Donna Quesada: Well, Gangaji, the first thing I want to say is, thank you! Thank you for joining us, and I know that our Awaken listeners will appreciate your time, as well, and will love what you have to share with us.
GANGAJI: Oh, thank you for inviting me. Happy to be with you.
DONNA: Thank you. And we’ve never really formally met…I’m Donna, and it’s a pleasure to talk with you. And being that the name of the website is Awaken.com, we have a little tradition that we like to start with and I… so I’d like to dive right in and just ask you what that means to you…this notion of awakening.
GANGAJI: That’s it isn’t it? Really, in this moment, I would say it means coming out of misidentification…coming out of a trance that our conditioning puts us into. A family conditioning, a social conditioning, without making that conditioning wrong. Just recognizing that mostly we are in a trance state, and so we awaken from that trance. We recognize that we are not who we think we are. We’re not who we’ve been told we are. We are not who we hope we are. And we are not who we fear we are! There’s something deeper and closer than any of those realms.
DONNA: And what does that mean, we are not who we think we are? I mean, you’re sitting there and I’m looking at you…and I’m here. And my background, I did a little research, you know to prepare for this interview, and well, maybe we’ll have time to get into this a little bit…but I saw that you and I have a similar background, we started with this tradition and you hear that a lot in Zen, you know, we’re not who we think we are. If you could just speak to that a little bit; what does that mean in practical terms?
GANGAJI: In practical terms…
DONNA: …in practical terms!
GANGAJI: Yes! Really practically because I’m very interested in the practical ramifications of awakening. We are sitting here, this form is a way of this other form, and no problem, that is just the nature of phenomenal existence. But the minute I start telling myself a story about your form or about my form, Am I doing it right? Is she going to ask me the right things?…a narrative that may come up… but that following of that narrative puts us into a trance, where we overlook, just the presence of being here together. And the potential for deeply meeting, and that meeting, discovering something that is… Well, I think that the Zen tradition says, maybe beyond thought, but I would say it’s closer than anything that can be thought. So it’s not esoteric really, it’s being aware of our power to think, to describe, and remember and to project into the future… And also being aware of where that power comes from. What’s deeper and… and more true than that power.
DONNA: So trance is an interesting word and I’m thinking about this word and the way you are using it; it’s almost like anything that takes us out of this moment and out of authenticity, and… therefore out of the ability to connect with one another…because the trance is just a way of being stuck in a dream, which is the story. Would that be correct?
GANGAJI: That’s beautiful! I’ll use it!
DONNA: It’s a funny thing, so I was reading…you were raised in Mississippi.
DONNA: And you went to —correct me anytime I get something wrong so our listeners get to know you, as well. Being raised in Mississippi, and at that time, because you went to San Francisco during the kind of the“Golden Era”of San Francisco, the counter-cultural movement, and I’m so fascinated with that time period the late 60’s, early 70’s… you’re coming from a place where it truly was very different. Everybody was so ready for a new spirituality at that time, at that place in history, and you wanted to combine political activism with spiritual practice. You took your Bodhisattvavows…the magic, was in the Zen tradition?
GANGAJI: Mm yes, yes…initially, yes.
GANGAJI: And the Tibetan tradition.
DONNA: Oh, ok. What was it about this period of time that made us so ready for a new spirituality…that made us so ready to take on ideas that were so different from tradition, especially having come from a place where those ideas still were foreign?
GANGAJI: Well, I think there are two aspects to that. For me personally, it felt like a great escape from our very repressed, closed society. So it became fresh air…the quality of the air was so different from the quality of Mississippi air. And Mississippi is a very tribal place, to this day. So it’s very…I didn’t know anybody. It was anonymous. From a small town to a city, and a city that was vibrant and people looking good and looking at each other…actually making eye contact. And in a way it was finding a different family, but it was a looser family, and there was permission. It was intoxicating.
But I think what gave rise to that, was the deep disillusionment of the 60’s. The recognition, I mean the assassinations —I just watched a documentary about Robert Kennedy and his trajectory and how it ended in his assassination, and just the horror of that. And that wakes you up, too, of course. Horror can wake you up as much as bliss. So as a counter-culture, we woke up to the ones that were called “the adults”…they were not going to do it for us; the authorities are not going to make the world we want to make. And so, we were idealistic young people and we assumed we could make it. Of course, it went off in lots of ways that were also disillusioning, but that is part of the maturing, you mature in your awakening; you recognize that the world is much more complex than we think it to be. So yeah, I would say those two things came together. It was a beautiful time. It was a time of relative freedom for me as a person.
DONNA: But yet, there was something that left you unsatisfied, I was reading, and that drove you into a deeper search, shall we say?
