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In the Deepest Waters - An Interview

“There is no darkness that the light of who we are cannot penetrate.” ~Sheva


This month we are sharing a clip of Sheva from one of Gangaji's retreats, as she speaks of our responsibility for peace, and recounts a powerful experience of her organization's work in Nicaragua.


Below is an interview with Sheva that was first published in Oasis Magazine.


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When I contacted Sheva about being in Oasis Magazine she was just leaving to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where she serves as head of delegation for UN Peace Messenger Organization Pathways To Peace. While I waited for her to return home I read up on some of her work. It is inspiring reading that speaks to the scope and seriousness of what she is ready to take on. Any one of these stories is enough to knock you out of the funk of a personal drama for good. It’s a big life, played on a global stage, somehow contained in this slight, almost elfin figure of a body, with a heart that has never found a limit to compassion or an end to the capacity for right action.



When we finally caught up by phone a couple of weeks later Sheva was in the midst of what she described as an “ambush.” Her grant application to fund a digital platform for action to contribute to the efforts to end sex trafficking of women and girls was due, but all the questions on the application had been changed at the last minute. She was managing a health issue, and a key support person in her organization had just resigned. She let me know we had about 17 minutes before she needed to jump into another meeting. It turned out to be bounty beyond measure.


I asked Sheva what it is like for her to show up in the world as she does, and stay true to the truth of herself through work that puts her in the way of acute human suffering. “It is just simple. It’s just being who you are,” she said. “Being yourself as awareness. Awareness is neutral, so it doesn’t have a story or a drama that this is the deepest, darkest aspect of humanity. Awareness is present with it all. You are awareness, and awareness can meet anything. It doesn’t need to build a drama about what it is meeting. Awareness can handle anything. And because you are awareness, you can handle anything.”


I am not sure what I had been expecting, but in its utter perfection this answer floored me. “What about Gangaji?” I ventured. “Is there anything you would say to our Oasis readers about what you have learned from her, in relation to your work?” Sheva’s been with Gangaji for 23 years. It’s a lifetime, a huge field of experience and inquiry that doesn’t want to fit into a few sentences. We fell silent as she reflected on that, shifting gears from the grant writing ambush that had been her day. Her answer was again utterly mind-stopping, coming from a depth of self-awareness and clarity of expression that is rare.


“There is a spectrum from the macrocosm to the microcosm, of how the recognition of yourself as consciousness facilitates the work of making a world that works better for all.


On one side of the spectrum, there is an inherent capacity building that occurs when you recognize you are not your thoughts, your emotions, or your physical body – and that all of that happens to who you are and through you as awareness. And when likewise you realize that you are certainly not the events that happen to you, in your environment, and in your world. Rather, you are the awareness of all of that, and so you are larger than any of it. In fact, any global event that occurs is contained within your consciousness when you become aware of it. So it is smaller than who you actually are, and that truth builds an inherent capacity to respond to it, rather than being overwhelmed by it. It also drops the story of opposing sides, preferences, good and bad, dark and light. It empowers the capacity to be with, to enter into. So at the macrocosmic level, awareness of who you are is an incredible capacity builder.


At the microcosmic level, whether you are working with UN agencies, with intractable global issues like human trafficking, which involve bureaucracy, legalities, logistics, online form submissions, politics, people, and interactions where frustrating things happen (like you spend a month preparing a grant application and then you get there to submit it and you realize the questions have changed!), there is a kind of capacity at the micro level to simply handle whatever arises in an energy efficient way, with the minimal indulgence and drama, and a lack of personal identification with the success or failure of the endeavor.


There is also a type of trust cultivated that your attention on the subject itself has a kind of unseen value, so there is a willingness to take risks and to try and to fail.


There is no question that awareness has a capacity that recognizes that if it can see something on the news, then it is already bigger than what it sees, because what it sees is contained within it. The seeing itself is the container. Then the capacity to respond to that, and the lack of identification with success or failure or even the feelings that these provoke, empowers a kind of risk taking and willingness to fail, and also to stumble into wild, miraculous, and unforeseen beauty.”


Seeking Solace in the Shade of Awareness

Sheva went on to share with me a story that demonstrates the radical flowering of this unforeseen beauty. In 2000, she found out about what was happening to the women of Afghanistan under the Taliban. At first she was just completely and utterly horrified that in the year 2000 women were being stoned to death for showing a wrist in the market place. But when she recognized that who she truly is is bigger than the horror, that it could seek solace in the shade of her awareness, then she could respond. Whenever she entered her home she would place her head below her heart, and in all that she did in her home she would hold the women of Afghanistan in her awareness.


Two weeks later two women came in to the herbal pharmacy where she was working in LA, wearing Burkas. They were on their way back to a refugee camp in Pakistan after smuggling footage of what was happening to women in Afghanistan into the Sundance Film Festival. They had come to the herbal pharmacy to get herbs for their pimples before they caught their flight home. Sheva gave them the herbs and ended up having an email exchange with them and with a young man who was heading something called the Afghan Youth Association, which was trying to teach girls underground. In their oppression and relative captivity, she sent them email letters for a couple of years about inner freedom and the power of the heart. The letters were translated into three Afghan languages and smuggled in to Afghanistan. One day a woman wrote back and told her, “I bought cleaning fluid to kill myself and my seven daughters today. Then we got your letter, and now we know the West knows what is happening and cares.” Eight lives were saved.


