Benjy Wertheimer at Bhaktifest 2011

I had the good fortune to interview Benjy Wertheimer at Bhaktifest, 2011. I was really interested in his prison work, and so I asked to talk to him about it. Benjy relates with startling clarity and compassion, discussing his work with kirtan and world music at the Oregon State Penitentiary. It was truly moving to hear him talk about relating with these devoted souls who have managed to turn a prison into an ashram… Please enjoy.

(Sitaram Das) What piqued my interest was that you are playing at the Oregon State Penitentiary, and that once upon a time, Jerry Garcia Played there too. As both a dead head and a yogi, I was really curious to follow up on this connection. Can you comment on that?

(Benjy Wertheimer) Totally. Absolutely, I used to be in a band that rehearsed in the barn- Micky Hart’s barn so, I actually got to see him a fair bit. I was in this band with Micky, called the Zakir Hussain Rhythm Experience. And then- there were some other, related ensembles that also would sometimes practice, and Jerry and all the guys would come by at different times! That was their primary recording space, and they always had their rigs set up, at all times. But, Jerry, interestingly enough, of all The Dead, was the one who was most interested in what we were doing, with this ensemble, I think. I mean, Micky was certainly engaged in it, directly. There’s a certain kind of rock-star mentality that people get into, and even though Jerry was perhaps, arguably, the biggest rock-star of all of The Grateful Dead, he was also the one who seemed to be least on the rock-star trip. He was really accessible. He would look straight at you and take an interest, ’cause you were there. And, I was playing Tabla, and I was doing some of this other stuff, and he was really curious about it. I liked that, a lot.

(SRD) Did he ever mention the prison project to you?

(BW) No, he didn’t. I had heard about that because the woman who’s a chaplain at Oregon State Penitentiary knew about that and mentioned that. She said ‘There are a lot of different people who’ve played here, including Jerry Garcia.’

(SRD) But, you came up with the idea, independently?

(BW) Well, it’s sort of a circular thing. One of the things that we have done, Heather and I, for the last three years, are benefit concerts that we call Unity in the Community throughout the northwest, in Seattle and Portland, other major cities, too. But, we’ve been especially successful in the northwest, where we get several yoga studios together to host this in an independent location. The whole model of it is that at least fifty percent of all that’s taken in after expenses goes to organizations that are chosen by members of the community. One of them is in Oregon, called Living Yoga. It’s primary purpose, is bringing yoga into the prisons, and recently, now, especially with us- Kirtan. I think we’re the first people that we know of that are bringing Kirtan, per se, into the prison system in Oregon. And then, we’ve done the same thing up in Seattle, along with Gina Sala. We often do these joint events up there that are sponsoring the Northwest Harvest, which is a food bank, and Yoga Behind Bars, which is doing the same kind of thing throughout Washington state. And, as we are working with Living Yoga, we are working with the people there to help set us up in the prison system. It took about six months to get all the clearances. For security clearances, you have to go through their database and so on. The law enforcement systems make sure that we’re cool to go in there. So, we arranged to do it; The first one was about a year and a half ago.

(SRD) Now, I gotta tell you, one of the first things that pops into my head, is that I wouldn’t be sure if there’s much openness. I wonder if people kind of toe the line of the religion that they’re doing already, and that something off to the side is unacceptable, in some way.

(BW) Well, it’s been quite interesting to go into the prison because you see, certainly, you know… people who are coming from the outside and trying to make offerings to the inmates. Often, there are many people who are coming from the Christian tradition. Certainly, there are Muslims that go in there. There are people who are teaching meditation, and I think that’s actually been growing in popularity, a great deal, in part because sometimes you can take meditation practices, and to a degree, secularize them. In Oregon, and this is probably true nationally, the prisons must remain ecumenical in the way that they deal with any kind of religious or spiritual offerings. If they offer something from one tradition, in order to stay in the context of separation of church and state, effectively, they need to be able to offer to anybody, from whatever kind of tradition. And, I’ve been very surprised at how many men have been very deeply interested in what it is that we’re doing. Most of them have not done Kirtan before.

(SRD) Ok, good.

(BW) There are some who have, and I think one of the most inspiring things that I have found in the inmates that I’ve come in contact with, there, and, I think it’s probably a fairly specialized group, because not everybody in prison wants to come to a Kirtan, but, many of them have refocused their entire experience of incarceration as an opportunity for Sadhana. It’s very inspiring. I met these guys that really blew my mind with what they’re dong in their practices. They were telling me about it; Some of their backgrounds and in some of my conversations with them, I became aware that many of them are also taking this time to face their own internal demons in a way that many of us on the outside, really have never done. And, they’re doing it very seriously, through a number of practices.

