Friday, July 15, 2005

Hugging a saint is harder than it might seem

I'd done a lot of fun things in DC before, but I'd never hugged a saint, so I had no idea what to expect.

Martin was coming with me, with special expectations for Amma all his own. In the year 2000 he was taking a road trip with some friends. They got into a terrible car crash in a small town far from home - nobody was hurt but the car was totalled. While waiting in the wrecking yard watching the old car get crushed, they called up a newspaper ad for a beat-up used car and explained their plight: they were broke college students, with no way to get home. The owner of the car in the ad drove an hour and a half to show the car to them, dropped the price by three hundred dollars, invited them to her home for the evening, cooked them dinner and let them sleep there that night. Martin and his friends drove away the next morning, overwhelmed by her generosity. The car she'd sold them was a fantastic old clunker - and covered, windshield to bumper, with "Amma" stickers.

Amma's website was fairly uninformative, just requesting that you collect your token an hour beforehand and bring a pillow to sit on. There would be a spiritual ceremony at 7:30, after which Amma's followers would get the chance to line up for a "darshan," or hug. The website had one little section describing the age-old concept of a "pilgrimage": once upon a time, people were willing to travel for weeks or even months, just for a brief visit to a holy site or to catch a glimpse of a saint. Now, the website said, we just have to catch the metro and sit in line; however the reader was implored to bring the same patient attitude as pilgrims past. There was a rather ominous mention of Amma's endurance, how she often worked all night hugging her crowds of followers until 4 in the morning. I'd been invited to a barbecue that same night, and had breezily assured the host that I could definitely make it, on the late side, after I'd gotten my hug. Perhaps that was false confidence, I decided. I resolved to let go of any expectations of the evening, and, although I am skeptical of cults of personality, to simply open my heart to the experience of waiting in expectation with my spiritual brothers and sisters. It was a very nice, and - in retrospect - an insanely ambitious resolution.

I agreed to meet Martin at the corner of 21st and K after work, when we'd bike the Mt Vernon trail to Crystal City (an exercise we'd done previously, when going to see Krishna Das perform in Alexandria, and thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful trail with views.) By the time I met him, around a quarter to six, the raindrops were fat and heavy.

"Let's take the metro," I suggested. "My brakes aren't very good and I need to take my bike to the shop."

"It'll be fine," Martin said. "We can just ride slow."

"But it won't be very enjoyable right now. What's the point in killing ourselves?"

"It's rush hour. We can't take the bikes on the metro."

"Well, we were planning to take the metro home in the darkness anyway," I said. "Why don't we just leave the bikes here in the city? We're going to get soaked and I bet the hotel will have the AC blasting, we're gonna be freezing."

"No way," Martin said. "I'm biking over. This is supposed to be like a pilgrimage." And he began riding away. As I followed him, my brows were already knotting together, almost as stormy as the sky over our heads - and I wasn't sure if the growling rolls of thunder I heard were real or just my own internal soundtrack.

(You probably need some backstory for this argument: two weeks ago, I'd joined Martin and two of his visiting friends for dinner at Dukem. I took Neva's yoga class first, got myself hot, ridiculously sweaty, and tired, and then stepped outside into a rainstorm. I took a bus to the dinner, still in my skimpy yoga clothes, and shivered in its intense AC. I was freezing by the time I arrived at the restaurant, only to find that our table was right underneath an AC vent - and I was still soaking wet. By the end of the evening my bones felt cold and my teeth were chattering, only to get into an air-conditioned car and wait around while Martin showed his friend a few sights. It was ridiculous - Washington D.C. in the middle of July, and I haven't felt that cold even when I was living in Moscow in -30 C weather. I should have just excused myself from the dinner, gone home and taken a hot bath - but idiotically, I decided to try to be a martyr. Dear reader, take it from me: there's no point in being an insincere martyr, because nobody else is ever going to appreciate the depth of your suffering and you won't get any credit for it. Mine was a profoundly insincere and ineffectual martyrdom, because I spent the entire evening internally lamenting how miserable I felt, and resenting Martin for not noticing how unhappy I was and sweeping me away to somewhere warm. How dare he ignore my suffering? Look at him over there, warm and dry and laughing and having a good time, while icicles form on my eyelashes. Etcetera, etcetera. I am frankly too embarassed to tell you any more details.)

