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The Passion of Inclusion

"The program isn’t just what we give to prisoners, but what they are giving to us. These men and women are living every day in a threatening environment, and yet they’re diving in to their inquiry and seeing what remains untouched in a very difficult situation."

 

 

 

 

Through the 80’s, Barbara Denempont worked as a writer, producer, and creative director in the television industry, living a fast-paced life in New York. She wasn’t a spiritual seeker, and had no inkling of the life that would unfold for her in the coming decades. When the 90’s arrived, she had to tell herself a hard truth—she was totally burned out, and felt such a deep exhaustion that she even imagined if she didn’t stop and take a real break, she might not survive. In 1991, an opportunity to take a year-long sabbatical in Boulder, Colorado arose and she took it. In doing so she initiated a chain of events that led to her meeting with Gangaji in 1993.

 

In that meeting Barb’s life was changed, “utterly and completely.” She immediately became a volunteer, first helping to duplicate audio tapes at Gangaji’s meetings, then lending a hand at the office with copy writing. In 1996, she became a full-time volunteer and eventually joined the staff a year later.

 

Today, most people reading this will know her as the beloved Executive Director of the Gangaji Foundation, a role she has filled for over 10 years. She works alongside Gangaji in directing the staff, the programs, and the events hosted by the Foundation with enormous grace and capacity.

 

There is a singular, compassionate integrity to all that Barb does, which comes from her deep commitment to self-inquiry. What’s apparent in this interview is her capacity to meet the harshest elements of our humanity, whether they are internal molestations or the crimes of others. It is a unique qualification for running a program that brings this message of freedom to those living behind bars.

 

Barb wasn’t looking for a spiritual teacher when she met Gangaji, and in that sense their meeting was purely “accidental.” But with hindsight it’s hard not to feel that grace was at play. What she could not have known was that the very same month she moved to Boulder, Gangaji received a letter from Erin Maitri Robbins, inviting her to hold satsang in Boulder. What follows is an interview by Oasis Magazine with Barb.

 

 

A Conversation with Barbara

Barb: When we found that letter from Maitri, more than 20 years after it was written, I saw that the date of the letter was November 1991, the month that I moved to Boulder. I didn’t know Maitri then, and I had not yet heard of Gangaji. But when I look back at the cascade of synchronicities and connections that first brought Gangaji to Boulder and into my life, I marvel at how grace comes into a life so mysteriously, and so importantly.

 

I met Gangaji because of somebody else’s willingness and actions, and in meeting her, my life was changed utterly and completely. That someone felt what Gangaji was saying was invaluable, and then actually took the necessary steps to make it available, is so moving to me. This is still what we do at the Gangaji Foundation today. That is our purpose. That is our passion. That is what all of our programs are finally about.

 

Oasis Magazine: Not only did it change your life, but it changed the lives of so many of us, including those men and women behind bars whose lives have been touched by Gangaji’s Prison Program.

 

Yes, there’s a huge ripple. It’s a beautiful example of how your individual life and your choices matter. So much of our time is spent thinking about “What is the purpose of my life?” To me, the more salient question that Gangaji asked me in the course of our meeting, and which continues in this very moment, is “What is your life about? What does your life stand for?”

 

OM: In 1997 you wrote a very moving letter to Gangaji, which she read in satsang. Your question to Gangaji was about the source of human malevolence and the grace of redemption. Has this question of redemption been of lifelong interest to you?

 

The question really had at its root a wellspring of self-hatred, the idea that something inside had to be gotten rid of, or punished. I began to recognize the deep unkindness that was operating in my own mind toward my own self. I was taking the hatchet and coming after myself in a certain way. More than any other pattern, that particular lifelong habit of suffering ultimately had to be unwound and dismantled. That letter reflected my recognition that the suffering I had been experiencing inside was by my own hand. There’s a point when you have to put that down. It may feel frightening to put it down, but it has to be put down.

 

In fact, it’s amazing to see that it’s frightening to put down. You think it’s the one thing you want to stop, but I had to see that in some way, that strategy had been working for me. So I had to examine it holistically and not imagine that this question of human malevolence had to do with something outside of me.

 

A Longing for Kindness

Another way I could say it is that there was a deep longing for kindness, that we be kind to one another, and a feeling of being assaulted by a lack of kindness in the world. Ultimately I had to recognize within myself how I was playing into that. This is where the question “What is my life about?” becomes very personal. Am I going to be about beating myself up for nothing, just because there’s some thought rolling through my head about how worthless I am? Now that is some really unnecessary suffering – a total waste of a life! This is the moment of truth telling where you see that you are actually responsible for some of the horror of the human condition.

 

OM: So the face of malevolence, evil, the wrongdoing in our world, you ultimately see as an internal situation?

 

It is an aspect of our humanity, and it is fundamentally a strategy for survival. Some of the most violent crimes are committed when people feel that they have to do what they are doing for their own survival.

 

Satsang is, of course, ultimately the meeting with death. When death is fully met, a choice often appears where you see you don’t actually have to do what you thought you had to do to survive. Some concept of yourself might have to die, but it is only in this internal meeting with death that you can finally get to the grist of what it is you really want for this life.

