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The story of how I met Gangaji, became all spiritual, and happened upon the secret of eternal happiness


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In 1993, I was in a federal prison in Englewood, Colorado in the fifteenth year of my imprisonment for a number of politically motivated bank robberies and acts of sabotage I had done in the '70s. At that time, I was absolutely, utterly uninterested in anything spiritual. I had long since persuaded myself that all things spiritual were just stories we told ourselves to get us through the days without dying from despair at the obvious uselessness and hopelessness of our lives — lives that were in the end just dead meat walking and talking until it fell down dead again. I really didn't have any interest in anything spiritual. But in September of 1993, a friend of mine invited me to a meeting with a spiritual teacher who was coming to the prison — according to him, a gorgeous, blond, southern American woman — bringing some exotic, Indian spiritual teaching. He asked me if I would like to come to the chapel and spend a couple of hours with her. Well, of course I would. Her purpose was beside the point. I'm offered the chance to spend a couple of hours in a small group with a gorgeous, blond Southern woman with some exotic teaching to offer. What could possibly be the down side to that?

On the evening she was to come, I was walking to the chapel when I had what I suppose in retrospect must have been a panic attack. I was paralyzed with terror. I knew I was going to die. My heart was pounding; I was sweating and short of breath. I thought I was probably having a heart attack, although I did not have any pain. So, instead of going to see this wondrous and exotic woman, I spent the entire time she was there sitting alone on a bench in what is called the upper compound, waiting while the experience faded and passed away. As I sat there, I became able to rationalize it and see that it wasn't anywhere near as big a deal as I had thought. And when my friend came out of the chapel, he asked me why I hadn't come, and I said, "Oh, I had something better to do," and let it go at that.

Almost immediately after that, I started attending meetings with a couple of Tibetan Buddhists who were coming into the chapel once a week from Naropa Institute in Boulder — they were disciples of Trungpa Rinpoche. I don't know why I did this, I hadn't had any sudden spiritual awakening; I just started going, and listening to what they had to say. And I was astonished to discover that everything they were speaking of I already knew. I didn't know I knew until I heard it from them, but once heard, every insight, every understanding, every Buddhist teaching that they offered I instantly recognized as what I had always known to be true. So I started a Buddhist practice. I did very well and proceeded very rapidly. The men who were coming in from Naropa were quite impressed with me. God knows what they thought, but they seemed quite excited to have come upon me in the prison. After a while, they brought a Tibetan Lama in to give me refuge and Bodhisattva vows. I saw clearly that I was a Buddhist, always had been, and doubtless always would be. I don't know how to tell this story of my introduction to Buddhism in a way that will make sense — it really didn't make sense; it just seemed to unfold and take me over with a kind of implacable, irresistible inevitability.

I was also going to weekly meetings with people who were coming in to speak about Gangaji (the blond, Southern woman), and bringing in videos of her satsangs. How strange was that? I who was absolutely non-spiritual had now somehow gotten totally caught up in this spiritual world, this spiritual play. But I had, with my deep Buddhist understandings, come to be able to discern truth from falsehood in this realm, or so I believed, and I went to the Gangaji meetings with a mission. I wanted to show the men who were taken in by her that she was a liar and a fake and a fraud and that they should not listen to her. I guess I wanted to save them from her seductive offering. "The Buddhists have been at this for 2500 years," I pointed out to them with what I proudly thought of as great compassion, "and they know what they are doing. Enlightenment requires long, hard work; it takes a disciplined meditation practice and maybe many lifetimes to attain liberation, and this woman comes here and tells you that you need do nothing. Stay away from her, she is poison, " I warned them.

In April or May of 1994, about three or four months into my Buddhist practice, the man who had first invited me into the spiritual world was transferred to another prison. He had held the unofficial position of a liaison between the prison administration and the Eastern spiritual types who were coming into the prison and in his absence, that role just naturally fell upon me, the current star of Tibetan Buddhism in FCI Englewood. So, when it was time for Gangaji to come back, in June of 1994, it was I who was responsible for making the arrangements and telling people about it and, on the night she was to come, I was to go and set up the chapel for her, meet her and escort her and her entourage to where they were going and so forth. I was happy to do that, I didn't care — she may have been the devil, but I was as happy with the devil as I was with god. And so I did what needed to be done, and when the time came, I planned to meet her and then go play tennis. I was big on tennis those days.