There are many, many stories that Sheva has to tell about this kind of miraculous unfolding that arises from her following her heart fearlessly, at risk of failing, jumping in with both feet to alleviate suffering. Street children in Nicaragua, women under the Taliban in Afghanistan, refugees from Syria, the victims of human trafficking – these are just some of the humanitarian crises that Sheva’s huge heart has found the capacity to open to.


Willingness To Feel the Global Pain

And for all the success stories, there are failures as well, where it didn’t work out or it backfired. As Sheva says, “Part of the capacity building is the willingness to feel the global pain. You would just give up completely if you got identified with it. You would forget the magic and the miracles. But if you remain still, consciousness allows it all.”


It is not a stillness devoid of passion or the possibility to be hurt. It is a laying bare of the heart and being willing to find the beauty in failures as well. With her voice breaking, Sheva shared an example: “I am thinking right now of this beautiful young boy I saw on the news. He lived with his father in Aleppo in Syria. He was 13 years old. All wars destroy the natural environment, but this father and son stayed through the war in Aleppo to keep the last green nursery going. Together they grew flowers, and would give them away during the war because they believed in beauty. When the father was killed in a bombing, and the boy was orphaned, all the plants died. When I heard this I reached out to Channel 4 News who had reported the story, to see if we could adopt the boy and bring him here. I had a dream of filling our guest bedroom with roses for his arrival. But they never found him and we couldn’t do it.”


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In 2016 Sheva shared a story with Gangaji about the life-changing moment that occurred for a man she now works with. He was conscripted into human sex trafficking as a young boy, and spent 35 years buying and selling slaves. Human trafficking is fast becoming the largest human rights violation in the history of mankind. According to the UN it is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, with an estimated 46 million trafficked slaves, mostly women and children. Jimmy Carter called it, “The greatest tragedy in the history of the world.” There is probably nothing darker than these kinds of criminal violations. But as Sheva has discovered first hand, in darkness the infinite capacity of the heart lights the way.


“Enough! I Am Done!”

At 14 years old, the man we are speaking of had finally had enough of the verbal and physical abuse he experienced at home and the shame he experienced at school from his learning disabilities. So he ran away from home and found himself, in the middle of winter, crying and lost in a subway station without food, warmth, or a place to go. A woman there took pity on him, brought him to her home, and gave him the first taste of kindness and real compassionate care he’d experienced in his life. Little did he know, this kindness was a manipulation that was to suck him down a dark black hole. It was the beginning of conscription into the trade of human sex trafficking.


Manipulated into becoming a human trafficker, he bought and sold slaves all over the world for 35 years. He experienced pimp wars (and was shot), running from the police, jail time, and more. But the most traumatic thing of all was living with himself and the way he treated the women and girls he trafficked.


In a depression, but knowing no other life, he flew to Columbia to pick up women to traffic to Canada. To get to the strip club where the women were waiting, he and his guides had to pass through a Cathedral to get to the other side of the city. It was there, inside the Church of San Francisco, that he experienced something completely unfamiliar to him. In the Cathedral, people sat in silent, peaceful devotion, praying for their loved ones. These people were generating feelings of peace and love from their own hearts, without reaching for anything external to get that. This unexpected and powerful feeling shook him at his core, and he fell to his knees crying from what he called, “the feeling of the Holy Spirit entering my body.” When his guides expressed their discomfort, he said, “Sit down. Shut up. We’re going to pray with these people.”


For eight hours he sat there soaking in a sense of heart he had never known. And that heartfelt experience gave him the power to say, “Enough! I’m done!” From that moment forward, he quit the human trafficking world cold turkey. Walking away from this world is not something most people live to tell about, but he had the power of an awakened heart on his side.


This was just the beginning of a long healing journey. He was haunted by nightmares of the things he had done, and physical symptoms from remorse and self hatred and years of stress starting with his own abuse and leading to his abuse of others. He had heart attacks, ulcers, and nearly died several times. There was also the constant pull to return to “the life” because he’d had no other education or vocational training, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. Old cronies would come around in fancy cars and clothes promising him big bucks if he would do a “job” for them. But he was able to recreate in his heart of awareness with Sheva’s guidance the feeling that had transformed him in the Cathedral. This empowered him to stay true to his course in the face of the many pulls and obstacles, and to be free of the world that had trapped him as a child. Little by little, he was able to heal his physical symptoms of PTSD. He found a vocational training that empowered him to study personal training so he could find meaningful and dignified work.


Today, he has been “free” (his word) of the prison of the human trafficking world for 12 years. He collaborates with NGO’s to help fight human trafficking. He has spoken at the United Nations as well as to high school students at risk of getting involved in “the life” to help protect them and encourage them to create a better future for themselves and others. At times with great personal risk, he helps to rescue victims of human trafficking, bringing the very unique perspective of having been a trafficker at one time himself. He attributes all of this success and capacity to make a difference in the world to his connection to spirit and his non-negotiable commitment to that relationship above all else – even above his physical survival.



(Interviewed by Harriet Watson, Oasis Magazine)