Rob Parsons

Something That Works.

What I learned from Amma

by Rob Parsons

Water lilies at Amma's ashram
near San Ramon, California
photo by: Elissa Van Poznak.

July 05, 2007

An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.
-Mohandas K. Gandhi

The enormity of the problems and challenges surrounding our planet and its current 6.7 billion inhabitants can be very unsettling. Sometimes it seems our best efforts to stop the war, save the whales or protect the environment are mere drops in a very leaky bucket.

As regular readers of this column know, it's my intention to inform and inspire so that collectively we may make better choices, both in our own community and for the planet as a whole. Far be it from me to preach, but I would like to share my observation of a phenomenon that qualifies as the greatest form of renewable energy I've ever seen.

The last stop on my two-week Mainland jaunt brought me to the San Francisco Bay area. A short freeway drive to the east is San Ramon, and tucked back in the rolling, golden hills of horse country is M.A. Center. The picturesque ashram there, complete with rose gardens and lotus-filled lake, is a spiritual retreat attracting thousands who travel to be with guru Maya Amritanandamayi, or Ammachi, the "Indian hugging Saint."

When someone asked Amma why she receives every person who comes to her in a loving embrace, Amma replied, "If you ask the river, 'Why do you flow?' what can it say?"

When someone asked
Amma why she receives
every person who comes
to her in a loving embrace
, Amma replied, "If you
ask the river, 'Why do
you flow?' what can it say?"

Amma (Hindu for "Mother"), as she is known all over the world today, has inspired and started innumerable humanitarian services.

"She is recognized as an extraordinary spiritual leader by the United Nations and by the people all over the world," states the website www.amma.org. "Though Amma makes no claims herself, those who watch her closely notice that she is the greatest example of her teaching. Her disciples and believers absorb her teachings by just watching her."

For the past 35 years Amma has dedicated her life to the uplifting of suffering humanity through the simplest of gestures-an embrace. Each year, she tours India, Japan, North and South America and Europe. With a simple hug, she has personally blessed and consoled more than 25 million people.

My wife Heather met Amma back in 1988, at a small gathering in Carmel, California. That was the second year she visited the United States, which also included a stop on Maui. There, she appeared at an event at old Maui High in the creaky gymnasium building, since burned to the ground. Amma hasn't returned to Hawai'i since.

Heather first brought me to the ashram near San Ramon in June 2000, two months after we were married. I trusted her judgment, and went into the experience with an open mind and heart. What I noticed then, and in subsequent visits, is that the ashram is a microcosm of something that works.

Thousands of people may visit daily, and the large property is well planned, with parking lots, trails, kitchen, dining hall and a large A-frame assembly hall. Volunteers guide the traffic, greet visitors, chop the vegetables, serve meals, wash dishes and do all other manners of seva (spiritual practice of selfless service). It is expected that each visitor may perform some seva, to contribute to the greater good of all. In recent years the ashram has added a snack bar, espresso stand, chair massage, flower stand and a used/new clothing store, all of which are staffed by volunteers. The proceeds go to Amma's numerous charities.

As someone who has scrutinized many a development proposal and political candidate, I'm constantly reminding myself to "follow the money" to find the real story behind the glossy exterior. In the case of Amma, the broad reach of her charitable endeavors is astonishing. Amma has used charitable donations to accomplish what governments and corporations have not.

The December 2004 tsunami ripped through Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, leaving close to 200,000 dead and many thousands more homeless. Amma immediately pledged $23 million in support, much to her followers' surprise. Since that time, she has provided temporary shelters and fed thousands; helped oversee building 5,000 new homes, supplied medical care, vocational training, and textbooks; and presented new sewing machines for the women and boats for fisherman. Actual services provided were estimated at nearly $46 million.

A year later, Amma was among the first to donate to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, bestowing $1 million to aid recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. M.A. Center volunteers provided food, clothing, school supplies as well as emotional support.

The South India province of Kerala, where her main ashram is located, has the highest literacy rate of all India. There Amma's charities have built a state-of-the-art hospital, university, medical college, engineering institute, nursing school, orphanages and much more.

In Hindu, the term Mahatma is reserved as a title of respect for those renowned of spiritual virtues and high-mindedness. Like her great countryman, Mohandas K. Gandhi, who helped show the world the value of peaceful resistance, Amma is similarly revered. A satguru or "true teacher," Amma has challenged some of the traditional, patriarchal beliefs which have long guided the religious and political practices of her homeland India, and beyond.

Born in a small fishing village in Kerala in 1953, as a young girl Amma was often shunned and thought strange, as she would be immersed in spiritual reverie. Her compassionate qualities were also apparent at an early age, as she would take food or clothing to elderly or poor neighbors, and attend to their housekeeping or other needs.

Today, she continues to offer darshan (literally, "presence with the guru," but now synonymous with her hugs) to thousands of people every day. When someone asked Amma why she receives every person who comes to her in a loving embrace, Amma replied, "If you ask the river, 'Why do you flow?' what can it say?"

For me, visiting the San Ramon ashram to watch and receive Amma's darshan was a mesmerizing experience. With a rousing backdrop of live Indian bhajans (devotional singing) and a full band of musicians, sometimes lasting all night, the energy seemed to spiral right up through the roof. Hour after hour, person after person arrived in the line for their embrace with Amma. Some left weeping, others smiling ear to ear.

My own experience is of deepening appreciation and wonderment with each visit and every hug. Much as our cars need a regular tune-up, and our homes a spring cleaning, we count on this yearly sojourn to bolster us and inspire our efforts. With our spiritual batteries charged, we come to cherish the magnitude of grace in our lives, even with the apparent craziness of the world surrounding us.

I relish Amma's unwavering positivity, omniscience and nurturing spirit. She reminded me that each act of compassion and selfless service is its own reward, no matter how insignificant it may seem in the big scheme of things. Even a small pebble dropped into a large pond will alter its surface, sending ripples far and wide.

As we try to surf the little ripples and big waves that come at us each day, it would be nice if we could do so with the reverent joyfulness and compassionate attentiveness shown by Amma. By doing so, we just might be creating something that works.