Waiting for an Embrace from Amma, the “Hugging Saint”

By now, 20 years after first meeting him, my husband Dave has come to accept the out-of-the-ordinary plans I make for our occasional nights on the town.

Last month, for instance, he didn’t raise an eyebrow when I asked him to come with me to an exhibit called “Remember That You Will Die:  Death Across Cultures.”

Nor did he make a fuss when I told him that I wanted to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary yesterday by waiting in a long line on a steamy New York City evening to get a hug from Amma.

“Ok,” he agreed.  (I love this man.)  “But who is Amma?”

Amma, otherwise known as the “Hugging Saint,” is an Indian woman — a divine spirit by some accounts — who is said to have the power to transmit a spark of unconditional love and compassion through her embrace (darshan). She receives thousands of people on her trips around the world, sometimes going for 22 hours without interruption until each and every person who has come to see her has been hugged.  In over 36 years, she has hugged 30 million people.  When Amma was last in New York, people I know and respect for their healthy cynicism of mass spiritualism claimed to have felt an indescribable sense of peace and transcendence after receiving darshan.

Amma is also a highly regarded humanitarian, setting up charitable hospitals, hospices, disaster relief programs, orphanages and schools around the world.  This year, she received an honorary doctorate for her work from the State University of New York (SUNY).

Since I’m in the middle of my Year to Live project and spirituality has emerged as a major theme, I felt that getting a little extra hug along this path couldn’t hurt.  People came from all around the country to stand in line to see her; surely I could travel 40 blocks.

Here’s what happened:

3pm – I finish up work, turn off the computer and head outside for the subway.  “God damn, it’s hot!” a shirtless teen howls on the street as he exits the Burger King on Delancey.  It’s 102 degrees – an all time record for this day.

5pm - I’ve been standing on line at 34th Street for over an hour and a half.  There are about 100 people in front of me, and hundreds more behind me on a line that stretches nearly a full city avenue.  Sweat streams from the back of my neck to my sandaled feet.  Volunteers dressed in white with red sashes hand out cups of water.  Mainly, the crowd seems excited.

Then I hear the news – you cannot pick up a token for a hug for someone who is not now on line.  This means that Dave will not be able to get into the event, which doesn’t bode well for our anniversary night.

I reach him at the office.  “”Listen,” he says.  “You’ve wanted to do this since you first heard about it.  I’d be upset if you didn’t do it.  Go for it.  I love you, and we’ll pick another night to celebrate.  Honestly, it’s OK.”  With Dave, I know he doesn’t say something like that unless he means it, so I tell him I love him too and stay put where I am on line.  (Did I mention that I love this man?)

7:00pm – I’m in the main hall of the Manhattan Center.  There are probably 500 of us seated on the carpeted floor in front of the stage.   Well over a thousand fill the balconies behind us.

The man seated next to me introduces himself as Uncle Charlie.  He’s here because he is in some sort of legal dispute with his landlord and needs a blessing for his court appearance on Friday.

A woman to my left is a former interior designer to the rich and famous.  When she first met Amma, she had the realization that she needed to quit her job and do charitable work instead.  Now she’s helping design a hospital for the poor.

If I read People magazine more, I’d be able to name  the actress seated on a chair off to the side.

7:30pm – Suddenly, and without much fanfare, Amma enters the stage.  She is throwing rose petals in front of her as she walks.  Devotees clean her feet.

Now she is sitting on a small riser, a translator at her side.  She is a fantastic storyteller.  She tells us about a professor who invites all of his students to his home for coffee.  On the coffee table are cups of fine china and plastic mugs.  The students help themselves.  When the professor looks around, he sees that all of them have chosen the fine china for themselves instead of the plastic.  The lesson?  Life is the coffee, the cup is your circumstances.  Don’t be concerned about whether your circumstances are china or plastic.  Worry only about what goes inside.