(SRD) They are doing this consciously?

(BW) Very consciously. There are certain stories one of the things that spoke to me the most was this guy who had done several tours of duty, in Iraq. When I first saw him, he hit every stereotype I had about prisoners squarely on the head. Covered with tattoos, you could tell he spent a lot of time at the gym, sort of a snarly disposition- His body language was very closed, crossed arms, sort of glaring at me in this challenge, like, “Okay, motherfucker, try to make me feel anything.” And for the first couple of chants it was just like that. Then, I started pulling out the esraj, and I could kind of watch as it began to soften a little bit, and then his arms uncrossed and he started to lean forward in his chair, uncrossed his legs, and he was just looking transfixed as I played the esraj, And, for the rest of the time he was like – in.

(SRD) Nice. He was chanting, too?

(BW) He was chanting. Afterward, he told me his story about the nightmare scenarios he was in, in Iraq, where he would go on these night patrols where around every corner was the possibility of a ten year old kid pointing a machine gun at you- What do you do? These kinds of things, where, the most horrific circumstances are everyday life. And, one of the things that he came across in his night patrols, which terrified him, at first, was a bowed instrument, some kind of traditional instrument from that region, which sounded very much like the esraj. He said it just scared the heck out of him, when he first heard it. It scared him, greatly, and then it started to become such a regular thing that it gave him a bit of comfort. It was one of the only things he felt he could count on, in the midst of this absolute chaos, and violence. And, hearing that, just moved me, so much. And then, right on top of that, in my own mind, was the recognition that on one level, he was in there for the same kind of thing he had been trained to do, by the military. To kill people. And that the context becomes this bizarre way in which we feel like we can justify violence within these certain constraints. If it serves political ends, and that serves economic ends, and does that really make him… Was he more of a criminal because he killed somebody in a different way? Is warfare anything other than absolute insanity, at any point? Is it anything other than criminal? And, all of these kinds of things came into mind. If someone gets to a point where they’re numbed to that, How can they be expected to be normally participating in society, if the solution has always been to kill?

(SRD) And, what does that have to do with your self-worth? If you’re trained to be a killing machine, and then, you’re kind of, decommissioned? But, you’re still sort of like, a broken machine? And, you’re still, running the program. How do you even know who you are, anymore?

(BW) These are the kinds of questions that emerge, and re-emerge, as you come in contact with these guys, because one other piece of it that kept recurring in my meeting different men was, whether I liked it, or not… These were the guys that have been consigned to the trash heap of society. And, at the same time as I would go through this, I mean some of these guys came up to me with a level of sweetness that I could hardly believe. They were so glad that we came, and I find myself, still, even talking about it now, but especially at that moment- fighting tears. I don’t think it would’ve served them, but to recognize- Who are these guys who, with all sincerity, were connecting with this practice and were totally grateful for this offering? There are so many things you can offer yourself, in service, I find this over and over again. You become the recipient of so much more than you could ever give, because you’ve chosen to do that. What I would get back from these guys was ten fold, a hundred fold, what I had put out to get there. And, secondarily, I sometimes struggle, a little bit, with the entire phenomenon of the commercialization of what’s going on in Kirtan. I, simultaneously, have the recognition that ‘Yes, we need to eat; We need to be able to pay for the places we live,’ all of those things. And, I also believe that in order to focus on the practice at the level that I need to, to serve people the best, that I need to make enough doing it, that I can focus on doing that particular thing. But, what I loved about going into the prison, and doing it, is it took that entire part of it out of the equation. I was there, very simply, to offer what I could, and they showed up at a level that was mind-blowing, that I have to admit- is rare. These guys didn’t take anything for granted.

(SRD) Right, because I can go to another kirtan next week. I’ve got mega-bites of kirtan, I can listen to it all the way home, on the flight.

(BW) That’s right. They don’t know when the next chance will be, and for many of them, even being able to listen to music is a privilege that has to be earned.

(SRD) What you were talking about, and the hardness and the softening, It melts my heart. There’s a book called ‘In Search of The Warrior Spirit” It was about a guy trained in Aikido, and mindfulness. He was hired by the special forces, and he was working with top special forces guys, and he was teaching them Aikido, he was teaching them meditation, and one day, one of the soldiers came up to him, very terrified, and said “I woke up facing the wall.” And, the teacher was like, “ok…”. And the soldier was insisted, “…I sleep facing the door.’ And the teacher still didn’t get it, he said, “It’s good to mix up your patterns.” And he’s like ‘No, you don’t understand, I sleep facing the door.” He didn’t feel safe, without one eye open. Do you see where I’m going with that?

