Amma the Hugger

Harold is in line waiting to be hugged by the Mother of Absolute Bliss. The queue stretches outside the door halfway down the block after coiling twice around the auditorium of the Mata Amritanandamayi Center in Castro Valley, California, where he and his wife Elaine arrived three hours earlier. The energy in the hall is Om to the max, but Harold is stretching a thinly veiled faux smile across his clenched teeth. In truth, he is upset by the snail pace of the line, the squirming baby two places behind him and to his shame, the kindly unflustered demeanor of Elaine standing quietly in front of him unfazed by the slow ooze of progress and the overlay of dank air in the crowded auditorium. Harold takes care to hide the anger he feels; he knows his annoyance with his wife has more to do with his own shortcomings than Elaine’s imagined transgressions.

Earlier in the day he had driven miles out of the way after taking the wrong turn from the airport. Elaine had made no mention of his refusal to ask directions and simply looked at him supportively and said, “We’re on a life trip, Harold dear, not an auto trip, you can always get back on the right road.”  Harold’s response was a death defying U-turn, but Elaine remained unruffled and still is imperturbable hours later; she is here on this Guru Purnima Day to be hugged by Amma, and if Harold doesn’t want to get with the program, so be it, Elaine is not going to give up her place in line or the loving feelings she brought to the event.

Harold admires his compassionate wife. He rarely is envious of her commitment. More often than not he follows a few steps behind, not unhappy to be swept along in her wake even though for the most part he’s a pelican shadowing the charter boat for a taste of the chum. He remembers Elaine’s first, tentative steps along “the path.”  She had enrolled in a workshop that taught hypnosis as a supplement to conventional talk therapy and came away with more than she bargained for, acquiring in addition to considerable expertise as a hypnotherapist, a heightened awareness of the extrasensory power of the spiritual self and the elemental mind-body connection between feelings and symptoms. It was the beginning of a continuing exploration of her inner life and Harold would attest to the glow that surrounded her like the corona of a halogen photograph upon her return from the weekend at the institute where the course was taught. As he put it, “her plane arrived and an hour later Elaine landed.”

In the years that followed Harold often accompanied Elaine to the workshops where spouses and significant others were invited to participate. Despite the kernel of cynicism that never fully dissolved he plunged into the ocean of meditation, chanted loudly, dutifully stretched a deerskin over the wood frame of an Indian drum, and on occasion, experienced the magic glow as he yielded to the gentle sway of the shamans and the saints. It was progress, but the serenity he sought still eluded him. His quest for enlightenment had not expelled the shadow of what lay ahead, and he was unable to thaw the icy shiver of fear that seized him as he celebrated his eighty-second birthday with family and friends. The actuary tables tell Harold more than he wants to know.

Perhaps that is what is nagging at him as the line edges forward. It seems so pointless: how can a hug ease the dread that has remained a presence ever since his teenage brother damn near suffocated eight year old Harold, teasing him by holding a pillow over his face until he cried ‘uncle.’

Five years later while a freshman in college Harold’s brother continued to teach him about death by getting himself killed in an auto accident. To this day Harold swears he saw the corpse move – the cadaver laid out in the funeral home, lathered with a Walgreen’s counter of cosmetics to cover the bruises, more Tussaud mannequin than human. “His head was nodding, as if he were communicating with someone, agreeing to a decision that had been made. And then he went still, as if the subtle body had left the physical plane.”

Amma smiles, scolds, comforts, jokes, advises, laughs, cries; she knows intuitively the suitable response for each person nestled in her lap. Her ever-watchful eyes are attending to everything going on in the hall: she calls a Brahmachari to lead an elderly man to a comfortable chair; she sends word to allow a group of latecomers to join the queue; all this and every few seconds a new person in her lap, 30 million people over the past three decades finding bliss in the healing hugs from their spiritual leader, Mata Amritanandamayi, lovingly called ‘Amma’ and known globally as India’s “hugging saint mother.”  Several devotees in line have traveled from Boston, upstate New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, all parts of the country including Chicago from where Harold and Elaine have come to receive the tender hug. Harold is impressed but unconvinced. He knows the path to the inner self is not measured by flight times and highway mileage. Having rounded the corner of eighty and counting, his priorities have shifted. The meaning of life has become more than a glassy eyed, theoretical inquiry at the tail end of Happy Hour; he has looked at the clock and realized he is minutes away from the command of “pencils down” and there are far too many blank pages remaining in his exam book. What makes matters worse, Harold realizes he has been studying for a different test, his prestigious job, dexterity in bed and cleverly concealed, un-audited deductions on his tax return being of no value to the final examiner.

The onslaught of age has brought erratic sleep patterns, disturbing dreams, his sweat-soaked pajamas attesting to nights fraught with dangerous chases and murderous assassinations. He awakes agitated and irate, struggling to calm himself with visualizations of an altar in the space of his heart, a sacred place with burning candles, pictures of loved ones and saints, with flowers and peaceful music. He tries mightily to bring the vision into being, to see the altar, to lose himself in the imagery, but the pictogram will not take form and he dozes fitfully for the rest of the night. Over breakfast he tells Elaine about his disturbing dream. “You are struggling to live in your heart,” she whispers gently.

