I did my best to expect nothing. Waiting six hours for anything inflates expectations—much less for something you know will last two seconds and everyone says will change your life. They say she smells like roses, they say you may weep, they say it feels as if the divine mother herself is wrapping you in her nurturing arms and holding you.
So I waited.
I got to the Manhattan Center around 6 pm. Waited on a long line to get in, with a woman in an Om Namah Shivayah t-shirt and a gray ponytail giving out stickers and managing the crowds so the valets in the parking garage next door wouldn't get mad that we were blocking their way. The sticker colors represented varying degrees of experience with Amma. Mine was red—for never seen Amma, never had darshan (the Sanskrit word for teaching, the Amma word for hug). A total Amma virgin.
I came because my acupuncturist Paul told me I had to. A small photo of Amma sits on his windowsill altar. "I would sell books at the airport for her if she asked," he told me. I've heard about Amma, or Ammachi or Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, for years. She's a Hindu guru based in India with a following that has grown dramatically since she first visited the West in the late 1980s. Known as the "hugging saint," the idea is that, as an enlightened being, she emits shakti (energy) that can help you break through your suffering, wake you up to who you truly are.
But Amma's mission is not just to make you feel better. It's to help you feel compassion and help people. Her foundation has raised millions to create everything from hospitals and schools in India to building housing for survivors of the 2005 tsunami; in an Amma brochure, people from her foundation are handing over a Lotto-sized million dollar check to Katrina survivors.
Once inside the center, we were ushered up to a balcony and told to wait. After about half an hour we were herded into another line that wended downstairs to receive our "token," a yellow paper square with a letter and a number. Once we got that, the lines dissolved and we could just wait—there or anywhere.
I eyed the giant movie theater across the street, but drifted over to the mini spiritual shopping mall inside instead. Tables were laden with saris, jewelry, Ayurvedic skin care and supplements, Indian textiles, and little Tulsi plants blessed by Amma herself—with profits going toward Amma's charities. And lots and lots of Amma stuff. Her round smiling face was on hundreds of book covers, DVDs, an Amma coloring book, in teeny gold and rhinestone frames, and on glossy photos of every possible size—from poster to wallet to thimble. There were Amma dolls, round brown balls with black yarn hair--and colorful knitted Amma doll sweaters sold separately.
Hundreds of us milled and shopped, New Yorkers on a spiritual materialism binge. I sifted through rudraksha mala beads and bought a plastic Amma wallet card with her photo on one side and a description of her on the other. I also bought a tiny dram of "Amma's rose oil," the scent she wears to smell like roses. In one area people were selling things that Amma had touched—or worn. I'm guessing these go over better in India; my American eye was not enticed by Amma's used pillowcases, cotton pastel nighties, a bathrobe, and even a white scrunchie, going for $5. And nobody else seemed too into it either, the table remained relatively unbought.
Then, suddenly, the minders cast white yards of fabric over everything. "Amma is coming," they whispered. Commerce stopped. We were told to be seated so everyone could see her (she's tiny). Nothing happened for a while. And being a bit ceremony-averse—and hungry—I went downstairs where they were serving up a great vegetarian Indian feast for $6 a person.
I sat at a round table with strangers who loved Amma. One man from Seattle had been following Amma for years. The woman next to him, a gruff-seeming volunteer with a heavy New York accent, said, "So she must know your name." He just smiled.
"So, yeah, she definitely knows your name."
Quietly he said, "Yes, she knows my name."
"She doesn't know my name, I can tell you that," said the woman. They were both swathed in similar clouds of soft white cotton garb.
I talked to a woman in a sea-green tunic who told me that this was her sixth time seeing Amma, that she's been taking Amma's meditation course. She said Amma creates an energy, a peace. She said that she was wary at first, not trusting the guru thing, but that she now feels good about her and her good works. And that she can't put into words what Amma gives her: "I've given up trying to describe it."
When I came back up, Amma was onstage, swathed in white, surrounded by swamis in bright orange; behind her were long thin flags in red, gold, and white. She was talking and a swami was translating. There are three ways we deal with problems, she said: 1) avoiding the situation and therefore making it worse 2) changing our externals in the hope that it will ease our suffering and 3) cursing and complaining about our lot.
Of number one, she told the story of a young man who left his house to avoid seeing his uncle who came over to talk endlessly about the battles he had fought in the military. But he ran into the uncle in the driveway and had to listen to the stories in the hot sun without water, food, or shade to make the lecture more bearable.