Anyway, as we began riding through the torrential downpour, I had a sinking suspicion that my resolution to maintain inner calm and receptivity was going to be tested pretty damn quick. The rush hour traffic whizzed past us, car wheels splashing through puddles and spraying solid sheets of mud in my face, and the rain was stinging my eyes and blinding me, so that every few seconds I'd have to wipe my eyes, making my bike swerve precariously and occasionally forcing me to slam on my nails-on-a-chalkboard brakes: KKKRCKKKHH!!! And yet I was going to see Amma, damn it, I was going to get there, it was the last night of her visit to DC, and it was important to get a ticket as soon as possible to avoid waiting around until 3am.

Zzzzoom, splash, KKKRCKKHH! Focus on the breath, I thought to myself. The mind can make a hell of heaven, heaven of hell - or, in Hamlet's words, 'I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams...' You're riding your bike in the rain, that's a fact and you're stuck with it, but your attitude about it is your choice. It can be a painful drag or it can be an exhilarating wrestling match with Nature - the difference is only in your perspective. Remember your lucky life, your good health, your love, your amazing fortune to meet a spiritual leader. Try to focus on your anticipation of Amma.

These things were all true, but nonetheless the actual thoughts in my brain were a surging, meanspirited jumble that went more like this: This is terrible. I'm going to be so cold in that hotel. Why did I let Martin push me around? He totally didn't even care that I was going to suffer! Look at him riding over there with that smug look on his face. Oh, the rain is hurting my eyes, I can't see. Fuck that car over there - yeah, you, you're an asshole driver. Oh, shit, I'm the asshole. Why am I getting so angry about this? I'm so cold. My shoes are squelching and I'm dirty. Why did I let Martin push me around - just like my mum let my dad push her around... And repeat, for the duration of the half hour bike ride.

At one point Martin called over to me, "You doing ok, babe?" and I yelled back, "No, this fucking sucks!" The witchy, ugly screech of my voice in my own ears startled me.

By the time we'd reached the Hyatt hotel, the rain had stopped and I'd calmed down a little bit. There were crowds of people streaming through the entrance who, I'm pretty sure, didn't make it a habit of visiting Hyatts in Crystal City: Indian families in brightly colored silk; hippie couples with dreadlocks and beads, clutching prayer cushions; Rastafarians in tall turbans; and groups of freshly-scrubbed people with glowing, angelic faces, wearing white robes. They all looked very comfortable, clean, warm, and dry, I noticed, as I reached up to brush some of the road mud off my cheek.

The Amma organizers had rented out one of the big conference rooms and lobbies in the second floor underground of the Hyatt; there were groups of smiling people in white robes and red sashes to direct the crowds down to the entryway where you were to take off your shoes. It was the kind of space I'd never imagine even on the craziest acid trip: imagine a vast, underground hotel conference space in a 100% dull corporate motif: from the boring blue and grey abstract designs on the acres of acrylic carpet, to the grey ceilings and nondescript tables, and random cluttered piles of podiums and conference equipment in the corners. Layer on top of that an occasional attempt at decoration: silk saris pinned up on pillars, posters with Amma's smiling face - colourful drops lost in the carpeted ocean. Then fill this huge grey space with kiosks selling Indian snacks; tables with home-made posters and flip-books with information on Amma's extraordinary array of charitable projects; long tables covered with photographs of Amma, mostly close-ups of her smiling face; tables selling Tulsi, or holy basil potted plants ("Personally blessed by Amma!"); sandalwood bracelets or malas ("Worn by Amma! In her room for three months!"); incense; essential oils; crystal beads ("Personally blessed by Amma!"); racks of Indian clothing; silk and wool shawls ("All proceeds from sale go to Amma's charitable works!"); and piles of Amma dolls. And, finally and most importantly, add huge crowds of eager pilgrims: Indian families, hippies, eager laughing children, huge throngs of white-robes, of all ages and colours. Interestingly, most of the people I saw were very physically attractive, whatever their ages: in good shape and health, bright-eyed and vigorous. Probably a lot of them did yoga.

The energy was almost overwhelming, but I wasn't so overwhelmed as to not notice that I was becoming extremely cold. My cotton pants and top were completely soaked and, just as I'd suspected, the place was air-conditioned and drafty. I'd brought a change of clothes in my bag, but everything in my bag was sopping wet. So my thoughts were an interesting mixture of: This is wonderful...feel the positive energy...listen to the Indian musicians...I'm so lucky to be here with the man I love...Fuck, I'm cold...I'm going to be cold for hours...Oh, if only I could be dry...Oh, this is all Martin's fault...Wow, this Amma has a lot of energy...It's inspiring to see what she has accomplished...I like her speech to the UN 50th Anniversary Celebration...although those huge piles of dolls are a bit creepy...Fuck, I'm cold....

