I’m sure it was some famous person who first talked about the high and low roads of life. The analogy has been with me for so long I forget where I first heard it but it came to me again when I learned that Bo and Sita Lozoff were planning to write a book about marriage and family living on the year of their 30th wedding anniversary.
As I recall, neither the high nor the low road is considered the better route, just different. It’s clear to me that, if staying happily married to the same person for 30 years is the high road, then I’ve taken the lower route. I’ve been married three times in my forty-plus years and that doesn’t count the two engagements that never made it to the altar or the half-dozen or so other significant relationships that were “passing infatuations.”
Even though I’ve only known Bo for less than two years, in that short a time, he has profoundly impacted my life in many ways with his refreshing and insightful outlook of the world, so I jumped at the chance to investigate this most mysterious and challenging institution of Holy Matrimony with him.
Bo is most widely recognized for his work with prisoners through his nonprofit organization, The Human Kindness Foundation, which he co-directs with Sita, yet he is far from a one-note player. Having devoted well over half his life in search for universal truths, his wisdom extends beyond what you might expect for his 49 years and is relevant for people on both sides of the prison wall. His best known book, We’re All Doing Time, now in its eighth edition, has been read by well over 100,000 people. Leslie Savan of “The Village Voice” listed it as the book she’d like everyone to read, describing Bo as a “spiritual Ann Landers (with even better advice) for prisoners.”
As might be expected of a spiritual teacher, yet unfortunately is sometime missing in our modern day sages, Bo is a living demonstration of what he teaches. It is this level of authenticity and integrity that impressed me from our earliest meeting.
WBS: The divorce rate in this country has been hovering around 50% for several years now. What do you think has led to such a staggering statistic?
Bo: I think the divorce problem is symptomatic of a loss of a profound vision of what life is about — what we’re doing here in the first place, whether there is any purpose to being here other than just “me and mine.” Like the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” I think a lot of people feel that way; that life really isn’t about anything else.
The essential problem is, human beings are very deep and our national lifestyle isn’t. That’s the core problem. Nothing is going to work right if we are not living at the depth to which we were meant to live. Marriage is one of the core sacred institutions in our civilization. There are ceremonies involved, rituals and rites. Those ceremonies have always involved the sacred and supreme. Our marriages these days are not being lived and taken at that depth of anything sacred or supreme. They have little to do with the bride’s and groom’s families or communities. Marriages seem to be about nothing and no one outside of the two people who are joining together in matrimony. It’s a deal like “So, what’s your career, what’s my career and what will you put up with and what will I put up with? We’ll see if we can help each other get through this purposeless and nasty world.”
Most marriages are completely off right from the beginning because it’s not a purposeless or nasty world in the first place, and marriage, just like having children, in its true sense is a tool in the service of the spiritual journey. Properly seen, marriage is a way of combining forces to help each other basically to become enlightened. We’re not using it for that. We’re using it to help each other go through various career moves, and as a psychological fulfillment, and self protection. I think we just have to look at the consequences to see marriage only works about half the time � and we’re not sure how well the other half is even working. So maybe something is wrong with our basic view.
WBS: Are you saying that part of what has led to the staggering statistics is that we are not using marriage for the way it was intended?
Bo: That’s right. You have two people fall in love and they get married. They get married because somehow by karma, by fate, destiny or whatever, they look at the other person and see something sparkling, something divine, something really super in them, that that person may not see in themselves. Other people all around don’t look at that same person and go googley eyed like that. They look at each other and they see the best.
But if you’re together long enough your spouse is going to be the one privy to the worst, the ugliest, the pettiest in you. You’re not going to be able to live with someone and not have that come out. That’s why the wedding vow is traditionally “till death do you part, through richer or poorer, through thick or thin, sickness or health.” We take a very strong vow in the ceremony because the sages who came up with the ceremonies know you may get married seeing the greatest, highest and holiest in each other, but if you stay married you are going to see the most awful, worst shit you can possibly imagine seeing in each other. There has to be something in the marriage ceremony to help you stick around to endure that and come out the other side.
