amma hugging guru
Photo: Rob Sidon/Courtesy of Meredith Bryan
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When I approach Amma for my second hug, on day two, she throws her head back and opens her mouth, her eyes burning with a wild ecstatic welcome, like we're old friends. This time, she whispers something in my ear that sounds like "Ma-der, ma-der, ma-der," and rubs her hand up and down my back. Again I am surprised by the tightness of the hug—I couldn't escape even if I wanted to. She's talking to one of her swamis while she hugs me (as she does nonstop while receiving followers, usually to answer the written questions people submit via a separate queue). As she gesticulates, I bounce around on her chest like a rag doll. I have long since surrendered to this hug; now I am happily clutching her back.

It may sound eye-roll-worthy, but as I lie squashed against her bosom, I do have the momentary sense that she sees me for me—that she doesn't care what I do or how well, that she's staring right through it all at the thing that makes me both miraculous and unremarkable, the little part of me that just wants to do better, to love, to be loved. It's a warm, almost childlike feeling—and one she has given her life to instilling in as many people as she can. "Isn't it a good thing to give someone the chance at happiness, even for a few seconds?" Swamini Krishnamrita had asked me earlier. As I stand to leave, Amma presses a Hershey's Kiss and an apple into my hand, and beams. I beam, too.

On my final morning with Amma, I'm feeling a little blissed-out. Maybe it's the healthy vegetarian food; the sunshine outside; the lack of sleep; or the chanty, strangely catchy bhajans, or Hindu devotional songs, that have been blaring through the speakers for three days straight. It's a canny thing she's doing, using the world's most inoffensive gesture to try to strip and humble us, make us who we are. The selfless energy inspired by Amma is dizzying: Everyone is working hard here, from the volunteers doing seva, or service (Walt Freese is looking forward to donning a hairnet and pitching in on kitchen duty), to the volunteers like Dan Marshall, traveling on Amma's tour buses to help facilitate others' personal transformation, to Amma herself, who Marshall says reads devotees' letters even while brushing her teeth, so unwilling is she to waste a minute. When I am permitted some time with Amma, I ask what she says to the skeptics—people like me, who have trouble believing in miracles or reciting chants. She says, essentially—through her head swami and translator, who is known as Swamiji—Stop thinking so much. "Whether God exists may be a hot debate. But nobody can deny that there are suffering people in the world. Just help them. That is enough."

Lining up for my final hug, I ask Swami Dayamrita about the highest possible outcome for a spiritual blessing like the lowly hug. He thinks for a moment. "Stillness in the mind," he says. "If you tell the leg to stop moving, it will. But not the mind. That's what Amma's presence does." As I fall into her arms, I do notice that my thoughts are quieter, or at least less histrionic, more matter-of-fact. She's hugging me so hard I can't breathe. I can't breathe. "Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma, my daughter," she says in a loud whisper, or at least that's what I hear. It feels like she's trying to bore motherly energy—firm, unconditional, compassionate—straight into my head. She clutches me flat against her soft bosom for what feels like an eternity. I bury my head into her with relief. When I finally stand up, I can't say I feel Divine, but I have definitely forgotten that I'm anything else: a wife, an employee, a daughter who neglected to call her parents last weekend, even a mother. I feel anonymous, far away from everything in my life. In a way, I feel free.

Later, Amma is outside, sitting cross-legged on a makeshift stage on a small patch of grass next to the hotel's parking lot. Swamiji—he looks like Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, if Bernanke had been living in the woods for ten years—is helping lead a Q&A, translating Amma's answers for the crowd gathered on blankets. Someone asks about the role of grief and sadness in spiritual growth. "We expect too much from people," Amma says, beaming. "We expect them to be with us forever." She prods the questioner until he admits he has recently split from his partner. "Next time, acquire more strength if you happen to enter a relationship," she advises.

At this, everyone starts laughing, even Amma herself, whose body shakes so hard she almost falls off the stage. "The mind is the cause of all our sorrows," she declares. "When a situation arises involving agonizing pain, use that situation as a stepping stone to transcend it, to go beyond."

Suddenly there is music and drumming. She's answered only a couple of questions, but Amma is finished. Onstage, she sways rhythmically, energetically, almost euphorically. "Play patty-cake with the person next to you, and feel happy!" she declares in Malayalam, her native language. Everyone obeys, dancing, clapping, reaching out to touch strangers. I sit there awkwardly until a middle-aged Indian man taps me on the shoulder and, grinning, holds up his hands to receive mine, schoolyard-style. Amma presides over this strange little dance party on the lawn of the Best Western with bare feet and a beatific smile, looking tickled. We are all suffering, in small and universal ways. But not right now.

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