After many years of searching for authentic awakening, in 1990 I found myself on the banks of the Ganga, face-to-face with an enormous force of presence and energy.
Through a miraculous series of events, my husband, Eli Jaxon-Bear, had found himself at the door, and then the feet, of Sri H. W. L. Poonja, affectionately called Papaji. We had both realized that our spiritual fulfillment required a true teacher. We knew that we had done what we could do on our own. We prayed for a true teacher. After meeting Papaji, Eli wrote me letters home filled with bliss and realization, and then he came back to get me to take me to Papaji.
Meeting this living master was the ending of the life story I had known and lived. Meeting him finally revealed the consummation of my longing. After Papaji, nothing would ever be the same.
In the first instant of meeting him, I knew he was the answer to my prayer. He met us at the door of the small house he rented in Haridwar. As the door opened, I was greeted with an authentic and robust, “Welcome, come in!” His deep eyes were flashing with intelligence and joy. I fell in love.
His eyes, his smile, and his huge welcome embraced me to the marrow. In an instant, I knew for certain I was exactly where I must be to discover what I must discover. When he asked me what I had come for, I answered, “Freedom.”
He said, “Good. You are in the right place. Now do nothing; be still.”
The next day Eli and I and four devotees from France met with him. I listened carefully as different people asked questions. He answered all in ways particular to the questioner, and his answers consistently and strongly pointed attention away from internal dialogue back into the endless space where all internal dialogue originates.
The room was warm and sticky with humidity, yet I strangely felt both elated and peaceful. There were odd sounds and strange smells coming from the street right below us, but the room was infused with luminosity. My body relaxed more and more, and after about an hour, I asked my question. “What do I need to do to be free?” He answered, “Stop. Stop everything. Then you will realize you are the freedom you have been searching for.”
I was startled. Surely there was some esoteric practice I could do. Some way of getting rid of my ego? Some mystical incantation? Something? I had never considered “Stop.” As I let his instruction seep into my consciousness over the next few days, different emotions appeared, primarily fear. When I didn’t “go” with fear, it dissipated. In its place was, as best as I can describe it, a gentle spaciousness. Sometimes emotions and feelings I was familiar with, but had no easy category for, appeared. If I mentally fought with them or gave meaning to them, there were more thoughts to follow and more anguish. If I “stopped,” the thoughts stopped and the feelings either moved on or disappeared.
One day Papaji asked, “Who are you?” and for an instant I knew with all certainty that I was the spaciousness that thoughts and emotions come from; the same spaciousness that remained when thoughts and emotions disappeared. The instant with its perfect knowing passed as I paid attention to the thought “This is it! Now I’ve got it!” But the unwinding of identification with thoughts and emotions had begun.
After some weeks and many moments of beauty and grace as well as moments of terror and pain, it was time to return to Maui. Papaji had given me the name Gangaji, and he asked that I share my experience with those who were interested. I had no idea how this could happen, and he assured me that I didn’t need an idea for it to all unfold effortlessly.
He asked me to go door-to-door and speak to people and for the past thirty years I have done that. Without the grace of his presence and the clarity of his sword of inquiry, I would be still wandering in the heaven and hell realms searching for happiness while I avoided the essential longing of my heart. He is my guru, the true revealer of light. I owe the bounty revealed by the discovery of true fulfillment all to him.
I was born in Texas in 1942. My parents named me Merle Antionette Roberson, but I was always called Toni. When I was still a baby we moved back to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to my father’s hometown. Clarksdale is actually famous for being the home of the Blues, but most of us white people didn't know anything about that...
Growing up we three children (my older brother, my younger sister, and I) had little to worry about externally. We were free to wander around the town—the white people’s section—and play on the banks of the local creek. In many ways, it was a good life.
But inside, I was falling apart. When I was eleven or twelve, I remember sitting on the curb in front of my house in the Mississippi summer heat, waiting for something to happen. I felt the horror of being the victim of my birth, my family, my alcoholic mother, my town, and—most of all—my own inner darkness.
