After 15 years living a life of quiet despair in federal prison, John Sherman had lost interest in everything of importance, including the idea of ever being released. His friend, Alan, serving a sentence for drug trafficking, knew Sherman believed that spirituality was nothing more than the opiate of the people, but he decided to issue an invitation anyway.
"This American woman guru is coming to speak here at the prison," Alan announced. "She calls herself Gangaji. Would you like to meet her?" Though Sherman had no interest in what she might have to say, spending a couple of hours with a woman, especially one described as gorgeous and articulate, seemed more appealing than the boredom of his daily routine. "That sounds exotic and entertaining," he acknowledged.
On the evening of her visit, Sherman was walking to the chapel of the Englewood, Colorado federal prison when he felt suddenly overwhelmed by a tremendous anxiety. His heart palpitated, his breath came in short gasps, he felt queasy, and began sweating profusely. He staggered over to a bench and plopped down. Sherman had been in numerous shootouts during his career as a bank robber and communist revolutionary, so he knew what fear usually felt like. This feeling was different. He could only equate it to sheer terror. He watched as a dozen of his fellow prisoners entered the chapel for the guru's presentation, but he remained paralyzed with fear, struggling to get a grip on himself.
Over the next hour, as Sherman sat alone on the bench, the effects of his anxiety attack began to recede. In his 51 years he had faced danger and death many times, yet he had never before felt so close to dying. His mind got over being boggled and started doing what the mind does in the aftermath of an anomalous event--analyzing the experience, explaining it away, and finally denying it or suppressing it. Whatever had happened, the impact felt bigger than he could imagine, bigger than his mind or emotional state could fully process. "What happened to you?" his friend later asked. "Why didn't you come in?" "Oh, I had something better to do," Sherman lied.
For reasons he could never put into words, soon after his mysterious panic attack, and his failure to attend the talk by Gangaji, Sherman felt compelled to meet with a group of Tibetan Buddhists who visited the prison each week. He sensed a connection to their teachings. What they said seemed quite familiar to him, as if he had been a Buddhist in many previous lifetimes. This realization, in contrast to his previous disparagement of anything spiritual, astonished him. "I had no idea what I thought I was doing meeting with Buddhists. I didn't connect it then to Gangaji and the panic attack. It became clear to everybody among the Tibetan Buddhists that I knew everything they were talking about. There was some pull or knowing that I had never suspected. I started meditating intensely and I saw in me a life of Buddhist vows and practice."
His friends continued watching Gangaji videos in preparation for her next visit, and Sherman found himself in almost pathological reaction to her and her teachings. "I told everybody who would listen that my sense of her was that she must be a fraud. I had no idea what she was up to, but obviously what she's telling you is false. The Buddhists have been at this for 2,500 years and know what they're doing. Then this woman comes in and says you need do nothing. That everything you do is guaranteed to keep you from what you want. I made quite a spectacle of myself among these men and they wondered what happened to Sherman."
Throughout his life it seemed that people had been asking the same question, "what happened to Sherman." Growing up in Camden, New Jersey, and later in Los Angeles, Sherman's greatest fear was always that he would be unmasked as the fake and fraud he felt himself to be. He believed that everyone possessed a secret for living their lives with satisfaction, and this secret, or formula for happiness, had been hidden from him. Expelled from the tenth grade for disciplinary reasons, he joined the Army, learned the skills of a machinist, and then after leaving the service drifted into gambling, check forgery, and the transport of stolen vehicles.
During his first stint in a federal prison in Seattle he spent 18 months of his three-year sentence in solitary confinement for organizing strikes among the inmates. After being released Sherman began identifying himself as a revolutionary communist and in 1975 joined the West Coast's most active communist terrorist group, the George Jackson Brigade, in bombing power transformers and other symbols of capitalism. To support their revolution the group robbed banks.
"We were caught robbing a bank in a suburb of Seattle and one of us was killed in the shootout. I was shot in the jaw. My partner and I were put in jail. Doctors wired my jaw shut. Some weeks later I was taken to the hospital to have the wires taken out. Some of our group who were still out on the street ambushed us in the parking lot of the hospital and shot the policeman who escorted me. They helped me escape. For the next two years I was on the run. Four or five of us robbed more banks and blew up more buildings in Washington and Oregon. I was finally caught again. We had a huge media trial in 1978. My co-defendant and I defended ourselves and had a really good time at it. I got a sentence of 30 years and was sent to Lompoc federal prison in California. Four months later I escaped when a woman smuggled a gun to me during an appointment I had with an eye doctor outside the prison. The FBI put me on their Ten Most Wanted list. I ended up in Denver and got a job as a machinist with an aerospace company. After two and a half years on the loose I got caught again."
Over the next 15 years of imprisonment Sherman bought drugs, sold drugs, gambled, made deals, and played all of the prison games. Nothing seemed to have an impact on the dullness he felt and a despair that recognizes no escape but rages against it. He had abandoned ideology, the false God, and, as he took refuge in Buddhist practice, he had even begun to recognize his own lack of honesty, how he continually tricked himself. Yet, he remained trapped in a self-referential, grasping, greedy addiction to existence.
When his friend Alan was transferred to another prison, Sherman inherited the role of prisoner liaison between the chapel administration and all of the Eastern spiritual visitors. That meant he was responsible for arranging the next visit by Gangaji, making certain prisoners who wanted to see her were there, and meeting her and her entourage on their arrival. He stuffed his distaste for the guru and her teachings and made the arrangements for June 11, 1994, which also happened to be her birthday.