GANGAJI: Oh yes, deeply unsatisfied because that relative freedom, and it was you know, a sexual freedom, a freedom to reinvent myself. I had been a teacher in Memphis and now I was a waitress in San Francisco and it was just exciting. But, it wasn’t freedom. You weren’t free, we were still bound by other things. And it was empty, a dead kind of emptiness finally, when I told the truth. I had hoped that political activism would feed that and I loved —this was now into the 70’s —I loved being politically active and I felt important and I felt we were doing the right thing. But even in our affinity groups during non-violent training…our protest in Diablo Canyon, CA, a nuclear power plant… and I don’t know, we had this sense of sisterhood and brotherhood, but it was still us versus them, so there was still something deeply off. So I gave that up and began my serious spiritual search with Zen, but really it was the Tibetan Buddhism where there was the most commitment. We actually ran a Tibetan Buddhist center out of a little house in Bolinas, CA, and did lots of retreats, and lots of empowerments, and had a practice of visualization and chanting. But then after a while, that got so heady, you know? It was so rich I felt like it’s the version that the Catholic Church does for Christianity… and it was so, so…
DONNA: Too ritualistic maybe?
GANGAJI: Too ritualistic. Beautiful rituals. But it was just something I was not getting. Maybe it was being said the whole time. But I was still searching for something and it wasn’t there, so…
DONNA: You brought up something fascinating. That it was…when we were talking about the counter-cultural movement and how, in many ways, it was the shocking things, the war, and it inspired so much activism, but yet, there were crushing things going on all around us…on an individual level, as well as on a group level…do we need that kind of trauma? Call it the “dark night of the soul,”or as Eckhart Tolle says,“limit situations.”Do we need that for spiritual growth?
GANGAJI: I don’t know if we needed it. I really don’t know. I know that the biggest shock of all is recognizing that you, yourself, will die. And that’s a shock. And so I do believe that we need that one, that we need to be realistic, that this form is finite and it will end before we know it in very quick time. We have the other shocks, so they’re here…so, whether it’s a need or not, I really don’t know. I would hope we wouldn’t need them, but they seem to keep coming, so.
DONNA: Are there certain degrees of awakening, or is there such a thing as enlightenment?—if I could even use that word. Or are there degrees that we start to wake up and maybe it’s these kinds of moments in life, certain realizations…whether it’s a pivotal moment, when we realize that this really is temporary; it’s not just words but it hits us in our gut, my god I’m gonna die one day! So, maybe these little realizations that bring us to semi-awakenings…would you say there are degrees?…the curtains opening up, little by little?
GANGAJI: I think it’s both true. That there are moments in our lives or there are experiences, or internal or external shocks, or whatever, that start to shake the status quo of our identity. And they build, certainly, but there is some moment, it seems to me, in my experience, some moment where there is a flip. I don’t mean a flip into bliss or a flip into no problems, or never having issues or anything, but just the perspective flips.
So, what was always there in the background, is like now in the foreground. It’s the recognition of oh yeah, that…that was always here, but now it is perceived and experienced to be always here. But that’s often misunderstood because the people always look for a steady state experience. And I’m not saying that. States come and go and experiences come and go…thoughts come and go…emotions and events. But it’s something deeper. I would say it’s a critical shift. And I know it can be very useful to see the degrees of deepening after that, because the deepening is endless, but it seems to me, it is something where it is a radical shift where you really are not identifying the same way as you were, even though identifications may arise, they don’t own you. Conditioning may arise but doesn’t have the power…the trance is broken…to continue our trance subject.
DONNA: I was just going to say, that kind of brings us back and I am glad because it enables us to deepen the idea a little bit. Recognizing who we really are, you know, is what awakening really is. And so, to make it even more practical, what does this do for us? Because I think that is the misconception: that once we wake up, everything is going to be joyful and perfect and wonderful. And of course, those of us who have had a practice, know that that’s not true. We still have bad days and good days and sometimes it feels like life just sucks. Even though we’ve had a practice for so many years, we still feel frustrated at times and we still have days when we feel sad and we still have challenges and we still feel off. And so, what does it do for us, this realization that this isn’t who I really am? Identifying with the material world, with the idea of this identity for example. How does that help me?
GANGAJI: Oh…for me, it’s sublimely practical. I think the major thing is that when a bad day comes, or a bad mood, or a bad state…it’s no big deal. It’s not about keeping something, getting something and then keeping it. It’s really recognizing what’s always here. I mean, it’s a big deal and nobody likes to feel bad, and life does sometimes suck and that doesn’t feel good, but it’s deeper than feelings. So there’s room for all of it. Obviously it’s all here. And so there’s a kind of, in my experience, there was a ceasing of the searching for “it”…being life, or my experience…to be different from what it is. And that seems to go back to the whole Zen thing. Papaji, I felt, was very Zen, he was just so sharp, and to stop it all, be still, and recognize what does not come and go. What is always here? Then the emotions or the situations, even though they can be, and they are important, are secondary to the truth.
Read and Watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Gangaji – Who Am I? Well What Is Always Here?
Read and watch Part III Here: Find Where You Love, Find Where Love Is Awakened