So there’s this woman, Amma the Hugging Saint. A Hindu guru from India, she travels the world hugging people as part of her teachings. This is no dude standing in the Comic-Con lobby with a “Free Hugs” sign; Amma plays to stadiums. You show up and get a number and wait HOURS to get shuffled through and hugged. They’re all-day/all-night events. The hugs are supposed to be amazing and healing – not in the ‘laying on the hands’ sense, but in the emotional/spiritual sense.
And get this: last year my friend Travis saw her, and when she hugged him he felt this intense, overwhelming love… and my face popped into his head. He texted me with excitement after the hug, and I thought the whole thing was strange and beautiful. Even setting aside any possible cosmic/supernatural stuff going on in this energy transfer moment, it was really sweet that he thought of me when he was experiencing a moment of pure love.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, and Facebook serves me up an ad for Amma’s return to Los Angeles. This story has been in my mind, and for the past few months I’ve felt like my spiritual practice had plateaued; with the disgrace of my teacher Noah Levine and the dissolution of my main spiritual community, I had turned into a guy whose entire practice was solitary and book-oriented. I had not been on retreat in a year, I had not sat with a group in six months, I had not listened to wise teachers anyplace outside of my earphones while driving to work. I wanted a shot of something stronger in my spiritual practice – I wanted to meet a holy person.
It turns out that my friend Ivy, a fellow traveler on the stranger roads of spirituality, was served the same Facebook ad. We coordinated the trip – Amma would be appearing at the Malibu Hindu Temple, maybe an hour from where we lived – and woke up early one Thursday morning and headed towards our spiritual leveling up.
The car ride was a delight, because Ivy is one of the few friends I have with whom I can really talk about this stuff. One time Ananda, the Buddha’s right hand man, was hanging out with the Buddha’s disciples and the monks and was having a great time. Ananda said to the Buddha, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” The Buddha, never missing an opportunity to smack Ananda down a little (it’s wild), replied “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”
Ivy really sums up that teaching for me.
Okay, back to the tale. We drove to the Malibu Hindu Temple, this beautiful double-level structure in Malibu Creek State Park, nestled away in the hills which portrayed Korea in M*A*S*H. We had gotten there early because the stories of Amma’s crowds had convinced us we needed plenty of time, but when we got to the temple it was pretty empty. We wandered around a bit and had the privilege of seeing the pujari – Hindu priests – performing their worship rights, ringing bells and waving incense around holy statues. It was very cool, and very beautiful. I was especially moved by the fact that the pujari were doing their rituals in an empty temple – this is a daily activity for them that is not about a public service, but simply about doing their thing.
After hanging around for a little while we were finally admitted to the space where Amma would be appearing. There was an old white guy, little circular glasses and frizzy white hair, a possible spectre of my future, sitting behind a folding table, sharing with folks the rules and regulations for this event. Newbies would get first dibs on Amma, we were told. She would be arriving when she arrived (he said 10:30am, then later 11 and she eventually showed up closer to noon), and we would be called up to see her based on letters we were assigned on arrival. We were in Group B.
“That’s when the hugging happens?” Ivy asked.
“Oh,” the man said. “That’s the hugging saint. That’s a different Amma.”
A different Amma! We had come to see the wrong Hindu holy woman! This wasn’t the Amma who hugged Travis and implanted an image of me in his mind. I had spent the week thinking this was meant to be, that Amma had somehow summoned me to this event, but it was not even the same fucking person.
Amma means mother, by the way, so both of these women are basically going by the title “Mom.”
What do you do in a situation like this? I laughed – Ivy and I had not done even the most basic research, and so we drove across town (I took the day off work!) to see the wrong saint. All of my dreams of a big spiritual moment – of getting this hug and having some kind of spiritual meaning transmitted to me (I didn’t really believe that but I also didn’t really NOT believe that, if it makes any sense to you – it’s sort of how I deal with the superstitions ingrained in me as an Italian) were dashed.
We hung around and decided to get this Amma’s blessing anyway. Couldn’t hurt, and we were there. The day was nice. Amma, a round and adorable older woman swathed in holy orange, showed up and gave a little speech. She talked about why there was so much cancer, and said it was because of stress, and while that probably doesn’t hold up scientifically I feel like it’s very easy to hear that and say, “Yeah, makes sense.” This Amma, Amma Sri Karunamayi, is in the Advaita Vendata school of Hindu philosophy, which is so similar to Buddhism that sometimes it’s not clear where one ends and the other begins. In her little group Amma is seen as the avatar of Shakti, the feminine divine force of the Universe (I’m really oversimplifying, partially because I don’t have a full grasp on Hindu cosmology), and she called us her babies, which was delightful. She kept returning to the value of meditation, a message I can get behind. Then the blessings began.