(BW) Absolutely. I suppose that brings me around to one of the things that I found to respect with the men who came there: It’s that- In that environment, one of the stereotypes that I carried around with me is that any show of vulnerability is a sign of weakness. In my conversations with these men, they agree with that assessment. And so, for them to go to this kind of new-agey, you know- sort of spiritual thing- in the midst of what’s kind of a harsh environment was a very big opening into vulnerability, and so- I respected them all the more, for that, because the people who they’re living with, day in and day out, in the cells, are seeing them do this! It’s easy to step back and romanticize, but there’s also the reality of the people who are in that system. If you’re there, with them, they wouldn’t blink about killing you, because things get taken down to this very raw reality for a lot of these guys. It’s tempting to romanticize it, at the same time, not romanticizing- I still feel like the reality of what I experienced and what I saw happening with these men, what I felt happening with the energies in this room, were completely off the charts. They showed up at a level I could hardly believe, for the Kirtan. And, they stayed with it and some of them were, like, very accomplished musicians and they asked really sophisticated questions about the music.

(SRD) Oh?

(BW) We bring a lot of Indian classical elements into it and they ask me things about the tuning of the sympathetic strings of my instruments and you know, really great questions. I’m passionate about it and quite honestly, if I start talking about it too much, people sort of glaze over, here on the outside, and these guys were like…I can’t get enough of this. It was really gratifying.

(SRD) This also reminds me of the stories about Timothy Leary doing some experimentation in the prisons. They locked him in a cell (with an inmate) and they took psychedelics together, and he said he was in there with the guy and the vibe was getting very heavy, and terrifying. ‘Cause he was this, kind of stereotypical guy, like you were talking about- with the tattoos and the muscles. And, Tim realizes something heavy could very easily happen, and that if someone was gonna change the vibe, it would have to be him. And, He says “Spike, I’m gonna level with you… I’m terrified of you.” And, Spike says “How come?” And Tim says, “Cause you’re an ax murderer.'”And, Spike laughs and goes “Well. Doc, I gotta tell you- I’m scared of you.” and he goes ‘Why are you scared of me?” Because Timothy Leary is tiny. He goes “Because you’re a fuckin’ mad scientist!”

(BW) Yeah, which is scarier, right?

(SRD) Yeah, cause he’s bringing in something that’s totally new. You know? And, I could almost see that… Well, because Kirtan has a power, right, to like, crack people open?

(BW) Sure does.

(SRD) Can they all handle it?

(BW) Well, and especially in an environment where you have to be armored. This last Kirtan we played, just a few days before we came down, which was at O.S.P. – Oregon State Penitentiary is the highest security prison in Oregon, too. We’ve played at sort of the whole range: from minimum to medium, to maximum security. To go in and play, we had to go through four checkpoints. At two of these checkpoints they basically go through every single item we have, down to microphone clips, checking everything out. As you see the bars close behind you (in each case) it really gives you a deeper sense of what’s going on, and as these guards behind this tinted bullet-proof glass… -Or, getting your I.D. and stamping your hand, and all this stuff, you know..? The seriousness has a way of coming in very quickly, but I’m also completely aware, as somebody (I told you earlier today, we were talking about it) as someone with a round trip ticket, that I have no idea… If that’s your day-to-day reality, how can you allow yourself to be that open?

(SRD) Right.

(BW) It gave me that much more admiration for the people who chose to show up.

(SRD) Right, and you were talking about how, with just a simple twist of fate, it could be anyone of us. It could be so easy…

(BW) Yeah, in the Elephant Journal posts, one of the things that came up, and I tried to find the best way to verbalize it, is that so many of these guys were in there for that single, momentary misstep, or an action, maybe it was a series of actions, or a series of poor choices, but all of which have been part of, if we’re honest with ourselves, our own mental and emotional landscapes, at some time.

