Gangaji was born Merle Antoinette (Toni) Roberson on June 11, 1942, and grew up in Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, she married and had a family, then taught school, before moving to San Francisco and entering the counterculture movement. She sought to change her life via political activism and spiritual practice, took Bodhisattva vows, worked as an acupuncturist, but was unsatisfied with the fruits of her seeking. This took her to India at 48, where she met H.W.L. Poonja, the renowned non-dual master, who instructed her to drop the search immediately—and thus became the teacher she'd been waiting for. At Papaji's urging, she began teaching twenty-seven years ago and now travels the globe sharing a simple message, which this funny, down home Southern gal describes as "an invitation to shift your allegiance from the activities of your mind to the eternal presence of your being." It was a privilege and a pleasure to speak to Gangaji—whose video teachings have been a source of wisdom in my life—about the simple yet radical path of awakening she brings to her work with students.
Mark Matousek: What is the difference between present moment awareness and what we call enlightenment. Is there a difference?
Gangaji: There is a distinction between present moment awareness and enlightenment—that loaded word! I even hesitate to use it. It’s possible to be totally awakened in your life and also be thinking about past moments, future moments, or replaying the past or future. So I wouldn’t put any constraints on what we’re referring to in this moment as enlightenment. It certainly includes present moment as well as a recognition that the present moment also includes thoughts and experiences from the past and projections into the future.
Our tendency is to define things by either making them like something else or unlike something else. Really, what I’m pointing to when I do use the word enlightenment is your own true nature, and that is most easily recognized in this present moment but it doesn’t exclude all those moments when it was unrecognized.
MM: Speaking of time, we're told by physicists and mystics that time is a manmade concept. That there is such a thing as deep time which underlies the tick-tock of chronological time. How would you explain this to a non-spiritual person?
G: Time is a very useful concept in terms of survival. It’s extraordinary that we can delineate a day into segments so that we can actually look at those segments, examine them, and see what worked and what didn't’ work. We get very attached to time because it’s a power, this invention of time is very powerful, and we like power. In particular, we like this time power. Luckily, we always have this present moment to stop and check and discover for ourselves what is always here. This profound experience of myself as being-ness is always here. Timeless being-ness. Ageless.
But we get so infatuated with playing with time that we actually overlook the timeless self. And in that, there is unnecessary suffering. The pain of life then gets made into an unnecessary story. For a story of yourself you have to have time, you have to have some sense of me in the past and me in the possible future. And that is suffering.
MM: You don’t often use the word God, I’ve noticed. I’m wondering, what would you say is the importance of faith in your teaching and how would you define faith if you would care to define it at all.
G: You know, the word God, to me, is like the word enlightenment. It’s become so corrupted by our ideas of what God is. It’s often very hard to speak of timelessness, eternal presence, without using words that have been corrupted. I know the word faith is actually very beautiful, of course. When you have faith, in my experience, you can actually get through very dark times, very dark experiences. And yet, there is something you are holding on to. I really encourage people, at least for a moment, to suspend all their beliefs and all their faith, to simply be here with nothing to hold on to. That’s really the invitation of direct inquiry that I bring to people from my teacher, Papaji, and from his teacher, Ramana Maharshi: that direct inquiry needs nothing except the conscious attention to “Who am I?” If you have no faith, no beliefs, no religion, no ideas—just for a moment of inquiry—then there is this direct discovery of what really doesn’t need faith in order to be. That’s really taking the word faith as some kind of crutch. I know that faith is also a heart welling and a heart spilling of love, but in that case I wouldn’t call it faith, I would call it the experience of love. That is really all you see when you’re willing to stop.
It’s tricky talking about these concepts Mark, because I wouldn’t want to denigrate anybody’s faith or anybody’s concept about God. I am really inviting people to a deeper experience that requires suspending everything that you have clung to or that you are afraid of, and faith is a big one. It's like hope. If we are willing to suspend our faith, our hope, our concepts of God, our idea of time and the future, then we have the possibility to actually inquire into what is always here. That’s really the essence of my invitation.
MM: Is that what Papaji mean when he told you to stop the search?