I met her out on the sidewalk. She walked up to me, took my hand, looked at me and said, "You must be John." (She knew my name because the people who were bringing her teaching into the prison had been telling her about this guy who hated her and talked bad about her and was so fiercely opposed to her.)

And as she spoke, everything stopped. I don't know how else to say it, everything just stopped. Thoughts stopped. The restless movement of attention from object to object stopped. The whole apparatus of thought and understanding, of intent, motive, history, memory — everything that I believed myself to be — just vanished. And, in the absence of everything else, I remained.

Of course, I fell immediately and totally in love with her. I spent the first year following our meeting in an extreme state of bliss and in the clear seeing of the clear reality of the oneness of all being. I wrote to her just about every day and, wonder of wonders, she wrote back to me almost as often. She spoke about me everywhere she went. I was her pet, her star. And I spent that first year sunk in bliss — no judgment, no preference, nothing but bliss.

But at the bottom of it all was the belief, unseen, but no less powerful for being hidden, that this bliss, this new state, this new story was truly me. I had by then begun to read every spiritual book I could get my hands on. I can see now that I did so in order that I might better tell the story to myself of the awakened John Sherman, the self-realized John Sherman; the new, improved version of John Sherman. I read Papaji's books. I read Nissargadatta and the Buddhist Pali canon; I read Wei Wu Wei and Rumi; I read the Vedas, the Gita, the Upanishads, the Heart and Diamond sutras, the Vajra Samadhi Sutra, the Ten Wholesome Ways of Actions Sutra, The Lotus Sutra, and many other Mahayana sutras; I read the Tripitaka, I read The Yoga Vasistha, I read of Shankara and his teachings. I didn't read Ramana because I already knew what Ramana had to offer. All Ramana had was the question "Who am I?" and I already knew who I was: I was Being-Consciousness-Bliss, I was Conscious Awareness Itself, fresh and clean and untainted. I wrote to Gangaji in that year that "I could hear the stones sing silent arias of Being to me." So, I didn't need Ramana, he was far too simple, way too elementary for me.

And after a year or so, I found bliss to be lacking. I found myself wanting other things; wanting more human things, like true love with a woman, or more direct physical access to Gangaji, or getting out of prison, enough money to live comfortably in prison and later when I was released, some hope of security and comfort... things like that. I found myself wanting these things and much else, and not having them, and the experience of bliss and paradise began to unravel and reveal itself to be not all that it is cracked up to be. And, like any really good drug, the come down was even more horrendously miserable than the high had been magnificently beautiful.

So, the experience of paradise, and bliss and all is one, and no separation shredded in the face of my newly growing belief that I needed and was denied and lacking certain important experiences: a new new story of me had appeared,the story of John Sherman, the impoverished and needy one. What was going to happen to me when I did get out of prison? I didn't have a job. I had no money. I didn't know how to do anything. I had no one to love me... What would I do? How would I survive? Would the Buddha help me then? Would Gangaji?

It all came crumbling down very quickly, and what had been paradise, a whole year of absolute bliss, now revealed to me its other face — which was horror, ugliness, claustrophobia, contraction, hatefulness, neediness, lack, wanting and not getting, futile resistance, clinging, losing, craving...

I fell into abject despair. I can remember wanting to cry out and beg the God in whom I did not believe to make it so that I had never met this woman, to make it so that I had never heard of enlightenment, or self-realization, or any of that garbage. Before meeting her, I was doing okay. I played tennis, played bridge, I smoked a joint every once in a while, kicked it with the fellows, I was really okay. I didn't have much, and I didn't expect much. But now, having been shown paradise, bliss and eternal freedom without condition, and having seen it all disappear, I would give anything never ever to have heard of it at all. I had heard it said by the Buddhists that it is the greatest good luck in a life even to have heard the word "enlightenment." I remembered that and spat on the memory of it. I would have given anything never to have heard that word and to be just back where I started; to be given a second chance to say to Alan, the guy who had invited me to see her, "Nope, I don't want anything to do with this." But hell wouldn't go away, the wanting wouldn't go away. The claustrophobia wouldn't go away; the aching, suffering, sick misery would not go away. None of it would go away.