If you do, hopefully, it begins to dawn on you, that your partner has not only seen the best that she fell in love with but she has seen the worst over the years and she still loves you. You have seen the worst in her and you still love her. It begins to dawn on us that marriage can be a sacred tool for helping us transcend conditional love; to really understand whole love, which sees all the best and worst and says, “I love you because you are, not because you are good to me, or are bad to me. I’ve seen all of you and I love you.” That begins leading us to divine love: “I am going to touch divine love through you, which then translates out to loving everybody and everything in the universe. I am going to learn the love of a saint through getting to know you so intimately by being my marriage partner.”
WBS: And what happens when the marriage partners decide to have children?
Bo: Children are the next level of opening us up to that divine love. With our children we can see right from the first moment they are brought into the world, they are perfectly innocent and pure. We can trust the innocence and purity, we can love them with all our heart. We may have held back a little with our partner because we are a little more afraid of a fellow adult. But with our children we can look and we are not afraid to give all our hearts, minds, and souls, and really feel what the extraordinary love for another human being could be.
Nothing my son could do, could convince me that he is not a good person. Even if he killed someone, even if he became addicted to drugs, I know that it would be the case of a good person going wrong. I saw him being born, I saw him grow up, I know that he is a decent, good person. I see his spark of divinity. So that form of love can be an incredible tool for touching the divine love. Realizing the love we feel for our children, the whole purpose of that love is to extrapolate it out to all beings. We have to look at people like Charles Manson and Adolf Hitler and realize there is a pure, innocent, decent soul inside there, who was born as shining and wonderful and sweet as our children were. If you look at marriage and family as a spiritual pathway, you see it opens all people to be really decent and compassionate citizens.
But if you look at marriage and family as a selfish little entity of “me and mine and screw everybody else,” which is what is happening in America, then we get divorced rather than go through richer and poorer, sickness and health. We let other people raise our kids; we just provide the money. We don’t have a closeness with our family. Our kids put us in nursing homes when we get older and they don’t want to take care of us.
They don’t feel any value in having us around. We have turned against each other because we have forgotten marriage and family life are a method for the spiritual journey. They are not just about self gratification. I think what has happened in our culture and the reason for all these problems is that life itself is now seen basically as a process of self gratification in the smallest sense of self imaginable, and it doesn’t work.
WBS: We seem to be so far off track in this country. How do we get back on track?
Bo: In almost every family union there is a spark of love which can be used as a tool to open up this deeper universal love in us. It is nearly impossible to look at a little baby and not still have that spark be alive. But we have to want to. So, the first thing we need to do is to begin to reexamine our view and be willing to change it.
What is life about? Joseph Campbell referred to life at its best as the “Hero’s Journey.” Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell “How do you define a hero?” He replied, “Someone who lives for something larger than themselves.” That’s the view we’ve lost. We’re all in this together; we’re all connected. We have lost the view of connectivity, not just among people, but with everything.
If we can start being honest enough, humble enough, to admit that we have lost our way as a culture, then we can recapture the deeper view by listening to our sages and by touching base with the old traditions; the wisdom of the ages.
WBS: In an earlier conversation you said it is sometimes easier to work with a person who has hit bottom. Do we as a culture have to hit bottom before we will start looking for where we are lost or have we done that?
BO: Boy, I’d hate to think of bottom being much further down than this. One of our volunteers lives in a small town nearby which has been cited in magazines as one of the nicest places to live in the country. Her nineteen year old son committed suicide recently, and he was the sixth one in a group of his close friends who have committed suicide in the last 2 and 1/2 years. I would hate to think that bottom is much further down.
In a recent radio interview, a prominent psychiatrist said, “Our country is meaner, our leaders are meaner, our prisons are meaner, our criminals are meaner, our children are meaner and more selfish.” Some people may argue that they haven’t personally hit bottom yet, but it’s hard to argue that we haven’t as a culture. If we keep putting people in prisons at the present rate, by the year 2015 there will be 6 million Americans in prison.
