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Thursday, June 21, 2007

embracing the chaos

amma, otherwise known as the hugging saint, was in town this week. when i told friends and family that i was going to see her so she could give me a hug, they all asked "amma who?". and you couldn't really blame them; after all, she doesn't have the same name recognition as the dalai lama nor pope benedict (whose name zoomed to the front pages recently when he and his cronies released the ten commandments for drivers).

i explained that she was like mother teresa in some way, and that while she didn't belong to any specific religion, she did good deeds and spread peace and love wherever she went. and that i hoped to get my fill of that peace and love while she was here in LA. of course, when they found out that i would be surrounded by gauzy white-clad devotees and that it involved chanting and meditation, they looked at me as if i had just told them that i was going to LAX to chant "hare krishna" and ask tourists for spare change.

and i guess you could say there was some truth to that. after all, i had to go to LAX (actually, the hilton hotel at LAX) and would be spending a good part of the night chanting with the group. however, instead of my asking others for spare change, i would be donating my own spare change to them. a slight difference.

anyway, thanks to an amma veteran who recommended that i show up at the public program on sunday or monday because it would be less crazy, i drove out to the hilton on monday for my latest adventure.

and when i got there, things seemed to be well under control. with an hour to go before the scheduled start of the evening program, i was directed to the end of the line which snaked all the way from the ballroom, along the main hallway, to the lobby, and down the escalator to the reception area below. when i got there, a volunteer asked me if this was my first time to meet amma, and when i responded in the affirmative, she stuck an orange dot on my shirt. it would be the mark that would for the rest of the evening announce to the world "be nice to me, i don't know what i'm doing".

the line eventually started moving, and when i got to the ballroom entrance, i received my token (i.e., my priority number to meet amma), and was led into the large room. fortunately, because i was the proud bearer of that orange dot, i was allowed to sit up front with the other newbies, right at the foot of the stage, within flower-tossing distance from amma herself. not bad, i thought.

it took a while to get everyone seated and settled down. then with great fanfare, amma entered the room. she was surrounded by children and a retinue of assistants. they all made their way to the stage, with amma seated front and center. after the obligatory welcome from a local politician, amma spoke to the crowd through her interpreter, a very entertaining swami. after that, we all sang and chanted, then were led through a brief meditation. finally, with all the preliminaries out of the way, the darshan, or blessing ceremony, began. long story short, since i had pulled a token in the "G" series of numbers, i didn't receive my hug until around 1am.

as for the magical hug itself, after all the waiting and the big to-do, i have to admit that it was anti-climactic. once my number was called, i knelt down at the end of the line and inched forward. her assistants then proceeded to sort out those who needed a group hug (as in mothers with children) versus the singles like me who were to be hugged individually. when i finally reached the front of the line, the assistant pushed me towards amma, indicating that it was time for me to lean forward and be hugged. at that point, amma put her arms around me and chanted something silently. what exactly she said or what language it was in, i have no clue. i tried to relax in her embrace, but as soon as she released me, someone else pulled me away as amma placed a chocolate kiss and a few rose petals in my hand. that was it? i realized that with all the machinations of getting through the line, i didn't feel the rush nor the sense of calm i was hoping to feel. but hey, i got my hug.

on thursday evening, thanks to all the media coverage on monday's news shows, it seemed like everyone in LA showed up -- both the faithful as well as the curious -- for the grand finale of the tour, the devi bhava.

Devi Bhava is the manifestation of the Eternal Feminine, the creatrix, the active Principle of the Impersonal Absolute. All deities of the Hindu Pantheon, which represent the numberless aspects of the one Supreme Being, exist within us. One possessing Divine Power can manifest any of them by mere will for the good of the world. During Devi Bhava, Mother manifests the mood of the Divine Mother in order to shower her grace upon us.

again, i arrived an hour early, but already the lobby and hallways were filled with people. in an effort to control the crowd (and appease the fire marshal), the organizers directed us to different function rooms so we could sit and wait until it was time to be led into the main hall.

and then, due to what seemed to be a breakdown in communications, things started going haywire.

one of the hosts walked up to the front of the room, and in a voice that could barely be heard from the front row, she asked all the orange dot / blue dot people to move up to where she was standing (i had a blue dot this time; when someone asked me if it was my first time, i said yes, only because i'd never been to amma's devi bhava before). not knowing what she wanted us to do, i left my belongings on my chair to hold my seat. sure enough, after consulting with someone on the other end of her earpiece, she apologetically asked us to go back to our seats.

someone turned out the TV monitors that were in the room, supposedly to show us a video about the ceremony we were about to participate in. at this point, i couldn't figure out if we were going to stay in that function room for the duration, or if we were ever going to make it downstairs. just then, another host walked into the room. she said that we were all going to be led down to the main hall. again, we could barely hear her. once people heard the word "downstairs", there was a mad rush for the exit door. citing the ever-present fire marshal, she tried to restore order to our exodus. but the damage was done. while i waited patiently for my turn, people cut in from all directions just to make sure they could be at the front of the line. soon realizing that half the room behind me was now in front of me, i joined the line-cutters as we made our way to the stairs.

and then suddenly, the line stopped moving forward. i had a bad feeling about this. and sure enough, we were told that the main room was full to capacity and that we would have to watch and participate in the ceremony via the monitors in the function room.

i drove all the way here, paid $9 to park my car, waited two hours, just to watch amma on TV?!?!?

after sitting for what seemed like an eternity in the sterile room, watching the goings-on downstairs on the TV monitor and feeling totally disconnected from the entire experience, i decided to go home. besides, i already had my hug a few days before and didn't think i'd stay long enough for another one (i pulled an "N" this time, guaranteeing that i wouldn't get my turn until way way past midnight). but before heading out to the parking garage, i made one last attempt to get into the main hall. after all, things were so chaotic that i stood a chance of being able to get in if i played my cards right.

but no dice. while people were going in and out of the ballroom supposedly on their way to/from the restroom, the bouncer guarding the entrance to the hall wouldn't let me in. not even to stick my head in the door to see what it looked like in there. the room's full, he said sternly.

i stood there and waited. something was bound to change. but when i started hearing the strains of the start of the atma puja, i knew that it was pointless for me to stand in the hallway. so i pointed to the food concession area and asked the bouncer if i could watch the puja on the TV monitors in there. as long as there was a chair for me to sit on, he said, he'd let me.

happy at last that i was that much closer to amma (and to the food), surrounded by seva-ites and die-hard amma followers, i chanted along with the group while i carefully held on to the container of holy water i received. after all, if it was blessed by amma and supposedly cures illnesses, relieves anxiety, and solves problems, it was worth hanging on to. you never know.

at the end of the atma puja, amma retired backstage, where she changed into her devi bhava finery. and once she stepped back out and began the darshan, i knew that it was time to make my exit. i had enough excitement for the evening.

before i left, i stopped at the concession booths to buy a souvenir. i ended up selecting a pale teal t-shirt with an "om" symbol on the front and this written on the back:

Om is the answer to all you've been looking for, Om is your own true nature. -- Amma

it had been one long, but eventful, night. ommmmmm....