Imagine you were an ordinary kid. Making friends, having fun, partying late into the night.
Then imagine the most important person in your life dying, leaving you on the verge of absolute darkness… Then imagine, suddenly – crash!boom!bang! – a new world opening up. Inside. And outside. A world so exquisitely beautiful you even didn’t have the words to describe it.
And then imagine finding the words.
Please meet Valerie Gangas, an ordinary girl with an incredible experience.
Valerie, tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
Valerie Gangas: I grew up outside of Chicago in Oak Brook, Illinois. I went to college at DePaul University in the city and have been living there now for the past 17 years. So I’ve been in Illinois pretty much my whole life. Chicago has always been my home base.
I’ve been to Greece many times. When I was younger I would spend the summers there. Mainly in Athens and in the village where my Dad was from. It was nice to have that experience. When I got older, I had my own apartment in Athens – that was really fun! I love Greece, I can feel the passion in the culture. I’m drawn to it.
So your father is from Greece?
Valerie Gangas: My Dad’s from Greece, he was born in Sparta. His family moved first to Toronto, then to Chicago. My Mom was an Irish Catholic girl from Chicago. My parents met each working at a restaurant in the city.
My Dad owned and ran multiple restaurants, now he is retired. We worked together for 15 years.
Have you felt the temptation to go into this business yourself?
Valerie Gangas: Well, that’s part of the story! Before I started meditating, my father had sold all the restaurants. It was the same year that my Mom passed away. So the next logical step for me was to open my own bar/restaurant because that was something I knew I was good at. Having worked alongside my Dad for so long, I was trained like a ninja to run a store. I had raised most of the cash for the bar, I had a location, a business partner… and it was funny, after I started meditating, all that kind of went out of the window. Everything changed. I went in a totally different direction: in a week, I basically walked away from all the plans I had made.
I always thought that I would own hotels/bars/restaurants around the globe, but I guess it wasn’t in the cards for me!
You have said somewhere that ’it wasn’t me who found Transcendental Meditation, it was rather Transcendental Meditation who found me’. That is beautiful. It often works in both ways simultaneously, right? You have to be ready as an individual, but then it’s also the universe which seems to open up and offer these opportunities at the right moment.
Valerie Gangas: I’ve now been meditating a little over two years. What happened to me was that my Mom passed away, and she and I had always been extremely close. So when she died, I just lost it. I felt suicidal. I just didn’t know how to function in this world without her… It got to a point where I couldn’t handle it anymore.
The defining moment for me was… one day being in the shower, sitting on my knees, just wailing. Then at one point, I surrendered. Talking to God and to my Mom, I said, ’I cannot do this anymore… I’m in so much pain. You have to give me the strength to kill myself, or you have to help me. I’m not going to make it without your help.’
It was three weeks later that I started doing Transcendental Meditation. And in one day, all of that pain went away. It was over in 20 minutes… In my eyes, I received a miracle.
This transformed your whole physical existence – you were suddenly free from your depression, your sleeping problems. Has it also changed your perception, the way you see the world?
Valerie Gangas: You know, I was just a very normal girl. I had lots of friends, I was very social, I went out a lot. We were always out having fun and running around…
And then when I meditated for the first time in my life, I dove so deep down into myself that it was as if I touched God. The whole world looked like a Monet painting to me: everything had changed! The colors were brighter… I can remember the trees vibrating… I just KNEW I was connected to everything, even like the blades of grass. It was like the world wrapped its arms around me… It was the most unbelievable feeling. I had never ever experienced anything like that.
It continued that way, for at least a year and a half. Constant euphoria and happiness. I can remember feeling so much happiness that I almost couldn’t handle it – my heart felt like it was going to explode. And you have to remember: just a day before that I was honestly considering killing myself! It doesn’t make any rational sense, but that’s my reality – that’s what happened to me. A gift. Grace. Call it what you will.
Valerie Gangas: So when I transcend, I feel like I have a hotline to God. In that silence, I connect to something so much bigger than myself, yet it’s all inside of me at the same time. I know it now. It kind of makes you fearless – you can do anything!