So, finally, in my desperation, not because of any understanding, insight or new realization, but driven by hopelessness and despair only, I turned for the first time to Ramana. I started reading Ramana. I carried the big, red book, Talks With Ramana Maharshi, with me everywhere I went, and read it all the time. I read it, and I couldn't make any sense of most of what he said. He would talk about concepts that I was familiar with, and practices that I was familiar with, like pranayama and mantra and japa, emptiness and the destruction of the mind and so forth, but he would talk about them as if they were beside the point. People would come to him with questions and, although he was incredibly erudite and knowledgeable about all things pertaining to spiritual understanding and he had a deep, immediate understanding of what they were asking, and although he would respond to them from within that understanding, using its vocabulary and point of view, it was clear that to him it was all beside the point.

The only thing that Ramana had any interest in was the question, "Who?" In every case whatsoever, Ramana encouraged whoever came to him to find out the truth of what they are. He never deviated from that. Never. Again and again and again. Who asks this? For whom is this problem? Who needs this? Who suffers with this? Who wants this? Who are you, really? What are you, really?

Regarding ego, he encouraged these spiritually educated people to forget all they might know about the supposed nonexistence of ego, and instead advised them to get a hold of ego, to "get it by the throat." Those were his words: to hold on to it, and to look to see where it comes from, where it goes to, what it is. He spoke of the I-thought and he told all to look and see from whence the I-thought arises. "Where does it come from?" He would ask. "Yes, I know you are filled with spiritual understanding, and you know all about bliss, and you are adept at pranayama and so forth, but what about this I? What is this I? What is it really?" That's all he cared about. He would tell them to just do this: "Just find out what you are, and all else will come out right."

In my desperation, I took him at his word. And I started to look, to the best of my ability, for what I was. I wasn't very good at it, but I started to look for the I-thought, to look for ego, for the subject, for awareness. I started to look for what is permanent. What am I, really? Where does this thought "I" come from? What does it refer to? What is this one-word story "I" about after all?

I was very lucky because I was in prison and, because of past misdeeds, I only had to work about twenty minutes a day. The administration at the prison where I was then had forbidden me to work within 100 feet of any computer, and the only job that fit that restriction was to clean the bathroom in the staff lounge. That job that took twenty minutes or so to complete, after which I was pretty much free to walk the yard, or sit in my cell, or anything else that didn't bring me into proximity with computers.

So I spent all my time looking — looking, looking, looking; reading Ramana, looking, and nothing else. I was totally preoccupied, totally obsessed really, with the need to find the truth of myself. I had heard Ramana tell me that the only problem is a false belief about what I am, that the only solution is the truth, and that the truth is easy. I had heard Ramana tell me that none of the experiences, none of the phenomena, none of the bad, and none of the good has any meaning here. It is not wrong. Your practices are not wrong, your beliefs are not wrong, your good stuff and your bad stuff are not wrong. They are just of no use here. Find out what you are, and all will come out right.

I used to sit on my bunk and look inside. I knew how nonspiritual it was to even think of looking inside. I mean, there is no inside or outside, right? All is one, there is no inside and outside, no up or down, no me or you, no suffering, no end of suffering, and so forth. But still, I had to do something. I had to look somewhere, so I tried with all my heart to look inside, to find out what "inside" is. What is it to be inside? Where is that located? And I looked for "me" and I looked for "I." And I looked for ego. I would find experiences of contraction and neediness, little knots of unpleasantness that would reveal themselves to be within what seemed to be the body. And that felt like me. So, that must be ego. I didn't care about it being spiritually incorrect. I would just go to whatever it was that felt like me and I would hold on to it, I would grab it by the throat. And nothing much happened. But I kept at it, and I kept at it. I would sit on my bed and get a hold on these experiences of neediness, of wanting, contraction and aggression, and I would hold on to them and I'd say silently, to myself, with all the aggressive energy that I could muster, "Die! Die! Die!", trying with all my heart to kill this thing off. It is, after all, the most common spiritual insight that ego must either be killed or cured, and curing it seemed really unlikely to me.

And one day, sitting on my bunk, trying to make it die, it hit me, "Well, this thing ain't never gonna die!" And I burst out laughing. I laughed and laughed... And that was sweet.

In the shower, feeling the water spray on my body, I would focus on the sensation of the water on my skin and try to experience what it was to be aware of that, not as water or skin, but just the naked, unmediated sensation itself. Because Ramana told me to look for myself, I would try to find what it was to be aware of that sensation. That's all that I tried to do, to look for myself, to learn how to look for my self by trying to do it. I looked for the subject. What am I really? What is this that feels the sensation of water on flesh? What is this that perceives this to be water and that to be skin? What is this that sees these thoughts? Where do these thoughts come from? What is thought? How can I catch that?

