Monday, 1 February 2010 'bout that hug?

So, I think I already mentioned that when we arrived at the ashram, Amma was actually out on the road. The energy around the ashram was calm and peaceful as one might expect – and we assumed that this was the norm. Well I stand corrected! When we awoke on our third morning at the ashram we were greeted by a completely different set of circumstances. The tranquil atmosphere of peaceful serenity had been kicked out by a whole lot of pushing and shoving……. What? Were we still even in the ashram or had the compound been taken over by terrorists masquerading as Amma devotees? Breakfast was a zoo! By now – we had eaten several meals here and realized that our first taster from the kitchen may somehow have been a lucky break. In general the food wasn’t bad – but the 3 meals included in out ‘ticket’ were all pretty much alike – sloppy rice and some kind of potatoeish curry – occasionally spicy but more often than not kind of bland – and I don’t know about you – but for me – no matter how long I spend in India – I still just can’t quite get my head around curry for breakfast. And so – by this point we were paying the few rupees extra at breakfast (and sometimes lunch or dinner) for one of the purchasable options at the ‘western canteen’. Well – Monday morning we were shocked to find that instead of our usual 30 second wait to get served, there was actually a huge line up at the cafĂ© counter. The tour had returned and there were hundreds of hungry Amma ‘roadies’ to feed. So it turns out that when Amma hits the road, most of the ashram goes with her. We hadn’t even realized that when we showed up the place had actually been almost empty. No wonder it was so peaceful! And while one might expect that since this was an ashram after all, even though the numbers increased the vibe of calm would remain, it sadly didn’t seem the case. Let’s just say that not all who reside seem to abide by the ashram code of conduct. And let’s not forget people – it is still India – where the concept of queues and orderly behavior still seem undiscovered.
Regardless of the fact that our lovely, newly found peace had been disturbed, this new pace of life did at least mean that our chances of meeting the mama had just increased by at least 50%. But we still weren’t certain of an embracing opportunity: apparently Amma was hugging on into the wee hours of Sunday before starting the 2-hour journey back home to the ashram so she was exhausted from the event and it was looking unlikely that we would see her on that first day back (Monday) – but Tuesday we felt sure we would catch a glimpse.
In the mean time, I was still helping out in the kitchen and Darko had started communication with the digital team. Since we were only planning a brief stay at the ashram it wasn’t possible for him to really get involved in any of their long term projects but since they loved his photos (he’d showed them his website of course!) he offered to provide a few hundred stock shots of India for their library should they need any general pictures for a website page etc. And when they found out we were off to Sri Lanka it was also suggested that there were ongoing projects over there that we might be able to seek out and photograph for Amma. The team seemed pretty excited about this prospect so it was discussed between the various relevant parties (including one of the top dog swami’s in the ‘shram) and a plan was hatched for us to have a private audience with Amma……wow! And we thought we’d be lucky to catch a glimpse.
Monday rolled into Tuesday and finally our first chance to get a hug was upon us. Now the normal sequence of events for a Tuesday in the ashram would be a full morning of meditation in the main temple where Amma would preside and offer some guidance as well as a little Q&A before serving lunch to all her devotees (that’s right – Amma would actually slop out the rice and dhal to those present all by herself), and then after a good bowl of grub it would be cuddle time for all the newbie’s and ashramites departing that day (this was the informal darshan session – as opposed to most other days of the week when the ashram is open for public darshan where it is actually necessary to stand in line for hours to obtain a darshan token which then allows you to stand in line for hours to hand over the token in exchange for a hug).
Well - I sat patiently in half lotus for most of Tuesday morning amongst hundreds of other hopefuls, meditating and awaiting the arrival of Amma only to be disappointed when the allotted hour of her arrival came and went without so much as an aum uttered from her being. Amma was ‘in da house’, but not ‘in da temple’. The meditation session broke for lunch (evidently not to be served by Amma) and of course, over lunch came the rumors as to why Amma was a ‘no show’ – she’d broken a rib on tour from an over zealous hugging session, a bladder infection, the flu, exhaustion…..and the list went on.
So – we headed out for some Internet action in the village over the river and decided to return by 5pm, just incase she made an appearance at the evening meditation session on the beach – of course we’d heard a rumor that she might!
At around 5.05pm we casually sauntered back to our digs to discover that the beach in front of our building was indeed a mosh pit of merry meditaters – and there before us, sitting atop the breakwater rocks all in white, with an expression of pure peace and utter tranquility was Amma. I scrambled through the crowd to find a suitable perch just along the rocks from her, facing out to sea and waited. And finally she moved, and the crowd beneath her stirred and we all hung on her every word. She spoke and her translator relayed her words in English – “Amma says you should be still and meditate……….and be careful on the rocks”. “Sit quietly, close your eyes and breath and with each breath in inhale the divine light and with each breath out exhale all negative thought and darkness”. The translators voice was rich and warm and soothing and the presence of Amma was like warm golden sun with a calm summer breeze. And then she talked about her children (us) and asked if we were not afraid of a tsunami. And people answered, telling their stories of faith and readiness to progress to another world if a wave came to take them away.