Another way to describe it is that the walls of separation that we build up in our mind – they don’t actually exist. Any way you look at it – just one underlying reality, and we function from there. It’s another question if we consciously realize it every moment, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Valerie Gangas: Right. But it’s cool to be able to feel it and see it and know it! That makes all the difference in the world.
I could count on one hand how many bad days I’ve had since that first day I started meditating. I don’t even know if they’re bad days, actually! The bad days don’t seem bad anymore… It just feels like another experience.
So it’s been a great gift for me that I have this tool which I can use every single day.
Do you think that everyone has this ability to access deeper reality, at every moment? Or do you rather see it as a special gift that you somehow have to deserve, to merit?
Valerie Gangas: I’ve thought about this a lot.
I started working with my Transcendental Meditation teacher, Dr Carla Brown, a month or so after I learned to meditate. Now I’ve seen a fair amount of people learn the technique. And it’s weird – some people have an intense experience right off the bat. Some people have it 3-4 months down the line. For others, it takes even longer.
I’ve also thought deeply about this: Why did it happen to me? Why is it so strong for some people right out of the gate? I don’t even have a conclusion yet… I just think we’re all different, we’re all in different places in terms of our state of consciousness. For me, personally – I think it was crucial that I had surrendered. I was gone. It was almost as if I was already dead.
For another people, they don’t have to be in that state – and it’s probably a smoother ride for them, not as intense. I do believe this is for everybody. It only helps you, it only enhances your life!
In other words, you wouldn’t say there are people who are – in principle and in eternity – excluded from realizing these deeper levels of consciousness?
Valerie Gangas: Absolutely. I guess what I’m trying to say is that not everybody is going to have these intense spiritual experiences like the ones I had. Some people will, others won’t – it just doesn’t matter!
What matters is that meditation helps you in every aspect of your life. And because of that, it is good for everybody – for children and adults, students, doctors, lawyers… It doesn’t matter what you do or who you are. Meditation centers you, it gives you the peace of mind, you can think better etc – we know all the benefits.
So how would you explain that, given all the research and personal evidence out there, there is still resistance and scepticism about the whole idea?
Valerie Gangas: I can walk into a situation and talk till I’m blue in the face about all the research that has been done and what’s going to happen once you learn the technique, but unless you give the person the direct experience, there is no way you can really describe this. It’s indescribable! How can I describe this feeling to someone? I can try, but I think once the person has actually had the experience themselves, no words are needed.
And it might be different for each person when the right moment comes, when he or she is ready. You cannot force it upon someone.
Valerie Gangas: Of course not! And I believe there are many different paths. This is what has come to me, and it has worked, and I’ve seen it help so many other people – so this is my path. My experience with Transcendental Meditation blew my mind. So this is what I’ve chosen to use, to talk about and help people with.
When the time is right, opportunities reveal themselves. They just show up in your life. You either walk through that door or you don’t. I’m all for people having something, some sort of spiritual practice to help them in life.
It’s just that I can only speak from my own experience. And for me, Transcendental Meditation is amazing. A life saver.
A Chinese puzzle ball, a Russian nesting doll, a story inside a story:
At the end of a dizzying sequence of events, Valerie meets Oprah. The time at Oprah’s Harpo Studios proved mutually inspirational. Seeing the unabashed joy and glow that Valerie draws from her daily practice of meditation, Oprah goes on records as saying: ‘I want what this girl has!’ Conversely, Oprah’s team encourages Valerie to embark on a completely new trajectory in her professional life – to become a life coach.
Listen to an excerpt from the interview where Valerie retells the story of how she ended up meeting Oprah and working at her studio –
Let’s talk about your life-coaching company, Wonderlust Living. It’s a fairly recent thing, something which got its impulse from these big changes in your life that you’ve told us about?
Valerie Gangas: Yes. I started spending lots of time out in Fairfield, made friends and was introduced to the community. This all helped to smooth out the process for me, all these fast changes – instead of being overwhelmed I felt open, full of creativity and filled new ideas. So one day, I was driving home and I thought, ’I’m going to start my own company! I want to talk Transcendental Meditation, I want to help people.’ Literally the next morning I started to plan out the company, and had it all wrapped up and on my lawyers desk 2 months later. It was kind of obvious to me that this was going to be the next step.
