Human Kindness Foundation
a little good news Spring/Summer 1998
25 years ago...Now the years are rolling by me and they're rocking evenly, and I'm older than I once was, younger than I'll be -- that's not unusual. Nor is it strange that after changes upon changes we are more or less the same. After changes we are more or less the same.
-- Paul Simon, The Boxer
Twenty-five years ago, a spiritual teacher named Ram Dass and I got together and talked about helping prisoners to use their time for spiritual growth. It was a quiet chat, no solemn pronouncements or bolts of lightning, no press releases or fund-raising campaigns. We just sat together on the lawn of the ashram where Sita and I were living with our two-year-old son, Josh, and mulled it over: "Wouldnt it be nice to do something to help?"
At the time, Ram Dass was sending copies of his book, Be Here Now, into prison libraries, and was beginning to receive mail from prisoners. My sisters husband was in prison, and visiting him had motivated me to do something positive in such a negative environment. So we both had a soft spot in our hearts for the prison population, but we had no idea that brief conversation would turn into the Prison-Ashram Project. Sita and I certainly had no idea it would turn into our lifes work. (We were only in our twenties at the time!)
In the quarter-century since, the Prison-Ashram Project -- and Human Kindness Foundation -- have reached every corner of the globe, enjoying spiritual friendship with hundreds of thousands of prisoners and many others who struggle to live a decent and meaningful life. The depth of love, gratitude, trust and sincerest affection we have exchanged with our worldwide family is impossible to put into words. It has been a great Grace in our lives, a blessing we never could have imagined.
Our office has changed a lot in the past twenty-five years. At first, it was in our bedroom, and we didnt even have an electric typewriter. Ram Dass sent us a couple hundred dollars a month to run the whole project. Now, were in a two-story building with five computers and a million other gizmos, and we spend about a hundred thousand dollars a year on printing and postage alone.
And of course Sita and I are older, hopefully wiser in many ways; maybe our ideas and advice have become more practical over the years. But in the largest sense, what we started out to do ¾ offer spiritual friendship to prisoners and others ¾ remains exactly the same.
Its STILL Not About "Coping"
Right from the beginning, our work has been about helping people to make The Big Change ¾ deep, genuine spiritual transformation. We truly believe that we are all capable of becoming sages and even saints. Most people seem willing to settle for a little less suffering, or some psychological adjustments which allow a little more happiness. To us, this is like settling for a piece of granite when the worlds largest perfect diamond is up for grabs.
This is the main difference between a spiritual path and a strategy for personal happiness: One is about the self, and the other is about moving beyond that very self. This bigger journey is not about being comfortable or nice or safe. Its not about living in a supportive environment. We may need some special support for a while, but when real transformation happens, we are able to go anywhere, be among any kinds of people, and not be thrown off from our peace and goodwill.
The great Indian saint Ramakrishna likened our journey to the life of an oak tree: In the beginning, it may need a lot of care and tenderness, it may even need a little fence around it to keep it from being trampled on, but when it grows into its full stature, with its roots deep into the earth, the tree can provide shade for countless travelers and it needs nothing in return. Thats who we all can be.
A Voice in the Wilderness
And thats the perspective which I hope the Prison-Ashram Project and Human Kindness Foundation will always provide. In this age, we are constantly bombarded by messages to avoid pain, avoid struggle, take a pill to get rid of this, get divorced to get rid of that, put your own happiness above all other concerns ¾ basically if its too difficult or too painful, bail out. Take the easiest way.
The timeless spiritual message is always a voice crying in the wilderness: Life is about something more wonderful than you can imagine. You are Divine. You do not die. Dont be afraid. You are bigger than you can possibly imagine. This whole world is not what it appears to be. Wake up to your true nature. Wake up and rejoice.
When we are in a miserable prison ¾ either self-made, or one of bars and steel ¾ or when we are steeped in our addictions or compulsions which we continue to engage in even though they may destroy our lives, those timeless spiritual messages may seem so remote from our daily reality, that they strike us as totally irrelevant.
But thats precisely the time it may be most important to remember: Hang in there. Do the practices. Study hard. Pray for help. Be willing to change. Make an effort.
As a prison friend once told me, sometimes we may be hanging on by a thread, but that thread may be enough to keep us from snapping. Life is always going to be loss and gain, pleasure and pain, pride and shame. Everyone has tough times. Life is pretty hard. Everyone struggles.
The great tragedy of our times is that the vast majority of people -- especially our youth -- seem to feel they are struggling for nothing. Imagine how hopeless and weary they become. The spiritual seeker struggles too, struggles constantly, but with faith that life is intelligent, not chaotic; merciful, not cruel. May we be blessed to continue reminding you of that simple, ageless perspective for many more years to come.
