An Interview with Gangaji
I am very honored to present this conversation with Gangaji, which took place by phone on July 28th. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I think the world of her, and that her satsangs have played an important role in my own spiritual journey in the last few years. My friend and meditation student who recently passed had also attended many of her satsangs and weekend retreats, and while arranging this interview, I relayed the news of his death and sent his picture to her. I was touched that Gangaji took time out of her very busy recent Europe tour to view his picture, and it meant even more that she remembered him and his ‘radiance’, and talked about him briefly with me at the start of our conversation.
As for who Gangaji is in the ‘person’ sense – her teachings, lineage, books, and all that other stuff that we tend to focus on when discussing spirituality – I think the best source is her own foundation’s website. I encourage you to view some of her video satsangs, listen to audio, or read her books, or those by Papaji (her teacher) or Ramana Maharshi (Papaji’s teacher) – one of the most reknowned 20th-century Indian sages.
I had hoped to make the recording of this conversation available online in mp3 format, but I used an incorrect setting when recording, and while most of the interview is audible through headphones in the original format, almost none of it is in mp3 form:-( Therefore I have had to present it only in written form, with some editing and excerpting for clarity. I hope I have done her words justice.
But more important than the words is the transmission of ‘presence’ or ‘silent awareness’, or whatever word you choose to use. To receive that, I hope you can find the time to sit quietly with a hot cup of tea (or coffee, or wine, or even a margarita – whatever floats your boat) and read this more slowly than we normally can do when reading online. And when you are done, please share any comments or questions you have, and/or any suggestions for future interviewees or questions. Namaste-
Well Gangaji, you are now a fellow blogger, so I wanted to start there. What made you decide to start blogging, and why did you decide to blog on The Huffington Post, which many people know more as a political site?
They invited me. I had read The Huffington Post occasionally, and I also knew them only as a political site. But they have a lot of other writing, and they invited me, so I accepted. I also write at Intent.com, which is more of a wellness and spiritual site.
I guess I was surprised because I hadn’t heard you speak much on social or political issues in your satsangs. So I was wondering if blogging at Huffington represented any change in direction for you?
No, not really. In satsang I speak on whatever is present, whatever comes up. That might include current social or political events, or it might not. I try and use whatever is present to point to the truth. ‘Sat’ means ‘truth’, this is what we come together for in satsang. I try not to separate the internal and external. I think this separation is a myth, and it’s true that we tend to dwell on it. Many spiritual people look down on politics, choosing to retreat from the world. And many political people look down on spiritual people, believing they are flaky or out of touch.
That point is interesting to me, because I retreated for a long time, and am now finding myself more and more interested in politics, and more interested in becoming socially engaged. But I have a hard time reconciling the two. Politics can feel so ego-driven, positions are so fixated. It makes me want to retreat again.
Yes, and that is needed sometimes. There is a place for true retreat. I always tell people there is no formula. Some people retreat their whole lives – that’s how Ramana did it. Some feel called, or are constitutionally more suited, for engagement. I think I’m a little of both. Sometimes I will go weeks without reading the newspaper, and then re-engage. Either way, it is about recognizing the moment, and being true to it. It is available in both. But it is true that it is helpful to recognize what you need at any given time.
It’s interesting that you say that, because recently you wrote a post that I loved on suspending diagnosing for a day – suspending the tendency to judge and diagnose our own state and that of others all the time. How does this fit with what you are saying about recognizing what we need in the moment?
Diagnosis is a wonderful tool. This ability to see what is going on with us, to identify a problem and address it, is one of our great gifts as humans. But like any tool, it can be over-used. We can get trapped in labels and judgments, of ourselves and others. All we can see is our categories. We become completely focused on ‘fixing’ – ourselves, others, the world. What if we just let go of that, as an experiment, for a day? And just let things be what they are? That is suspending diagnosis.
This is a bit how I think about detachment. I heard you speak once at a satsang on passion and detachment, which is connected for me to the issue of retreat vs. engagement. It seems we need passion, need strong opinions, to act in the world, especially on social issues. But then we run the risk of acting from a place of attachment, of ego. How do we decide which is which?