First were the special needs blessings – the deaf and the blind went first. As we waited I paid a lot of attention to Amma’s people, who were mostly white folks, mostly older. They were very reverent towards her, and they were not very good at their jobs. There were a lot of technical issues, and the general organizing was poor. I found this charming; if this had been a well-oiled machine I would have been distrustful. One guy, giant and long-haired, looking like Peter Mayhew, told me had been with Amma for a decade, and he could answer any questions I might have.
“So you have the inside scoop,” I said.
“If I had the inside scoop I would be in her head,” he replied solemnly. “And that is not possible.”
It’s definitely hard to just chat with people like this.
Anyway, the white-robed members of the Amma entourage seemed pretty stressed out. Maybe they should have meditated more, but at the same time this living embodiment of the divine mother only comes to LA once a year, so this was a big deal for them. I didn’t get a cult feeling – nobody stopped Ivy and I from coming or going, we didn’t have to give any info, nobody gave us a hard sell – but I did get a feeling of intense belief and worship, which is beautiful in itself.
I bought some merch – there’s always merch. You can’t begrudge it; the event was free, and it must have cost money to put on. I bought mala beads, which I never thought I would do, but Amma would bless any objects and I thought having blessed mala beads couldn’t hurt. I have also, in the past year, come around on the aesthetic of them, which is perhaps the most embarrassing thing I could admit to you. I don’t even use them in meditation, as I don’t do mantra based meditations that would require me to count beads.
I also bought a little statue of Hanuman, the divine monkey, who I like a bunch. I have an altar in my meditation space and I’ve been filling it up with little items that bring me peace and and happiness, religious or secular, and he earned himself a spot there.
Finally it was our time to get blessed by Amma. Ivy and I stood dutifully in line, our items to be blessed on a golden tray over which Amma would wave her hand. We had index cards upon which we had written down what blessings we wanted (I had begun with really vague stuff – “Healing” and “Let me be kinder” – but Ivy had convinced me to drill down and write some very specific stuff about damaged relationships), and we would hand these to Amma who would read them while blessing us.
When it was my turn I stood before Amma, who was sitting cross legged on a little elevated throne so that she was towering above me. An acolyte pushed me closer so that Amma wouldn’t have to lean forward to give the blessing. Up close I saw she was caked in make-up, and not the fashionable kind, but rather something clearly meaningful. It made her look both holy and dead, like a corpse in a casket. She smelled of flowers, which really added to the corpse thing. There was a vibe to her that was all about kindness, and in these moments she reminded me of my grandmother, who was the most recent corpse I had seen.
(This sounds maybe macabre but my practice is heavily about recognizing and accepting change, up to and including the inevitability of death)
Amma rubbed my head, almost petting me, and she muttered some blessings under her breath. It wasn’t magic but it was wonderful; as a single man I don’t get this kind of physical contact that often, this sort of comforting touch, and it was beautiful. When she was done she looked at me and said, “I love you, baby” and I automatically replied, “I love you, Amma,” and to be honest I meant it in the moment.
Then she did the most amazing thing: she handed me four Hershey’s Kisses.
If you had to define my love languages, Hershey’s Kisses would certainly be one of them. And to go back to the associations I was already having with my grandmother, one of my great memories about her is that she always had Kisses in stock in two carved crystal containers (growing up in the Depression my grandparents took on the aesthetic of ‘gaudy fucking Italians’ later in life). The taste of Kisses always transport me back to my grandparents’ house, and I think for that reason I don’t buy them that often. They stay special.
(Of note: the other Amma gives Kisses too.)
Then she said, “Amma gives you a special blessing, baby.”
And that was it. Ivy went next and she got everything except for the words – Amma didn’t speak to her. We left pretty much immediately – we got some blessed milk on the way out the door – and that was the whole of the experience. We drove home and talked about life and spirituality and politics and all that stuff. It was the whole of the holy life.
I’m glad I met the wrong Amma. I was in this space where I needed some kind of spiritual fireworks to feel like I was doing something worthy, but that’s the worst kind of attitude. The real spiritual meaning doesn’t come from a transcendent, chakra-realigning hug, it comes from sitting in a car with a friend who doesn’t judge you for your weird journey and who will be open and vulnerable with you, and allow you to be open and vulnerable. That’s the whole thing, and we get so caught up in incense and theater and in this desire for something BIG, something MEANINGFUL, that we miss what’s meaningful right now, right here.
I had hoped that Amma the Hugging Saint was calling to me, that this was going to be some signpost in my continued personal development. Well, it was, and the signpost was simple: you continue your personal development in the here and now, in the current circumstances, not just when it’s cool or weird or showy. The development isn’t in the blessing of a saint but in the quality of your companionship. There are no shortcuts, and you shouldn’t be out there looking for big moments, for burning bushes or parting seas. You should be looking for opportunities to feel more deeply, to smile more widely, to accept the situation in which you find yourself and make the best of it.
Look, if the other Amma comes back to town I’ll go get my hug. Why not? But I think I already got my lesson.