Sunday, July 12, 2009

Amma in New York 2009

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, I went into New York City to see Amma. As I've mentioned in other posts, Amma is my guru, by virtue of her giving me a mantra and a name. I've been going to New York every year since 2002, when Amma was still coming to Columbia University. That was her last year at that venue; since then, she's come to the Manhattan Center every year. However, from what I've heard (and can obviously see), the Manhattan Center has become too small for her events. There is talk of holding it at the Jacob Javits Center next year, which is immense.

Every year that I come, it is different. That first year I was skeptical of what devotees told me about Amma, and eventually was able to see for myself what she was about. For several years I worked at the program, doing various sevas (i.e., service). In 2007, I had a very bad experience with one of the national tour coordinators while doing what I was instructed to do with my seva, and have not volunteered for seva since that time. The problem was not someone yelling at me, or a misunderstanding--I can handle both of those things. The problem was that I was told to come back in 20 minutes to help the coordinator, as she was doing something else. When she spoke to me, I never saw such contempt in a human being's eyes before. When I came back with the group I had to do the work, she'd already started the work with a different group and totally ignored me. This really got me angry, especially since I was the designated coordinator of that seva for New York. If she wanted to work with another group, she should have just said so--instead, I was standing around for 20 minutes when I could have been helping another group with Devi Bhava setup. That and the completely unnecessary level of disrespect completely turned me off. I realize that this kind of stuff goes on at various levels all the time, and I'm usually willing to put up with it--but don't waste my time and the money I've spent on hotel rooms to stay in New York to then not have me do any work at all.

So, between this and some of the other vicious politics, unctuousness, and general mud-slinging type sleaziness that goes on in the satsang groups over sevas, I've sort of given up. I realize that I've harbored a real bitterness towards the local groups. I did not attend satsang for almost 2 years, even though the New Jersey group was not the crux of the problem. Part of me understands that this sort of thing goes on around Amma. You would think that being around a spiritual master, people would be peaceful and behave better. In fact, the opposite is true. It's not limited to Amma's organization, nor to our particular satsangs. It is a human problem. Knowing this, I should just shrug it off and not let it concern me. But it's very difficult.

This year ended up being very different from all previous years for me. But before I get into that, I should explain a few things about Amma. I know I've talked about her before, but the subject comes up over and over again as to why so many people come to see her. She is called a "saint", a "humanitarian", a "hard worker", and a "very kind and compassionate lady". These things are all true, but they don't even scratch the surface of what Amma actually IS.

One year at the program, I was chatting with a Buddhist monk who had come to see Amma. He told me that out of all the saints and gurus in the world, there was maybe only one other person like Amma--she was an absolute rarity. This is not to say that there aren't other saintly people who show others the way--it's just that Amma is different. How?

A new video has come out of Amma's visit to Kenya to open an orphanage and provide educational scholarships to the children there. Dr. P.L.O Lumumba, who is a human rights activist, gave a speech at that visit, in which he says, "I know that all religions believe in Avatars of God, I suspect Mama (Mother) that you are such an avatar." To be clear, he is not talking about the cute little icons people make for themselves on forums and IM programs. An Avatar is a God incarnation. To the Hindus, Jesus Christ is an avatar. Amma said once that "an avatar is like a great ship that can carry many souls to liberation. A saint alone cannot do this." In short, as far as I'm concerned, Dr. Lumumba is correct--Amma is most certainly an avatar, and I'm convinced more and more of it every year. She doesn't care whether you believe that or not--she has no opinion about what anyone thinks of her, she just sees the best in everyone, and attempts to help those who seek her help. But Amma is an avatar of the Goddess Kali, so the way can be fraught with chaos, difficulty and uncertainty. That said--it is still far easier under Amma to achieve liberation than it would be on one's own. She makes things comparatively easy. There is a Hindu belief that to simply be in the room with such a person can erase as much as 80% of one's past karma. And then to have this person physically embrace you...when you think about it in context, it staggers the mind.

So, that sums up what I believe about Amma, and as I've said before, I'm pretty skeptical and cynical about spiritual leaders. This year, I came to receive Amma's darshan (i.e., her hug) on Wednesday morning, and I arrived very early for that. I also came Thursday afternoon around 3:30-4:00 to hear Amma's talk and participate in the Atma Puja, which she performs with those gathered for the peace and harmony of the world. I brought a book with me both times, as I knew I'd be waiting on line for some time.

When I entered the hall on Wednesday, I saw some of the folks that I didn't not care for straight off. Somehow though, I felt a stillness settle over me, so I had no strong feeling about their presence. Suddenly I felt a great rushing in the center of my chest, which is the seat of the anahata (heart) chakra. It felt like a tornado was driving through the center. I alternately felt peaceful and sorrowful--I found myself crying for no reason on and off. I wasn't the only one--I noticed several people around me similarly affected during their meditations. Amma's darshan was long--she was talking to someone while she was holding me, which is what everyone hopes for--it gives you a bit more time than that 30 seconds with her. She never looked at me, though I've learned not to be concerned about that.

Thursday I was standing on line again, and was reading Ambrose Bierce, of all authors. Bierce is known for his bitter cynicism, and as I was reading, I was aware of how bitter I was in general. It almost took me by surprise, and caused me a lot of physical pain in my chest. I felt like crying again several times, though I was standing outside, so it would have seemed odd. Standing next to me on line was a woman I recognized from satsang, whom I hadn't seen in a long time. She was coordinating one of the sevas that I'd coordinated about 3 or 4 years ago, and it's one of the most difficult. She started talking to me about how difficult the politics were, and how uncertain she felt about whether or not it was the right seva for her to do--perhaps she didn't have what it took to do it. As we started talking, I realized that a lot of how she felt mirrored how I felt about the whole seva business. It made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. When we got into the hall, that sense of a great force rushing through the anahata chakra started again. By the time I left that night, a lot of my bitterness had evaporated, and I felt equanimity for the first time in a long time. I called my mother the next day, and found that a lot of the bitterness I've felt towards her for various things had also evaporated. That's no small thing. I was physically ill when I got home, but that is not unusual--it's like a massive purgation of bad stuff happens in the presence of the Master, and it happens every year.

So, Amma certainly did some interesting things for me this year, and as usual, they happen subtly, not overtly. During her talk, she said two things that stood out to me. One was that to achieve liberation, one had to develop dispassion. By dispassion she doesn't mean not caring--it means not feeling any attachment one way or the other to things of this world. There are 3 kinds of dispassion--temporary, gradual, and intense. Temporary is what we feel after an event gets us hyped up to "give up everything", but a few days later we go back to the way we were. Gradual is what most people on a spiritual path experience--not sufficient for liberation, but good nonetheless. Intense is really giving up everything and focusing only on God. I imagine that's the hardest--there are so many attachments...

Amma also spoke about our obsession with our bodies. She says the body is like a rented house--you should try to keep it clean and in good order, but you're not going to invest your life savings into fixing it up. Amma definitely has a way with simile and metaphor, and I like this one a lot. People spend way too much time on the exterior--if they focused more on their interior, they would automatically look better on the outside.

Well, back to my work at home, before this post gets TOO long...

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