(SRD) Or course…

(BW) And, the one thing that differentiated it was, they acted on it. There have been some really brilliant things that have been written. There’s a writer in New York who’s called Anika Lucas, who also is an incredible resource, I mean, if you have a chance to talk to her, sometime… She has a huge list of programs for people who are interested in going into this environment, and teaching. It’s just, some people who have been victims of crimes, will remind us, well ‘Hey! -before I get all sentimental about this, I wanna know… Did he rape a kid?’ You know- What’s he in here for? And, I think some of those are valid concerns. What kinds of things have happened? At the same time, I don’t know if there’s anyway that making this kind of uplifting practice available to them is going to hurt anybody. We all stand to gain, and it was interesting because many of these guys, to give another example- there’s this wonderful guy, this wonderful man. His name is Sean. I guess when I first met him he was twenty-nine years old; He had already served eleven years. He had gone out with a group of guys, one night. They were all high on a wide range of drugs, and they hit a convenience store. One of the guys decided he was gonna hold up the place when the clerk balked at giving him money, right away he knocked him out, or so he thought, with a baseball bat. It turned out, he killed him. He was a part of that group, he was just over eighteen. They threw the book at him. Thirty year minimum sentence. And, yeah, it’s a horrible thing that it happened, but my time with him, and, I also found out from other people who had been working with him, meditation teachers in the prison, this guy had been very deeply into meditation for a number of years. When I was with him, the feeling I got was, I wanna hang out with this guy! I really like this guy. His energy was so soft and so sweet, and they way that he would dive into the Kirtan, like you’re at a Kirtan, and you watch how people are with it, and sometimes you can tell in every movement, in every gesture, they are giving themselves. They are completely opening themselves. They’re surrendering themselves. In this man, I saw that level of surrender that almost made me envious. Like, I hope I can surrender as much as he does. It was kind of an epiphany for me.

(SRD) He’s a monk…

(BW) He’s a monk. He’s a monk! And, if I were to talk to a relative of the clerk who was killed…. What would they have to say about it? It’s hard to know. I do think that one of the most powerful choices we have in our lives is that of forgiveness; Forgiving ourselves, certainly, but also- It’s inevitable that we’re going to wrong each-other at various, different levels… Some of them, are of course, extremely severe, you know? Really injuring, maiming, or killing somebody is a very big deal. I don’t want to minimize that, while at the same time- I want to recognize that I don’t believe any of us is beyond redemption, in a very real sense. Nor should we be deprived of the opportunity to connect with God, as we best possibly can. Offering somebody, who may have committed a crime like that, that opportunity is a great opportunity for us, as ‘Kirtan,’ we’ll call us.

(SRD) Because, I agree, right? And, I’m thinking again- We think about bad choices, right? …They come from the mind, and the mind is a complicated place, with many, many influences. It could be… It’s so easy to judge, right? And, forget that… If the things that influence our mind are just a little bit to the left. You know, if our experience, if our karma, or our diet, or any number of things were just, like, a little bit over to the side, that we might make a different choice in our lives, at any time, at any given time. That our emotions might whip up, whip up a different way.

(BW) Yup.

(SRD) It’s interesting, it didn’t occur to me that some people would argue that you shouldn’t give Kirtan, because somebody might be too bad.

(BW) One of Lucas’ articles addresses that, with pinpoint accuracy. The title, if I can remember right, is “Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga?” And, it asked some very hard questions, and questions that I think would be at the forefront of the minds of people who have been victims of especially violent crimes. She comes around to the conclusion, yet, that- They do. And that, again, ultimately, nothing but good can come from that kind of an offering, but still, I think, giving full voice to the kinds of concerns that many people would express about this kind of thing.

(SRD) Well, Thank-you! Because that’s where I was going, because- If your mind was just a little bit to the left, or right, or askew wouldn’t it make sense to offer services that align the mind, if the mind is crooked? If it is really a penitentiary (which means to repent) they aren’t supposed to be oubliettes, anymore. At least, we don’t call them oubliettes, any more.

(BW) No. No. Hmmph… It’s quite an interesting etymology of oubliette anyway… coming from ‘to forget.’

(SRD) Yeah. The place that you put things that you wanna forget about…

(BW) Yeah. Well, that, I think to me, was the tragic part of my experience, there. I do feel like society, at large, in the greater sense, is trying to forget about these people and just sort of, thrust them away! And, like I said, often we’ll write them off instead of trying to see what is possible to bring them to… I mean, maybe some of these people will always have some of these things that will be askew, but the more time we can spend on helping to realign them, you know, kind of brings me around to a lot of the Tantric philosophies.

(SRD) I heard that you work with Paul.

