The Private Lives of “Enlightened” Teachers

The Private Lives of “Enlightened” Teachers

An Interview with Gangaji and Eli Jaxon Bear

On July 17, 1896, a sixteen-year-old in India had a sudden experience of liberation that led him to renounce his own name, his family, his Brahmin caste, and all earthly possessions. He moved to a sacred mountain where he took the name Sri Ramana Maharshi and spent the remainder of his life living in caves in a state of apparent bliss while attracting thousands of people worldwide to bask in his presence. His primary teaching was silence, although he also taught a method of rigorous self-inquiry. Even as he slowly died of cancer, Sri Ramana reportedly remained in a state of bliss and continued his teachings. When he died in 1950, millions in India are said to have mourned.

Gangaji and Eli Jaxon-Bear are American spiritual teachers in the tradition of Sri Ramana. The couple has been married for more than 30 years and have been sitting in satsang (Sanskrit for gatherings of people seeking truth) for 18 years. Three years ago, however, their community erupted in scandal when it was revealed that the tools for inquiry used in their first-ever couples workshop had been developed because Jaxon-Bear had been caught in a messy, three-year affair with one of his students. At the couples workshop, the teachers chose not to explain the large elephant in the auditorium that many sensed — that this inquiry into truth was based on a lie.

But the truth will out, and soon the private lives of the two teachers was in the local newspapers. In a public meeting for their devotees, Eli admitted playing “catch and release” with various women until the time his “realization” had been confirmed by his guru, H.W.L. Poonja, who had spent some time with Sri Ramana. The enlightened couple said that they had been celibate until the affair forced them to rethink their celibacy. At the public meeting, Eli tearfully retired from teaching. (S&H covered this story in January 2007.)

We return to this story because Eli has returned to teaching, because we received this fascinating interview from Wolfgang Schmidt-Reinecke, and because so much has changed in our understanding of what an awakening or realization might entail in the brain.

Neuroscience tells us that our sense of a permanent self is probably more illusory even than Sri Ramana believed. Created by the brain, the self is continually altered by experience and can be radically reconstituted in a variety of ways, including meditation, trauma, disease, drugs, or electrodes applied to particular neurons. Sri Ramana had a spontaneous experience of a universal self and spent a lifetime of dedicated practice reinforcing that experience. He did not claim anything remarkable for himself, nor did he confirm the liberation of anyone else, except his mother when she died.

Neuroscience also helps explain how we co-create one another — and how we can give up our selves to be reconstituted by a lover, a leader, a hypnotist, a priest, or a guru. Given the malleable nature of the self, the spiritual seeker has to be careful about his own goals and whom he allows to re-create him. Pursuing “enlightenment” is one choice among many, and it is important to ask oneself: What is it good for? Who is it good for?

Spiritual leaders have to be even more careful. While religious and medical institutions have a variety of ways to hold practitioners to their higher selves, spiritual leaders are often on their own. Whatever the nature of enlightenment is or isn’t, the brain and self evolved for the basic goal of keeping our energetic needs met — and so we humans tend to be remarkably self-deceptive. The teacher must constantly ask, What is my teaching good for? Who is it good for?

We chose to run this interview not because we found it so inspiring but because we found it so troubling. — STEPHEN KIESLING EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

WOLFGANG SCHMIDT-REINECKE: Indian teachers coming to the West in the early seventies seemed surprised that people watched and discussed their private behavior to such a degree. Do you see a cultural difference in the private / public perception of spiritual teachers in the East and the West? Or is it more a difference in teaching a timeless truth in a traditional and in a contemporary context?

GANGAJI: We don’t have to take on another culture to discover truth. In fact, we have to leave all cultural concepts behind to really discover what the most sublime cultural concepts are actually pointing to. As a result I repeatedly share with people that I am an imperfect human being who has discovered perfection in the core. This perfection is available to all of us imperfect humans, as it is present in all.

In the West there is a psychological cultural overlay that is often used as a way to “know” someone. I find this overlay to be mainly a device of separation. While it may be useful in some client / therapist situations, in day-to-day life it leads to facile diagnosis and attention on what is inherently limited, rather that noticing what is perfect and whole in all of us. So, if we are willing to give up our diagnosis of each other, our definitions of each other, our cultural distinctions of each other, even our labels of student and / or teacher, we are left with the core, the truth of each other. This is the challenge. It is a challenge I invite in myself and I invite in all who I meet.

ELI JAXON-BEAR: The true teaching is timeless and formless and nameless. It appears in different forms to meet the particular time. It incarnates and speaks through the local tongue. This silent intelligence is able to speak through limited forms when individual humans, though impure, imperfect, and flawed, open up to realize the magnitude of love that they truly are. When you surrender to this love, it uses your body and mind to its own purpose . . . What we may think about a teacher’s private life has nothing to do with the value of the transmission. If the teacher’s private life is pristine and everything is in order and yet there is no transmission of liberation, then what is the point? If there is a transmission of liberation, what difference does it make if the vessel is flawed or not to your liking? The flawed vessel will be a direct reflection of your own mind. What else could it be?

When I fell in love with my beloved teacher I only saw his holy perfection as I received his transmission of silence. After a while, I saw his personality as well. I did not agree with his politics, I was shocked by his relationship with his wife, and I saw him making what I thought were mistakes. I saw others leave him because of their opinions about his personal life. Seeing his personal flaws did not touch the purity of what was received and never touched my love for him. So I can only speak from my own experience. Will you refuse the nectar of immortality because of the imperfect vessel that it pours through?

