Trusting myself was not a concept I ever encountered growing up. It occurred to me to trust so many other things, but never actually who I am. I have easily trusted many people, many concepts, the power of knowledge, of institutions, of education, and good upbringing. I have trusted truth, but doubted myself, and looked everywhere else for confirmation.
The incredible fortune of this life is that I was born into circumstances that put the discovery of truth in front of all else. My parents were exceptional people, and by the time I came along they knew for certain that their lives were dedicated to awakening. Thus I grew up with spiritual practice, familiarity with the ancient Sanskrit scriptures, and meditation at an early age. At five years old I recall walking in the dawn with my father, pristinely aware of the vastness of consciousness, and I knew it to be myself. In this moment of writing, that vastness is the ground of being, and the light breeze, the warmth of the sun, the call of birds, and distant sound of cars on the road are no different from the absolute certainty of this simple presence.
But the complexity of being human and the inevitable confusion of growing up in this world certainly obscured that. As a young teen I had a big attitude about the state of humanity and its inevitable decline. I was brought up to believe I was swimming upstream against a current of depravity, and that it was my duty to overcome my egoic urges and find my way back to the Absolute, or God.
The spiritual group (the School) that my parents joined in the 60s in London, and that I and my sister were born into, saw itself as the only true source of wisdom, the only hope to save humanity from the insanity of the modern age. Its leader, a terrifying, misogynistic, Edwardian Scotsman with a personality that was both scary and charismatic, perpetuated a strong moral code. His association with Eastern spirituality brought the essence of a pure teaching to his followers, but it came with a lot else. His insistence on a dangerous mixture of stuffy English morality and semi-Indian values, particularly for women, dominated our lives. He insisted that we obey our fathers and husbands, wear our skirts to the ground and our hair up. Not only did he try to control what we wore, the food we ate, the books we were allowed to read, and the music we listened to, but even as we reached young adulthood, the men we were to marry (marriage to a suitable man being encouraged as our main aspiration in life). Young women were expected to be virgins, and there were several arranged marriages made. A few powerful ideas, fueled by dogma and the inevitable desire to climb in a burdensome hierarchy, turned people around him into unscrupulously dangerous monsters. There were some tragic cases of lives unhinged, but that is another story. My parents were intelligent people, and they were able to protect me from the worst of it.
For me, survival came in the form of being a “good girl.” I knew from my direct experience that what the core teaching pointed to was the truth of myself, and I was willing to let a lot of the rest go by. We spent hours studying the scriptures: the teachings of Shankara, the holy Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita. These were my bible, and I fell in love with them. I read the Gita under the bed covers with a flashlight….I wanted to know what happened to Krishna on the battlefield of the Kurukshetra. Still today verses of it echo in my heart, and I am grateful for it. I trusted that the love of truth was true, and it guided me.
But from early adolescence on, my burning desire for truth appeared to be in conflict with the need to be normal. I was growing up and being educated in the spotlight of an intense spiritual sub-culture, and my every transgression was noted. I always had the sense that others outside our sub-culture were having a better time than me because they didn’t know what I knew, and part of me wished for the normality of ignorance. At the same time I was convinced that I was at the north face of truth, with the likelihood of lifetimes of arduous work to reach my ultimate goal of self-realization. I was determined, and would redouble my efforts to become enlightened, and then fall back into laziness and guilt and fear when I didn’t remember my daily practices. It didn’t occur to me that it was as close as the simplicity of my own, present, radiant being. My trust was not in myself, but in the structures that life had supported me with…my parents, my education, the hierarchy of the School, the tenets of scripture engraved in my heart.
Part of the doctrine was that the way to self-realization for a woman lay in hitching her fortunes to a good man, and dedicating her life to serving him. We were trained to be “ladies,” demure and attentive, but not independent. I was good at it. My own mother got into trouble for having a brilliant mind and letting it show with an outspoken, sharp tongue. It pains me to write that my own inclination, while I might outwardly have given lip-service to resistance, was to tow the line. At 17 I was secretly hoping for that one thing…the right man to marry and dedicate my life to. Luckily it didn’t work out that way, at least not as the School would have wanted!
Twenty-two years later I found myself living in a world that seems, looking back, like an alternative reality, a parallel existence to life as I find it today. I was married to a professor of classical philosophy whom I met at Oxford. He had nothing to do with the School and, although a philosopher by training, no interest, or rather an active disinterest, in the idea of waking up or finding himself.
We were living in a sweet white house with black shutters in a tiny village on the edge of the Cornell University Campus. Two beautiful daughters and a small black cat were in my charge, and as a non-citizen with no working visa, I had dedicated myself to being a full-time, stay-at-home mother and wife, volunteering at the nursery school, and even occasionally at the local Episcopal Church.
I was happy at a certain level. I had achieved normality, but I was also tormented, adrift in a small sea of social self-satisfaction: a nice house, clever husband, beautiful children, the rights schools, a glass of wine with dinner, and a loss of self. I might have made my escape from life inside the School, but I was burying myself alive in a cult of another sort.
Extraordinarily, throughout this entire period, I never severed my connection with the School. I would like to say that this showed above all my dedication to truth, and that is in part true, but in looking back I also see that I had put my faith in an institution to deliver what I ultimately wanted, and I was too scared to look or even imagine that it could be found elsewhere….or more obviously, inside myself. So I kept showing up, week after week, driving two hours to the branch in Rochester, NY. I made that drive just about every week for years.