I think it’s time to take an honest look at the singular cause, rather than distinct causes of crime, of divorce, of kids not loving their parents, of mean spirited people being leaders of our country. It’s simply not very enjoyable to live in this world, and a lot of people are saying, “I’m not bringing a kid into this world.” That’s really pretty sad. It’s time to ask, “What big thing is wrong here in my life, my people’s life, in the nation’s life?” My own answer is that life is a spiritual journey, and we are not living it as such.
WBS: What you’re talking about seems like swimming up stream in this culture. What does one do to stay true to this deeper view while swimming up stream?
BO: That’s where marriage and family come in. Most of us are going to be householders. It is always the minority of people who become monks. Most of us are going to grow up and get married and have kids. So marriage and family life become our way to contribute something very wholesome to our culture. We must try to personify everything that is good about having this view of connectedness, and caring for others, rather than competing with others and being so self-protective. We do that through our relationship with our spouse, our kids, and the values we teach them even though those values may be diametrically opposed to what they’re getting in school. To not get too carried away with yourself, that’s swimming upstream in this culture.
The culture already recognizes that something is wrong and people aren’t happy. But our view is so warped about individualistic satisfaction being the goal of life, we say, “Be proud, child, be proud. You’ve got to feel good. You’re special, you know you’re special. You’ve got something great.” The implications are that not everybody may be as special, not everybody has something to offer. We’re still trying to build somebody up on the basis of putting others down.
It’s like a jack-in-the-box philosophy � one head can pop up at a time and so you’re always trying to make it yours. That’s not a connective view. So swimming upstream is living our lives with a view that is more in tune with the great classic traditions of all cultures; a view of compassion, of sharing and not wanting too much in the material world. In this view we recognize that the material world is full of things that can give us pleasure, but we must exercise appropriate caution toward having or getting too much. One of our new-age sages said in his book on creating affluence, “Fulfill every material and non-material desire. Make and spend money lavishly.” It’s a horrible message to be putting out into a culture that constitutes only 6% of the world’s population, but uses nearly 40% of the world’s resources. How much more of such “affluence” can the planet bear?
And besides, there is no amount of fulfilling material desires that gives us a sense of connectedness, in fact it tears it apart. These popular books, while acknowledging spiritual powers of mind and body, still bundle them all into service of the small self. But the small self can never be satisfied. In Joseph’s Campbell’s terms, it’s the small separate self that is the dragon, the enemy of the hero’s journey.
WBS: What has been available for you and Sita by staying married for thirty years that isn’t available for somebody else who has been married and divorced, two or three times over that length of time?
BO: Earlier we were talking about the tool that marriage can be for a sacred journey, that we’ve seen each other in every possible light, the very ugliest and worst and the most evil, as well as the most divine and compassionate. There’s no way to do that in a short course.
People who have been married for five years sometimes say, “We know exactly what it’s like between you and Sita because it’s already like that with us.” But there’s no way in five years that you can know what it’s like to be with somebody for thirty years. So the biggest sadness about marriage and divorce, marriage and divorce, is that fewer and fewer people are going to know the joy and the profound depth of being with the same partner on the spiritual journey for fifty or sixty years. Like the old Hebrew saying, “When one cries, the other tastes salt.”
I think there is a gradual deepening and an enlightenment that come over a period of time. The reason that yoga was developed in the first place, thousands of years ago, was so that these holy men and holy women could try to be healthy long enough to reach enlightenment. And so, if you consider marriage as a path toward enlightenment, then obviously the longer that we can be married the more of a shot that we have.
WBS: I understand in the book on marriage that you are working on, you are planning to call the introduction, “This is not a book on relationships.” Why?
BO: Marriage is a union, whereas a relationship is between two. A union is a new singular entity. The great problem in our culture is that for example, someone will say, “Well, we’re getting married, but we’re going to retain our separate identities.” Our culture holds that as a healthy view.