Ways You Can Celebrate our 25th Anniversary With Us
In Prison or Wherever You Are
Join us for meditation at this time for the rest of 1998. We will focus on our sense of community and friendship with you. You can do the same.
We will dedicate one large wall of Kindness House to display envelope art for the rest of 1998. The themes can be something relating to our work or its place in your life, or anything else youre moved to create.
If you feel our 25 years of prison work has made a difference in your life, and if you can express yourself briefly (one page or less, please!) as to how or why, or merely wish to say thanks in your own way, wed love to hear from you, though we wont be able to reply. Like the envelope art, well try to find a place to post these "testimonials" for the rest of 1998, and read from them at the various events we may sponsor here.
Have you lost your goddamned mind! That candy-assed advice you gave "J" in your Christmas newsletter is Bullshit, man! [for a look at that correspondence, click here] I guess it may seem that Im coming down on you. I cut for you, I really do. BUT, this man is 2 cells away from the guy who beat his MOMMA to fucking death with a goddamn baseball bat! He saw his mommas eyes roll to the back of her head.
Bo, Fuck it. This guy needs to get a shank and take this motherfucker off the count! Nobody on earth could live after taking my momma like that. I can practice spiritual principles later! As soon as they put that dude in the ground!
Bo, Im not a killer. Im so passive I make myself sick. Sometimes Im forced into a fight. But I swear to God, that man would die if he did my mother.
This must be the ultimate spiritual challenge for this Brother ("J"). I wish I could talk to the dude. Ah hell, what do I know? I still think youre full of shit. Ill tell you what though, "J" has more guts than I do.
This is making me sick at my stomach, Im fucking crying. Goddamn, but Im mad! Man, I hope that nobody does that to my mom or dad. Ill kill em!
I appreciate the honesty and friendship in your letter. Yeah, its intense, isnt it? Maybe more intense than any other situation we can imagine. You said, "I can practice spiritual principles later!," which of course, is our natural response when horrible things happen. We want to react from our gut. We dont want to think about right and wrong or anything deeper than "take this motherfucker off the count!" as you put it.
Thats very natural. But its also "natural" for a baby to crawl off a cliff or drown in a pool. Natural doesnt mean that its good, or right.
One of the worst things a human being can do is to kill another human being on purpose -- no matter who started it, what the circumstances were, whether there was any choice or not, etc. Its a tragic thing to do and has unpredictable consequences inside the mind and heart of the killer. It doesnt matter how natural it is or how much the victim "deserved" it. Look at the current popularity of executions. People are cheering outside the prisons, just like you may think youd like to cheer if our friend from the last newsletter took out his mamas killer.
But murders and executions shame us all. It is the supreme failure of human conduct, the supreme failure of trying to be decent human beings. Our friend had the horrible misfortune to see his mama killed right in front of his eyes. It is not any sort of loyalty or love to respond "naturally" and become a killer himself. Thats not what any mama wants for her son. Please think about this.
Spiritual principles are the most important, powerful tools human beings can use to protect ourselves from living like brute animals. They are especially important and powerful when things are at their most horrible. Look how Jesus made that very clear: He didnt say, "Father forgive them," over a little disrespect; He said it after being unjustly arrested, convicted, tortured and nailed to a cross! Spiritual practice is not about being "nice." There are heavy mysteries and secrets locked up inside of us. Spiritual principles and practices are the only way to unlock that Divine Nature in our hearts.
I gave our friend that "candy-assed advice" because I know his real nature, and I want more than anything else to help him experience that for himself. Life has handed him an incredibly intense challenge, and I want him to meet that challenge in the best way instead of the worst way. The best way honors his mother and makes her death mean something wonderful to the world. Your way would only continue the pain and bloodshed in a world which has quite enough already.
And remember, D: That guy wrote to me. I didnt seek him out. He doesnt want to kill the other guy. Something inside of him has a deep instinct to go a different way. Try to have a little faith in whatever forces are at work inside of him. Hes the one it happened to.
Youre a good man, D, and Im glad you felt close enough to me to speak your mind. This isnt an easy journey were on together. But go back to my books and read them from a deeper place after all this, and try to understand that this stuff goes all the way, in every situation imaginable. No time out. The stakes are too high. The jackpot were headed toward is better than your wildest dreams.
Thank you for writing back. I dont think the issue at hand has anything to do with that dude or revenge. Thank you for clearing that up. Love is the issue.
Revenge, crime, rent & food. Its all bullshit. Its just meaningless. It seems to me thats what important is that I treat you with dignity. Im sorry that guy lost his mother. And to be honest, if it was my mom, Id kill her killer. Thus becoming the killer! I dont even want to be able to respond any other way.
However, I believe I was wrong. You made the point: "that guy wrote me." Youre absolutely right. The fact that he has even CONSIDERED an alternative means he is so much more spiritually advanced than I can hope to become. I honor him, if I may.
