My wife and I went to Marlborough, Mass. last weekend for a retreat with Amma, the hugging saint. We flew out on Southwest. 1 stop, 9 hours. It reminded me very much why I prefer non-stops and legacy carriers for transcontinental trips. We lucked out and got the exit aisle on both legs, but if we hadn't (or, say, if we'd missed our connection in Phoenix), things would have been a whole lot worse. I don't like extra anxiety on my plane flights. Chances are the California Pizza Kitchen salads we bought in Phoenix were better than any airline food we would have gotten, but we did have to schlep them on board and what if we hadn't had time to buy them? Again, nerve-wracking. I've done transcontinental in a normal Southwest airlines seat, and it is no picnic. And according to the media, Southwest is going to reduce its seat pitch so it can squeeze more passengers on its planes, just like everyone else. The difference in price for legacy carriers is NOT worth it for trips inside California and up and down the west coast, but it sure as heckfire IS worth it for coast to coast travel.
We arrivived at the Best Western, where Amma is staying and where the devotees are fed. I asked for a no-smoking King, and got a smoking Queen. You gotta love the hotels. There are no newspapers anywhere in the hotel, and no honor boxes out front. You have to drive five minutes to the supermarket to buy a newspaper, for heck's sake!
We slept quite late; didn't have breakfast until 11. The hotel supplies a continental breakfast. We drove to a nearby supermarket and bought the barely adequate local paper because they don't stock the Boston Globe. We napped and read until lunch at 2, then did 45 minutes in the gym. Napped and read until 7 (we think serious hay fever may be making us sleepy). We registered for the retreat, then made it to the hall to watch Amma arrive at 8. Two swami talks, some bhujans, a meditation, and the off to a 10pm dinner. "I get too hungry for dinner at 10."
As always, both swamis made their points with stories. All great religious leaders use stories to make their points. First, he told a variation of this one:
A car was involved in an accident. As one might expect, a large crowd gathered. A newspaper reporter, anxious to get his story, pushed and struggled to get near the car.
Being a clever sort, he started shouting loudly, "Let me through! Let me through please! I am the son of the victim."
The crowd made way for him. Lying in front of the car was a donkey.
The moral: "we make a donkey of ourselves when we take instead of giving.
A man enters his local bar holding a frog . He sets it down on the bar and says to the bartender, "Will you serve me all night if the frog sings?"
"All night," says the bartender. The frog sings Lady Gaga's Bad Romance and Beyonce's Put A Ring On It.
"That's amazing," says the bartender. He seves the man all night.
Later, a businessman comes up and says, "I just saw that and I was amazed. I want to buy your frog for $100,000."
The man said ok, and he exchanged the frog for the money and the businessman left. The bartender said "What are you nuts?! You could have made millions with that frog!"
The man said "Oh, the frog can't sing." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a hamster. "The hamster's a ventriloquist."
Laksmi, the goddess of wealth, holds one hand palm out fingers up. This represents the troubles of the world. Her other hand is palm out fingers down, representing the giving of boons. We don't want the frog (or we shouldn't want the frog, or the troubles); instead we should want the hamster (the boon, the peace). OK, I admit it, I'm fuzzy on this one.
Finally, a story to illustrate that only internalities are real; externalities are an illusion. As usual, this joke takes 10 minutes to tell when the swami does it, like all good shaggy dog stories.
The captain of ship is offended by the stinky socks of his sailors. He tells the first officer to do something about it. "Force the men to change their socks," he orders. The next day, the socks still stink. He asks the first officer what happened. "I made them change socks. Smith changed into Jones socks, O'Brien changed into O'Reilly's socks..."
Changing the externals changes nothing.
There are no externalities, only internalities. When a child looks in a mirror, they wonder, "who is the child in there." When they cannot touch that child, they go around to the back of the mirror, and find no child there either. We are like that child; everything is a reflection of ourselves, we just don't know it.
Not a joke, but still a cool story: Amma was singing bhujans one night. She was also irritated that thousands of bricks outside were so far from the housing being built that time was wasted every day moving them. After the bhujans, she walked out and picked up two bricks and walked them to the building site. A thousand devotees followed her, and the impossible task of moving all those bricks was done in 40 minutes.
