Oh, what an interesting holiday week it’s been for us who live in the United States. Yesterday many of us had the day off to celebrate our country. During this day of honoring our independence, we had time to perhaps contemplate the many big, and oftentimes scary, changes of late in our nation.
For me, it wasn’t a year for BBQ’s or going to see the fireworks or spending time outside in the DC heat. This year I am pregnant and have a decidedly-sober partner. We are both worried for our country. Thus, we were craving a different Independence Day experience.
(This isn't to say that my FOMO - fear of missing out - around missing the normal festivities wasn't coming up strongly. I just knew that I needed to skip those things this year and deal with the feelings that came up around that choice.)
Instead, yesterday we chose to spend the day in the presence of Amma, a teacher of unconditional love who visits each summer from her native south India. On her US tour, she goes to a few big cities, sets up camp in a nice hotel ballroom and opens the doors for thousands of people to come through. Her teaching program is free and if you are willing to wait around for a few hours, she will give you a hug.
When Amma leaves the US, she goes to other countries and continents and does the same thing. Over the past 30 years, Amma has hugged literally millions of people and raised many millions of dollars for charity in the process. Her foundation was one of the largest private donors for Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. She is currently building two huge hospitals in India that will serve a lot of people for a long time.
Many people say that Amma’s hugs have changed their lives. After the embrace, they finally understood the meaning of love and how much it already existed inside of them. After hugging her, others say they found their life purpose. Some people, even those who first walked into that ballroom very skeptical, decided devote to their entire lives to helping her travel and hug and fundraise.
I’ve gone to see Amma for nine years now. When I arrived for my first visit with her, I wasn’t yet a yoga teacher nor did I have any idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was more concerned about whether the guy I was dating would turn into my boyfriend and if I needed to lose 10 more pounds.
That night at dinner, before my first hug, I sat across from a man who had seen Amma many times. He told me that after hugging Amma for the first time, he started playing music again. Everything had gotten better after meeting her, so he continued to come.
Later on, when she embraced me, I didn’t feel any fireworks. I found the whole process of waiting in line and being shepherded into her lap a little humorous and a lot overwhelming. She was a tiny, round Indian woman dressed in white. She smiled a lot. I didn’t understand what made her so special.
And yet, everything in my life got better. I started teaching yoga, which felt a lot like my life purpose, and I stopped dating the guy who was never going to turn into a relationship.
Little by little, I began to uncover a deeper sense of self-esteem in my life. I started to think my life and my presence had real value. My life really did change.
Do I think all of this had to do with Amma? Honestly, no or at least not completely. I’ve known a lot of people who devote their lives to gurus and I’ve come to accept that I’m probably not cut out to be a true devotee. My skepticism and rebelliousness always take over.
And yet, like that man I sat across from on my first night at dinner, my life just keeps getting better. So when Amma comes, I always decide to go back.
Since that first night, I’ve seen her seven or so times in DC and twice in India. Each time, I wait in line for a hug. Each time, I get overwhelmed, feel few fireworks and still think the process works well for me.
Mostly, I am grateful for her example. She shows me how you don’t need any special skills or intelligence to make change. If you are working intentionally with the power of love -- which I believe she is harnessing in a very special way -- you can perform miracles.
To me, it’s a miracle that she can hug people for more than 15 hours straight without a bathroom break. It’s a miracle that she can unlock so much generosity in the hearts of stingy westerners and then give that money to people that need it. It’s a miracle that she can fill the Crystal City Marriott ballroom with a huge diversity of people who want to gather in the name of love and that all of this can happen just a few miles away from the White House July 4th celebration.
Amma inspires me that there is always more energy available for us when we chose to be aligned with the power of love. This unconditional love, when utilized, can generate a huge of amount of change. Right now, I believe we really need to harness this power individually and collectively. We need role models and Amma is one of the best ones I’ve seen in my life.
Yesterday, I was hugged together with my partner Micah and our almost-fully-gestated baby. Amma smiled at me and gave me an apple as a blessing for my pregnancy. The whole thing, as usual, felt overwhelming.
Afterward, I sat with Micah and cried. Being blessed as a family gave me a really beautiful feeling of stability, something I need so much right now. It showed me that those nine years of inner work had led me somewhere fruitful. It reminded me that next year, I will come back and bring the baby for his first blessing outside of the womb. This next chapter is beginning with grace.
As I write this, I realize that this guru concept is really strange in our Western culture. Why should we spend so much time worshipping a human being or get excited over something as simple as a hug?
Honestly, I don’t know and I remain conflicted as to how it all works. I don’t think we need to see a guru for our own inner growth or give money to anyone. Actually, I think anyone who demands our money or devotion should be avoided at all costs.
And yet, perhaps we can all agree that we need to be inspired. We need people who inspire us to make more aligned choices and places to gather where those choices are honored. Some years, we need to deviate from our typical cultural plans and go do something that helps our hearts to open in a way that helps our culture grow.
Whatever or whoever inspires you, I hope you continue to show up, even if it doesn’t always make logical sense. You deserve time and space to feel the love inside of you. Upon receiving it, you can immediately use that love as graciousness. You can give to another person (usually the cranky one having the bad day) and feel how your life just gets bigger and bigger from that generous action.
Mostly, I hope you remember that the love really does come from inside of you. We can spend our lives searching for it, but truly we have to give it to find it. Once you do, there is nothing you can do to lose it and nothing you have to do to earn it. It’s just there in your depths, like a spring of water waiting to be dowsed and tapped.
When you find it, drink fully. When you lose sight of it, remember to take time to look deeper. When you are satiated, share the extra outward. Remind other people they can also do the same. Create change in this way, from the bottom up and from the inside out.
To me, this is the truest self-care. It’s the kind that feeds us endlessly and could never be labeled as selfish. Let’s make that the real independence we are celebrating.