One day in the shower (I will never forget it as long as I live), I was soaping my armpit and looking within trying to get the direct experience of the experiencer. Who is feeling this? Who is the feeler of this? What is it to be aware of this? And suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, I saw, without any possibility of misunderstanding, this that Ramana calls the I-thought burst forth from nothing. I instantly, unexpectedly, indisputably recognized it as the actual feeling of what I had always believed myself to be. It appeared from nothing, in nothing, like the first spark of an exploding rocket in a fireworks show, bursting into a dark and empty sky, and then it rushed outward, flowering and ramifying — a fiery shower of memories and intentions and expectations, the story line of what I am doing and why, and what I plan to do next and why, and all the rest. Flower and branch, blossoming and then falling back into the same nothing from whence it came, out of which then appeared almost immediately another I, another telling of the story of me. And this was so sweet and sharp, with startling spiritual insight, and understanding, and confirmation, and relief, that a flood of tears ran down my face, thankfully hidden from the other tough convicts in the shower room by the shower water itself.

None of this means a thing. None of this has anything to do with the object of self-inquiry. The wonder of seeing that ego cannot die, the magnificence of seeing the birth/death/rebirth of the I-thought, the year of bliss, the collapse of bliss, the months in hell, none of it means a thing.

My purpose in relating to you this spiritual melodrama is not to suggest that flailing blindly about as I did is the proper method of conducting self-inquiry, but rather to show you by bad example that self-inquiry is infallible. You can't do this wrong. No matter how poorly it is done, once the intention to find out what you are takes hold, self-inquiry will take you home.

You see, I thought I knew what Ramana was talking about. I thought I understood what he meant when he spoke of the I-thought, the I-I, of ridding oneself of the lie, and so forth. I thought I understood what he was promising when he spoke of self-realization. And even as he insisted that self-realization was not, and could not, be anything new, that it could not be any state newly arrived, I knew better. I knew that the "natural state" he spoke of would be entirely fresh and new, a state undreamed of by those of us who are caught in the web of ignorance and craving and clinging and resistance. I knew with absolute certainty that realization meant an end to craving, and clinging, and resistance, a clearing of the jungle of intellect and sensation that is human life. As I desperately searched for myself, I knew what it would be when at last I saw the truth shining in darkness and I knew that all confusion and ignorance would vanish in the morning sun.

How could I possible imagine that clinging and resistance, confusion and ignorance, and the craving for happiness needed nothing done about them? I thought that the false belief caused these things and that, in the absence of that, these things would disappear and clarity would prevail. I thought that ridding myself of these burdensome states and experiences was the goal of self-inquiry.

But the suffering of human life actually has nothing to do with the states of confusion and ignorance, or the acts of clinging and resistance, the experience of craving for happiness; it has nothing to do with the miserable confusion that characterizes so much of human life, nothing to do with the nauseating swinging in and out of good states and bad. All of these things, all of these states, good and bad and neutral, are only stories about you, efforts to explain and show you to yourself. When finally they are seen as such, they are seen clearly to have no power to harm or to help.

But how could I know that, caught as I was in the belief that this story about me was me, and that my happiness, my very existence depended upon a good outcome to this story?

And still, despite my best efforts to sabotage Ramana's method, the medicine did its job.

It's useful to think of self-inquiry as medicine, like an antibiotic taken to cure an infectious disease. If you are sick with an infectious disease, you will go to the doctor. You will be given a prescription for antibiotics, and you will be told to take them four times a day for fourteen days. You will be told to be sure to take the entire course, even if you feel better sooner than the fourteen days.

Self-inquiry is simply to look directly at yourself, to look at the plain, undeniable hereness of you, to look at the naked experience of being, expecting nothing from it, projecting nothing onto it. This being, this sense of presence, is the entire truth of you. It is permanent, unchanging, never missing. It has always been in the background of every moment of your life. It is present in sleep, waking, dreaming, work, play, and thought, it is here when you are wanting and when you are not wanting. It is the same in this moment as it was when you were thirteen, or three, or thirty. It is what makes it impossible for you to deny that you are. It is the only truth there is, and looking at truth is the medicine that destroys the lie that you are your life.

