I'm dragging my cranky, downtown, Western butt off to Mississauga to meet my first living saint, but I'm mostly thinking about getting home again. Can they be serious that the evening's program goes to 3 or 4 in the morning? By the end of the four-day visit and an equal number of all-nighters or close to it, I've learned lesson one: if you want to keep up with a self-realized being, be prepared to stay up late.
Move over, Mother Teresa. Indian spiritual leader Amma has never met a human she hasn't touched. Her visit two weeks ago was a first for Toronto and the last stop on her eight-week, 13-city North American tour. In the middle, she left the continent briefly so she could deliver the keynote address at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona. The tour staff, hosting the unexpected turnout of 6,000 on her first night here, are pretty buzzed. There've been no days off. Amma's not about days off.
She's held more than 20 million people in her arms, so it's Amma's hug that gets the media hype. Her similarly overachieving charity work gets less - we're talking homes for the homeless, pensions for destitute widows, an 800-bed state-of-the-art hospital, scores of educational institutions, an orphanage, food programs, hospice, home for the aged, environmental projects and more. If this all sounds simple and sweet, don't be fooled.
Amma (which means mother) was born with divine consciousness into a poor but devout Hindu fishing family in the southern province of Kerala. In her late teens, she chose to embody the universal feminine as her gift to the world. Her more formal name, Mata Amritanandamayi, translates as "mother of immortal bliss." It was given to her by her disciples at the start of her guru career in the mid-70s, when she began the practice she is famous for today, bestowing her blessings with a trademark embrace. Amma at 21, hugging any man who asked, was one radical young mother.
Amma's embrace is still not polite. It is intense, and each one is unique and personal, almost embarrassing. Being enclosed fully and firmly at the chest of the ever-longed-for mother, her breath rising and falling, her voice in your ear, her softness also in your arms, her warmth shamelessly speaking the language of the human heart - it's a potent psychological and spiritual stew. Many a grown man cries.
My favourite one-on-one with Amma happens the next day during the two-day retreat for her followers, who have converged to be with her from everywhere from Pittsburgh to Victoria. She holds me, then pushes me away, looks deeply into my eyes and pinches both my cheeks like I am the cutest little baby she's ever seen. Then she hugs me again and coos syllables into my ear: mo mo mo mo. And then, like every hug, it finishes off with a little burst of energy and a flower petal and candy kiss thrust into my palm. Holy mother chocolate - one more sweet lingering connection between the physical and the spiritual.
The actual term for the hug is "darshan," an ancient tradition in her home culture. The Sanskrit word refers to an audience with a saint or sage from any tradition. The Pope gives darshan, for example - a blessing.
Amma's approach to darshan is unique. She brings her body into a squeeze play for the soul.
It's unsettling, to say the least. Amma challenges you to deal with her unconditional love.
She has a story about a guy getting on a train who continues to carry his heavy luggage until someone explains that he can put it down because the train is actually carrying the load. She thinks many of us are carrying this kind of excess baggage, unaware of the larger reality.
Amma includes surrender to the power of the divine in her advocacy of the feminine. She says it opens the door to grace - those moments when things mysteriously just work out.
Her devotees swear it's true. Many believe she herself sees past present and future and personally brings grace into their daily lives.
As I talk to Amma, she keeps doling out darshan while her orange-robed swami translates from her native language, Malayalam. She multi-tasks like this all the time. Amma has no time to spare. From close up, she seems to use some kind of mystical syncopation so the space between the beats of one activity is used to maintain the whole second rhythm. Each seems to get her full attention.
"Amma says she has offered herself to the world. She has become an offering," her swami translates. "Once you become an offering, you don't have any claims. You just keep giving."
I ask what the experience of giving darshan is like. As she answers, I feel the shock of hearing someone speak from the vantage point of a deity.
"As far as Amma is concerned, there is no experience and experiencer. The duality is not there. In true love there is only oneness. It is just like seeing your own reflection in the mirror. Once you become sugar, where is the person to experience it? So there is no experiencer, experiencing or experience.
"Suppose you have a hundred pots filled to the brim with water and you see a hundred suns reflected in them. But in reality there is only one sun. Likewise, in true love, when you become love, there is only oneness."
Her gathering is a chaos of diversity. Barefoot is the only dress code for your audience with Amma, so shoes are everywhere, stacked on shelves lining the halls and exploding out of every corner. The crowd is maybe half South Asian and half everything else.
On opening night, the hall is filled fuller than it's safe to say. People are saying it's a bit like India. "Don't worry," word goes out, "Amma will see everyone who has come."
And she does. I crash at 3 am. Amma doesn't finish until almost 7. She never stretches, takes a break or goes to the bathroom. The hugs are meant to wake you up. And believe me, this place is hopping in the wee hours. It feels like a parallel reality.
She keeps grabbing her children and pulling them to her - sometimes singly, sometimes in couples or family groupings of two, three, four or more. At the same time, tables that line the big hall sell Indian treasures, jewellery, scarves, clothes, even handmade Amma dolls. There are books, tapes, Vedic astrology readings, stickers and images of Amma, all fundraisers.
Outside the room, volunteers dish out low-priced snacks, meals, sweets, fruit shakes and lassis all night. Meanwhile, the music is non-stop. Harmonium and tabla accompany the rotating tour staff who sing continuous rhythmic songs of devotion. The cash registers, too, keep ringing all night.
Most uniquely Amma is the table that sells her own stuff, the gifts she's been given, the silk saris she wears for special ceremonies, even her shoes. Anything she's touched has added value that she puts to use for yet more fundraising.
The whole event is like a karma-processing plant - everything is constantly recycled from the ethereal to the material and back again. And likewise, the practices Amma advocates are a combo of community service and meditation.
Meditation is as precious as gold, she says. "It takes us to freedom from all bondage." When compassion and love are added, "it is like gold becoming fragrant." Amma herself smells like sandlewood and flowers.
Amma's teachings are full of metaphors and stories. They seem endless, but if you stick around you will likely hear them more than once.
"Sorrows are like the birds," always flying over our heads. "Just don't let them nest in your hair."
She's pretty down on the ego-driven love she sees in the modern world. "When we say 'I love you,' love is imprisoned between I and you. When we say 'I am love,' there is no duality. Love is not an emotion, it is a flow."
When the husband and wife each crave only to receive love, "it's like honey trapped in rock." She says two people coming together in the hope of creating a whole are really multiplying fractions instead. "One-half times one-half is one-quarter," she says, doing the math for us. "Did you get that," her translator asks, laughing.
During a question-and-answer session with her devotees, one asks what to do about the thoughts that still arise during meditation, though he's been practising for years. She answers that it is the nature of the mind to produce these thoughts and emotions. "Treat it like a supermarket." Take the ones you want and don't waste your time looking at each and every item that's in there.
On her last night, the throng has swelled to 9,000. It's the grand finale, called Devi Baba, where she takes on the form of a goddess. She changes her white cotton sari for one of beige and gold and dons a silver headdress, which can't be comfortable. I watch her teach, then sing and then give darshan until past 11 am the next morning. She stands up to close the ceremony, fresh as a daisy, beaming. She flings handfuls of flower petals at the thousand or so of us still left, who are circling in front of her, until they're inches thick under our bare feet.
Not long after, back in her white sari, she departs through the adoring crowd, hands out, touching and being touched. She gets into the back seat of a near-beater Honda Accord and leaves behind the mystery of who she is.