Amma: The Hugging Saint
What the world needs now is less religion and more hugging.
by Jay McDaniel
"Be like the honeybee who gathers only nectar wherever it goes. Seek the goodness that is found in everyone."
"Where did we go wrong? The real mistake we commit lies in our inability to differentiate between requirements and luxuries."
"Don't be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward."
What the world needs now is less religion
And more hugging.
At least it needs less rigid religion, amid which religion becomes ideology; and it needs more compassionate hugging of the kind that nurses give patients in hospitals.
There are many kinds of hugs. We can hug with our eyes, our arms, and our hearts. Physical hugs are one form of embrace, non-judgmental listening is still another. In the house of hugging there are many rooms.
For my part, I began to think more about the spiritual significance of hugging after learning about Amma, shown in the video above. Amma means Mother, but her real name is Mata Amritanandamayi. Throughout the world she is called the hugging saint.
Amma was born in a coastal village in southern India, and she first began to embrace people in her village as a way of helping ease their suffering. She then entered into a ministry of hugging which has been part of her life ever since. She has since accrued a very large following of people who receive her embrace and are inspired by her charitable work throughout the world. People from all faiths and all walks of life come to her; she does not require that you abandon your religion -- or absence thereof -- in order to be hugged. She has now embraced more than 32 million people.
She does not limit her hugging to physical embraces. She sponsors charitable projects in health care, disaster relief, education for the poor, environmental service, and hunger relief all over the world. You can learn more about her charitable work by visiting the website: www.amma.org.
I learned about Amma from a student of mine named Saranya, who is studying to be a physician. Saranya and her family are followers of Amma's way. When we were discussing Hinduism in a class on world religions that Saranya was taking with me, she shared with our class her own experiences with Amma.
Later in the class I showed a documentary of Mother Teresa when discussing Christianity, and Saranya observed to me that, for her, the spirit of Mother Teresa and that of Amma are very similar. She was right. These two mothers -- Teresa and Amma --show how the purpose of life is to love and be loved, and both display that love in loving touch.
A Process Theology of Hugging
If you are from India and are reading this, you may wonder what website you've landed on. It is called Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism. We are an international community of artists, teachers, homemakers, and scholars on all continents. For us "Jesus" symbolizes kindness, "Jazz" symbolizes creativity, and "Buddhism" symbolizes interconnectedness.
Many of us are influenced by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. We are naturally open to the possibiity that God's love can be received through hugging. In this spirit one of our favorite and most influential writers, Rabbi Bradley Artson from American Jewish University in Los Angeles, speaks of one of the highest of Jewish holy days as a love-fest, an embrace between people and God. On Yom Kippur Sabbath, he says:
...we embrace a passionate love-fest -- us and the Holy One. We show God our best selves; our most embracing; our most loving; our most resilient.
In the spirit of India, we process thinkers are multi-religious. We do not think the love-fest is limited to people of any one faith. Some of us are Jewish, some Muslim, some Hindu, some Buddhist, some Christian, and some spiritually-interested but not religiously-affiliated. Process theology is not a religion but an international community of people who share many of Whitehead's ideas but are simultaneously guided by other sources.
Nevertheless, influenced by Whitehead we all recognize:
1. That emotional energy -- including loving energy -- can be transferred between people in direct and palpable ways. We can feel each others' feelings and moods. Such state-sharing occurs through what Whitehead calls hybrid prehensions or hybrid physical feelings, in which the subjective aims and forms of others are felt, sometimes consciously and often unconsciously. Sharing subjective states is one form of empathy (affective empathy) which is complemented by still another form, namely that of imagining ourselves inside the perpective of another (cognitive empathy).
2. That the body plays a tremendously important role in life. Moment-by-moment our experience begins with bodily experience, with being touched by what is happening inside our bodies (proprioception) and what is happening outside our bodies. In Whitehead's terms we are always experiencing the world with our bodies and through experience in the mode of causal efficacy. Whitehead calls it the withness of the body.