G: Yes. We long for something, we hunger for something, and we begin searching for it. I know I can look in my life and see as a twelve-year-old that I was unhappy. I began searching for happiness in lots of different ways. By the time I met Papaji, when I was forty-eight years old, I had searched through lots of different practices, psychological modalities, and teachings, and had benefited hugely from all of that. My life was bigger because of all of that, but I knew that something still was needed. I was longing for something. When I went to Papaji, he said, “What brings you here?” I said, “Freedom.” And he said, “Excellent. If you’re looking for freedom then you’re in the right place.” My next question to him, which was really a sincere question was, “Tell me what to do." I didn’t know if he would give me a special mantra or if he would whisper something in my ear. He said, “Stop. Stop searching for anything.”
I thought he meant stop searching for anything except freedom, but he meant stop searching for freedom. Then you can tell the truth about what is here. And when you are free enough to stop searching for freedom, you recognize that freedom is always here, it’s your nature as timeless presence. That doesn’t mean the circumstances are always free, of course. Working with people in prison, I’ve learned that it’s possible for prisoners who are not free in any conventional sense of the word, to recognize that freedom is possible. Each of us can recognize this but it requires that we stop trying to escape, that we stop trying to get anything, that we stop trying to keep anything away. I had never considered that until I met Papaji. I had always been trying to get freedom or get God or get love. To stop all of that...[her voice trails off]
MM: Did it feel like relief? Did it feel like loss? Or, did it feel like both?
G: First it was scary to me. It was like, what is this man saying? By then I had accumulated lots of good things and I didn’t want to go back to the twelve-year-old when I began my search. So it was scary. But I somehow trusted that I was in the right place, and I trusted myself enough to experiment. I was curious, too, about what this could mean? In that moment when I was willing to stop there was absolutely no loss. I would say my life had been defined by loss until that moment. It was just a joyous and full of laughter. This goes back to your initial point about time, because really, what can be lost? You can’t lose unless there’s time, and in that moment, time stopped because I wasn’t telling a story. I wasn’t talking about what I needed, to myself or to a teacher. In the loss of the search, what one is searching for is revealed to be the truth of oneself, here in this present time.
MM: Is it possible to awaken, to know our true self without an abiding sense of mortality?
G: I can only speak from of my own experience, of course, but I would say mortality has to be faced in the process of dying. The recognition that how I have identified myself (with this particular body, this particular mind stream and emotional body). Even though this is obvious and we see this in all other life forms, we have some hard-wired mechanism that denies that. So, we have to counterintuitively open to death, to the truth of mortality, this is what I invite people to do. This is how Ramana Maharshi awakened. He lay on the floor and asked himself, “Who dies?” Out of his own great fear of death.
I’m not suggesting that you have to overcome your fear of death. But we have to be willing to recognize at any moment, death could come. So, in this moment, I invite death, I stop fighting death, I stop denying death or running from death, or glorifying death in a morbid way, I soberly and openly stop the search away from death. And in that, yes, there is a recognition that we may not want the body to die, but it will die. But what the body is infused with, which is life force, is everywhere and was here before this body. Who you are does not die. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn't take care of your body, or want to keep it from dying. But it doesn’t have the same hold as when you totally identify yourself as the body. To recognize the tenderness of mortality, the fragility of your life form and all life forms, including cosmic life forms, is to be humbled in a deep way that is actually enlivening.
MM: When you look at the world, do you feel despair? Acceptance? Wonder? Or do you feel a mixture of all those things?
G: Well, I feel all of that [laughs]. It depends on what newspaper I’ve looked at. I’m very much of the world. I’ve always been of politically conscious and we live in such disturbing times today. I would never underestimate the danger of losing democracy which is such an exquisite (if relative) freedom, that allows us to speak as we like and to have representative government. That can all be lost and certainly has been lost in the past. I’m a student of history and know that civilizations get lost—they are born and die—and so I recognize the tender mortality of our civilization. I’m not saying I’m separate from the despair of that, but I’m not controlled by the despair of that.
I know many people are in danger; certainly, in many respects, a way of life is already gone. So, I feel that and I don’t trivialize those feelings; they are part of what it means to be human being and I am a human being. I have faith in the strength of life itself; I don’t know if it’s too late to save the planet or not, but I know there is a bigger cosmos and I bow to the mystery of that. I support people if they are called to be active and protesting, resisting, working for restoration or, for more just political conversation. I also support everyone in listening to each other. We’re at a very interesting and disturbing time in terms of our civil discourse. And yet always, in disturbance, things are shook up and that shaking can lead to deeper maturity and a deeper discourse. May it be so.
To learn more about Gangaji, visit her website. www.gangaji.org