(BW) I work with Paul; I work with John Friend, quite a bit. I’ve spent a lot of time, especially, with the Kasmir Shaivist philosophy, and some of the more modern outgrowths of it that are part of Anusara Yoga (that I resonate with a great deal) is that really, ultimately… The problem is whether or not we are in alignment. Some of the things that we do that are harmful, are really out of alignment with a particular energy, and the most auspicious alignment is often the first impulse of the heart. You’re talking about the fonts, the mind, some of our conditioning filters and so on… this may have come from brutal experiences we’ve had, ourselves, but all of these kinds of filters can then act to move us away from that alignment, with the most auspicious path that we can take. All of us are prone to that in various, different ways, and at various, different levels. Obviously, in the case of a lot of these guys who are serving really hard time- These are pretty big misalignments! But, it’s a matter of degree, and hence- I believe anything that moves them toward a realignment process, or is helping them to come to more and more aligned ways of discerning, of discerning their actions, discerning their choices (so that they are not harmful to themselves, or to other people) is doing, again, a service to everybody. That’s what I always hope to do when I have the chance to spend time in the presence of these guys.

(SRD) Has there been any thought to offering Kirtan to the families of the victims of the crimes?

(BW) That’s a great idea!

(SRD) If we think about like- ‘Do prisoners deserve Yoga?’ And its like ‘Well, this person gets to do yoga and this person doesn’t.’ Let’s give Kirtan to everybody.

(BW) -Well, because of my own experiences with the practice, and when I speak of yoga, partly because of my own first experience with yoga was music as yoga, I mean, that was the way that my teachers worked. They often would refer to it as either Nada Yoga, or Shabda Yoga. You know, the Yoga of Sound, the Yoga of Sacred Vibration. And, recognizing music as a path with which we could more perfectly align ourselves with the vibrational principles that govern the universe. Each note was intended for a sacred purpose in the classical music system that I studied, and that was my first yoga-

(SRD) Was that Ali Akbar Khan?

(BW) Ali Akbar Khan, yes. Ali Akbar Khan, and Zakir Hussain. Fascinating. Both Muslim names, but extremely, deeply aligned with a lot of these principles that come out of the Hindu tradition.

(SRD) On the side, I learned a lot about- One of the first things I learned about Vedic culture were Ali Akbar Khan’s rules of how to treat instruments on the wall. Don’t point your feet at instruments. Don’t point your feet at your music teachers. I read that, I was like ‘Oh, okay…’ I had done some Asana, I was like ‘Oh, this is how we behave.’ This is like, some just minutiae.

(BW) Oh yeah, yeah. Isn’t that wonderful? There are many different approaches to yoga, of course, there are things that you see within the Yoga Sutra, about the importance of mediation, and that’s a very important part of my path, too. And then, for me, Bhakti, as a yoga, which I see as a yoga of surrendering to that love that is always present. It’s a moment by moment choice, in one sense. Sometime, I think Paul Ortega talks about this, so eloquently. It’s not like you suddenly have this epiphany and you’re enlightened, and you’re done. (Laugh) But, rather, you have this opportunity to experience, and re-experience, that surrender. I think it’s a really beautiful part of Kirtan, and in each moment, I mean, sometimes when we’re on tour, we may have had a horrible time getting somewhere, we’re running really late and our sound-check didn’t happen, and suddenly we’re supposed to be in this place where were all spiritual and everything. But, what happens is, if I allow myself to surrender, by the time I chant the first ‘Om’… Things do shift. It’s almost effortless, if I just let myself surrender, in that way. I have to honestly say it doesn’t always work, by any means, but a lot of the time (and the more I spend with the practice, I feel like I can do that a lot more) and to me, again, that’s a yoga. So, when you talk about yoga instruction, to me, I think it should encompass Asana (for sure) But, also- It’s many of these other ranges of yogas that people wish to experience.

(SRD) Cool. What if somebody wants to get involved?

(BW) Well, one place that I would point people to is- I made a point of recreating Anica Lucas’ list at the bottom of my article about leading Kirtan in prison (–i-cant-wait-to-go-back/) . She has an incredible resource list and I also think I have a link to a facebook page that is a group for people who want to do that kind of thing, in particular. If you’re in the states of Oregon and Washington, Living Yoga, which is in Oregon ( and Yoga Behind Bars, which is in Washington ( is providing a lot of opportunities, and they have clearly mapped out ways in which people who wanna get involved can do so.

(SRD) Cool.

(BW) Yeah!

(SRD) Any other thoughts, or anything?

(BW) No, thanks for taking the time with me, to do this.

(SRD)Yeah, thank you! You’re busier than I am.

(BW) Yeah, I guess I probably do have to go, but- Thanks!


Benjy’s Website is Here

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