WOLFGANG SCHMIDT-REINECKE: Is there an ageless need for gurus and spiritual teachers beyond cultures and times?

GANGAJI: I don’t really know what is needed for others in other times. I only know that in this time, in my lifetime, I needed a teacher beyond what I had called “teachers.” I needed something I had no imagination even really existed. I needed a force that could stop my mind. That force was my guru.

ELI JAXON-BEAR: In my experience, the ego must meet with a larger force that pierces its shell. This force is the Satguru. It may appear as a holy mountain or a beggar in the street or your next-door neighbor, looking just like you. The form is only there to confirm the truth and to engage the egoic mind and point it to what is deeper. Many of us have had this divine opening through the use of hallucinogens. I found that if you were willing to surrender and die, LSD revealed the highest truths. However, at the end I was still left with someone who had these insights and realizations but was now enlightened and still suffering. The realizations were true and lasting but did not cut the egoic mind-stream. It was not until I met my teacher that I found someone whose mere presence stopped my mind. This is what I had been searching for. I love the being called Papaji that emanated this to me. I will always be at his holy feet.

WOLFGANG SCHMIDT-REINECKE: Some people perceived Eli’s affair not just as a betrayal of Gangaji but also as a contradiction to the teaching of truth. What kind of responsibilities do you see involved in this incident on your side and on your students’ side?

GANGAJI: I have always felt that my students have the freedom of their private lives. I would be mistaken to pry into their private lives. I feel the same about my own. I actually see privacy as a fundamental freedom for all. I realize some people feel betrayed by my choice of non-disclosure. I can only say it was not my intention to betray anyone, and certainly not my intention to hurt anyone.

I understand the word responsibility as the freedom to respond. I don’t see it as a burden or even a duty. Of course, in dealing with children or those impaired in some way, there are responsibilities that may be duties. I see myself, and those who may call themselves my students, as adults fully able to deal directly with whatever life presents. I don’t see it as my responsibility to fix my students’ pain as I might if they were children. Rather, I see it as my responsibility to treat them as adults and support them in being adults, always meeting whatever is here; not to take care of them but to provide them with the opportunity to deepen in the capacity of the heart. To me, this is the most loving and kind way for us all to naturally support one another.

Of course, we can sympathize or feel empathy for each other’s pain. But then do we support the pain or the capacity to be free of it? So while my actions (all our actions) can cause harm or suffering in some way, that suffering can be met and in that meeting, suffering is actually a road to the heart.

ELI JAXON-BEAR: Let us look at what the contradiction between my behavior and the teachings of truth might be. The teachings of truth are very simple. Regardless of your present circumstances, flaws of character, or anything else, you can directly inquire into your own nature to realize your true self. End. That is the true teaching. It can be elaborated on and sung about and written into songs and prayers and incantations. There are many secondary teachings that arise from this teaching. As part of my pointing people back to the truth of themselves, I emphasize that you must be willing to tell the truth all the way. Telling the truth does not mean speaking about your personal life to anyone else. It is not even speaking it to yourself. It is the willingness to discover for yourself what is true and what is false in the deepest possible sense. Once this truth of being is discovered and realized, if you surrender to it, you are meeting your own true self at the core of your being. This is all an internal process and may never appear in the world of form at all. You may not appear any different from the way you were before you began this inquiry and surrender to truth. Or your whole life may change radically. At that point it is out of personal control. The personal life reappears and the tests and challenges of that appearance are all tests of love. All tests are opportunities to dive deeper into yourself. We will inevitably fail some tests and in doing so, we will also have an opportunity to see ourselves more deeply. It is in failure that we learn. It is in failure that we see our flaws and obstructions. It is in failure that we can surrender these flaws and obstructions to the holy perfection at the core.

The greatest mistake of my life was allowing myself to be in love with two women at the same time. This trap clearly revealed to me character flaws that I was not yet aware of. Faced with a choice that seemed to be framed as either staying true to my morality or risking everything for love, I chose love. This trap led to the most painful time of my life. I had to meet the pain of having caused suffering to the two people that I loved the most in the world — and lying to my wife in the process. The humiliation and pain was a very hot fire. It was a purifying fire that felt like taking an acid bath.

Through the entire process, my experience informed the teaching. I would not address what was going on with my life publicly but rather it became a vehicle for teaching. I honestly did not believe that anyone would be interested or that it was anyone’s business. I have never asked anyone else about his or her private life. People have exposed what they felt they needed to. I felt no need to expose my private life; I still don’t. Those are my tests and revelations. I took full responsibility for causing suffering. I apologized to everyone and stopped teaching in support of my ex-lover. This is the teaching: take full responsibility, apologize, be open for truth and reconciliation. What I assumed would happen is that each person would take responsibility for their own experience and use it to deepen into themselves. It was a test of love for everyone involved. I was shocked when people used my apology as an excuse to blame and feel victimized, instead of taking full responsibility for their own situation. Those that turned from love fell into suffering and blame. Those that stayed true to love in the face of my human frailty did not discard the truth of the message because of the imperfection of the messenger.

Wolfgang Schmidt-Reinecke is is a freelance journalist living in Ashland, Oregon. Previously, he worked for more than 15 years as a journalist in Berlin, Germany, writing books and articles mainly for Cultural Creative magazines. He has travelled extensively in Western and Eastern Europe as well as in India and Africa. His website is

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