I don’t use the word ‘detachment’ much myself, but I know it can be useful for some. I like the word inquiry, as Ramana used it, in the sense of inquiring into the truth. Both detachment and inquiry can be over-used, can become habits of mind, but true inquiry can really open us. When you inquire, when you look honestly at what is going on with yourself without judgment, you can discover a place where you don’t fear attachment. That’s passion. You are connected. There isn’t any fear of connecting or of attachment. There is no problem.
But even inquiry can be over-used. We can become ‘the inquirer’ and create a new story around that. Then we are not really inquiring, we are telling ourselves a story.
So does the need to inquire ever end? It’s often said that the spiritual process continues forever, that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. But in your view does there come a point when the ego – or whatever – can no longer move us away from presence, or get caught in a story? When spiritual practice is not needed?
Well, I would not call inquiry spiritual practice, although it can become that. I think there is a point when you know that presence – or silent awareness as I sometimes call it, we have many words for it – is right there, whatever the circumstances. And you will be tested, life will always test you. But you can come to a point where the moment any disturbance arises, you see that, and you inquire, right there.
For example, hypothetically, I might notice I am thinking about my daughter, and why she hasn’t called me in a long time. I might develop a story about how I always have to call her, or how she neglects me. Or I might worry. I add layers on top of that initial disturbance. But if I inquire, if I just sit with that disturbance and inquire into it, I might see an emotion underneath. I might see that the real issue is that I am hurt, or that I am missing her. Then I can inquire into that emotion, and so on. In the end, I might call my daughter, or I might not, but either way, it is not the result of some story I have told myself.
So spiritual practice can be useful. We have many techniques of mind that can help us to calm ourselves, or heal ourselves, or energize ourselves. But inquiry is not practice in this sense.
Speaking of your daughter, I wanted to ask you about parenthood. I find I have this story I can fall into of ‘if only I had more time to myself, I could pursue my spirituality’. I find this is so common for parents. Can you speak to this?
Oh yes, we have all kinds of stories we tell ourselves along these lines, whether about parenting, our jobs, our health, or some other aspect of our lives. We convince ourselves freedom is about being free of some obligation or affliction. But there is always the opportunity to inquire, in every situation. It doesn’t take more than 10 or 12 seconds really. Or even a moment – there is always a moment – an opportunity, right now. And in that moment, in inquiry, we can realize that our sense of a lack of freedom is – not there.
I’m not in anyway saying that having three young children isn’t difficult, because it is. Your body is not free in the way it once was. Your emotions are not free in that way. You can’t just do whatever you want, you have three other beings to consider. So that part of the story is true. But in your innermost being, there is still freedom, and you can take refuge in yourself. Even when you feel you are at your worst.
Yes. And I feel as if in my children it is so easy to see when they are disturbed, in the way that you mean. They are like a little mirror – if something in my awareness is disturbed I will see it reflected back to me in their state or behavior.
Yes, well there it is. Right there you see the opportunity in parenthood. We have this story of ‘well, if I could just escape this, I would be OK’, but that example right there shows you the truth. Your kids are actually helping you see what is really going on.
Yes, definitely. Ok, so moving on to kids, I know you are a mother and a grandmother. What do you think is the greatest gift we can transmit or relay to our children as they grow up, in order to help them connect to presence themselves, and maintain that connection into adulthood?
Well, you know, my grandkids are far away and I am not with them all the time. But I know when I am, kids have this ability to sense authenticity. They know right away if you are not being authentic with them. Really I think that is all anybody wants from anybody – authenticity. So trying not to be what we think we should be, or what we think our kids, or anybody else, wants us to be. Just being with them as we really are, fully. And kids pick up on that, and understand they can be authentic too. It is transmitted, from generation to generation.
