Yesterday a friend and I went to see Amma the Hugging Saint in Los Angeles. Who is Amma? She is the Goddess of the free hugs movement. Millions of people around the world come to see her and wait for hours to be embraced (darshan) by the living saint from India. This was my second darshan and my friend, Joan’s first. The last time I saw Amma was over ten years ago in Marin County. Back then, I was in the midst of figuring out what all this “spirituality stuff is all about” phase. I think it was a coworker who told me to check out an Amma event. She guaranteed it would be life changing. I don’t know if it was life changing but I knew I wanted a darshan again if I had the opportunity.
Amma doesn’t just hug the masses, she is invited along with other spiritual leaders of the world, to discuss matters that affect all sentient beings. She works to help the poor and disenfranchised, champions the environment and the importance of being good stewards of the planet and all its creatures.
My day started at 5 a.m., which for me is the middle of the night. I hate getting up before 8 o’clock in the morning. I am a night owl and always have been, but willing to make an exception if it means geting a hug from Amma. The first time I saw her was before I got cancer. Now I am well but need a walker to get around. The treatments left me with nerve damage (but I’m not complaining). It does require me to make my way in the world differently, meaning, sometimes I need help doing things I used to take for granted.
As soon as we showed up at the Airport Hilton conference room, where the event was held, I was greeted by a young man who seemed to appear out of nowhere. I’m guessing he was between ten and twelve years old but I recognized him as an old soul. His energy was love. I know it might sound all New Agey but that’s the best description I can think of. You know how it feels when you feel loved. You feel happy. That’s how I instantly felt when he spoke to me. It was like we knew each other for years. His name was Vishwa. Here’s a picture of us.
Since I showed up with my walker, he brought me and Joan to the special needs sitting area; from then on I would be cared for by volunteers and devotees of Amma. I will admit, I’m not used to people asking what they can do to make me comfortable. I’m very independent and some of my old baggage”” revolves around me thinking, I don’t deserve to be taken care of. Going through cancer helped me deal with that but it still pops up on occasion. The upside is I didn’t have to wait in the ever growing line to get a token, which was needed in order to receive darshan. A volunteer would get one for Joan and I. Since Joan was with me, she got the same benefits as me.
All of my pictures were taken outside of the hall where Amma was sitting. It is disrespectful to snap pictures. As soon as we were ushered into the main hall, all I could do was observe what went on around me. Joan and I were seated up front. We watched devotees get ready for Amma’s arrival. Four people stood by the door holding poles that were draped with one large silk fabric. I’m probably not describing it very well but it looked like something you would use for a member of royalty to pay homage to them. Two long carpets lined the way to the stage. No one was allowed to step on the carpet wearing their shoes. A woman threw flower petals at the feet of the saint as she walked in.
Amma received a Goody award, honoring her for all her charitable works. Then we had group meditation. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I planned to meditate along with everyone else… until the voice leading us sounded like… Ricardo Montalban. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t concentrate, images of the television show, Fantasy Island kept entering my mind. I decided to observe those sitting around me instead. Staying in the present moment would be my meditation. People sat in chairs and on the floor. Their eyes were closed. Some sat crossed legged. Then I noticed a few crying. I was surprised at this. What emotions or thoughts were being stirred up that brought them to tears? I didn’t have the urge to cry but I did feel the emotions from people around me. Hopefully whatever wounds they carried would be healed with Amma’s touch.
As time went on, more and more people with disabilities showed up in our section. They came in wheelchairs, brought mobile oxygen tanks, and walkers. A few moms brought their newborns to be embraced by the saint. Many believe receiving a hug from her is to be blessed with a healing. I will admit, that is one of the things I hoped to get. If you ask me, you can never get enough healing energy. On the drive over, I told myself, I would be open to whatever happened. I wanted to experience the entire day, and to be in the present moment as much as I could.
My desire was challenged when a volunteer told me I would be brought to Amma via a wheelchair. I told her I could walk by myself if I could hold on to the arm of my friend. I didn’t even need the walker that was folded up, leaning against a wall. She said I needed the wheelchair, it was safer transportation for me and those around me. I felt my stomach tense up. Sitting in that wheelchair brought back painful memories. I hated not being able to walk but hadn’t needed that chair for almost 4 years. A voice inside me said, “You asked to remain open to anything. A part of your experience will include riding in a wheelchair. Allow things to unfold.”
A man in his thirties pushed the wheelchair and waited in line with me. He quickly told me what to expect once I was in front of Amma, who sat on a large cushion on stage. I smiled and thanked him several times for taking good care of me. He smiled back. “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. I found out he has been a devotee nine years and travels with Amma’s entourage 6 months out of the year. To be honest, I don’t what it feels like to be devoted to someone like that. I do know that everyone I met yesterday, exuded pure love. It must be that kind of feeling that makes someone want to devote his or her life to a saint.
People wait for hours to be embraced by Amma which lasts only seconds. She is surrounded by devotees who give her sips of chai tea throughout the day. She chats away to different helpers, while giving hugs to each new person sitting in front of her. I’m guessing she does this to distract herself while acting as a vessal of love energy because she is vulnerable to the energy of the person she’s hugging. I experienced something like that when I first practiced massage. A client would come in with an assortment of aches and pains, and after massaging them, the client left feeling better, but I felt like crap. I had energetically picked up their ailments. One of my mentors taught me how to ground myself before each massage appointment and cut any energy cords left behind from the client.
Finally my turn came. Amma pulled me to her bosom, leaned into my ear and whispered to me in Hindi, then rubbed both my legs. She continued whispering to me. I don’t know what she said, but I felt she was blessing me with her words, maybe to heal whatever put in that wheelchair. As I left, one of her aids handed me a small brown packet that I thought was a teabag. It turns out the packet contains blessed ash from India. It now sits on the shrine in my home.
The L.A. program was different than the one in Marin. There was definitely more people. I’m guessing that throughout the day several thousand showed up. This time vendors sold trinkets and souvenirs made in India. A small Ganesh deity came home with me. The proceeds of the sales and any donations went to Amma’s charities back home. The event was free.
I look back on that experience today and think about all the different people who came. People with different ethnicities, genders, social classes, etc. People who you wouldn’t think could relate to one another, like a couple who looked like they just left Burning Man to a couple who live in the Midwest. So many of us came with little in common except wanting darshan from a saint. It was really beautiful. We all came together that day to receive love and reflect love to one another. Hopefully their loving energy would continue after they left darshan and went out into the world.
If Amma comes close to the area where you live, I suggest going to see her. You don’t have to be hugged but I think you will enjoy the experience. I found a couple videos you may enjoy.