Sitting Down With : Gangaji
By Julie Deife
Gangaji, an American born teacher and author residing in Ashland, Oregon, has traveled the globe since 1990, speaking with spiritual seekers from all walks of life. Through her Prison Project, public meetings, books, video and audio tapes her message reaches thousands. On a recent visit to Los Angeles she shared her thoughts with Julie Deife and then again following the tsunami.
Julie: Is there anything from your childhood that points to what you’re doing today?
Gangaji: I had some interesting experiences as a child, some kind of out-of-body experiences, but I don’t know if they were anxiety attacks or spiritual experiences. Who can say? I didn’t have an abusive childhood, but I wasn’t a happy child.
Oh, I did fall in love with Jesus at a particular time. I was absolutely in love with Christ. Just overflowing in this passion and love and it freaked my whole family out.
Gangaji: Because it was too much. Too messy. You’re supposed to be a Christian, but not like that. So I suppressed it. I believe that that was really the seed of a neurosis—suppressing that love and trying to control love and make it look a way that’s acceptable.
I met Papaji, who was raised a Hindu but didn’t teach Hinduism. Through meeting Papaji and being willing to die to all experiences, amazingly I could experience my initial love for Christ. It was a wonderful homecoming.
Julie: You’re a little like a missionary, it seems.
Gangaji: I hope not like a missionary. I think I may seem like one of those evangelists. This is what my parents were really afraid I would be when I was falling in love with Christ—one of these women who came through town and set up a tent.
But I’m not a missionary really because I’m only interested in speaking to people who are drawn in some way, or have reached some point in their lives where they are disillusioned either with success or with failure, and realize that something remains untouched. So that’s my mission, really, not to convert anybody, because I’m not interested in people becoming what I am or becoming something.
Julie: And, from what I can see, there’s no technique.
Gangaji: There’s no technique. It’s really the willingness to stop the technique for a moment at least. You can’t practice to be who you are.
Julie: What was your initial response to the tsunami?
Gangaji: Probably the universal, initial response: shock. Out of the blue, a human catastrophe, sadness, grief and recognition of the present moment.
Julie: And then?
Gangaji: That we really have no idea when death will come, or how it will come. How that fact alone is a wake up call to really examine what is important in ones life. The avoidance of death is what we spend most of our lives thinking about. That ultimate reality has to be met face on fully.
Julie: Why did the tsunami happen?
Gangaji: I don’t want to spiritualize it, because it’s really horrible; we don’t need to have a spiritual explanation, because that is a way of avoiding just being with it.
More important than the explanation, is what’s the response, and how deep can your response go? To spiritualize it, in terms of really meeting ones death and waking up, is a distraction.
It’s a way the earth has recycled its crust, and in that region it will actually become more fertile than it was before. Tsunami is not a new phenomenon. It’s part of the way the earth moves and breathes, so it’s humbling that way. Like looking up at the stars, whoa!, you get a perspective.
Yet, we have to cry for something like that and ask what does it mean to me in my life, just like 9/11. Then it’s not in vain, collectively, of the evolution of the human species.
Julie: Recently I’ve experienced what I consider an irrational fear of death. I have not had that idea enter my awareness before. I’ve always felt like I understand and I’m okay with death. I know this is a body.
Gangaji: Facing death as an idea is very different from facing it as a reality. An idea can be a useful signpost, but finally all ideas are useless in direct experience. Are you willing for a moment to stop clinging to the idea, to not even believe that you are eternal life…to not believe anything…and just face death? Just meet death. This body is going to die. Forever. Gone. No hope of eternal life?
Julie: Do you believe there’s eternal life?
Gangaji: I don’t believe anything. If you’re willing to not know, then the mind can actually open. What you call an irrational fear of death is actually, I believe, a rational fear of death. I think it’s a cellular recognition of “form dies,” and coupled with that is the identification, “I am this form. Therefore, I will die.” So it’s rational.
This is what happened to Ramana Maharshi. He had a fear of death. His father died and some months later he was overcome with a fear of death. But rather than retreat into his religion, he actually lay down and invited it as an experience—to actually meet and experience death.
This fear of death is a great call. It’s huge. It’s not trivial, and it won’t be satisfied with what’s been believed, or learned, or understood. But, amazingly, the satisfaction comes in the willingness to take a moment to inquire into death itself with no knowing of what’s on the other side.
Julie: How does one end the fear of death and awaken to awareness?
