In 1998, while studying and traveling in India, I had one of those chance meetings that changed the way I saw the world. After an intensive course study in Yoga and Vedanta in Kerala, one of my dorm mates invited me to join her on a journey to Cochin to visit a woman she knew and loved there. My time was not otherwise booked, so I decided to tag along. I’ll never forget the wild ride through the lush, jungly streets and hearing the Indian version of “Macarena” on the taxi’s radio.
I knew nothing about the woman we were going to meet. The taxi dropped us near a river where we took a wooden 10 person ferry across. There was a certain buzz all around as dozens of others were crossing the river in small ferry boats. I remember the light and a sense of clarity in the air. As we sailed cross the river, an interesting building came into view- all pink with colorful embellishments- and huge. My intrigue grew deep as I wondered where this boat was taking us.
Getting off the boat, we stepped into a small city of its’ own with a clear culture unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There were people everywhere, thousands of people. Some were milling around carrying plates of food, others were waiting in lines, very long lines. Yet, despite their waiting, no one appeared impatient or irritated. In fact, they all seemed quite at peace to be waiting.
We checked into a room in one of the buildings, approximately 10 stories high. The accommodations were humble, simple and clean. Previously, I thought we’d be staying in a room at someone’s home! This whole journey would prove to be one big exercise in shifting perspectives quickly and going with the flow.
I recall wanting to inquire with my travel mate about what was happening all around us, but I did not feel like talking. The serenity of this new place had started to seep into my cells and I knew I could trust the situation. Within a couple of hours, we found ourselves waiting in one of the long lines. I assumed we were waiting for food, but this assumption was also put to rest as people began bringing plates of food to everyone standing in our line. As the servers offered food to my friend and I, they asked where we were from and we replied, “the US.” They immediately took back our food and began to usher us with great kinetic energy and purpose through the crowded lines, through the front doors of the beautiful pink building I had seen from the river.
As soon as we entered the doors, time stopped and a completely new kind of space was revealed. We were in a great hall filled with song and packed with many people. The attention of all of these people was directed toward the other end of the hall before us. As I gazed in that direction, my eyes took a few long moments to focus in on a flurry of activity surrounded by brilliant light. A few moments later, the woman we had come to meet slowly came into focus. There was Amma, the Hugging Saint.
Only one other time in my life had I ever seen anything similar to the vision of Amma. The first time I laid eyes on my husband, I could hardly make out his physical form due to the luminosity all around him. I always thought this was an effect of the love hormone! When I first saw Amma, she was truly a ray of light.
After this brief moment of revelation, our ushers continued to navigate us through the sea of people, all waiting to meet Amma. As we approached the stage, our attendants whispered to us that Amma liked for American visitors to be brought quickly to the front of the line so that we did not become to annoyed with all of the waiting! What compassion.
The next thing I knew, I was on my knees in Amma’s arms. Not your typical first time meeting kind of hug, but a hug that lasts a lifetime. Amma wrapped her generous arms around my body and patted my head while she rocked forward and back, whispering in my ear,”Om, Om, Om, Darling, Darling, Darling.” (Atleast that is what I think she said! Perhaps the “darling” part was actually some Sanskrit word that I had yet to learn.)
After what felt like several minutes of embrace, she firmly held my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes. Her smile penetrated my heart. Amma placed her forehead to mine and recited a mantra, then she gave me a Hershey’s kiss and let me go. The attendants were right there to guide me to the next post, a cushion on the floor about 3 feet from where Amma sat. I was told to stay there as long as I would like.
I do not know how long I sat and watched Amma embrace people. Time was very different in this place. They say time slows down near dense objects, like pyramids. There was some sort of time warping effect happening near Amma. She never tired of singing and hugging and sharing her massive love. I had never seen anything like this before.
Later that night, I joined a group of travelers on the rooftop of the ashram. The rooftop was a kind of outdoor temple in the stars. I sat in the cool night air, feeling very fortunate, and reflecting on my experience. I remember an overwhelming feeling that if I could embody even a tiny portion of the unconditional love and compassion I had felt from Amma, my life would truly transform. I thought about how, as a teacher, I sometimes get frustrated with student’s behavior. What if I could meet frustration with just a drop of this powerful kind of love?
Amma did not ask for anything in return for this gift. She did not request that I do anything, believe anything, commit to anything at all. Yet, through this experience, I came to see the power of love in a whole new light.
Love, without strings attached. Love with no judgement. Love everyone. Love the people we don’t understand. Love the people who frighten us. Love and love and love. This was the lesson I learned during my few days at Amma’s house.
Amma is in Los Angeles this week and my heart goes aflutter each time I read someone’s Facebook status update that they are going to see her for the first time or the 15th time. I have seen her here in Los Angeles once since that first meeting in India. Personally, I do not feel called to see Amma each time she visits. I feel very full from my experience with her. The lessons of love she taught me will continue to challenge and guide me throughout my life, as they have done for the past 12 years.
We all have the potential to love on the level of Amma and fortunately there are countless people and experiences to mirror this possibility to us. I believe that through great mutual trust we can be mirrors of love to each other.
*To learn more about Amma and her incredible humanitarian work, visit http://www.amma.org/amma/index.html Amma has raised millions of dollars to help people in need, including those who suffered the earthquake in Haiti and the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast regions.