Well take it from Kelly Cutrone, star of Kell on Earth, author of If You Have To Cry, Go Outside and the woman behind the successful fashion public relations company, People’s Revolution – Amma has done “f-ing amazing things.”
I’m going to have to agree with her.
It might not seem like a natural pairing – the 2002 winner of the Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence and famous hugger (more on this in a moment), and the reality-TV-show star and now straight-talking author-mentor of young women interns everywhere. But in just a few minutes speaking with Cutrone, I get it. Amma has changed the world for the better and helped women achieve – in other words, she’s a powerful feminine force. And so is Cutrone in her own way.
And maybe the amazing thing about showing up for my hug at the Sheraton Parkway in Toronto is that I feel that sense of possibility afterwards too. I said yes to the media invite as a part of my “year of turning 40″ project – there’s something I’ve never done; hugged a guru. I wanted to share that here!
But boy, it’s not just about hugs.
So, let’s talk about Amma because that’s why we’re all here. Amma is 53, and for the last 35 years she has been hugging people. But it’s not an ordinary hug: it’s darshan or an imparting of of divine energy and affection between spiritual leader and spiritual follower. Amma’s mission is to hug people with love, helping them to overcome poverty of spirit. She believes that one people are in touch with their own compassionate natures, they will naturally come to address core humanitarian issues like poverty.
But hugging is not the whole story. Amma’s collective charities, now named Embracing the World, have raised over 48 million dollars for food programmes, hospitals, orphanages, shelters for battered women, skills development and employment support and other organizations around the world, including Haiti and right here in Canada. She is playing a key role in giving voice to women’s issues around the world.
Reading one of her lectures after the event, I’m struck by some of the language. It reads like pretty old-school radical feminism: “The male community that stands unwilling to compromise is the emblem of the past….For the sake of a promising future, the minds and intellects of women and men need to become one. We cannot wait any longer.”
And still, Amma hugs. Everyone – men, women, old, young. Sometimes for 20 hours a day. She even hugs members of the media like me who show up in a black and pink dress (white seems to be the colour of the day), with skeptical minds and who have hang-ups about taking their shoes off. (That’s me in the picture.)
Entering the conference room (barefoot, despite the hang-up), I look around the room with its dozens of people patiently waiting for their hug, experiencing the moment and her presence, meditating and smiling and chatting. I see people of all different ages and nationalities (by which I mean everyone – not just people of colour) – not unusual for Toronto. The one thing I don’t see is anyone rushing around, which is very unusual for Toronto- at least, for my Toronto.
I watch Amma hug the people ahead of me – a mother and her daughters. I’m surprised at how long the hug lasts. The girls are bubbly, bouncing. The mother’s back straightens as Amma whispers to her.
Then it’s my turn. I kneel down and she pulls me in and says (in the language of my choice, from which I understand she knows these words in many languages): daughter daughter daughter daughter. She was soft, but strong — I’m guessing those hugging muscles are well toned — and smelled overwhelmingly of roses.
It struck me that it has actually been a long time since I hugged my mother. Or spent a while thinking about compassion, or poverty. Or slowed down to hang out with people who are thinking about love and its place in the world.
Amma, I’m told by Kelly Cutrone, doesn’t care if you’re a believer and isn’t out to convert anyone. She just believes that her hug will change something, all on its own. And it might.