But the only way that marriage can really work is if we realize as soon as we get married we are fundamentally different forever. We are one part of a committed couple. That’s the reason we wear a ring, so that everywhere we go in our culture people can recognize at a glance that this is not a person representing himself. This is one part of a couple. In the ancient Hindu tradition, the bride and groom poured their “birth fires” into one clay vessel. The new fire is a new entity, inseparable for ever. So, marriage is not a relationship. Lots of other things are relationships, but marriage is a merging of two fires into one, a mystical union. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to be like on the other side, but we have to be open to never being the same again as we were when we were a single person. You can love your home, you can love the area of the world that you live in, but by putting the ring on your finger your are saying, “This above all else is my reference point, this union.”
I don’t care whether I live in Alaska flipping burgers if I’m married to Sita. We were in California and Josh hated school and we were reminded of how good the schools were here, so we said, “Well, let’s move back to North Carolina.” What does it matter where you live, what does it matter what you do for a living if you’ve got your spouse and your family? Yet, modern people tend to put marriage at the bottom of that pile and unfortunately, even family, at the bottom of that pile.
You know that old Biblical passage, “No greater love hath man than laying down his life for his fellow man.” This cult of individualism that we have fallen into in America is so strong at this point that we say, “Oh, that’s all old hat.” The only important thing is your individual personal success and if your kids stand in the way, too bad. If your husband stands in the way, leave him. Your personal success is all that’s important. If it breaks the heart of your whole family, hey, they’ve got to understand. Let them get counseling. “I had to do what was right for me.”
WBS: This is one of those questions that could sound flippant and I don’t mean it that way. We talk about love like we know what it is, but the longer I’m married the clearer I am I don’t really know what it is and I certainly don’t know what other people are talking about when they talk about love. For you, what is love?
BO: Love is the ground of all reality; love is what enlightenment feels like. Enlightenment is not an accomplishment. It’s better described by the word “realization.” If I say I am self-realized now, I have realized the truth, that doesn’t mean I have accomplished or attained something which you do not already have. It means that we are both wearing blue shirts, but I’ve just realized I’m wearing a blue shirt. You’re still wearing a blue shirt, but you haven’t realized it yet.
The great realization seems to be love. In all the traditions and from what I have experienced in my spiritual practice, the overwhelming description of the enlightened or realized state is love, devotion, gratitude. What marriage and family life are for is to touch love. Not to touch just the romantic love for our spouse, not to touch just the parental love for our kids, but that it is through romantic love, through parental love, that we’re going to get up the guts to say, “Now I want to start touching the unconditional love that’s everything and everybody. I want to begin realizing that the place of love exists in me. I am allowing my wife to bring it out in a certain way and I’m allowing my kids to bring it out in an even deeper way .”
Like my prayer every day and the way that I use Josh. I offer a blessing of good will to him–where he is across the country–and then I feel all of my love for him and then I say a little prayer something along the lines of “May I love all beings and my son equally.” I use this love for my son to trigger that infinitely greater love, not only for him, but for all beings. Because ultimately that is the only way that it is really love. It’s an impossibility to truly love my son more than I love Charles Manson. I’m either in the state of love or I’m not. True love has always been a profound, revolutionary force. What we often call love is either sentimentality or infactuation.
WBS: You said earlier you think people should choose carefully before getting married, but how do you know when you’ve met the right one? BO: When I talk about being more cautious, I mean reflecting first on your view of marriage. I think it’s good to get a view of marriage before you get married. And then, discuss your view of marriage with somebody you’re falling in love with. Does it have to be this passionate, chemical Beverly Hills 90210 kind of thing? Or does love have more to do with deep trusting and friendship and maybe you’re not that fanatic about how much passion and juices flow?