It wasn’t all crazy. Particularly in Rochester I found kind, dedicated people whose lives were about truth, full of goodness, study of the scripture, discipline and wise council. One woman in particular became my mentor as I agonized over the impossibility of my position: a passion for truth, my path to enlightenment thwarted by my own failure to work hard enough at it, and a marriage to someone who was not the slightest bit interested in my inner holiest desires. I felt torn in two, a double life: both aspirant of truth and convincingly normal, privileged wife and mother. Hard as I tried I couldn’t join the two halves together.
The Gap in the Road
Late in 2003, when I was 39 years old, something unexpected happened. It’s only now that I can see how profound it was, the sheer luck of grace knocking at my door, the answer to my prayers. My mother and I had always had deep conversations about our dissatisfaction with the School. Both of us longed for something that was really true, free of the karmic sludge of all the subtly warring personalities and conflicting crazy ideas. We knew there was a pure vein of truth that we had touched, yet somehow it seemed to remain out of reach. Over the years she had shared with me her openness to other teachers, other ways. It felt like treachery to me, and it was scary. But by 2003 a disillusionment and desperation were growing in me like mold.
In the midst of a snow storm I was driving back from my evening in Rochester. It had been a difficult evening with arcane study of a muddled teaching from the long dead leader of the School. I tried to make sense of it, but I was resisted by the group leader as if it was unhelpful to try to uncover anything actually true. I left feeling angry and dissatisfied. I knew what I had been hearing was unreliable, and I longed for the freshness of real discovery.
As I drove home through the snow that night, I began to be mesmerized by the perfection of the swirling flakes sparkling in my headlights. From time to time an almost full moon appeared between the clouds. Quite alone on the road, I turned off my lights and drove for a moment by the moonlight reflected on snowy fields. I began to feel as if I had fallen out of time, traveling endlessly through the moonlight, but only ever getting as far as the next rush of snow flakes that would swerve away at the last moment before hitting the windshield. My eyes started to follow the drift of the flakes instead of the road, so I was startled when a small animal, a rabbit or opossum, sped in front of my car. I heard or rather felt the thud of its life being thrown aside, and squinted in the rear view mirror as its small body receded from me.
I was immediately starkly present, my hands on the wheel, my foot on the gas, awake. I felt as if I had passed through a secret door in the world, a gap in time that I had accidentally found on this moonlit stretch of road. A life had been given, and this small death had cracked me out of a lifelong trance. By some mysterious grace I had gone through a door which was not there when I looked back to find it. Behind me was the world where my entire life had been lived, where there had been an order to things, an elaborate, reliable structure of meaning, and it was simply gone. The entire edifice had come crashing down. Gone. The only thing present was the swish of the wipers, the spray under the tires, the patter of heavy flakes on the window of the car, and the exuberance of life.
In the days that followed, as I understood that my disillusionment was complete and that it was finally over with the School, it was equally clear that I wasn’t ready to give up my life’s passion for truth. I could have chosen to give it up and focus on being the perfect professor’s wife, but I didn’t. Because I trusted my love of truth, I made a solemn vow that I would find it alone. I knew that there were teachers, and yes, if there was a true teacher, I would find a teacher. I prayed for that, but I also made a commitment to realize my true self, on my own, if there was no other way.
No Formula from Gangaji
About six weeks later I was holding a video tape called Beyond Practice by a woman named Gangaji. My mother had heard of her and sent me the tape as a Christmas present. It took me a few weeks to have the courage to put it in the VCR. When I heard her say, “There is a desire that arises in certain lifetimes….,” it took about six seconds for my whole being to light up, awash in tearful recognition and gratitude…this was it! She was speaking the truth. Here, now, in a human voice, in a human form, in my language. All my training had prepared me for this moment of complete recognition, a huge yes! Although I hardly knew it at the time, deeply shaken and yet nourished in a way that I had never known, I surrendered with my entire life.
The first time I met Gangaji a few months later, I asked her what I was supposed to do. I had just arrived for my first retreat on the shores of Lake George in the Adirondacks, and I didn’t know what to do. She said, laughing, “You want a formula from me?!” Well, yes, I did. I wanted someone else to tell me what to do so I could realize the truth. But Gangaji would never fall for that. Instead, together, we began to investigate the fear that was under not knowing what to do, and to the complete surprise of both of us, what I found there was certainty. The certainty of who I am. I had known it all along, and it was being seen and confirmed for the first time.
It has been many years since that meeting and I have had the great good fortune to drink richly of that confirmation, to bathe in the bliss of self-recognition and, ultimately, self-confirmation. As Gangaji said recently, “There comes a time when you know you are lodged in the heart of your teacher.” To me that is the moment when you stop looking for the confirmation and rest in the certainty of trusting who you are. Then the vast theater of life is full…and you play as you play.
Over the years so much more has been discovered in staying true to that certainty. There was so much more to let go of, so many other gods and false idols where I had tried to pin my faith. I had gone through life as if I were holding a sacred vessel of water, trying to find the right place to pour my offering, never realizing that I could trust myself. Waking up from the trance of the School was just the beginning. My marriage, my home, my parents, my country, my sexuality, the sweetness of life with young children…so many of the things that seemed solid and forever are gone. Life is a ruthless teacher, and always there is more.
But this holy cup is brim-full and overflows as a river bursts it banks and makes it way to the sea.
In 2018 Harriet recorded an audio version of this story with Podcast host Hillary Larson.