At the appointed hour Sherman was waiting for Gangaji outside the chapel, at the end of a long sidewalk leading from the administration building. He intended to escort her into the chapel and then leave because he had no interest in what she would say. As he waited he felt impatient and frustrated. I wish they'd hurry up and get here, he kept thinking, so I can go and play tennis.
Four people emerged from the administration building and began walking in Sherman's direction. He recognized one of the women as Gangaji by the large mane of white curly hair which he had seen on the videos his friends had been watching. Gangaji strode right up to Sherman, took his hand, and looked into his eyes. "You must be John?!" she said in a deep, silky southern accent.
In that moment, without any warning, without any reason, everything within John Sherman stopped. All of his judgments, his analyzing, his monitoring, everything stopped and quieted. He does not remember responding to her or saying anything at all. He only remembers being fully present in the moment, really for the first time in his life, feeling an extraordinary sensation of peace and contentment so big that it had no conditions.
He went into the chapel with her and stayed during her entire satsang, a Sanskrit word for witnessing and asking questions of the guru. She handled all of the prisoner's questions with compassion, her responses adroitly designed to hold up a mirror for each man to engage in his own process of self-reflection. Sherman spoke up at one point, blurting out, "so are you saying we are all one in the same being?" Gangaji spun around to face him. "Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying."
Sherman had an uncanny feeling that he knew this woman. He knew Gangaji. It wasn't merely a spiritual knowing, or in any way similar to the connection he had felt to Buddhism, though Gangaji herself was a former Buddhist. It was the feeling of having known her before, not just of resonating at a deep level with who she is and what she represents. He even amused himself with this thought, given who he was and the experiences that he had, of how it didn't bode well for her if she had actually known him in the past.
Once satsang ended he and Gangaji were walking together back to the administration building. "I feel like I've always known you," Sherman told her. "Of course you do," said Gangaji with a knowing smile. "This love cannot be denied."
When she passed out of view beyond the prison walls Sherman's heart broke open. In the weeks that followed waves of emotion and sensations of peace and security washed over him. He felt reborn into a new life, though the turmoil would continue. Finally meeting Gangaji, and accepting her as a teacher and beacon of hope in his life, was comparable to blowing up a building. The instant the explosives are detonated the building is finished. But it takes some time for the debris to come to rest, and that period is characterized by the dramatic activity of fire and noise. So it was with Sherman.
In the midst of his turmoil and pain and confusion, "her light shone through all of it," he says, and men began turning to him for counseling and witnessing in satsang. The first satsang occurred while he was listening to a Gangaji tape on a tape recorder. An inmate approached and asked, "What are you listening to?" "What do you want?" Sherman replied enigmatically. "The truth!" the inmate shot back.
"Satsang began then," Sherman recalls. "They came to me because they were tired of suffering. They were tired of being miserable and wanting what they couldn't get. I told them what Gangaji taught me. What you are looking for is already here. The only thing that stands between you and what you're looking for, is the looking for it. Just stop and see what you are missing. The truth is so simple. We have the power to focus our attention. We squander our time and attention on matters which have no meaning. To not move is to honor the power we have to decline our attention. It's about meeting what is in the present with a willingness to relax the activity of the mind, and let our attention fall back into source, in the face of the most extreme displays of conditioned mind. In the end, no matter what stories we tell ourselves, whether it's about anger, anguish, the void, it is always a fear of death. The fear of death is really a fear of life itself. And in my experience the habits of mind do soften in the absence of constantly charging them with attention. I spoke directly from the heart, and by some grace, many of the men heard."
Though they would stay in regular correspondence, he would not see Gangaji again for three and a half years, until his release from prison in 1998. During those final years behind bars, giving satsang to dozens of his fellow prisoners, Sherman reached a series of understandings about himself. Sitting hours on end with his attention directed inward, trying to suffocate the ‘self' or ‘me' into nonexistence, he came to understand that his ego was a neediness, a grasping, greedy, lustful knot of self-wanting, and no matter how hard he tried to kill it, ego would never die. Ego itself is a thought. It is a creation of the mind. He realized to try and will it into submission, using ego to battle the ego, made about as much sense as trying to fight fire with streams of gasoline.
After meeting Gangaji he had discovered there was no difference between the dark and the light, between what we call shadow or the repressed parts of self, and the higher radiant forms of our spiritual being. There can be no dark without light, he concluded, because these are the flip sides of human nature, and both must be embraced if a healing and an inner balance are to be struck. "I cannot be quiet with your shadow material as if that were separate from me," he observes, describing his approach to conducting satsang. "I can only be quiet with what you call your shadow because I am absolutely quiet and at peace with my own."
Sherman's initial fierce resistance to Gangaji and his reflexive reaction to her teachings had simply been behaviors emerging because he was in denial of his own shadow, and unable to access it except through spasmodic expressions of anger and fear. "Nothing is what you think it is. I thought I was in resistance to her, but it was the flip side of that. What seemed like resistance and opposition was really this huge open heart."
He married a Gangaji devotee from Brazil in 1999, parlayed the computer skills he learned in prison into a computer industry job, and continued giving satsang in public forums. "No matter what flailing about and resisting I've done, it's always been clear to Gangaji that my role was to become a teacher. She recognized that it's often in our most negative experiences, in the midst of our suffering, that the opportunity is most present for personal transformation. She saw that potential in me. She changed my life in a fundamental way. How could I ever say no to her?"
© 2005 John Fitzgerald. All rights reserved.