I was angry. I wrote that letter before I even finished the entire newsletter. You saw honesty & friendship in that letter. I dont know what my motive for writing was, maybe trying to get a personal letter from you! I do operate that way. But my letter was spurred on by anger. We know anger is only fear.
God wants warriors not cowards. Its easy to be a coward. But its hard to stand up for whats right. " this stuff goes all the way, in every situation imaginable." WOW! THATS a warrior!
I guess Ill close, Bo. Im so proud and puffed up that youre where youre at spiritually! Im even more glad that Im part of it. I hope the universe doesnt get together and humble me. I hate it when that happensJ . Thanks again for writing to me. Thanks for your honesty and friendship.
Bo & Sita,
I was arrested back in 1995 because I raped and murdered a woman after a night of drinking and drugs. I had so much junk in my system that I have no recollection of that nights events, but states evidence proved what I did.
Let me tell you, there were more than a few long nights spent trying to figure out how and why this happened. I wasnt a "bad" guy, I thought. I thought my self-pleasing, destructive lifestyle was just fine. Those long, soul-searching nights slowly made me realize that the only how and why in this formula was me myself. I put myself where I was, and all there was left to do was to deal with it and move on.
I thought Id turn to Buddhism for guidance. Your address was listed under Buddhism in a magazine I was reading, so I wrote you looking for the age-old teachings of the Zen masters. I was confused by the literature you sent me at first: "I thought these people were Buddhists. Whats this Were All Doing Time stuff about?" But when I sat down and read it, I saw that this wasnt about religion, rites, and rules, but about centering ourselves in the big God all around and inside of us (if I misunderstood your books, I apologize).
Now, what I dont understand is how Im supposed to tune myself in to this peaceful God-ness when I cant shake my old thought patterns. I hate myself with such a despising loathing because of what I did, that Im convinced its all but impossible to ever get through it. Damn it man, I killed somebody! How am I supposed to be able to forget that? I realize that its all a part of the past, the road I took to be where & who I am now, but its a tough thought to just brush aside as if it were insignificant.
And what about the thought that everything happens as God deems it? Was my murdering this woman all just part of the big picture? I find it very hard to believe that my meaning on this planet was to take the life of another person. Thats some divine plan there.
Perhaps part of my problem is just plain bitterness. I was only 25 when this happened, and now Im sitting with all of the other Death Row inmates waiting to die. I cant seem to get past this and move on to finding peace. Am I wallowing in self pity? I really, truly want to get over this hatred of self and put aside the pain and fear of my situation and my future, but I dont know how. Which is why I decided to bother you beautiful folks. I know you hear from others in worst predicaments than mine, but I thought I might give it a shot in the hopes that you might be able to beat some sense into my head and tell me what Im doing wrong. Im truly fed up with all the inner B.S., but I cant let it go.
I thank you for letting me throw all of this on you. I hope that youre able to help me snap out of it. May God bless you always.
Your servant, K
Its good to know you. You may think, "Yeah, sure! Whats good about it? Im a convicted killer wallowing in self-pity and confusion." But who you are to me is a spiritual seeker, like myself -- one more person in this noisy, violent world who is struggling to find a way into the heart of the Great Teachings. And its always good to know one more.
It sounds like youre going to be there for a while. Well, it looks like we are too. So we can be friends along this slow, confusing, often painful process of awakening. You can take heart in the fact that not only you and us, but also thousands of other seekers in an infinite variety of situations, are doing the same stuff, looking for the same answers. Youre never alone in this, regardless of what it may look like as you gaze around the death row unit. You are not without friends. Try to really take that in -- past the mind, into your heart. Sit with it for a few minutes and realize what I am telling you: You are not alone. You are not unloved. Ever.
I am extremely glad you are "truly fed up with all the inner b.s .," because thats the best thing you have going for you. Like a friend of mine said once, "When the storm is over, pray that things dont get back to normal." Dont be satisfied with anything less than truth.
This process isnt just about reading and thinking, K. The age-old recipes are there for everyone to see: Study, practice, and service. You didnt mention practice at all in your letter. And like many other prisoners, you probably assume you have no opportunity to do any type of service. As you discover how to balance your life between study, practice and service, thats when the missing pieces you yearn for will begin to fall into place. You cant just do it in the mind.
You also insult both yourself and me when you talk as though inner peace were a matter of "just brushing aside" your terrible crime. What genuine spiritual teacher or teaching has ever said to do that? Who ever said it was just "insignificant?" Thats your complete misunderstanding of inner peace or enlightenment. Weve sent you several books which you say youve enjoyed, but I dont think youre working deeply enough with them. For example, my story "Saddest Buddha," in Lineage, is exactly about your situation, and it certainly doesnt imply that the harm we have caused others is trivial or "Gods will" in a way that gets us off the hook. Work with it. Learn how to sit still and open to your pain and confusion at the deepest levels, and let them be exactly what they are. It takes a lot of courage, patience, and practice.