I am not sure everything happens for a reason, or of the meaning of coincidence. Still. As we entered the hall this morning a stranger introduced herself to us--AU, who says her daughters both worked for a college friend of mine in Western Massachusetts. I think that is beyond "it's a small world." AU lived in Nevada City, where my ex-fiancée is on the faculty at Ananda University.
At the morning satsung, the swami told us that wealth does not equal happiness, and that arrogant ignorance is worse than ignorance. He likened a man who knows a little and is humble to a cup, into which more knowledge can be poured. The arrogant person is like a cup with a lid on it; no way to pour knowledge in!
Amma arrived, Swami led us in meditation, and she gave darshan (hugs). We were in the first group of 14, which made for a short morning. After lunch, we did seva (selfless service; chopped vegetables) for 90 minutes, then hit the gym for 30 on the elliptical machine. At 7, there was mediation with Amma, followed by Q&A. One man asked if Amma would like to quit her work and move with him to the Himalayas. He also asked if he would be with her in the next life if he did not fulfill his dharma. She answered his joke question with a joke; he was welcome to move to the Himalayas, and she would be there with him--in his mind. As for the next life, she says we are all beads on her necklace, and will be with her in the next life regardless of whether we fulfill our dharma or not. She was also asked if it is OK to have other gurus. Yes, she answered, as long as you don't let them confuse you.
After the Q&A, this is the night on the retreat when Amma serves dinner to all the devotees. She handed me my dinner plate. Me and a few hundred other people. Then back to the hall for an evening satsung. The swami told us we are all born with stinking software, full of jealousy and rage, and that Amma is trying to swap it out for love software. He told us Amma is different from other gurus, and mentioned the difference between caring from the outside (sympathy) and caring from the inside (empathy). Then bhujans--but as I was exhausted, I only stayed for one. Got to bed at a decent hour, at last.
The best laid plans of mice and men... Yes, we got to bed early, but at 1 am, a dog in the room next door decided it was barking time, and proceeded to bark for two hours. We put in the earplugs we always carry on the road, but they are only just so effective. Being with Amma puts me in a mood to ask, "What sort of lesson am I supposed to learn from this? Plan but expect failure? We're not really in control and we're foolish if we think we are? People shouldn't be allowed to have dogs in hotels?
I suffered a brief bout of disorientation (brought about, I suspect, by fatigue and dehydration) that caused me to be late for the morning satsung and unable to retain any of it. I went back and took a nap. We went downstairs to do seva (selfless service) at 2, expecting to cut vegetables. Instead, we served lunch for the last hour it was available. There was quite a rush when Amma finished at 2. The line got a bit long at times, but we kept up pretty well, all in all.
The evening satsung produced a wealth of riches. "To forget yourself is to remember god." "Selfless actions are worship of the lord." "Do not just exercise your body, exercise your heart, by showing compassion." "Laughter is the music of the soul," which I know is trite, but still true. Also, "You can laugh or cry, but time goes by in either case, so you might as well laugh." Fate and/or Karma are strong, but we can change our fate. There are three kinds of karma, which Amma likened to illnesses, from the common cold to incurable cancer. I admit I had trouble following this part.
On the other hand, the stories I got. (Again, please understand these were told better and longer at satsung). The Karma story told of a man who had an accident. When he was talking to the police, he said, "I had one drink, drove around the block and was fine. I had two... three... but after the 10th drink I drove and crashed. Arrest the bartender for serving me the 10th drink." It wasn't the 10th drink, Amma said, it was the previous nine. Similarly, we see effects in this life that seem disproportionate to the single drink we've taken--that's because the effects are actually the result of the nine drinks we took in prior lives.
The doctor told the man to put brandy in his eye every day to clear up an infection. A week later the man returned and was worse. "I try to lift the brandy to my eye, but it gets no farther than my mouth," indicating we are held back by our habits.
Finally, there was a retold story; a man was given eye medicine and stomach medicine and mixed them up. He got worse. Sometimes, when we are confused, we take the wrong "medicine" for the wrong problem in life.
V did not stay for the all-night Devi Bhava ceremony Tuesday night, although she did have darshan during that celebration. Here is the definition of it, from the New England Amma web site:
Literally translated as “the mood of the Divine Mother,” Devi Bhava is a very special event that celebrates the feminine aspect of God, and God’s unconditional love and compassion for all humanity. It is a traditional, joyful celebration when Amma gives darshan as the Divine Mother in the manner symbolized by Hindu tradition.