inner transcendence

By Bo Lozoff

It’s 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.

It’s easy to think, “I’ll practice community 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 …”

It just doesn’t 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. That idiot, that lecher, that bully, that con, that cop, that bureaucrat who drives us up the wall – 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.

What are we doing here?

For thousands of years, religions, philosophies, saints, and sages have tried to help us find the answers to two simple questions: What are we doing here, and how can we make life work? When we look at the similarities between the great “Wisdom Traditions,” we discover that they all point in exactly the same two directions: inner transcendence (Communion), and unselfish behavior (Community).

In response to the first question, “What are we doing here?,” the Holy Ones have all said first, It’s way beyond your understanding, so give up trying to figure it out with the mind; and second, 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 Christ—Allah—Great Spirit—The Almighty-Yahweh—Buddha Mind, etc., which can only be found by going inside.

A word for this which no tradition would argue with is Communion. The great religions and masters tell us to diligently seek Communion. 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 see Communion beyond all names, forms, or identities.

In response to the second question, the holy teachings, once again, have each expressed exactly the same advice, 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:

The first practice is the practice of
Undiscriminating Virtue:
Care for those who are deserving.
Also, and equally,
Care for those who are not.

– Lao Tzu

Clearly this practice of Community is not for cowards; it’s challenging and confusing, and it’s full time.

The world has become quite a mess from people only practicing it on the Sabbath, or in places where it’s easy, or with people who are nice. We need some humble heroes who take it on full time.

This means you. Now. Today.

Not when the world is a safer, kinder place. Now—in the middle of the worst of it.

Don’t just say it or plan it; act on it today even in the tiniest way. If you spend even a moment in humble silent reflection, if you help even one person or creature to feel more safe or more loved, you will be on the road to the Great Recovery.

The Great Recovery is from the terrible addiction of self-centered living. That’s the recovery all the prophets and sages have encouraged us to seek. Our whole modern world is hooked on looking out for Number One, yet the more we do it, the worse we feel. So we up the dose of selfishness. It’s classic addiction.

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 hero’s 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 weren’t so hard, we wouldn’t gain so much commitment, courage, and faith. If it weren’t 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, and rejection. It’s hard because that’s 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.

Sita and I have visited a lot of treatment programs lately, both in and outside of prisons.

We’ve spoken to a lot of people who have been through the doors not just once, but two, three, four times—good people with decent hearts and a lot of sincerity, but who seem to keep finding themselves caught in addiction.

They ask, “Why can’t I lead a good life?” I asked many of them what their treatment goals were, and received the same answer I’ve heard for over 20 years: “I just want to stay clean and sober, get a decent job, get back with my family, have a nice place to live…I’m a good person; I deserve it, don’t I?”

These goals sound right, but are they enough to create a happy life? “Me and Mine” is basically what they amount to. The practice of Community gets reduced to just a few people you love the most.

If you investigate recovery failure 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. But the people who crumble between the second and third years seem to fail because they reach the goals. Everyone has been there for them, they’re loved and fed, and employed…and that old constant craving begins again.

What they learn is that “me and my family” goals are 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.

If you want the soul-power of truth to be with you, then show up and start helping out. Plug into the problems in your community and share your experiences and ideas. Neither lie about your past, nor carry on about it. Let the kids in your neighborhood 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.

Breathe in

But remember Communion as well as Community. Trying to dedicate yourself entirely through outward activity will sooner or later chew you up and spit you out if you don’t take time for inner silence. It’s like trying to breathe out all the time without breathing in. Be sure you breathe in, so that you’re helping others from a deeper place.

There are countless ways to embark on an inner journey beyond all words, and an outward journey of devoting ourselves to others. But they all lead in those same two directions: Communion and Community.

* This is an excerpt from the book Deep and Simple: A Spiritual Path for Modern Times by Bo Lozoff


Bo LozoffBo & Sita Lozoff founded the Prison-Ashram Project in 1973. They created Human Kindness Foundation in 1987 to encompass the prison work and other projects. Bo’s first book, We’re All Doing Time (available in paperback or ebook), now in its 19th printing, is available in several languages. It was hailed by the Village Voice as “one of the ten books everyone in the world should read,” and has been lauded by prison staff and prisoners alike as one of the most helpful books ever written for true self-improvement and rehabilitation. The book highlights Bo’s & Sita’s view that revolves squarely around unselfishness and compassion. Bo’s other books are also available, including two beautiful children’s books. Bo died November 29, 2012, in a motorcycle accident. Sita continues to work in the Human Kindness Foundation office full-time, as Co-Director and a member of the Board of Directors. She lovingly reads hundreds of letters from inmates every week.


Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr

Editor: Sherrin Fitzer