Gangaji: What are you willing to give for that? If you really do want to awaken, then you’ll give everything, including your life. So are you willing to give your past and your future? Are you willing to give it all up? Every idea of yourself, every understanding of yourself, or of eternal life or death or not death? Then we see what we want.
Julie: Do you follow politics?
Gangaji: Yes, I’ve always been very into politics and politics got me into spirituality, I believe. I was slightly involved in civil rights action and anti-Vietnam (War), and later in some anti-nuclear protests in Northern California as a non-violent trainer. I got very disenchanted with the political process because there was so much hate involved. We hated them so much. And it was sickening to me. It was actually making me sick. So I left it and I realized that the freedom I was looking for was a spiritual freedom.
Julie: What movies have you see recently?
Gangaji: I just enjoyed Sideways a lot, I thought What the Bleep was excellent, and I thought Huckabees was really good, but it was misunderstand and will be appreciated decades from now. Million $ Baby - Hillary Swank just blew me away and Clint Eastwood is very honest with his art and with himself.
Julie: How do you describe your core message?
Gangaji: My core message is that you’re not who you think you are. Who you are can’t actually be thought.
Julie: Thank goodness I’m not who I think I am?
Gangaji: Thank goodness we’re not who we think we are. Unless we’re in an inflated state, most of us spend much of our time in a deflated state of, “I’m worthless. I’m no good. I’m ignorant. I’ll never make it. I’m unenlightened.”
When we have a state of inflation, we want that to be who we are. That, then, creates a war between the higher and the lower, or the inflated and the deflated.
So my message is actually very simple. It’s just to continue to point people back to what is always here, regardless of the state.
Julie: And what is always here?
Gangaji: Awareness is present regardless of whatever else is passing through awareness. But it is awareness that gets overlooked in our attachment to, or rejection of states.
When I’m saying awareness, I’m not referring to a blank slate or a blank feeling. It’s consciousness. It’s intelligence. It’s just not an object, although it’s not separate from any object, because obviously no object can exist separately from awareness. So it’s finally coming back to what is always here.
Julie: Do you remember when it was that you finally fully understood this?
Gangaji: I don’t have to remember it, really, because in getting it, what’s gotten is what’s always here. What happens when people try to remember it is that it becomes located as the sensory expression of that moment, or the insight of that moment, or the bliss of that moment—the emotional state. But if it can be recognized as what is always here, then there’s recognition, “This is my self.”
Julie: How do we arrive at the realization of awareness?
Gangaji: This is the secret. You have to give up, at this point, any understanding of it mentally, because that’s a thought. It might be brilliant thoughts and beautiful thoughts, but for direct experience, you stop everything—all understanding, all searching, all seeking, all keeping away.
Julie: How do you know you get it?
Gangaji: You don’t know mentally. You know the same way you know, “I am.” You don’t have to remember that you are.
Julie: In your belief system, does karma play a role?
Gangaji: It’s such a tricky thing when you say, “my belief system,” because I’ve definitely believed in karma in the past, and I’ve had other times when I didn’t believe in karma and, I say, results of karma. Everything has a role. Everything has a place. Everything. Karma, dharma. No karma, no dharma—all of it has a role. And our mind’s futile work at trying to resolve it…trying to make it “just karma” or “just no karma,” this is the unnecessary suffering. It’s already resolved in the awareness that receives karma and everything else that passes through it. The resolution is already here, but it can’t be thought. I definitely experience karma.
Gangaji: One experiences the karma of what was eaten yesterday. There is emotional karma….how events have affected you. My teacher used to say all of this, everything…it’s all karma. When you say that, you don’t need to dwell on it. It’s just here. If you meet your karma, if you meet what’s here, karma is freed - actually gets released.
Julie: Are we here for a specific purpose?
Gangaji: I know that that’s a useful belief, because it can stop the dialog about, “Why this family? Why did this happen?” which most of us have spent some time on. So belief in a specific purpose is a very useful medicine for that. If you just take the medicine and assume, like karma, all is for the purpose of you waking up to what is true and what’s possible, then you can directly experience the awareness that is awake now.
Julie: What would you like to say in closing?
Gangaji: Trust yourself. I mean that in the deepest yogic sense. At the core, the union is already present, and it’s an intelligent union. It’s a union of integrity, and while it may not look like what you think it should look like on the outside, if you go deeper…it’s filled with truth.
For more information about Gangaji or for her speaking schedule go to www.gangaji.org.