Once the Q&A was over, Amma sang a couple of devotional songs and then moved to the back of the beach where she would give darshan. And that’s when all the piety of the devotees went straight out the window. People clamored over one another to make sure they got their chance to have a hug. I swear there were more handlers there than there would have been had Michael Jackson been present and as we got closer and closer to the moment of truth I felt that little twinge of butterflies in my belly – I realized that I was a wee bit nervous – what if I messed up my hug? What if she didn’t want to cuddle me? It was just the way I felt before my very first kiss. But then I was at the front of the line and it was my turn next and before I knew it, it was all over, and I didn’t really know what had just happened. In fact it had been just like a first kiss – so much anticipated and generally a bit over-rated but at least I could say I’d been there and done that! In the final seconds before the moment of truth I was shoved into place before her by one of the handlers, and then my head was thrust down onto her shoulder by another one. I wasn’t allowed to put my arms out to embrace her – this was strictly a one way hug and what with all the pushing and shoving around me there was no chance for a moment of compassion or a sensation of ‘love’ to reach me. As I backed away from Amma she handed me a little package – which turned out to be a little candy wrapped in a tiny envelope of ash, and I tried to interpret the message she’d muttered into my ear. It sounded a lot like ‘my daughter, my daughter, my daughter’, which made sense, as she feels like a mother to all of her followers – but I couldn’t be sure. Now, I’m not saying I didn’t like my hug – but it certainly wasn’t quite what I had expected. It was all just too rushed and almost a touch on the aggressive side for me. I left the beach feeling slightly deprived by the whole experience – like going to the prom with a date but leaving early because my date ended up ditching me for the prom queen. What more can I say – it was an anti-climax. Having said that I did enjoy the tone of her lovely husky voice in my ear!!!
After the darshan was done she was whisked back to the main hall of the ashram for bharjans (devotional singing) and then she was spirited away, as mysteriously as she had arrived in our midst.
And the mystery of whether or not she would surface the next day was still circulating after dinner that night, as Darko tried to ascertain whether or not we could meet with her regarding his potential photographic assignment in Sri Lanka. We would just have to wait and see.
Next morning the official word on the street was still ‘no word’ but then at 11am she showed up to bless a wedding and the darshan session for the day began. We’d been given the heads-up that 2pm might be our window of opportunity for a quick word – but it didn’t seem likely. I left Darko to finish up some bits and bobs while I headed back to the room to pack and when he still hadn’t showed up half an hour later I started to wonder where he’d got to. All of a sudden a breathless Darko flung open the door, grabbed my arm and pulled me to the stairs – we were about to be presented to Amma. Our ‘private meeting’ was actually going to happen in the midst of her public darshan – so I wasn’t quite sure how it would work but when we arrived in the hall we were fast tracked right to the front where the IT project co-ordinator explained briefly to Amma who we were and what Darko was offering to do. She spoke rapidly in response and then we were on our knees before her for our second chance at a snuggle. Darko got a quick one to himself (being the photographer extraordinaire) and then I joined in for a bit of group hug action. And this time I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t know how to explain what happened because it was still over almost as fast as the hug the day before – but this time – maybe it was because we were down on our knees – maybe there was more of a personal connection – but I really felt her projecting her love on to us both. And as we broke from the hug, I don’t know if we had funny looks on our faces, or she just wanted to give us something more – but she looked at us and laughed. And it was such a free and loving laugh – a laugh that a mother might give to a child that has just said something funny for the first time – or taken it’s first steps – but it was a moment that we shared and it was beautiful. As we walked away, sucking on the tasty piece of chocolate she had hand fed to us we both felt a wonderful glow. I was so happy I’d got a second chance. That first hug had been such an anti-climax. I’d wanted it to be good. I’d wanted to feel more, something, anything. But this hug. Now this hug – was a good hug, and one that definitely left me wanting more. So, I can certainly see why thousands of people choose to stick around for a regular dose of fine mama lovin’ and become permanent residents of the ashram. But for us it was to be our fond farewell.
After our hug the IT coordinator translated for us – Amma was grateful for the offer – but didn’t feel that it would be safe for us to head off into the boonies of Sri Lanka to snap a few shots – she asked that we be careful there and be safe. And so – although we won’t be on assignment for Amma after all, it sure was a great way to get a very public ‘private audience’ with a saint in the making and I sure won’t mind coming back for another one some day, if the opportunity ever arises.
But for the record: I still think I’d beat her in a ‘hug off’. Common – you all know it. My hugs rock!
Coming Soon: Carrie’s darshan tour – Vancouver, July 2010! No tokens required!

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