I feel like I am seeing the results of this now, of the different way some kids are being parented, in some of the older kids – teens especially – that come to satsang with their parents. It’s quite wonderful actually. There’s a confidence there, and a consciousness. A recognition of something deeper. A willingness to face this adventure called life with this deeper consciousness.
Well, it’s interesting you mentioned this new generation, because I wanted to ask you some questions about the future. My own family, and my husband’s, are very diverse in religious and political views, and live all over the country. Sometimes I feel like I am right in the middle of this ‘cultural divide’ that the media is always telling us about. Everyone seems to feel like the world is at a crises point, and that their own way needs to be followed, in order to set things right. So I am wondering, what do you make of this divide?
Well, I know we are at a time of great awareness of that, and I know that every religion and political group right now senses we are in a period of great change. Some feel it is apocalyptic and some feel we are on the brink of a great breakthrough. I say – we’ll wait and see.
But what an interesting position you are in! To be confronted with all these different views, among people you love, and to therefore be prompted really, to see if you can relate beneath those differences and feel that love. To not relate only at the level of difference, to practice not seeing those with different views simply as ‘other’. Then there is a possibility that something can be discovered, a new common ground even, or at least an acceptance and shared presence. This is available to anyone, of any religion, and all walks of life.
You know, I wrote in that diagnosis post of this woman I spoke to recently who believed there was a chip in her head, and that the government or some other group was trying to control her through it. Instead of debating the reality or non-reality of that chip, I asked her to just sit and inquire what she felt right now, in the midst even, of that worry and pain. And she got it, she shifted. She relaxed, and felt peace herself. Whether she can find that again, who knows, but it is always available to her, to anyone. We pile lots of stuff, stories, on top of it and call it different things, especially in different religions, and we create obstacles to seeing it, but it is always there.
So your situation is ideal really. You have this opportunity to look beyond differences, beyond the perceived obstacles to connecting.
Yes, it is has done that for me. I can’t otherize or demonize people who disagree so easily. And it does feel like in today’s world those disagreements are so reinforced. With all the different cable stations and internet mediums – it is easy to just seek out content that matches what you already think, and to isolate yourself in that way from other points of view.
Yes, that is certainly true. This isolation, this is something we do on a lot of levels.
Along those lines, you just returned from an extended stay in Europe. Do you think there are differences between the U.S. and Europe in regards to this? Or in relation to spirituality?
Well, I don’t know so much about a difference from the U.S. But certainly there is a difference since I first started holding satsangs there 15 years ago. There is such an openness and eagerness.
Do you find Europeans more open to what you have to offer?
I don’t know if they are more open. There seems to be more openness everywhere in a way. But perhaps there is less fear, less anxiety there right now. People are of course worried about the economy, and about changes in the world, but it didn’t feel as anxious there. Whether that is because of the differences in government, or religious views, I don’t know. But the anxiety level here felt very palpable when I returned.
So here there is kind of an undercurrent of anxiety, that is hard for us to see?
Yes, perhaps so. And unless you can see it, it can cloud your judgment, cloud your views on how you should live your life.
Because it becomes all about self-protection? Protecting ‘me and my own’?
That’s right. And that instinct is natural to some extent. But when we become fixated on that, it obstructs our relationship with others, with the world. We act from a place of fear. And this we can see acted out on many different levels, from our personal lives to politics.
Yes, thank you. Well, I have just one last question, related to teaching. Over the years I have seen a lot of spiritual teachers, many with ‘big names’, you might say. But since the first day I saw you, your transmission has always seemed to come through so powerfully and purely. Is this just a quirk of your being do you think? Is this ability to transmit a skill that some teachers possess and others do not, regardless of the depth of their own realization?
You know, I don’t know. This might just be a resonance between you and myself. Some people, many people really, come to my satsangs and say ‘nice to meet you, thanks’, but don’t feel that connection. But they might feel it with someone else. In a way, it is a mystery. And different teachers can suit our needs at different times, depending on what we are ready for. When I met Papaji, there was this instant resonance for me, but I was in a certain place, I was ready. So you have to follow your heart.
Thank you so much Gangaji.
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