Jim Fleming: Keenan's not convinced that it is possible or helpful to stop telling ourselves tales about who we are. So, what have the mystics and contemplatives been talking about for ages, that egolessness is the one path to peace? Antoinette Varner, or "Gangaji," as she's also known, is an American born spiritual teacher. She says that, even without decades of mountaintop meditation, we can stop spinning tales about who we are, and once we do, we'll see ourselves more clearly. Steve Paulson asked Gangaji her story of spiritual awakening.
Antoinette "Gangaji" Varner: Well it's the story that ended my other story. I had reached a point in my life where I was dissatisfied with, uh, time spent correcting my story, and I really wondered whether it was possible to find fulfillment. I was successful, I was in a good relationship, and yet I was still yearning for something deeper. And, I prayed for a teacher, and that praying brought me to my teacher, H.W.L. Punta??? And he told me to stop everything. And the way I heard that was to stop telling my story.
Paulson: So you had to let go of your old story, somehow that was getting in the way?
Varner: Well I had tried to let go of it before, let me just preface it that way, and that really just meant exchanging it for a different version. Basically it was a story of need, it was a story of longing. It began when I was a young child. I had a rather difficult home life in that I had alcoholic parents and, rightfully, I began seeking ways of getting out and getting a, a different story. I sought through success and through love relationships, and my story was a feminist, a [sic] enlightened person who saw, who saw what was true, what was real, and yet, underneath that, I hadn't found lasting happiness. Does that make sense?
Paulson: Yeah, it-it does. I mean, it's-it's fascinating because I think this is a common story for-for spiritual seekers. They work through various aspects of-of the earlier parts of their life and then go off and try to-to build a new identity. But there was something about that whole process that was getting in the way for you.
Varner: That's it exactly, I think it's important to be able to create new identities, it certainly was for me. But until we recognize what both good stories and bad stories come from, and what is free of both, we are basically unfulfilled, in a very deep sense.
Paulson: Huh. Can you give me an example of this, of-of what it would mean to oversee a story that we've told about ourselves and to learn from that in a new way?
Varner: I can remember an instance when I was just overcome with this grief of being an imperfect person. I was in my late 20s, a series of unfulfilling relationships and just the hormonal influx of being someone in their late twenties. And, I was thrashing about in my bed one night over this story, and feeling the emotional waves of grief and sadness and some anger, and somehow internally heard myself saying like "Oh I will never get it. It will never be right," and it was so familiar to me that I was willing to realize that I was feeding that with my attention and energy.
I also recognized I was, in a weird kind of way, enjoying the suffering. I was generating a story that may have been totally legitimate at a certain time in my life, but by this time was simply an overlay of suffering. And I saw the, how invalid my story was. And I also saw there was the capacity to turn attention closer inward.
Not only is the story illegitimate, but it's a, a covering, a cloaking for natural joy, for natural mind, the Buddhists call it. One of the functions of the right brain is this universal field of openness, and it, it just seems that in our culture and in most cultures today, we have skewed our-our narratives, to our left brain definitions and mental understanding. That we overlook this spacious, peaceful consciousness that is always present.
Paulson: Is this what you've learned from your teacher in India, this man who you call Papaji?
Varner: Well he pointed me in this direction, he said "Stop everything, and discover who you are." To not – hah – lobotomize myself but to consciously recognize the story and stop telling it for a moment of deep contemplation. Then I could see that this life force and this wonder of life, and this joy of being that was present when I was a young child, before I was identified as a suffering child, is still present now.
Paulson: You know, a lot of people would say that they don't have a clue how to stop telling stories about themselves. That's kind of the way their minds work, and how do you get past that?
Varner: I understand that, it’s first of all the willingness to overhear what your life story is. We are generating narrative and we are often unaware of that. It just seems like a comment on reality. But when we can recognize that it's actually an interpretation of reality, then we have the opportunity to recognize what is under that, what is closer than the narrative. I don't like to set it up for people, to have a formula that you shouldn't tell a story, that stories are wrong, because I don't believe that. I think it is the way we are made, and before we are story tellers we are conscious beings. We are aware, of this sense, "I am." And that sense is underneath all stories.
