I go for a wander through Byron Bay, past teenagers loitering in the street. These are no normal teenagers. Instead of drinking UDLs and cultivating windswept fringes they’re strumming acoustic guitars, playing drums in bare feet and singing about shared consciousness.
At a pub I bump into Scott from The Living End, who has moved to the town with his family. “You can be having a perfectly normal conversation with someone at your son’s school, and then it’s like… ‘Oh! I can see your aura’,” he complains. He likes the place well enough, though.
I wander on to a bookshop where two psychics are discussing how to break it to someone that they’re dying, and I have a riffle through the flyers. Here’s one for Eli & Gangaji – a husband and wife spiritual teacher team from the States, here on an Australian tour. All capped teeth and white linen, they look like they’re being used to sell funeral plans. Gangaji is speaking tonight at Temple Byron, and – positively unheard of for a new age event – it’s a mere twenty bucks to get in. Sold!
Formerly known as Toni, Gangaji set off on a spiritual path after her first marriage floundered, winding up with a meeting in India with HWL Poonja, a disciple of Hindu spiritual master Ramana Maharishi. Poonja renamed Toni, and tutored her and Eli Jaxon-Bear (not his real name either) in the art of just being. The couple went on to establish the ‘non-profit’ Leela Foundation, offering outreach programs dedicated to world peace and freedom through universal self-realisation.
Just as Eckhart Tolle does a nice line in pop Buddhism, one critic complains of Eli & Gangaji: “What they are teaching is a super-watered down version of what Ramana Maharsi lived, which was at least a little close to the Advaita teachings which originated with Sankaracara about 1300 years ago.” Tonight though, people are dropping the word ‘satsang’, which means we’re in the company of a true spiritual leader.
As we wait for Gangaji to take the stage, I feel like I’m in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All around me there’s the guttural sound of deep breathing (some of which is a tape loop), and scoping the room I realise the vast majority of the audience have their eyes closed and are off on some other plane already. Fifteen minutes later, Gangaji materialises on stage, and silently leads us through a further 15 minutes of meditation – I presume. Ramana Maharishi, I learn later, taught disciples via a powerful silence, and only gave verbal lectures when a disciple couldn’t comprehend the silent lesson.
Turns out I can’t comprehend Gangaji’s verbal lesson either. Slowly – ever so slowly – she ponders the concept of being “here”, “just here” for 20 minutes. “Whether it is you, I, he or she that is here is immaterial,” she beams, Tolle-style. “We are … here. You are that.”
It’s so vague, yet received so ardently, that I’m convinced I’m missing some vital words, or that someone’s forgotten to hand me a worksheet. Although, I suppose there are only so many ways you can relay the message “stop trying to fill the void with physical, emotional and mental attachments and just exist in the moment” before you have to rely on nodding and long pauses to fill the gaps.
Looking around the room at people nodding sagely, there comes the deafening thought: “I don’t like the idea of being shared consciousness with any of this lot.” But that, of course, is my ego mind talking.
Woman #1, in a drifting frock, joins Gangaji on stage and they sit and beam at each other for eons, eyes shining. Eventually conversation wafts back and forth … “Yeah,” says one. “Yes,” confirms the other. Nod, smile.
“She’s got it,” Gangaji guffaws of woman #1, and everyone guffaws on cue, like they’re on Oprah. Oprah, incidentally, voted Gangaji one of the seven most important women transforming the world.
As ever in situations where things are going over my head, my attention wanders and I start thinking about sex. (Attachment. Ego mind. I’m getting the hang of this.) I feel like I’ve stumbled across an alien transmission and any minute now everyone will start glowing and floating upwards, so I’ll just go into my own reverie. One thing’s for sure, though: people are hungry for an awakening tonight, so the pressure’s on for woman #2.
And she delivers! As soon as she takes a seat and gazes at Gangaji, woman #2 forgets what she has to say and goes into a trance. “I don’t need to say anything any more,” she observes, to great approval. Clearly, woman #2 has suddenly tapped into what Gangaji calls “nectar of pure beingness”. Her features are beatific and dopey. She does some Tantric head wobbles, blinking and looking around like she’s just been born. Everyone laughs encouragingly.
(“There’s a fair chance she was going through a hormonal related instant climax,” interrupts skepto Esther when I tell her later. “How old is she? There you are. Thirties is the exact right age for that sort of thing.”)
Eventually even Gangaji has had enough and gently waves woman #2 back to her seat. While there are plenty of men here, tonight it’s only women (yes, largely in their thirties) raising their hands to join Gangaji on stage. Woman #3 complains of unbearably loud birds outside her bedroom window, driving her to distraction. I’d be stumped at what to say to this, but Gangaji smiles serenely and says, “You’re aging.” She laughs. The shared consciousness laughs in turn.
Woman #4 cries and says she is so “fucking angry”. Gangaji bids her to picture her rage as a fire, burning in a furnace. “It’s your aggressive life-force,” Gangaji says. “Don’t try and manage it; just watch it burn – and have compassion for yourself.”
After an hour, we wrap up with more silence. Many people will be coming back tomorrow, for an audience with both Gangaji and Eli. Eli sounds interesting. He was a passionate student activist, then ran a clinical hypnosis and neurolinguistics certification program throughout the 80s (so that’s “interesting” in the same way Landmark and the men’s pickup movement, which also utilise conditioning like NLP, are interesting), and finally made his name identifying the traps of the ego and coaching people in the theory of enneagram personalities. More on these another day. Eli has now stepped down from teaching after a “sex scandal” – a three-year affair with an adult student. He’s had to publicly repent, Jimmy Swaggart-style, and he and Gangaji were then moved to “heal” the Leela community. No wonder he’s always pictured with a twinkle in his eye.
This is Swaggart's sex confession. And his sex face.
“Eli knows the code to the safe,” confirms a brisk woman called Carmen, who is giving me a ride back to town. Whether she’s referring to his way with an enneagram or his way with women, who can say.
“I hate woman #1,” Carmen continues, triggering my insufferably pious gland with her unspiritual outburst. “She was definitely faking it. What do you think? There’s no way. And what was that dress all about?”
I dunno. But a quick note here. If it seems like I’ve been snarky with this post, it’s not that I didn’t like Gangaji; it’s just that I’d have to agree with Carmen about the tendency of some new agers to fake enlightenment with a sense of desperation. (Only, I’d shove Carmen in that box, too.)
While I’m completely guilty of over-intellectualising spirituality by writing a whole goddamn blog about it, so surely are the people who have flown here tonight from all over Australia to hear the word and buy the book when, paradoxically, the message this guru is selling is simply: “stop searching for truth – you are here already”.
But not in so many words.