Why did you choose this name, for your company?
Valerie Gangas: One of my best friend’s knew I was crazy about the word Wanderlust and suggested Wonder instead of Wander. She recognized my child-like wonder which hasn’t left me and thought it was a perfect marriage. A lust for life, a lust for adventure and a lust for truth. I think I have always been extremely curious, but now the feeling was so strong that it seemed like a really authentic name for what I was feeling and what I wanted the company to represent.
You’re a life coach now. How does this work? What do people get from you?
Valerie Gangas: People come to me for all sorts of reasons. Whether it’s relationship issues, career challenges or they’re just stuck in their life and they want to make a change… Just regular things people are desiring and cannot make happening on their own. When they come to see me, they often feel off balance – and I know I first have to get them back to that point where they’re more clear and calm so they can make better decisions. That’s a big part of what I do.
The second part is planning and accountability. Usually, it evolves into learning Transcendental Meditation or picking up some sort of a spiritual practice to help center themselves. For me, it is important to talk with them about spirituality, so that they can get centered again.
I was an ordinary kid myself, you know – doing all the regular, crazy things that people do. I’m not staying up till 5 in the morning any more, but in a way it all served its purpose. I can connect with people – it’s not like I’m some kind of a weird person! I’m a regular person who just had an incredible experience. Because of my past life, I can easily walk in those two worlds. I can connect with everybody.
You have been coaching winemakers, interior designers, artists, athletes… Do you have any specific methods you use, either in preparation for the sessions or during them?
Valerie Gangas: I give my clients a questionnaire with a pretty specific goal in mind. To help themselves get clear and to help me understand each person’s unique situation . That gives me some idea of where they’re at. I also have an initial conversation with them before we mutually agree to work with each other. I’m not a perfect fit for everybody, and sometimes the client is not right for me, either. I don’t want to work with people with whom I don’t feel we can do great things together. It’s not a problem, it’s just good to have that mutual agreement.
At the moment, you’re also in the process of writing a book.
Valerie Gangas: In Chicago, I live in the middle of the city so it’s little hard for me to think there. So, I got a place out in Fairfield – the whole town meditates, it’s quiet here. I plan to stay and write for about 4-5 months. It’s going to be a spiritual guidebook for women.
For women only?
Valerie Gangas: Well, guys will probably want to read it as well. It’s just that it’s geared towards women – I am a female, and I just felt inspired to start connecting with other women. Lots of my clients are women, too. We share a lot of the same issues, and I feel more confident speaking about issues that I have personally experienced.
When is the publication date?
Valerie Gangas: I don’t have one, yet! I’m going to be easy with myself – when it’s done, it’s done. We’ll see what happens from there.
You’re also big into art and music. Can you tell us what creativity means to you, in this human existence?
Valerie Gangas: I’ve always loved art, music and poetry, all the different art forms. I always have. Yet after I started meditating, it all became so much more intense. When I now look at a piece of art or I listen to music – I feel so connected to it! Sometimes, it’s almost overwhelming… I constantly have music on – I can feel every piece of it in my soul. I love going to art museums by myself, looking at all the colors – I can feel the vibrations of these works of art. Before, I loved it, but it’s taken on a whole new meaning now. The intensity is off the charts.
Would you mind sharing your favorites? You’ve mentioned Monet, so maybe you’d go with the Impressionists…?
Valerie Gangas: I like looking at people. Portraits. I also love photography. The expressions on their faces, the different locations– I feel like I want to live all over the world, meeting the people who are in these cities and towns! Actually, I feel like I’m in there when I’m looking at the photos… That’s what I like the most.
And in music – pop or classical?
Valerie Gangas: I love pop music, folk music, old country music like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings… Jazz, Spanish guitar… Steely Dan, Bob Marley… I love all kinds of music! Except – for some reason – electronic music. I totally missed that boat! (laughs)
Thank you, Valerie, for this wonderful conversation!
Feature image credit: Jai Girard, www.jaigirard.com