All the pilgrims in the huge room sat down to meditate and smiling Amma followers came round with little plastic cups of holy water. "This water has been personally blessed by Amma," the announcer told us. "It has great healing power and you can keep it and sip it slowly over time and share it with your family and friends." He had a strong Indian accent, so the booming voice sounded more like a sing song "Share it with your fam-i-lee and friends."

We sat in meditation and Amma delivered a series of spiritual parables, translated into English by the booming, sing-song announcer. They were heavily laced with amusing stories and aw-shucks jargon: "Love is a funny thing. One day your lover will say to you, I cannot bear to be away for you even for one single moment. Oh darling you are my everything. The next day he might say, Oh, I cannot stand to be near you, even for one single moment. I must run away from you now! This is why we must come to understand a more spiritual type of love. This is illustrated by the story of the man who was sitting in the farmer's house eating a bowl ("bow-ul") of delicious vegetable soup. There was a little pig who was very affectionate to the man: running around his legs, wagging its little tail. The man said to his host, 'Your little pig has really taken a liking to me. I'd like to take one of his relatives for a pet.' The farmer replied, 'I wouldn't judge too quickly - he's acting like that because you're eating out of his bowl.' " Gusts of laughter billowed through the conference room at this tale - proving that there are all types of senses of humour in this world.

For much of the spiritual lecture, I was shivering, and Martin sat behind me, hugging me and rubbing my shoulders for warmth. A middle-aged woman in flowing robes drifted past us and murmured disapprovingly, "Remember that you're in a temple."

After the spiritual lecture, everyone chanted "OM" together several times, and let me tell you that I've rarely experienced anything as powerful as a room with thousands of fervent people chanting OM in unison.

We'd all received tokens for the darshan, to let us know when to get in line. Martin had numbers 800-900, while I had 1300-1400. "How come you're so far ahead of me?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "But I want to get the darshan with you."

"OK, are you going to wait for 1300 with me?"

"No, get into line with me, I'm sure they'll let you."

"Nuh-uh! I'm not skipping in line to see the saint!" I exclaimed. "That's so wrong!"

"Why? It doesn't matter."

"There's plenty of other people who are going to wait just as long as us." I was feeling particularly self-righteous, because I was still pissed off about the rainy bike ride - and steadily getting colder.

A buffet vegetarian dinner was being served in an adjoining conference room for people while they waited for their numbers to come up. As we were standing in line for the dinner I found myself casting a longing eye at the tablecloths. Perhaps I could take one from the tables and wrap it around my shoulders for a bit of warmth. As Martin hugged me from behind and I leaned into his body heat I found myself gazing around at the other pilgrims, wondering if anybody else was going to remind us this was a temple.

Dinner was delicious, fresh and well-spiced vegetable curries, and by the time I'd polished off two heaping plates of food I felt momentarily better. We went back to the main conference room - where it was up to number 500.

At some point I lost Martin in the crowd and wandered around looking for him. You know, I'm sure there's a principle in physics that has to do with feedback mechanisms in finely balanced equilibriums. I'm thinking of a spinning top that starts tipping more and more, or a wobbling person on a tightrope whose wobbles begin to spiral out of control. Something like that was happening to my mood at that point: ecstasy and despair chasing each others' tails in an ever-tightening circle, burning momentum from the spiritual energy fizzing from the crowd. Fuck I'm cold it's Martin's fault - Beautiful Amma an inspiration praise God - where is he, he's got my bag with money and I want to buy a Tulsi plant - All these people here to praise a saint, they really love her - These people are kooky and what's with all the Amma dolls - fuck I'm cold...

And then Martin tapped me on the shoulder. "Where were you?" I said shrilly, again becoming aware of how ugly my voice in my own ears sounded.

"I'm here - I've been meditating."

You've been meditating while I've been freezing my ass off and panicking?

I sat down and sank into my all-time least peaceful yoga Child's pose. Martin came close: "Can I get a hug?" We enjoyed a dramatic and angsty embrace, teeming with love and anger and yearning.

But it didn't take long before a white robe came and tapped me on the shoulder. "Excuse me, but some people were complaining about your behaviour with your partner. Please remember that this is a temple."