And the ultimate key youre seeking is always the toughest one to grasp: Cherish others more than yourself. We have to stop being so insanely self-centered and begin to feel compassion in every direction all the time. We gradually die and are reborn as devoted followers of the One Great Way and friends to anyone whom life puts in our path. Thats your redemption for the rape and murder, K. Thats the redemption for everything we have ever done. It takes a while. It may take our whole lives. But I truly dont see anything else worth doing, whether were murderers or judges, rich or poor, in prison or out. Study, serve, and practice. The whole world is wherever we are.
Dear Bo and Sita,
Its been two years since my son (then 17) was sentenced to life. I immediately looked for spiritual support for all of us. Your books, tapes and newsletters have contributed more than I can express to the unbelievable healing -- in process. God Bless and Thanks.
Im now involved with the local interfaith prison ministries and support for families of those incarcerated. The quality of your writings and depth of your caring have heightened many dark nights for me. Thank you and the Spirit that works through you.
Id like to let you know how your work and messages have inspired me the last few years. I first read a small blurb of yours in Utne Reader years ago. I was struck by not only the truth of what you wrote, but by your ability to make it so understandable. I look forward to your newsletters, knowing that again Ill be awakened by your fresh-ness, down-to-earth quality, and clearness.
Some 14 years ago I escaped the city, to create a simple life. Luckily it worked. I began to see that living simply and sustainably was fine, but not enough. Gandhi then entered my life, then Quakerism, then you and others. As a result, Im now very fulfilled, living below the reportable tax lever and involved in service projects in my community. These have grown over the last few years, so that now Im doing nonviolence training in elementary schools, conducting Listening Projects on child abuse and community organizing (in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods), running a tutoring program for at-risk kids, etc. Ive never been more challenged in my life, nor more impassioned. I think Im beginning to pay rent on the space the universe has allowed for me.
Peace & Love, G
Rehabilitating Through Reading
Miss America Tara Holland, a former literacy tutor, said "Nine out of ten people in prison, people who have committed serious crimes, cant read at a functional level. What does that tell you?"
It tells fifteen prisoner literacy tutors at the Maryland Correctional Institution Jessup that illiteracy, although surely not the sole contributor, is a universal factor to criminal behavior. So theyve joined MCIJs Reading Academy, a literacy program developed by the Johns Hopkins Reading Academy. This program is designed to reach hard-core illiterates -- individuals who read at, or below, the third-grade level.
For thirteen years Mrs. Jewel Kesler, program supervisor, has worked alongside men convicted of serious crimes to insure they learn vital survival skills such as reading, writing, and job-seeking, which enhance self-esteem and confidence. "I see them as any other human being. The only difference is mistakes theyve made, theyve had to pay for. We all make mistakes."
Her empathy is contagious. Tutors strive to improve the life of participants, and surprisingly are rewarded. Ernest C. Taylor, a tutor for two years, serving 25 years for second-degree murder explains, "Our program insures rapid success and less stress for participants. Their progress lets me know Im doing something worthwhile with my life behind bars."
Reading Academy members acknowledge literacy is a primary key to a quality life that frees ones mind from criminal behavior. By becoming functionally literate, prisoners re-enter the community armed with new skills, finally stop the cycle of illiteracy, which often leads to crime.
Ed Falby, a prisoner at CCI-Enfield, CT, recently wrote us about a volunteer project he has been involved with. Its called ABC Quilts (At-risk Babies Crib Quilts), an organization which distributes homemade quilts to children 0 to 6 years old who are born HIV/AIDS positive, are abandoned by families too ill to care for them, or born affected by alcohol or other drugs. The program was started by Ellen Ahlgren who wanted to do something for HIV-infected babies being abandoned in hospitals.
In ten years, ABC Quilts has delivered over 350,000 quilts to hospitals and care facilities around the world. The quilts are made by students, youth groups, churches, synagogues, prisoners, quilt guilds, retirement communities, and many individuals (the D.O.C. in Connecticut adopted the program in 1993 and instituted it in nearly every institution in the state). All monies are donated or raised by tag sales, church suppers, and the like to purchase supplies. Local volunteers collect quilts, check for quality control and arrange for distribution.
ABC Quilts is always looking for volunteers with time, love, and support. They need volunteers for quiltmakers, organizers, educators, and sponsors. If you are interested in beginning a volunteer group in prison, or if you have the means to volunteer, send a legal size self-addressed, stamped envelope to:
Ann L. White
ABC Quilts Home Office
569 First NH Turnpike
Northwood, NH 03261
a little good news
Back To HKF How to reach us
Human Kindness Foundation, PO Box 61619, Durham, NC 27715; (919) 304-2220