Now, you must take this medicine not just three or four times a day, but absolutely as often as you can remember to do so, and the course of this medicine is until the end of your life. But you will soon see, and will eventually understand, that looking at the reality of you is what you have wanted always, from the day you took birth. You will, therefore, have no trouble remembering to return to that well, to drink from that water, that medicine.

When you take an antibiotic to cure an infection in the body, you do not know precisely what is happening as the course of treatment proceeds. You can't see or feel the gradual poisoning and death throes of the micro-organisms that have invaded your body. You are not directly aware of the biological processes of healing that unfold as the grip of the disease loosens with the death of its cause. You only know that gradually, little by little, you feel better each day than you did the day before.

It's the same with self-inquiry. Do not expect any momentous shift in perspective or state, since that is not what truth brings you. Truth is not new, and truth brings only truth, and takes from you the lie that is the sole cause of your suffering. There may be many experiences, good and bad, as the lie dies and the felt need to control things dies with it, but they mean nothing. Little by little, you will feel better each day than you did the day before, with no regard to the nature of the experiences that come and go in you. And, in the end, you will be at peace with it all. As you have always been.

Expect ego to continue, and with it the drama of the story of your life. But it will mean less and less to you, it will lose the feel of desperate importance to you. Ego, after all, is not the problem. The lie that ego is you is the only problem.

And remember always: you cannot do this wrong. All that's required is the firm intention to look at yourself directly whenever you can, and all else will be taken care of.

This is all that is of any value to be seen in my misdirected efforts. For all my foolishness and taste for drama, everything I did once I turned to self-inquiry inadvertently brought me face to face with the direct experience of myself, the truth of myself, again and again. And it was only that, never what I thought was going on, that in time eradicated the lie that I am my life. No matter what I thought was going on, I was repeatedly, unknowingly, looking at myself again and again, and it was that alone that took from me the lie.

I continued the inquiry. I continue it to this day, and I expect to continue it with my last breath. Over time, my belief in the story diminished and seems now to have disappeared entirely. I cannot say that on some particular day I found liberation, or that on that day I awoke to eternal freedom without condition. In truth, there has never been a moment when I have not been what I am, and what I am is nothing other than that certainty of being that is eternal freedom, and peace, and love.

As to the story itself, as to my life, it has certainly changed. What was hard has become soft and easy, what was bitter has become sweet, what was deprivation has become fulfillment, and what was bondage has become eternal, shining freedom without condition. But in truth, it has actually always been so. The circumstances have been (and still are) sometimes hard and other times easy, sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter, sometimes lacking and sometimes full, sometimes cramped and other times open and free. But life itself has never been anything at all other than the instrument through which I get the taste of myself, through which I see the endlessly unfolding, glorious and futile attempt to say what I am to myself. All life is that. The entire cosmos and all of time and space is that. Every good thought and every bad thought, every generous action and every selfish action, every moment of clarity and every moment of dark confusion is a thread in that infinite, endlessly becoming, tapestry of being.

What has most wondrously changed is that, in the absence of the belief that I am my life, in the absence of any belief whatsoever about what I am or am not, the energy of aggression, and hatred, and betrayal that naturally flows from the false belief about what I am has vanished. Nothing is at stake here. Nothing that happens here touches me, nothing takes anything from me, nothing gives anything to me, or changes me in any way. That has always been so, and it is only the belief that I am my life, that I am anything at all, that has made it seem otherwise.

If I had had some direct, practical guidance in doing self-inquiry, my search might have been shorter, more direct and less melodramatic. But without my false steps and confusion as to what it was that I was expected to do, I might never have seen that what I thought I was doing was irrelevant. Without my foolish efforts to see the I-thought, to become the I-I, to rid myself of ego by wishing it dead or by seeing it to be false, I most likely would never have seen how perfect is the simplicity of Ramana's self-inquiry. And I might never be able to suggest to you that no matter what you may think you are doing or why you may think you are doing it, no matter what you think you will get or lose from it, if you will just look at yourself, whenever it occurs to you to do so, everything else will be taken care of.

In the end, if you believe yourself to be anything at all, whether that thing be the smallest, most limited, most insignificant, hopeless, useless thing in all of creation, or that thing be eternal, infinite, shining, radiant Consciousness itself, the ground and origin of all creation, or that thing be anything in between, you will suffer and strive to protect, to enhance or to diminish the story of yourself.

In the end, truth is all that matters, and the truth of you is ever-present, undeniable, and instantly available to you in all times and circumstances whatsoever. Just look at yourself in this moment and you will see.