Although my sins of the evening were so juicy and numerous that it seems unfair to try to pick a winner, perhaps the gold medal should go to the way I rolled my eyes at the white robe guy, channelling generations of rebellious, be-pimpled teenagers getting kicked out of movie theaters for necking.

Shortly thereafter we realized it was 11:20, the metro closed at midnight, it was still raining, the Mt. Vernon bike trail was pitch dark, and Amma was only up to hugs in the 1000's. We approached the lavishly-decorated podium where Amma was receiving her followers, and explained our plight to one of the organizers. He was a snappy, fiery man with a clipboard, and he asked, "This is your first time to see Amma?"

We nodded pathetically.

"OK, I'll see what I can do. There's just one family of seven left to go up there, and then we're clearing the stage for the next group, but there's a few more to go. It's gonna be tight, gonna be tight." He rushed off with his clipboard and rushed back. "Good news, things have changed. Looks like I can get you on after this family. Are you taking the darshan as a couple?"

We looked at each other. My eyes were still puffy with spite. "Do you want to?" Martin said.


We climbed up the little stairs to the stage and shuffled on our knees towards Amma's chair, behind the Indian family. A follower met us with a bag of tissues. "Please wipe your faces off. Are you taking the darshan as a couple?" We nodded and she said, "Ok, he comes to the left and ahead of you." She gave us a little nudge on the small of our backs to direct us forward. I suppose this is all essential organization if you want to be efficient enough to give 21,000,000 hugs.

And then the people in front of me parted, and I saw Martin resting his head on Amma's breast, and there was a hand pushing me forward, and I was in her arms.

The whole evening had been a prelude, a pilgrimage for this single moment, and yet I'd hardly been anticipating it, so distracted had I been by my rush of self-righteous internal drama. Suddenly there were a pair of impossibly bright and knowing eyes twinkling at me, and I was hugging a saint.

I closed my eyes and for a second felt that I was floating through an eternity of stars. I felt surrounded by a vast knowing compassion; a compassion that instantly perceived and understood every scrap of my ridiculous pettiness, and loved me anyway. I realized that Amma was chanting something in my ear: ", ma, ma..."

Pardon the cliche, but the moment really did seem to last a million years. And then it was over, and Amma pressed something into my hand with a wink, and white robed followers were urgently pulling me away to make room for the next hug. As I dazedly descended the podium, I opened my palm and saw a yellow flower petal and a Hershey's kiss.

Then Martin and I began sprinting towards the exit. It was 11:44.

We dodged the followers grabbed our bags, put on our shoes (still soaking wet) and ran up the escalators and outside to where we'd locked our bikes. "Excuse me, which way to the metro?" I yelled to a bellhop.

"That way," he said, and frowned. "But you know, the metro closes at midnight."

"Yeah, I know..." I said as I jumped onto my bike in a single movement.

We raced to the metro, dismounted, and carried our bikes down the metro escalator (illegal - you're supposed to use the elevator.) I could hear the rush of an approaching train as I fumbled with my wallet to pull out a dollar for the ticket counter. The dollar was wet and the machine spit it back out.

Martin, who had a Metro pass, was already inside and called impatiently back to me, "The train's here! What are you doing?"

"The machine's not taking my dollar because MY FUCKING BAG IS SOAKED!!!" I shrieked back at him. I abandoned the machine and ran with my bike through the handicap gate, yelling at the attendant, "I'll pay on the way out!" As we approached the platform, the train doors closed and it zoomed away.

Martin and I looked at each other in disgust, mutual recrimination scarring both our features.

"Let's ride our bikes home," Martin said. "I'm not leaving my bike here."

"No fucking way!" I shrieked. "It's raining, I'm cold, I'm tired, and I'm not riding on the fucking highway in the middle of the night!" (Apparently my vocabulary had not been washed clean by the sparkling river of Amma's pure love.)

And so we eventually decided to lock up our bikes near the metro entrance, take a cab home, and pick the bikes up the next day. As we huddled for warmth in the taxi together, I looked up at this person who provoked me into such fits of uncontrollable fury and joy. "What was it like for you...the hug?" I asked.

Martin looked a bit dreamy. "She's so sweet..."

"What does it mean that we took darshan together?"

"Whatever you want it to mean."


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"Apparently my vocabulary had not been washed clean by the sparkling river of Amma's pure love."

That is hilarious.

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