Ditching Doubt and Embracing Amma, the Hugging Guru

by Valerie Reiss

I have a complicated relationship to gurus and so-called enlightened beings. The whole "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" thing seems to be a universal truth humanity just can't get past—the rise and fall of the revered transcends boundaries of faiths, politics, and nations.

And yet, in the spiritual world, it's so tempting to believe. Especially when you hear about the good examples. (Or as my crabby little brain sometimes thinks, the ones who just never had their scandals come to light.) You surrender completely to someone who loves you unconditionally, apply their wisdom to your flailing life, and watch the lessons bloom you into something more beautiful? Sounds like a relief! The critical thinking, skepticism, and doubt built into a modern seeker's life can be downright exhausting. When I hear stories from Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, and others whose guru (Neem Karoli Baba) rocked their lives with über-love in the 1960s and ‘70s, I believe. As a result of his love and shakti (energy) lighting their lives, he transitively touched every one of us who's climbed on a yoga mat. And no corruption there. (That we know of, says the crabby voice.)

And so far, so good with Amma, or Amachi, or Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi. Said to embody the essence of the Divine Mother, she is best known throughout the world as the hugging guru, for her annual marathon embracing tour; she has hugged more than 30 million people so far. Occasionally you’ll hear nasty gossip—like an article that claimed that "some of her closest followers back-stab each other for her attention"—but Amma herself remains pure, as she hugs our sweaty, suffering, seeking, trying-to-love-enough selves, one after another, for weeks.

Not only is Amma spreading good juju through these embraces, but the hug-a-thons also pour money into her charities, which are some of the most robust in India. Her nonprofit network, Embracing the World, supports and builds hospitals, schools, orphanages, and homes throughout India. They feed the hungry; provide education, disaster relief, health care, and public health services; and have recently launched a new green initiative. Amma's people have stepped in where governments have failed—for example, raising $46 million in relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Amma's Amrita University, with its 17,000 students, helps provide research to support public health, medicine, and more.

While you wait for a hug in a cavernous space that can hold hundreds (sometimes it's hours till your token number gets called), you can support her charities by shopping—for water bottles, tote bags, photos of her, and her lightly used sheets, clothing, and electronic mantra counters, which are said to be blessed by coming into contact with her energy.

Amma espouses love, kindness, and service (and sometimes talks in the third person): "Everyone in the world should be able to sleep without fear, at least for one night. Everyone should be able to eat to his fill, at least for one day. There should be at least one day when hospitals see no one admitted due to violence. By doing selfless service for at least one day, everyone should help the poor and needy. It is Amma's prayer that at least this small dream be realized."

She certainly seems to walk her talk. Which is why, even though I'm a Doubting Donna, I look forward to my annual Amma hug like I anticipate a hot date with my husband. I know it will be exciting and juicy and stay lovingly with me long after it's over. As someone who's sat at the ankles of quite a few teachers (skeptically), I can tell you it's the real deal, whatever happens in those hugs. When I stumble away from my highly supervised four-second (or so) embrace, I feel something. Something like bliss, like love.

This year was my most intense hug yet. I showed up at the airy Javits Center hall overheated from the steamy Manhattan streets, agitated, and six months pregnant. My sacrum has been hurting since month three, and nothing has dented the pain—chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncture, nada. So I wasn't in the greatest mood when I met up with one of Amma's press people, Rob Sidon, who's also the editor-in-chief of San Francisco's Common Ground magazine. We've known each other for years and he quickly assessed my round, pained state and helped me move ahead on the line. (The very young, disabled, pregnant, and elderly are often able to get to Amma faster.)

Since this was my fourth hug, I knew the deal—leave your glasses with your shoes, and let your hands lie to either side of her, palms open (an instruction I imagine was born from a history of squeezers). Before I knew it, the screaming baby in front of me had been hugged, and I was kneeling before Amma's smiling face. A kirtan band jammed below us. She gazed joyfully into my eyes, pulled me into her white-clothed bosom, and chanted into my ear something like, "My daughtermydaughtermydaughtermydaughter." I'm not entirely sure what it was, but it was gently hypnotizing.

Then she released me, and one of the line-handlers whispered something to her (I'm guessing, "She's pregnant"). Amma smiled more broadly and placed her hand on my belly, pulling me in for another big hug. While still holding me, she put an apple and a Hershey's kiss in my hand—these are supposed to help her blessings carry on when you eat them as blessed prasad later. (They're also a great snack after all that waiting.) Amma then fumbled through a small bowl of mala bracelets, smiled as she slid one onto my wrist, and let me go with another belly caress, which felt like a blessing to the tiny boy growing in there.

I floated away, suffused with bliss, and sat back down next to Rob. After a few moments of dazey-glazey staring into space, I asked, "What is that? Is it just the shakti that makes me feel stoned and like I can't move?"

"You were just blessed by a mahatma—a high spiritual being,” Rob said. “She put you in a state of meditation. Your brain isn't thinking 10 different thoughts." That made sense—I felt fuzzy, floaty, serene, as if I had spent a good, undistracted hour watching my breath. "She's a para-bhakti and infused you with love—there are different levels of love." Meaning—our ordinary, conditional everyday love and the love of a master who is, in a very literal sense, a love guru. Rob told me the mala was a big deal and I better use it for mantra practice. Which I am now just remembering I need to do.

After awhile, I drifted back down to earth and ate some too-spicy chana masala in the food area. I knew the subway would be too much of a bhakti-kill, so I cabbed home, crunching my blessed apple halfway to Brooklyn. Gratitude for the existence of this very real power and magic filled me with each sweet, crunchy bite.

Oh and that pain in my sacrum that no practitioner could fix? It was about 40 percent better for a week after Amma, until I tweaked it again. I don't know what to do with that, except follow her lead, and hold the experience in a deep, non-skeptical embrace. Not natural for a New Yorker but, right now, not that hard either.

Valerie Reiss is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more.

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