Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Adventures in hugging: No Shoes, Please

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended that I go see Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or, as she’s better known, Amma, the “Hugging Saint” of India. Amma (“Mother”) was on a U.S. tour at the time and had been scheduled for several Bay Area appearances. I was vaguely familiar with Amma’s work, having seen a “60 Minutes” piece on her several years ago. In a nutshell, Amma hugs people: impoverished people, people in the aftermath of a natural disaster, people who need emotional support for any reason, dramatic or mundane.

She also opens schools and medical clinics in places that have nothing resembling either, and gives material aid to forgotten or marginalized populations. For example, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, she went to Japan to hug those unfortunate souls and donated $1 million from her charitable organization to area relief efforts.

I respect Amma’s ministry and her supporters, but I’ll never attend another Amma event. It requires an investment of many hours before receiving the 10- or 15-second hug at the end. An Amma appearance is like the debut of a new ride at Disneyland – people line up by the hundreds. Event handlers keep things orderly, but I detest crowds. And even while attendees in general did a good job of not behaving like an unruly mob (many dressed in gauze and sandals, beatific smiles all around), I never got completely comfortable.

By the time the actual program began, I was already somewhat drained. I tried to engage in the chanting, but for the most part I was reading the English translation of the prayers on TV-screen monitors. At one point, my eyes drifted and I saw that “Lord Ganesh” came up as “Señor Ganesh” on the Spanish translation monitor. For some reason, this just cracked me up, but I dared not even smile for fear of appearing disrespectful. It was my “Chuckles Bites the Dust” moment when Mary Tyler Moore tries so desperately not to laugh during a colleague’s funeral. I think I needed to release some of the stress of having waited in a crowded, excruciating line just two hours prior, but it also didn’t help that the man in front of me was wearing a “Beat Stanford” T-shirt.

When my time for a hug finally arrived, I was hustled onto the stage where Amma herself was perched, and moments later someone pushed my head straight into her bosom. She chanted something in my ear, and then I was gently but firmly pulled away. It was a supervised, hurried affair. But I understood why the pace was brisk – there were hundreds waiting their turns for hugs.

I don’t regret my experience. Wild horses couldn’t drag me back, but not everything I try needs to evolve into a lifelong commitment. For me, the value of going was feeling curious enough to get out of my comfort zone, and there finding nothing familiar. That made it a little adventure – a way to combat routine and avoid smugness. And at the end, for my troubles, a hug.

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