In GT’s Living Legends series, one of the most revered spiritual teachers on the planet opens up about self-inquiry and much more. PLUS: The impetus behind her return to Santa Cruz after 20 years.
Stop for a moment; notice what you’re thinking. Where do thoughts come from? What is present when there are no thoughts? This direct questioning is called self-inquiry. It’s an ancient and profound action that, according to many spiritual leaders, brings us in direct contact with what is rather than clinging to concepts that represent what is.
Self-inquiry changed Antoinette Roberson’s life. Toni, as she was called, was born in Texas in 1942 and grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi. During her college years she became aware of racist beliefs she had been raised with, and later she became active in the Civil Rights movement. Toni married, had a daughter, became an acupuncturist and lived as a spiritual seeker, practicing Buddhist meditation. It was in 1990 that she gave up the search; on a trip to India she met H.W.L. Poonja, better known as Papaji. He invited her to, “Do nothing and be still.” Papaji gave her the name “Gangaji” after the sacred Ganges River and later asked her to share self-inquiry with others.
Some of Gangaji’s first offerings of spiritual self-inquiry were in Santa Cruz, more than 20 years ago. Sharyn Adams, a Santa Cruz native, attended satsang with Gangaji at the Pacific Cultural Center in the early ’90s. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I walked in and was hit by the stillness.” Adams had been on a spiritual path and that evening she made a discovery: “I was taken by how Gangaji’s presence flooded the room. She’s been my teacher ever since. It’s about quieting the mind. That’s all there is to do; then everything else is revealed.”
Twenty-three years later and Gangaji is a world-known teacher who leads open meetings to investigate the truth underlying daily life. She has created many inspirational books and CDs including “You Are That,” “Hidden Treasure” and “The Diamond in Your Pocket.” Her message of peace is often delivered via stories found in spiritual traditions worldwide that emphasize this: Give up the search for freedom and enlightenment outside of yourself. As Gangaji puts it; “The searching is itself creating separation between you and what you long for: peace.” She also emphasizes that a free life is accessible to all, everywhere. Indeed, her own personal history includes various hurdles and conflict, including struggling with anxiety as a child and parents who abused alcohol.
Gangaji returns to Santa Cruz for the first time in two decades for open meetings on Saturday, Sept. 21 (7 p.m.) and Sunday, Sept. 22 (5 p.m.) at Inner Light Ministries (5630 Soquel Drive, Soquel). The Saturday event will be followed by a concert with musical group Kirtana. For more information see Gangaji.org.
GT recently spoke with Gangaji about her spiritual path, self-inquiry, Guantanamo Prison, transforming racism, and more.
Good Times: When you first met Papaji you told him, “I’ve come for freedom.” He said, “You’re in the right place. Now do nothing and be still.” How did you decide to go to India?
Gangaji: I never intended to go to India. I was not interested in a guru. I really loved the Buddhist practice. Even though there were lamas, teachers and rinpoches, the practice itself was very democratic and I loved that. I didn’t like the Indian guru scene so much. I had extraordinary experiences occasionally in meditation, but invariably those would change back into my day-to-day suffering. In the scope of things, life was not so bad. I was living in California. I was doing work I loved and I was in a wonderful relationship. But in the depths I knew there was something I hadn’t found. I then prayed to find a teacher. I didn’t imagine that the teacher would be a guru in India! By a series of fantastic occurrences I ended up at Sri Poonja’s door in 1990. I recognized, “This is my teacher; this is the answer to my prayer.”
Tell me more about your experience with Papaji.
It is similar to falling in love but it’s on a larger scale. It wasn’t a personal love, although it didn’t exclude the personal. It was so much larger, as though I had met a missing parent who had a special gift to give me. I met with him for about six weeks that first time. He was always saying, “Listen to what I have to say and then investigate for yourself. You have to discover it yourself and then no one, and no circumstance, can take it from you.” I did that and it changed my life. I heard him say clearly one day, “Find that which comes and goes; and then you will find out what is always here.” I saw every mood I had ever had and every state I had ever been in—whether elevated or degraded, and every evaluation of myself —was subject to coming and going.