3. That there exists a Love at the very heart of the universe -- God -- who is prehending or feeling the universe at every moment, and whose feeling can be felt by human beings as the animating power of love. Indeed even God has a body, not localized in a particular region of space but rather everywhere we look. The universe itself is God's body. Even God experiences the world through causal efficacy. Even God shares in the subjective states of all other beings in a loving way. God is a deep empathy at the heart of the universe.
4. That God's loving energy can be experienced by human beings in a variety of ways, and that when people experience this love they are creatively transformed so that, at least temporarily, they awaken to their own potential for becoming carriers of God's love in the world.
All of this suggests that, for some people in some circumstances, a loving touch -- a physical hug -- can indeed be a context in which people directly experience something of God's loving energy. Something like this occurs all the time in hospitals when nurses care for patients, in parenting when parents hug their children, in moments of death when dying people are lovingly shepherded into the next phase of their journey.
And it occurs in Amma's ministry of hugging. As is so often the case, the reception of divine love through her hug is best nourished by faith. Faith in God and faith that divine love can be felt through interactions with others. As Rabbi Artson puts it in "What are We doing when we pray?" and "The Constellation of Process Theology," receptivity to divine love is best nourished by faith in a relational God who becomes with the world.
The World Needs Bows, Too
But lest we overemphasize hugging, a word is in order about bowing.
We must be honest. Some hugs with the arms are not very good for people. They are smothering or suffocating. They do not give space for people to be themselves. They are dishonorable and disrespectful. In the worst of circumstances they are abusive. There are constructive hugs and destructive hugs.
Even innocent huggers -- those with good intentions -- can hug too much. Hugging is cheapened by too much hugging. It becomes insincere.
This is why the world needs bowing as well as hugging. Bows are beautiful because they are space-giving. "The divinity in me bows to the divinity in you." Bows retain space between people, not filled by physical touch. They allow people to be different. They make room for the multiple divinities.
There's a lesson here for people who seek a better world. Some among us talk about relationality and generosity. We advocate ministries of hospitality in which strangers are welcomed and everybody has a place at the table. We like words like "inclusiveness."
It is important for us to realize that in a truly inclusive world people need space and solitude. If we truly want a more just world, we must find a healthy balance between community and solitude, extroversion and introversion, outwardness and inwardness. Sometimes one of the kindest things we can do for another people is give them the freedom of not being looked at. We all need times of sacred aloneness. A truly relational world respects people's need to be alone.
The Spirit is Not Reducible to one Mediator
Perhaps it can help if we remember that the spirit can operated without our mediation. One of the greatest problems in our world is that well-intentioned people, who seek to be carriers of divine are inwardly trapped by a need to be needed or a need to be noticed.
When Jesus came down from the mountain and healed the leper, reaching out and touching him, did Jesus need to be noticed? Was he interested in flattery? Was he seeking a merit badge?
We hope not. We hope that he was obedient to a spirit which transcended him but which he tried to carry in his own life. We hope that he knew that his Abba was more than his ego.
Jesus was not God. Like Amma, God was in him but he did not exhaust the reality whose spirit he channeled. He would be the first to admit it. He prayed to his Abba all the time, seeking to embody his will on earth as it is embodied in heaven. Jesus was deeply and delightfully Jewish. He was someone who sought to be surrendered to a spirit more than him for whom he could be a vessel.
Loving Touch as a Way of Directly Experiencing God
But perhaps Jesus also knew something that we all need to know. Sometimes what is most needed by others, and we ourselves most need, is a loving touch. God is not simply an idea; God is an energy and this energy can be directly experienced without the mediation of words and doctrines. And sometimes it is through a hug, perhaps more than any other medium, that God can be experienced at all.
Sacred hugs are both consoling and awakening. They relax the heart, helping free it from attachments to fear, and awaken the heart for love.
Those among us who have a fear of flesh, a fear of the body, can be healed by sacred hugs.
How shall we name the healing energy which can sometimes be felt through a hug? Shall we say Abba or Amma? In a time of need, when the will of God needs to be done on earth as it is in heaven, does it matter?
No. Bow or hug, what is needed is a loving touch.