In the second way of dealing, she said, we alter our external environment, and gave the example of cooling down a hot room with A/C: "We need to air-condition ourselves internally," she said. She told a story of a boy at a temple who was asking God to make China the capital of America. Again and again the boy pleaded his strange prayer. When asked why he wanted such a thing, he answered, "Because that's what I put on my test at school."
As for cursing and complaining, she told the hypothetical story of a man who moans and groans all day of his stomachache. By evening, she said, his belly was fine, but everyone else in the house had aching stomachs—from his complaining.
So, instead of avoiding, changing, or cursing, she said we should distance from our problems to gain clarity about them. You can watch the animals in the zoo in their cages, she said. But don't put your hands inside the bars.
She said this attitude of distanced "awakefulness" would ensure we would always enjoy life.
And a little while later she said that trying to get our happiness from a romantic partner is "like trying to fold up the sky and keep it in our armpit."
Feeling full of lessons, I wandered up to the balcony. There was more music, a meditation, a puja (they waved candlelight around Amma and tossed rose petals). Babies cried, little kids screeched. The audience was surprisingly diverse. Half Indian, half white—yuppies, hippies, hipsters, ashramsters, yogis, polished looking ladies, and plenty of kids.
At around 11, I got a chair massage by a young woman named Mitra, also swathed in white, She dug and rubbed and jiggled and opened me into a state where I felt like maybe I didn't need to hug Amma. My "token" said "K," and at 11:30 Amma had only hugged up to "D."
I usually run into people in these spiritual enclaves of yogic Eastern love. But not one familiar face among all teh chatting huggees and devotees. So I asked in my head, <i>Amma, can I please see someone I know?</i> I sat in down and two chairs over was Liz, a friend of a friend. We hugged and chatted and then her letter got called. I debated leaving. By my math, it would be 3am before K popped up.
I walked outside for some air, maybe to leave, and to call my mother. A young Indian man with a red sash around him stopped me at the door: "How was your darshan?"
"I haven't gotten it yet," I said. He spotted the red sticker on my shirt and he said Amma wanted to prioritize first-timers, so ushered me up front.
About five handlers surrounded Amma, pushing people into and out of her ams like they were human widgets. Shoes and glasses off, they said. Then people kneeled, moved forward, hugged, and were lifted up, and wandered off, dazed, into the open aisle. I waited until someone swooshed me into a side line and asked for my glasses. I was nervous. Was there a right way to be hugged? Should I try and let go completely, be totally open, or just be myself? Would she whisper something special to me? Would we have a personal exchange? Would she see the weeping part of my soul, the part that loves the divine mother with all my heart, or the part that needs a divine mother with all her being? Or would I be another widget? Would it be gross to hug a person who's been hugged by hundreds of people before me? Would I get a pox?
No time to think, I see my friend Liz now, right in front of me being nudged along by the handlers. "Your language?" a woman with curly hair asks me. Her accent is thick. "What?" I ask. "Language, your first language?" "English." She nodded. "Closer, closer," she said, pushing me forward. And I'm told to put my left hand on the arm of the chair while Liz is buried into Amma's white-swathed bosom. Amma is whispering into her ear what sounds like "ma, ma, ma." And then Liz is pulled away; a woman keeps saying to me, "hand on the chair, hand on the chair." It's yellow with shiny fabric.
And then Amma is pulling me to her. Her face is a smiling blur. I see what looks like mascara smeared on her right chest. And I'm pulled in right into it and she holds me for a while, whispering wetly into my ear, the same "ma, ma, ma, ma, ma." Earlier, people said it was over too quickly, but somehow this seems long, maybe because I was expecting quick. And maybe because I felt awkward. It was a little like a public swimming pool, a little like love, a little perfunctory. And she released me, pressed a Hershey's kiss and a rose petal into my hand and a woman took my hands and gently swung me aside, pushing others to fill the brief hole I left in Amma's lap.
I was dazed. A little stoned feeling. A little soft. Surprised that it wasn't nothing. I've become so cynical about spiritual amusement park rides. But I felt something soft and nice and dazey. I wandered over to Liz and she looked like I felt. We bonded over the hug and I left the hall thanking the boy with the red sash who fast-tracked me. And then I was back in New York City, back into the bright night.
I was glad, full, tapped with honey-like magic. The kind you feel when you're not trying to feel it. Definitely something. Definitely worth it. Definitely next time, I'm bringing friends.