Paulson: But I guess I'm trying to figure out what that is, underneath the story. I mean if you get rid of all the story that we tell about ourselves, what's left?
Varner: Conscious silence. And even those words, of course, we have stories attached to those words. They may be too heavy. If we actually just call it "I" or "that" or "it," we then can discover that it's always present. And it is fulfilled in itself. It is life, it is aware of itself as consciousness through the mechanisms of a human being's brain.
Paulson: Are you talking about this quietness, this state of being as something that you experience in a contemplative state? I don't know, when you're meditating or something? Or are you talking about this just as you go about your daily life?
Varner: Well I'm talking about it being, uh, possible to discover that whatever you're experiencing, if you take a moment, you will find it. But it does require a-a moment of retreat, from the day to day story. We have meditation experiences that are extraordinary and wonderful, but they come and go. This doesn't come and go. The experiences come and go and this. This is-is the truth of oneself, it's the open mind, it's the natural mind. I would say that the word fulfillment, or profound contentment, is what it's like.
Paulson: But it sounds like it could also be pretty scary. I mean, you're talking about giving up your natural defenses.
Varner: Mm, that's right, it can be pretty scary. I mean, we have protective persona, and those are appropriate in certain circumstances. What I'm speaking of is being naked to yourself, to not be fooled by your cloaking devices or your narratives. And then, if it's appropriate, that you act a certain way, or you repress a certain emotion, or you express a certain emotion, that's just in the play of life. You aren't fooling yourself.
Paulson: Was it hard for you to learn how to do this?
Varner: Well it was scary, I thought you used the right word. When I really heard my teacher say stop, I was afraid I would regress.
Paulson: When your teacher said “Stop”, what did he, what did he mean, what was he telling you to stop?
Varner: Well he was telling me to stop searching. And, all narrative is about some search. Protection, or connection, or safety. But not to stop searching in the way of resignation and falling asleep. To stay conscious and open, and stop. And it was terrifying to me.
Paulson: It sounds like there is a paradox at the center of what you're talking about.
Varner: Isn't there always?
Paulson: I mean, you had to get to a deeper place, you had to let go. I mean, it would seem to be that there were techniques on how to do this and yet you're teacher was saying, "Stop searching for enlightenment, stop trying so hard, just, do it, somehow."
Varner: Just open to it. Just recognize you are it. And we are so trained to do something, to actually have the invitation to stop doing anything, to recognize who you are, is very threatening to the whole structure of our narrative. What is this "I" that everyone, that every human being uses in a certain way? If we stop collecting identity from narratives about inward and outward events, and instead just turn our attention to the "I" itself, what do we find?
Paulson: Then one of the questions we're talking around, it seems to me, is-is whether there is really such a thing as a self, as the "I" that you were just talking about. I mean we all have this intuitive sense, the essence of who we are, but if you talk to neuroscientists they will say that this "self" is a fiction, that there is no part of the brain that produces this sense of self. I mean, instead the brain produces the-these narrative constructs, these stories, um, so I guess I have to ask, do you think the "self" is real?
Varner: I think the "I" that we produce is a fiction. But where it comes from, and what enlivens this, that production is the truth of one's self. And whether that is just a neurological truth or spiritual truth is, is finally irrelevant, because it's an alive, conscious awareness. That "I am aware" is primary. And then the fiction comes in when being what, being somebody, and we are great fiction tellers. And, fiction is thrilling. It's just not the truth. Maybe the reversal of that truth, "I think therefore I am," it’s, "I am, therefore I think."
Jim Fleming: Gangaji's latest book is Hidden Treasure, Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story. Steve Paulson spoke with her. You can hear the uncut version of this interview on our website, ttbook.org. I'm Jim Fleming, it's To the Best of Our Knowledge on Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International.