, with God guiding me.
Seeing your perseverance in working with prisoners has made it possible for me to consider this project for my future. Bo, I need to work this out, and I respect your advice.
Sounds to me like you have a genuine "calling." We who hear a calling are very lucky, you know. A few suggestions are:
1) While youre still locked up, get in touch with organizations which do some of the work youve been thinking of outings, etc. Tell them of your interest and experience, see if you can hook up with them. Its much better to start that way than to create your own nonprofit organization.
2) Also use this time to wrestle with your own attitudes toward quadri-plegia. The only way I can deal with people in prison (some in horrible situations) is to know that this is their spiritual journey, its where they need to be, and holds the same potential for joy & enlightenment that my life does.
If you feel that youd rather "take the heroin" instead of being a "talking head," Im not sure how much value you will have to their deepest needs which isnt to see or smell the countryside; its to feel connected to life, which means knowing that your life has purpose and meaning.
Their physical condition is their path. Any of us could be quadriplegic tomorrow. Neither life nor the spiritual journey would be over if that were to happen. Prison has made many things impossible for you, but your life still has meaning, you still have daily opportunities to express kindness or cruelty, to turn your atten-tion inward and experience God. All of that is true for your quadriplegic friends as well. You need to spend some time making peace with this.
You may notice that 1) is an outward step, and 2) is an inward step. I think thats a natural way to pursue any-thing a balance of reflection and action. Its great that youre thinking about this now, instead of waiting until you get out. Use this time to flesh out your feelings and plans, and to make connections with people who can help put them into effect. Sita and I send you all our support and encouragement. Its a wonderful blessing to have something to dedicate your life to! Take my word for it.
Dear Bo & Sita,
I was nervous about going into L prison to do something with Bos book, with the prisoners. The first couple of visits were kind of strange because I was afraid, and did not know if I could help at all. The last three have been great. The unit director told me these guys could not sit still for five minutes, let alone fifteen or twenty. He also mentioned that closing your eyes in a room full of cons is not a wise move.
I asked them to sit, breathe deeply and try to quiet their minds. The noise coming from the yard was pretty intense, but in five minutes I was faced with a room filled with twenty cons, who had gotten quiet, were breathing deeply, had their eyes closed, and had taken on the appearance of gentle, quiet men.
They sat this way for nearly thirty minutes, and probably would have continued, had we not run out of time. This was a profound experience for me. I was with people whom I had been conditioned to fear my entire life. What I found was a bunch of men who loved, feared, hated, and struggled through every day of their lives just like I do.
During this last session we did Bos meditation where each man looks at another while his partner has eyes closed. I saw one guy who let a tear escape from his closed eyes. Afterward, we all talked about what we had felt while looking at our partners. The circumstances were all different, but the feelings were the same. They talked about their kids, their wives & girlfriends, and about wanting to be loved and wanting to give their love. Who would have thought that this is what I would find here?
In Spirit, R
Thank you so much for coming and sharing your message with us here! I do appreciate your embrace and warmth toward me after your talk. I dig what you said about feeling my sadness to its fullest and using it to gain more empathy and compassion. I do care about others and try to spend time helping others, even in here.
But one of my deepest sorrows is my aloneness. I am so jealous of the deep relationship that you and Sita have! Ive spent my life in the can never had a real love relationship. I am poignantly aware that I am missing something.
The Tao speaks of a deep need to be united with your spiritually complemen-tary partner. Hindus too. Is it possible that I can ever feel complete while so utterly alone? Am I selfish to want this? Do I just desire this, or is it a need?
Thanks for all your love!, A
I appreciate how honest you were in the workshop. You helped everyone there to open up. Thank you. A lot of people on the streets com-plain that their romantic relationship is the biggest obstacle to their enlightenment. They say "if only I were single, then I could really do spiritual practice." I even know ex-cons who yearn for the simplicity of prison life, complaining that with family, etc., they have no time for meditation.
If were looking for ways to feel alienated, lonely, and worried, well find them. Sita and I are in a relation-ship, so thats our circumstance to work with. You find yourself not in a romantic relationship, so thats your circumstance. We all have the same choice: To use all our circumstances toward spiritual goals. There are always hard parts of that choice.
And being alone is extremely different from being lonely. Since you quoted from the Tao, I should mention that Lao Tzu and other Taoist Masters lived in extreme solitude most of their lives a lot longer than youve been in prison. They chose to be alone.
Being honest with your experience of sadness is important; but justifying the sadness with a philosophy about "complementary partners" is a whole other thing. Im sympathetic, you know that. But the whole universe exists right where you are. Bear in mind as you move through your experiences of sadness, regret, longing, etc., that one day you will feel whole and complete, right where you are.
If you can find your completeness in prison, then it will follow you to the street, into a relationship or anywhere else you ever find yourself. If you don't find your completeness where you are, then it won't be "waiting" for you anywhere else. Check out the divorce rate!
If you can find a way to accept your present "assignment" with all your energy, youll be living as fulfilling a life as Sita & me. Really. We believe in you and love you very much. You have a big heart and a good mind.
Your friend, Bo
a little good news
is a publication of the Human Kindness Foundation, which is non-profit and tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code. Donations and bequests are welcomed and are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. All money goes directly to support HKFs work, helping us to continue producing and distributing free materials to prisoners and others, and sponsoring Bo Lozoffs free lectures & workshops and the other projects of the Foundation. © 1997, Human Kindness Foundation
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