There is a disturbance in the auditorium. A disabled woman has fainted and fallen out of her wheelchair. The attendants rush to her side and quickly revive her. She is more embarrassed than distressed but despite her protests she is taken to the front of the queue. The procession absorbs the ripple of excitement and resumes its languid pace. Witnessing the scene, Harold and Elaine share grateful glances; their good health is a blessing they too often take for granted. Harold launches into a reproachful, self-deprecating monologue berating himself for being so negative about life when he has so much for which to be thankful. Elaine puts her finger over Harold’s lips, quieting him. She tells him the parable about the hungry man who conjures up a vision of curry and in his imagination makes the curry too spicy. “Think positive thoughts, Harold,” she admonishes. Harold smiles despite himself and gives his wife a hug “that Amma would be proud of,” he laughs. As he holds her close, he feels Elaine’s shapely breasts pressed against his chest, the lingering scent of lilac shampoo and olive oil soap tickling his nose. Instantly the Pavlov’s bell in Harold’s Jockey shorts begins to ring and his kindly, sympathetic feelings give way to steamier notions. “Tonight we’ll be in a nice hotel room,” he muses, beginning to plan, wondering if there’s a Viagra in his toiletries kit…Stop. Harold censures himself, shaking his head over the inappropriateness of his thoughts. “When you’re in line to have an audience with the Pope you don’t check out the nuns,” he reprimands his contrite libido. Still, he can’t help thinking that Elaine is pretty hot for a woman turned seventy.

Harold’s back is aching. He guesses it will be another hour before his turn in front of the small, smiling woman in the white sari. He envies the devotees, veterans of past vigils, who have brought yoga mats to lie on. Many of them are curled up like contented infants waiting their turn to be nursed. The picture is disquieting but compelling at the same time, in keeping with the guru’s emphasis on a healing, universal motherhood that encompasses love and compassion for all people. For Harold, a whispered endearment from a loving mother is a made-up caption on an old photograph, a fairytale narrative substituting for the reality. Fifty years after her death, he closes his eyes and sees his mother in a hospital room. She is expecting him. Her arms reach out to him, and they embrace. He pours out the words he longs to say, unexpressed feelings too long suppressed finally bursting the dam, “I love you, mom.”  Harold’s mother smiles as she nestles him in her arms, “Love is everlasting, Son, I’ll always be with you.”

It’s difficult for Harold to acknowledge that the scene never took place, that in actuality he accepted every convenient excuse to stay away from his mother’s deathbed, business and pleasure taking precedence over being there at her side. There would always be time enough tomorrow to clear the air, he told himself. Now he is haunted by the saddest of words, I never got to say goodbye. Harold shrugs off his malaise. The line has edged forward to the point where he can observe the communal mom in full hugging mode.

Amma is a love machine operating at high speed. She pulls a shy, hesitant middle-aged man close, whispers an endearment, wraps her arms around him, then claps the newly-energized man on the back as he bounds off the dais. She listens intently to question after question, poured out emotions, angst-riddled entreaties, her eyes locked on the supplicant, pools of clear water offering absolution, rebirth, and unconditional love from the cosmogonic earth goddess. A beleaguered mother with a squalling baby in each arm asks for advice. Amma scolds her for being too compliant, her counsel softened with laughter and another hug. The woman is uplifted rather than upbraided. The babies coo. The hugging is uninterrupted even as Amma bows to let someone garland her, removing the wreath in time for the next person to offer still another flower mala. She helps a heavy man rise after his darshan; a woman approaching on her knees inadvertently kneels on Amma’s foot; a child hugs her with all her might, her forehead colliding with Amma’s bruised right cheek where a permanent discoloration has lingered unhealed for the past eight years, the result of hugging tens of thousands of devotees. Amma strokes her wound, “Children’s prema,” she calls it, “Children’s love.”

The hug fest has been going on non-stop for five straight hours and the line is only halfway shortened. Harold is fidgety and out of conversational gambits of interest to anyone within a dozen places of his spot in the winding row of Amma followers. One of the devotees looks remarkably like the former governor of Illinois, now in jail on a corruption charge. Harold imagines the disgraced executive kneeling in front of Amma, bowing in respect as the revered spiritual leader instructs him to perform selfless service to the poor, the sick, and the needy without thought of reward or fame; urging him to cultivate in his life the values of truth, divine love, right conduct, peace, and nonviolence and to promote these values among all. Harold’s daydream is interrupted by a baby’s wail. The line edges forward.

Elaine is preparing to embrace the beaming Amma. She is positively beatific, bowing low in front of the guru with an endearing humility. Harold is touched by his wife’s gentleness and unaffected authenticity. As is Amma. She hugs Elaine not as supplicant but as sister, the two women sharing a secret as well as an embrace; an innate knowing that Harold senses but cannot fully comprehend.

At last it is Harold’s turn. Clueless as to the protocol he grins foolishly. Amma smiles back. He laughs. Amma giggles. The son is in the mother’s arms. In her embrace the sanctity of Love is a natural state, Life and Death are one; the seekers and skeptics, the pious and virtuous, the sinners and reprobates, are one. All who have been and all who will be enfolded in her arms are one. He is floating, a wisp of sinuous light, formless, innate, omnipresent.

“At last, at last,” Harold murmurs quietly as he dies in Amma’s arms.