“You cannot taste the sweetness of honey by licking a piece of paper on which the word ‘honey’ has been written. Likewise, the principles described in the religious texts must be contemplated, meditated upon, and finally realized.” – Amma the “hugging” saint
On July 5, at 6:30 AM, I arrived at my church to pick up two dear friends, Laura and Elaine, for a ‘wacky adventure’ to the congested streets of Arlington, VA. We were going to visit Amma the Hindu “Hugging Saint” on her world tour (possibly her last), and had gotten up extra early to make sure that we were assured of a good place in line so that our efforts were not in vain. For various reasons, each of us really felt we needed our hug, and we didn’t want to be left out.
To be bluntly honest, I had never heard of Amma. Facebook (FACEBOOK!!!) advertised her to me repeatedly, and as a result, I became intrigued and ultimately interested in going. I am somewhat obsessed with spiritual experiences, books, movies, and the like, and am always looking for an opportunity to expand my awareness of cultures, world religions, and thought systems, so my becoming interested was not much of a stretch. And I love events. Hay House Publishing used to do events with their spiritual authors called I Can Do It! and Nancy and I drove to Atlanta for one years ago. When the Dalai Lama was in D.C. in 2010 for the Kalachakra, we were in attendance for a day. Nancy attended Pope Francis’s D.C. Mass, but Catholic U only had enough tickets for students and faculty, so I missed that one, but I wasn’t going to miss this! And that is why I was up at 4:45 AM on July 5, and picking up my friends at 6:30 AM.
Our drive up to Arlington was friendly and uneventful. Spitty rain and D.C. traffic slowed us a bit, but nothing serious. We arrived at the Marriott Crystal City just after 8 AM and struggled despairingly to find a parking space in their labyrinth of an underground parking garage, until keen-eyed Laura spied a solitary overlooked space behind a pole, boxed in by other cars, that may have been used by staff but bore no designated markings. We maneuvered the car into the hidden gem, struggled further to find the elevators, and finally, with some effort and agitation, found an escalator marked “Amma – this way” – and knew we had arrived.
The next unexpected hurdle in our spiritual odyssey occurred almost immediately as we were confronted with hotel security bearing the Peanuts-gang-like message of “No Dogs Allowed” in variously hushed if vehement tones. My one friend, Elaine, had brought her licensed therapy dog along (a choice she had made after exhaustingly researching Amma’s website and deeming it acceptable), but Amma’s people had apparently not communicated their desires to the hotel management, the result being a serious conflict of protocol. I’m not going to dwell on this incident further out of discretion and respect for my friend, but suffice it to say, Elaine was wholly in the right, justice prevailed, a beautiful person named Victoria became the dog’s best friend (and ours) for the next few hours, and the Marriott needs to seriously rethink its customer service. For my part, I watched my friend repeatedly attempt to resolve the matter with Herculean strength, grace, and some frazzled charm, and my respect for her grew immensely as she fiercely protected her legal rights and those of her little charge. No adventure occurs without obstacles. But back to Amma.
“The aim of devotion and prayer is to develop love for everyone.” – Amma the “hugging” saint
We were seated in one of several ballrooms, equipped with a stage at one end and an exhaustive gift shop at the other. We waited for more than an hour, watching a video scroll of Amma’s good works both here and abroad. She arrived on time at 10 AM, conducted a mostly silent – if loudly amplified – meditation, and by 10:40 AM the “hugging queue” was formed and the hugs began. My friends and I were in the first hour of the line and were moved swiftly barefoot from chair to chair, up onto the stage, and eventually into Amma’s waiting arms. It is not my place to retell how my friends felt about their experience, but each of us responded positively if differently. When it was my turn, I was hoisted before Amma on my knees and bent towards her at the waist. My body, for some inexplicable reason, became rigid. She gripped me, pulled me away from her body, gripped me tighter, and started whispering a Hindu prayer into my right ear. The world fell away, and for a few moments it was only she and I. Then she pulled me away from her body, looked me full in the face, handed me a present, and I was lifted by handlers emotionally to my feet and away from her embrace. I was dazed and unsteady and the handlers escorted me to a nearby seat, where I observed my friends have similar, but vastly different interactions with the woman known as “Mother.”
The three of us, satisfied that we had accomplished our goals, toured the gift shop, went to retrieve the car and dog, and headed out of Arlington for lunch and eventually a drop off at the church. We talked incessantly about the adventure, our various acutely emotional experiences with Amma, and the pros and cons of the day. The ballroom was exceedingly noisy throughout the event, even during the meditation to a degree, and Amma’s handlers were a swirl of activity throughout her hugging sessions. Amma was constantly talking to them, advising them, etc. while she was hugging participants, and that did diminish the intimacy and interpersonal communication one may have expected from the moment. She was also sweating profusely, it seemed, and constantly dabbing herself with a white towel, which made us wonder what was making her so hot. Was she ill, or was it just the intensity of her being? On the other hand, the thousands of devout participants at the event were staggering in their devotion, kindness, and compassion. Without the efforts of Victoria (truly living Amma’s message), our visit may have ended very differently and sadly. People in attendance were very open and receptive to being engaged in conversation and were exceedingly kind. All three of us felt the power of Amma’s energy/soul/compassion/what have you, coming off her and it was dizzying, enabling, and awe-inspiring. Laura quipped it best, and I paraphrase, “She seems to be in a perpetual state of happiness.” As little as I know about her even now, I know she is the real deal. Sorry fundamentalists of any faith, sainthood is about character and action, not about belief system. I’ve been in the presence of at least three “saints” in my life, and their aura of love is so palpable that it’s almost a narcotic “high.”
“The sun shines down, and its image reflects in a thousand different pots filled with water. The reflections are many, but they are each reflecting the same sun. Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are, we will see ourselves in all people.” – Amma the “hugging” saint
Five days since the event, I still don’t know a great deal about Amma. I watched the videos, read her Wikipedia article, and was hugged by her for heaven’s sake, but don’t know much else. I had never heard of her before, which I don’t understand, since she’s been touring the world for more than thirty years, hugging, raising millions for disaster relief here and abroad, building hospitals, advocating for the rights of women and children, and preaching a message of universal compassion. How is it we get so fixated on other lesser things that even when people do high-profile-good works for decades, it can still be lost to us until it’s advertised on Facebook? What does it take to put that which is truly important – peace, love, charity, compassion, kindness – front and center in the minds of the masses and the media? I honestly don’t know. But for what it’s worth, I’m grateful to Facebook for their targeted ads, I’m grateful to my friends for accompanying me on this adventure, and I’m grateful to Amma for the hug and for being who she is: a light in a dark world. May all such beings (and rest assured there are more and I’ll meet them) continue to shine, even in social media anonymity. We need you. We really need you.