There are other tales of Olympic runners, fashionable sunglasses, airplane flights.  The messages are always:

1) Don’t waste a single second of this precious life

2) Meditate and be concerned first and foremost about your spiritual life

3) Do good deeds and speak kind words

4) Be grateful for all of the blessings in your life, large and small

5) Love begins in the family.  When you return home after work, drop the work role.  At home you are coming back to real life, and you should move from your head into your heart.

We’re all given little plastic containers of water that has been blessed by Amma and are told it has healing properties.  I save it for later.

10:30pm – I’ve passed the hours since Amma’s talk eating an incredible vegetarian meal of dhal, chapatis, rice and curry served by her followers in the basement of the Manhattan Center.  There’s also a  group of musicians playing devotional music, and a market in the back of the main hall where devotees sell photos of Amma and t-shirts that say OM.

Finally, my token section is called to the front to wait for our darshan.  Everything starts moving quickly.  We take off our shoes, leave our bags behind, and climb onto the Persian rug adorned stage.  Amma’s helpers hand us tissues to wipe our foreheads and temples.

Uncle Charlie, who has just had his hug, is sobbing.  Others walk away beaming.  One woman looks disoriented and shaky.

And then, all of the sudden, Amma in front of me.  I’m told to kneel.  Amma looks at me, smiles and pulls me into her chest.  She puts her lips right to my ear and says, “My Dola, My Dola, My Dola, My Dola.”  It takes me a while to understand that she’s really saying, “My Daughter, My Daughter…”  I find it vaguely pleasant.

Seconds later, one of the people in white pulls me away.  Amma hands me a Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in a rose petal, and I’m directed off the stage.

10:45 pm As I leave the building, I eat my chocolate and drink my little container of water (being careful to save some for Dave), reflecting on what has happened.  The sky hasn’t opened for me, though I don’t doubt that others were feeling it.  But I admire what Amma stands for in this broken world.  And intimate connection with others – through a smile, a hug and comforting words whispered right up close – is something we all could use more of.

There’s still a long line outside waiting for their turn in Amma’s arm.  As for me, I’m headed home to hug the person who is most dear to me on this special day.

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4 Responses to “Waiting for an Embrace from Amma, the “Hugging Saint””

  1. Amanda says:

    Barbara:
    Thanks for your beautiful posts! I had a hug from Amma almost 20 years ago and I still think about it. I reflect on the power that such a simple act can inspire, not to mention the sheer number of people/devotees who continue to respond to this gift, and I cherish the reminder to value the message of the heart.
    Toward the One,
    Amanda.

  2. Angela says:

    Barbara,

    Thank you for continuing to share your journey. You definitely do have a wonderful, understanding, and loving husband! It is amazing to see the hunger all of us have for an encounter with the Divine. So often, people go on long pilgrimages, encountering countless sacrifices to find it, only to discover that the unconditional love (that only God offers – enabling us to love one another) is waiting for us at home. It is only through the long, often excruciating journey, however, that our eyes are open to this truth.

    I love you my friend.

    Angela

  3. Sven says:

    wonderful story and well written! I’ve heard so much about Amma, but have never actually been told about the process of receiving the infamous hug. A friend of mine who is of Indian descent says it’s transformative, but it sounds like your experience was a bit more humble, which to me actually sounds more real. I know there are instances where people see “the light” from one moment to the next, but more often than not it’s a process. The idea that a hug from Amma – powerful as she may be – will set you free or whatever other superlative the experience is said to conjure fits in well with the American ethos that the salvation or happiness jackpot is always just around the corner.

    What I really want to know is where did the 1500 empty plastic bottles go?

  4. Barbara says:

    I know this won’t put your mind at ease, but the 1,500 plastic receptacles were more like the small, flimsy, round containers you get if you order pizza to go and they give you some oregano or Parmesan cheese on the side. (For $5, you could also buy a glass perfume spritzer for your water.)

    Oh yeah – and their plates, cups and utensils for the dinner were an recycled eco-friendly variety.

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