So many marriage books focus on how to keep the passion alive; how to keep the romance alive. And there’s all these sort of degrading synthetic ways of trying to delude your partner. That’s silly because it is assuming that your initial passionate infactuation is extremely important. We train ourselves to be afraid if we feel the romance sliding, yet there is nothing to be afraid of. We have to just ask, “What has meaning for us and is our partnership connected deeply in that meaning?” And at the same time not be afraid to go opposite to where the culture is going and say, “Well, we don’t have much romance in our life and that’s fine.”
Sita and I have less and less, not only romance, but less and less sentimentality and that’s great. Oh, God, what a relief. We can go deeper and deeper and eventually there is no difference between whether we are husband and wife, brother and sister, or best friends because where we’re going is way beyond groping on each other’s bodies for a few minutes, a few times a week. It’s living together as life partners and pursuing truth together.
WBS: One last question. Are there certain practices that you recommend to build and maintain the intimacy in marriage and family life?
BO: I think the most powerful practice is to consciously forge a simple lifestyle so that both parents are not working their tails off just to pay elaborate mortgages, car payments and all. So there is a premium on family time rather than on how the family lives. This also enables the kid not to be a spoiled American kid with so much excess but can grow up with a simpler set of values from the start. I really think it’s important to exist joyfully on less money than most people feel is essential. It means spending a maximum of time being a parent, enjoying life, enjoying music, watching the sun come up and go down, and remembering the best things in life are free.
That’s the practice. The mantra is, “The best things in life are free.” Do we know it? Do we life it? Do we enjoy it?
Simple living addresses so many of the symptoms of our society’s unhappiness all at once � ecological problems, social problems, differences between the haves and the have nots. It addresses so many of the problems about how much of the culture the kids are exposed to, because one of the reasons the kids are exposed to so much violence and depravity is that they’re left on their own so much of the time. Simple living is the greatest practice for beginning to express this different view.
Every morning of Josh’s life we had a morning reading from a sacred story like the Ramayana. Just ten or fifteen minutes, but it was ironclad. Today as an adult, he maintains a strong respect for all the great wisdom traditions. That means he has a sense of perspective; he is not caught entirely in modern times. And that’s one of the purposes of reading ancient things and keeping in touch with ancient stories. If we don’t maintain a link with those who have come before us, we lose a vital part of the richness of human life.
WBS: Anything to say in summing up?
Bo: I love the passage in the Bible when Jesus talks about how fishermen can look at the sea and know whether the fishing will be good or not, and farmers can look at the sky and know a storm is coming; and then He says, “you can read all these signs of the earth and sky, but can you not see the signs of the times?”
Everything you and I have been discussing can be summed up as reading the signs of the times and trying to come up with the most intelligent conclusion and responses. People are unhappy. American are especially unhappy, though they are among the most affluent people in the world. These are signs of the times. What do they say? What should we do?
The point is to rediscover our personal responsibility toward the whole picture rather than merely toward our private lives. We need to escape from this cult of fanatic individualism which has infatuated us so deeply over the past couple of generations. Such extreme self-centeredness simply doesn’t work, thank God. We are deeper than that, we are more valuable than that. Life itself is wilder, greater and more adventuresome than that.
Each of us has a mission to contribute something positive to the world. We cannot become truly happy if we don’t fulfill that mission. In any society, marriage and family life are the most basic units of that mission. A family has the opportunity to bring new human beings into the world and raise them in a loving, calm, unselfish environment, and the equally awesome opportunity to help spouses and parents and family members die in a loving, calm, unselfish environment. Cherishing each other from birth to death is what taps us into the sacredness of family life. It’s such a tragedy to allow it to become so degraded that the members of a family hardly even eat meals together, let alone face life’s deepest challenges and mysteries as a team.
It’s amazing how far we will pursue a path that doesn’t work. We need to change paths in a pretty fundamental way, and while so many of the signs of the times are negative, it’s very encouraging to see that growing numbers of people are indeed willing to consider such fundamental changes. Simple living, dedication to service, and daily spiritual practice are my own family’s recipe for such change. It’s really very simple.
by W. Bradford Swift