 

Here’s another way to see it: the diminishment of someone else is the diminishment of everyone, oneself included. I don’t need someone to be diminished. When you know who you are, you no longer want to diminish others.

 

The Redemption of Inclusion

OM: How would you describe the possibility of redemption?

 

For me, redemption means being included, and that means including myself. When you include yourself, this inclusion extends to everything around you.

 

From the point of view of Western civilization, Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden, and I think that’s the central concept from which our culture operates. However we’ve been raised, we have within us this deep feeling that we’ve been tossed out. Wanting to belong, wanting to be welcomed home, is a longing for redemption.

 

Ultimately, there is a recognition that comes from Ramana all the way through to us here today, and that is, “I am home.” “Who I truly am is Home.” In that, everything is settled, regardless of the circumstances that you find yourself in, and that is the redemption, that is the homecoming, “I and the Father are One.” Ultimately all spiritual traditions are pointing to the longing to come home.

 

Regardless where we find ourselves physically, circumstantially, we can discover that we are already home, and that discovery brings us back to what is innocent and free of history. That is the redemption.

 

OM: Is there anything that you feel isn’t redeemable?

 

On a certain relative level there are definitely things that can’t be fixed; the harm has been done. But I think the point of what we’re offering here is that whether you are the perpetrator of a crime or the victim of crime, there is something that remains untouched.

 

As a victim of crime I realized that even though I had been violated, and something had been broken in the relative sense, still there remained something that was pure and innocent and free. Whether victim or perpetrator, you can realize the same truth of redemption. You’ve both just played different parts in the play.

 

I have always felt that “There but for the grace of God go I.” We are all guilty of some kind of wrongdoing. We have either gotten away with it, or we may have committed “crimes in our hearts,” as Jimmy Carter famously once said, or we have committed crimes against ourselves or our families that are unseen by society or are not a part of the criminal code. We’ve all made our mistakes. We have all sinned.

 

OM: In your work with the prisoners enrolled in the Freedom Inside course you receive many letters. What is it that touches us so much in these letters from behind bars?

 

These letters are the proof that the homecoming is absolutely boundary-less. No one is excluded. It truly is available to all, no matter the circumstances. This man who writes a letter from a one-man cell in Arkansas is my own self, and to witness this level of homecoming is extraordinary. I love sharing the proof that somehow this is possible for anyone and there is no place it is not. This is ultimately the possibility of redemption for the human species itself.

 

Love is unconditional, freedom is unconditional. It was never about what you look like, or what you did or didn’t do, or who you’ve hurt. This homecoming is possible for anyone, anywhere, any time, just waiting for us to enter. This is the passion for inclusion. Inclusion augments us all.

 

Our program isn’t about doing away with prisons. It isn’t about social reform. It is, however, about personal redemption. When you really know that this is your own self behind bars, you know that redemption is available to all.

 

So What’s Our Excuse?

The men and women participating in the Freedom Inside course are clearly in much more extreme circumstances than most of us. Their practice has to be one of vigilance in the wake of the strong feelings that can emerge. This is a truly fearful environment they live in. And this gift that they give us through their letters is remarkable.

 

The program isn’t just what we give to prisoners, but what they are giving to us. These men and women are living every day in a threatening environment, and yet they’re diving in to their inquiry and seeing what remains untouched in a very difficult situation. They reflect back to us that we’re not in those circumstances, so what’s our excuse? It’s a very powerful example for all of us.

 

OM: Has it surprised you, your own level of passion that’s come forward for this prison program?

 

I have definitely had to become hands on with the launch of Gangaji’s course for prisoners because it takes an enormous amount of focus. It’s like raising a barn. There are a lot of people involved, and it has to be coordinated. There has to be a dedication, particularly with this program, because men and women living in prison are counting on us. They don’t get to go on the website. They have a whole different set of needs. The commitment has to be full, whether it’s from me, or from a volunteer corresponder, or from Gangaji. Otherwise you can do a lot of damage, and we don’t want to do that.

 

It Is A Huge Honor

In my heart, I don’t want a letter to go too long without being responded to. I don’t want to be late with the newsletter, because these things become lifelines to the men and women enrolled in the program. That we can deliver a little bit of the oasis that we all experience out here into the prisons is a huge honor. It requires having a really healthy respect for these men and women and what they’re confronting. It’s not casual.

 

OM: Is there ever any hesitation around the enormity of this kind of contact with prisoners?

 

We receive a lot of letters that truly illustrate that their circumstances are soul crushing. It hurts to see this. It isn’t that there isn’t a role for prisons to play, but there is so much that goes on inside the prisons that is patently wrong, and cruel. It’s hard enough to live in crowded, confined circumstances, but often these are places that are trying to break you. They are not trying to lift you up. The foot is on the neck.

 

Some things I have read in prisoners’ letters have left me flattened. I remember reading one letter that really led me to lean in to the very human grief of our worst failures. I do feel that part of my opportunity is to meet that pain fully. It’s not just for them to meet that pain, but for me, too.

 

That brings us back to where we started our conversation, the subject of malevolence. It is all my own self, all the way through. We can recognize our capacity for malevolence as a species, and then see what else is possible. If we’re willing to meet death, if we are willing to meet ourselves, we can discover the original innocence.