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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.


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“I don’t know what I do for a living,” shrugs Mark. “People ask me and I say, ‘I make people cry. Sometimes they fall asleep.’”

I’m back in Byron Bay, the Most Spiritual Town in Australia, back where I started my Snake Oil Skeptic quest. I’ve bought some Aphrodite Herb Tea, Maca Inca Superfood Powder, worn a floaty frock, followed the sound of steel drums and talked rubbish to the local ne’er-do-wells while staring out to sea, but really I’m here to see the healer from day one.

So far all my experiences with healers and psychics have left me with nothing but flaring nostrils and clenched fists – all except for Mark. There’s definitely something going on with him. I shit you not, when I look into his eyes I feel a bit hypnotised, like the rest of the room disappears. I’m hoping he can give me some pointers on how to become more open to spiritual experiences while accepting none of the rhetoric. I’ve felt like I’ve had a spiritual side since I was a kid without all that; I’ve felt it buzz and pulse and hum. And then abandon ship at around puberty.

“I just can’t get past chakras,” I say, as Mark sits across from me and bores his eyes pleasantly into my head. “So they’re everywhere spinning in the body… but where’s the shred of evidence? Can I get anywhere without accepting chakras as a basic foundation upon which to build?”

“I’m not interested in chakras,” Mark says. “I just know what I can see and feel; I can’t explain it and I don’t want to study it. It was drummed out of me as a child, because I grew up in a very scientific family. Then, when I reached my thirties I tried studying healing under two egotistical healers and it was a terrible experience.”

He asks if I’ve read any Eckhart Tolle. “I’ve been carrying around The Power of Now for ages,” I admit, “but I can’t bring myself to read it.” Especially in public.

“Your ego mind won’t let you,” Mark says. “But the ego mind is just a construction. Imagine it as a voice sitting on your shoulder, trying to tell you what to do. You are not your mind, you are a higher self.”

“I would call that ‘higher self’ my unconscious mind,” I challenge. And that goes for angels, higher powers, spirit guides, coming across weird ‘signs’ and ‘miracles’, and much other new age phenomena. Unconscious mind.

“Yeah, whatever you want to call it,” he says (touché!). “Just try not to intellectualise spirituality. You’re spiritual already; your ego mind just doesn’t want you to be because it wants to be in control. People study spirituality as hard as possible and think they should be here, when they’re here.” He moves his hand along an imaginary scale. “You get people wandering around Byron who look spiritual, but they’re not – they’re terrible people.”

Before I hop on the table, Mark checks out my energy by staring at the wall a few metres away.

“It’s all over the place,” he says.

“You’re not even looking.”

“I don’t have to look right at you, I can see it anywhere. I can see it remotely, around someone in another town. You’re throwing energy out but not letting any in. It’s important to forgive yourself for things. And you’re floating a metre above the ground. It’s important to stay grounded and draw up energy from the ground.”

I’m probably on the table for about 40 minutes, with Mark moving his hands around about six inches over my body. I’ve had this done loads of times in the name of journalism and felt nothing but intense irritation. When Mark does it I bounce like I’m floating on a lilo in the sun, a pina colada in one hand. There’s a subtle sense of being pulled upwards, but more noticeable are the ripples pulsing down my body from my head, finally streaming out of my feet. It’s not an Icke-style awakening, but it’s something.

I swing my legs off the table and Mark looks into my eyes. “Wow. That’s beautiful,” he swoons of my newly arranged energy, in a totally non-pervey way. I think everybody – new ager or skeptic – is secretly waiting for someone to tell them they have a stunning aura, so I’m pleased by this.

Questions I wanted to ask but didn’t, for fear of hearing vague answers that would prompt more questions:

  • Can you mess with someone’s energy as they’re walking down the street without them knowing?
  • Are the spirit guides aliens from the star system Alpha Draconis?
  • Why did they give us critical minds?
  • Why does Universal energy need human vessels?
  • If we’re made up of a higher self and ego mind, which one does the libido belong to?