In high school I discovered how to please others to get the love and attention I was longing for. I became quite popular, and I was wild enough to have many good times. I was a cheerleader and was crowned homecoming queen. Then I went to college and had a rude awakening. My small-town popularity got me nowhere in the relatively cosmopolitan echelons of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). But it was my great good luck that my mind was opened to questions I never would have considered. I began to see through my blinkered conditioning, and I started to grow up.
Despite this, I was determined to make a good marriage. After graduation from college, and a year of graduate studies, I married my college sweetheart and we moved to Memphis where he was finishing medical school. I taught junior and senior high school English and History. I waxed the floors of our sweet, modest apartment, and I ironed his shirts as I waited for the right time to have a baby. In 1967 my daughter, Sarah, was born. She was not, as I had imagined, the summation of all my efforts to line up the components of a perfect life, but an actual person with needs. As my dream of “perfect mother” was shattered by my feeling of incompetence, other areas of my dream life began to crumble. I was exhausted and consumed by hypochondria. My daughter was bright and intelligent and I loved her. My husband was happy and fulfilled in his work and home life, and I was miserable.
When my daughter was four we moved to San Francisco and our marriage ended. It was 1972, and I was finished trying to live the way I had been told to live. I felt reborn. I took a job as a cocktail waitress and loved it. My daughter was in a cooperative preschool and the other parents were living lives I could never have dreamed of back on the curb in Mississippi.
I embraced the counter culture, experimenting with substances and free love. It seemed like fun at first. But ultimately all my attempts to escape myself came up empty. Once again, I was stuck with myself, and I felt lonely. I began to imagine the perfect mate: tall, handsome, Nordic.
By 1974, I was living with my daughter in the small hippie coastal town of Bolinas. Quite unexpectedly, Eli came into my life. He was nothing like the perfect mate I had imagined for myself. He was younger and wilder than I was. He was not interested in marriage or even a committed relationship. He was extreme in his personality and offered no security at all. I fell profoundly in love with him. Eli’s primary interests were truth and freedom. For him to have any more than a passing interest in me, those had to be important to me too. That was really the beginning of my spiritual journey.
In the 80s we moved from Bolinas to Mill Valley. By this time I had become a successful acupuncturist, and Eli was ready to establish a practice in neurolinguistics. We had stopped our arduous, Tibetan Buddhist practice and had become a California version of mainstream. We were happy. My daughter was flourishing. But I discovered that this level of happiness was not enough. Underneath the happiness and success, there was a deep yearning.
After living the good life in Mill Valley for seven years, we moved to Maui with the intention of setting up a retreat center. Although we had continued to pursue spiritual goals by attending meditation retreats, reading works of living and dead masters, and discovering the power of the enneagram; we were exhausted by the demands of our materialistic lifestyle. We had always relaxed deeply while visiting Maui, and we felt that by moving there we would be more true to our deepest intentions of truth and peace. Thirteen years after first living together, and a year after moving to Maui, we were married. A year later, after all hopes of succeeding in setting up a retreat center had failed, Eli was internally called to the East to find a true teacher. What happened next took us both by surprise, and changed the course of our lives forever.
Before I discovered, through Papaji’s grace and guidance, the ease of simply being, of being nobody in particular, I had a privileged life lived on a ground of inner suffering. In this discovery of the ground of endless spaciousness and peace, I live an indescribable, extraordinary, ordinary life. I have the privileges granted to all who live in a free society, and I have the extraordinary privilege of discovering myself in everyone I meet. In my thirty plus years of meetings, both large and small, with people of all types and nationalities, my discovery of spaciousness and peace is freshly and continually revealed to be here in all ways.
Read correspondence to and from Papaji that began in 1990 and lasted until his death in 1997.
"May they be recognized as both my love for my guru and the overflowing intimate mystery of self meeting itself."— Gangaji
Sri Ramana Maharshi, the revered 20th Century sage, was Papaji's teacher.
Meet Papaji and watch clips.
Gangaji's Letters to Papaji and his responses from 1990 until his death in 1997. Read
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