amma hugging guru
Photo: Marcello Ronfanti
The first time I see her, she's clutching a man to her bosom, has him in a headlock, really—only his white mop of hair is visible. She's putting muscle into it, cocking her head to the left and pressing her cheek to his forehead, whispering urgently in his ear. Her face is awash in affection and what I can only describe as relief, as if she were embracing a long-lost son.

To watch Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, the so-called hugging saint, in action, is to see anew the most ordinary of human gestures. Seated on a squat throne covered with a pink sari and festooned with flowers on a stage in a Best Western banquet hall in suburban Massachusetts, India's most gregarious spiritual guru is mobbed by handlers and followers who have waited in line for hours to fall into her arms. But despite the crowds in the hall, and the bazaar-like sprawl of vendors hawking T-shirts and mango lassis to benefit Amma's charities, it's hard to peel your eyes away from the woman herself. Or should I say the hug. When I arrive on a stifling Tuesday evening, she's working her way through a line of several hundred people. She'll keep hugging strangers without so much as a bathroom break until around 5 A.M., as she has done most nights for the past four decades, each embrace more fierce and fervent than the last. Amma (the name means "mother" in various languages), 60, has espresso-colored skin, a blingy nose ring, a round face framed by gray wisps of hair, and eyes that sparkle with near-constant delight. On a mission to comfort her children, i.e., humanity, she has given more than 33 million hugs, to poor villagers in India, to orphans in Kenya, to Sharon Stone.

In some ways the hugging seems too commercial, too easy, too cute (it's been called "about as challenging and exotic as a Hershey's Kiss"). But that Amma has made a life out of hugging millions of people all over the world is nothing short of amazing. She was born in a poor fishing village in Kerala, where it was frowned upon for women to touch others. Aides say she gets less than two hours of sleep a night, if she sleeps at all. "The power of love can make you do anything," explains Swamini Krishnamrita Prana, one of Amma's 14 orange-robed monks, many of whom travel with her. "If a mother has a sick child, she'll stay up for three days straight in the hospital."

It makes sense that anyone who has done something 33 million times would be exceptionally good at it. After several friends swear Amma's hugs are blissful, transcendent, a high that lingers, I grow curious. There is something appealing about an outpouring of love from a woman who doesn't know me and never will, who comforts with no conditions, who does not judge or instruct or even speak English. It's never occurred to me to visit an Eastern guru, but—stop me if you've heard this before—since the birth of my son last year, I've felt a sort of creeping spiritual panic (my mortality is one thing; his is another). As a failed Mormon, I can appreciate the passive simplicity of visiting Amma. No Bible stories to believe, no strict rules to inevitably break: Just bury your head in her bosom and wait for existential comfort, for lightning to strike.
Amma hugging guru
Photo: Peter Klauzner/Keystone/AP
As I remove my shoes and ascend stage left, my heart is racing. Along with several hundred others, I've come for a three-day retreat that promises daily embraces. (The $375 cost covers room and board; except at her seven U.S. retreats, visiting Amma is free.) A hive of rapturous devotees encircles Amma. To her right stands the regal-looking Swami Dayamrita Chaitanya, a former atheist and filmmaker from Kerala who had once planned to out her as a fraud in a documentary—but who, after watching her lick the pus-filled sores of a leper, went instead to live with her on her ashram.

Except with family and close friends, I tend not to be a hugger. It makes me feel vulnerable to just throw my arms around someone, so with work acquaintances, neighborhood friends, and even my sister-in-law, I usually reach out my hand, only to feel awkward when they try to hug me. My knee-jerk froideur is too bad, though. Because underneath hugs' intended meanings—hello, goodbye, I like you, I love you, I missed you, I'm sorry—they also communicate a universal, unspoken sense that another person sees and approves of your deepest core, that some real, essential you has somehow shone through the cracks in the version you present to the world, with its ego and hang-ups and baggage. By hugging so indiscriminately, Amma strips away everything but a profound feeling of validation. She shows you the real, Divine you, say her followers, the one that's just like her: motivated by love. Despite her amiable image, this ruthless ego-crushing is Amma's real goal, according to Swamini Krishnamrita, an Australian who met Amma when they were both in their 20s. "You'll never know who you really are with this shadow saying, 'You're too fat, you're too thin, it's this other person's fault,'" says the swamini. "The ego stops us from seeing the true beauty of life and people."

As I try to consider whether a single hug can subvert my petty human mind, I'm deposited into a chair, then moved into the chair in front of it, advancing closer to Amma until finally someone asks me what language I speak and whisks me gently onto my knees, helpfully placing my elbows on either side of Amma's round frame and all but collapsing me forward onto her thin white robes, which appear to be caked with other people's bronzer. She rocks me while whispering firmly in my ear, "Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma, ma." I feel safe and comfortable squashed against her soft body, but the whole time I am thinking, I am hugging Amma. I am hugging Amma. Eek, everyone is watching. Am I feeling something? What do I feel? Do I look stupid? Is that my ego talking? Her arms are delicate but strong. She has a deep, throaty laugh and smells of rose and sandalwood. When it's over, I'm shooed to the side of the stage, where devotees are permitted to convalesce from their hugs in Amma's presence.

Eventually I stumble off the stage and buy a watermelon cooler at a stand called Amba Juice. The brief exhilaration of my hug fades, and my mind commences its usual pacing. Geez, I'm exhausted. I want a brownie. Am I going to get sick from staying up so late? I miss my kid. Am I too cynical? Though it's almost 1 A.M., no one else seems tired. All around me Indian families, older American couples in khaki pants, and lithe young women who look like they just wandered out of yoga class nibble on dosas and talk animatedly in lilting Indian accents. Who are these people? Don't they have jobs? Exhausted, I book a massage at a "healing" stand for 1:30 A.M.

My soft-spoken therapist, Lisa Levine, first visited Amma in 2007. "I cried right away," she says. "Because I felt disappointment." Two days later she went back for another hug, after which, she says, "I heard a little voice in my head saying, 'This is just the beginning.' And I'm not one who hears voices. At least, I wasn't then." Eventually she felt inspired to close her jewelry business and become a healer. Since then, "I've been getting happier and happier," she says. "It's like a cleansing process." Levine visits Amma several times a year, volunteering her services as a massage therapist. "You're not worshipping this person," she says. "You're worshipping these qualities and calling them out in yourself."

Many of Amma's followers have similar stories. Walt Freese, the affable former CEO of Ben & Jerry's, waits in line for a hug wearing a blue polo shirt and beaded necklace; in a room full of loose linen, he looks like a college track coach. He recalls his first hug, a few years ago, as "a jolt of electricity. Her embrace just felt so unconditionally loving and comforting, with no holding back." Afterward, he was woozy. But Amma wasn't done with him. She directed him to a chair beside her own, where she proceeded to talk to him (through a translator) for an hour about matters as specific as his speedy driving. "She may feel you need something more," explains Freese.

Then there's Dan Marshall, one of Amma's young publicists—he looks more like a Facebook programmer—who knew immediately, when he first visited her at age 9, that she was "the real deal." At 21, unfulfilled by "external things" like the novel he had just published, he dropped out of the Western world to pursue a life of selfless service on her ashram. Now he works late into the night connecting with reporters, coordinating tour logistics, cooking and helping usher devotees to her lap. "I feel like I've won the lottery," he says.
amma hugging guru
Photo: Rob Sidon/Courtesy of Meredith Bryan
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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