I stopped hoping that those things that come and go would not come and go. I stopped hoping that I could keep the bliss states or moments of clarity and keep away the less-than-bliss states. When I recognized these comings and goings to be Mother Nature, then it was quite natural to recognize that the awareness of every thought and circumstance is always present. I burst out laughing because in that instant I realized it has always been here, but I had never thought to give my full attention to that.
Direct experience seems central to being present and engaged. Tell me more about the method, if you could call it that, of self-inquiry.
Inquiry is a central message of this lineage from Papaji and his teacher Ramana Maharshi. Inquiry is to turn the attention of the mind back to the subject. For all of us, that begins with “I.” But usually we go outward from that; “I’m enlightened. I’m un-enlightened. I’m extraordinary. I’m worthless.” Rather than going outward to the descriptions of this “I” … if we turn attention toward it, we find that it has no limits and is freedom itself. It’s not separate from this body and person who’s investigating. And yet it’s free of the body and the thinking mind. It is truly non-dual realization.
I asked Papaji if there was something I could practice because my orientation was to do something to keep this experience. He said, “You can only practice it if it is separate from you.” I’m forever grateful to this great force called Papaji that stopped me in my tracks. He invited me to offer this simple direct inquiry to whoever is interested. Not as a religion or dogma, or even as a practice, but as a simple invitation to take a moment and stop your search and discover what is still here and will always be here. That is what brings us together.
For some people, the idea of a mind that stops thinking equals being stupid.
When my teacher said, “Take this moment and stop thinking,” I was a little freaked out initially. I know that it can be quite stupid to not think. It’s true that our thinking minds can be co-opted by advertising, government and religion. There was a moment where I had to trust. It was like a great leap inward or, as Buddhists would say: “gate, gate” (going beyond thoughts).
In order to directly discover that—not to believe or chant that—I had to be aware of my thoughts at least for a moment and know my capacity to stop in the middle of a thought. I had to recognize that I’m having a particular thought and I don’t have to follow the thought to its conclusion, which leads to the 10,000 thoughts that follow! The open mind in the awake-state is itself liberating. It doesn’t need thought and it’s not the enemy of thought. I am prior to thought; I am, therefore I think! This is a conscious choice to give up what you are thinking for a moment. It’s a retreat from your thoughts. Finally the recognition is: thoughts are the same substance as their source.
It’s possible to not be bound by what we have been taught or how we have rebelled against what we have been taught. We can be conscious of that when we are not distracted by habitual thinking. And from that comes creative thought. I read that 99 percent of the thoughts we have in a day have all been thought before. That is a subtle but true level of bondage. When we recognize this as an open door to walk out of, then thoughts are liberated. The thinking mind takes its rightful place as the servant to this intelligent consciousness. The mind is then a vehicle so that creative thoughts, writings, lyrics and conversations are informed by the mystery that they come from.
I’m wondering about liberation in the sense of people who are imprisoned or marginalized. You’ve brought self-inquiry into New Folsom Prison. I’m thinking of the prisoners at Guantanamo being force-fed and others punished for revealing truths like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. You write of global matters in your book “Hidden Treasures:” “There is the full spectrum of suffering caused by the tyranny of particular governments, revolutions, ideologies or economic systems.” How best to engage with world sufferings?
I don’t think that there is a particular formula. There are many ways of engagement and some are silent. That was the engagement of my teacher’s teacher, Ramana Maharshi. You mentioned Guantanamo. That has been one heartbreaking proof of the tyranny of what we can do to one another. For me the initial response is to let my heart break open. And then I can see what the right action is. You’re speaking of the different powers of our world and that, relatively, we (in the U.S.) are causing other people to suffer. I believe that’s wrong. But even people in the worst of circumstances have the possibility to discover that the truth of who they are is free. Deeper than the relative bondage of the thinking mind, or the bondage of someone else closing your cell door, there is still the freedom that is alive for all of us.
I worked as an activist before my spiritual journey. I demonstrated against the nuclear power plant that was going in at Diablo Canyon. I spent some time in jail, but I was in a protected situation and I knew that I would get out of jail in a couple of weeks. While I was in jail with about 40 other women activists, there were also women in that jail who wouldn’t be able to walk out in two weeks. At first they looked at us as if we were crazy because we had, in a sense, voluntarily entered that world in protest. After a while they recognized—and we recognized—that we are all in bondage to something and we can all support each other in discovering freedom.
I had to recognize that my activism was itself a form of bondage and exclusivity. It was feeding my ego. I may have been correct but a righteous feeling was added onto it. My bondage in my political activist days was that I had such a formula: “It should happen in the way I think it should happen.” I also thought “they” were “wrong.” This is based on separation. Perhaps at this time in human history we can be inclusive. As messy as democracy or meeting each other can be, it can also reveal a life that is so exquisite and intimate. What a beautiful opportunity to give one’s life to that meeting that transcends the war.
In “Hidden Treasure” you write about growing up in Mississippi with two siblings; “We were free to wander around town—the white people’s section— and play on the banks of the local creek.” Later you write, “I had been brainwashed as a child to see people with dark skin as inferior.” Tell me about waking up to the privilege and racism that were part of your childhood, well before meeting Papaji.
It was quite shocking when I went to college in 1960. I had a teacher who confronted me in a very kind way so that I had to see, “What have I been thinking?” It was such a transmission that it penetrated my racist views. About four years later I got involved in the Civil Rights movement in Memphis, Tenn.— that is where Martin Luther King was killed and I was there at that time. It radicalized me even more. I was teaching at a school that had been recently integrated with a faculty that was half African-American and half white. I recognized that everything I had held to be true was not necessarily true. Racism is not something we’re born with, though it is something that can be discarded.
I went back to Clarksdale in my late twenties and wasn’t welcomed by some of my old friends. There are consequences that we have to be willing to take when we unravel the thought forms that keep us in bondage—and definitely racism is a bondage thought form. By the time I got to Papaji I had had enough experiences of loosening my mind structure that when he said, “Simply be still, simply be quiet,” it was such a relief. Peace is here and all the rest is war. If we’re at war, we’re at war with our self.
My experiences with racism have been very humbling, horrifying and heartbreaking, but extremely useful. It showed me how an inflexible mind can become flexible when presented with irrefutable truth. I had the same experience with Papaji when he said, “Be still and discover what doesn’t come and go.” I know that if this regular person from Clarksdale, Mississippi, can be lucky enough to have the experiences I’ve had, I know it’s available to everyone.
In 2005 you discovered that your husband was having an intimate relationship with his personal traveling assistant. What did you learn through that experience?
It was happening before my eyes but in a subconscious way I was choosing not to see it because it was so inconvenient. I love my husband. I never stopped loving my husband, but there was something occurring in our marriage that was dysfunctional long before the affair. It didn’t seem important because there was something else that was so positive and filled with love. So I kept pushing it aside. We actually had to split up. That was very liberating. We weren’t separate for long because there was a force that brought us back together. In bringing us back together there was a willingness to tell the truth on a very human level.
I hadn’t allowed myself to tell the deeper truth about it; that it’s really not working. I saw how that doesn’t work in any relationship; in the way we have to stand up to governments or the way that we have to tell the truth to our co-workers. The celibacy that we experienced for the years before that was not a conscious choice. It was simply what happened. We met Papaji and there was this overwhelming fulfillment for both of us where we felt no need to find fulfillment any place else. That’s why I was so shocked to find that there’d been this extra-marital affair.
Many people seem very attached to their digital devices these days. What’s your sense about new technology and how it’s affecting our thinking and communication?
It reminds me of growing up in the South. There was no technology like we have now, but people were always talking; the social life was everything. There was a point in my life where that was driving me crazy. It was all gossip and people talking about who had married whom and had split up and had a baby. It seems to me that what we have now is just a technological version of that.
Some say that this technology was part of the galvanizing force for the Arab Spring, so it’s possible it can be a force for deeper connection. In that sense, let it serve the awakening of all humanity and may we stay conscious with it so that it does serve us. There will always be those who use it as an escape. But there have always been people who use spirituality as an escape, too. We can intend and pray that this technology is used to benefit all species and all humanity everywhere.
Gangaji returns to Santa Cruz for open meetings at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22 at the Inner Light Ministries, 5630 Soquel Drive in Soquel. The Saturday event will be followed by a concert with Kirtana. For more information, visit Gangaji.org or innerlightministries.com. John Malkin is a local writer, musician and host of the weekly “Great Leap Forward” on Free Radio Santa Cruz.