We arrived Tuesday afternoon, checked in the Marriott Pyramid North after a brief shuttle ride from the Sunport airport, along the only freeway I've ever seen that is consistently bathed in decorator colors with a southwestern motif.
We checked in, and received out seva assignments as well as our orange wristbands, which will be our constant companions for the next three days. I got 8pm dining hall cleanup on Wednesday and 11pm dish washing on Thursday.
There are some aspects of this experience that are beyond my writing skills to describe. Since I can't take notes from a 90-minute talk by either the guru or the chief swami, I end up remembering only the funny stories. This is, of course, what makes storytelling such a powerful teaching tool, as long as the story is closely grounded to the point you're trying to make, which Amma's stories are.
One metaphor (regulars tell me she has used it before) is to compare proximity to the guru to tuning in to a radio station. If you are tuned properly, you can be quite a way from the guru and still participate in her vibrations. On the other hand you can be next to the tower, and if you have not tuned properly, you will get nothing. The moral of the story: proximity is nice, but not necessary for spiritual advancement.
As a former radio engineer, I feel obliged to extend her metaphor one step further: if you're right next to the transmitting tower, you can blow out your radio because the signal is too strong. I am not suggesting avoiding the physical presence of the guru, merely noting that being in her presence can sometimes be unnerving.
Amma is not above using the internet for a good idea; she wanted to talk about the need for empathy, and told this story:
Suddenly her husband burst into the kitchen and started saying: "Careful .. CAREFUL! Put in some more butter! Oh Good Grief! You're cooking too many at once. TOO MANY! Turn them! TURN THEM NOW! They need more butter. Oh Good Grief ! WHERE are we going to get MORE BUTTER? They're going to STICK! Careful ... CAREFUL! I said BE CAREFUL!! You NEVER listen to me when you're cooking! Never! Turn them! Hurry up! Are you CRAZY? Have you LOST your mind? Don't forget to salt them. You know you always forget to salt them. Use the salt. USE THE SALT! THE SALT!"
The wife stared at him. "What on earth is wrong with you? You think I don't know how to fry a couple of eggs?
Swami was the warm up act, and stopped in mid-sentence when he got word that Amma was on her way. He was discussing the need not to become attached to objects, and mentioned the exception that it was OK to be attached to objects that have been touched by the guru. But first, he told a story of a physicist from Los Alamos he had met the night before. The physicist conceded that science doesn't know much about what preceded the big bang, and swami said Amma does. Swami also mentioned that Amma frequently talks about the universe being a web, and how a vibration in one part of the web is felt all over the web. This reminded me of quantum communications, the idea that two paired molecules can communicate across the galaxy instantly, such that if you change the state of one, the other changes. I tried to look this phenomenon up on the Internet, including on the notoriously unreliable Wikipedia, but ended up just giving myself a headache, so I stopped. Still, I am fascinated that Amma and physicists are thinking along the same lines.
After the meditation, we were among the first 20 people to have darshan, once again joining the millions of people who've had a hug from the hugging saint. If you are there with your significant other, you can get a dual hug. My wife was in front of me; I felt sure she'd get to go first. Instead, like every other time, they had me go first, then she joined me.Tradition, I guess.
Being hugged by a saint is a beautiful, if somewhat unnerving experience.
Beautiful because, well, she's a saint. Unnerving because the mechanics are quite precise, and even if you do your best, you're liable to get something wrong and, in the words of one of my daughters, be "airlifted out" by the people running the line. Tuesday went more smoothly than usual, I must say.
The main activity of the afternoon was a Q&A with Amma, outside in the pavilion behind the hotel. She sits on a small raised stage. The swami translates the questions and her answers. In 90 minutes, she took three questions. No disrespect to my fellow devotees intended, but I believe it could be said they all suffered from Congressional Questioning Syndrome, which is to say each short question was proceeded by a long speech. In any case, all three of Amma's answers were made with love, and were about love. Just like the Beatles! Another phenomenon which I am at a loss to describe is the peals of laughter during Amma's presentations. I think most of it comes from the love of knowing insiders, primed to see Amma's impish side, and goaded by Swami's well-developed sense of humor. As they say in television, it is mostly character humor, rather than gag humor, and is thus hard to describe.
This is the night when Amma serves dinner to the devotees. It is an amazing production. She hands out 1200 meals, prepared by the rows of servers behind her. My seva was to supervise the placement of cups, plates, bowls and silverware in the appropriate containers for transport to the dishwashing crew. Doesn't sound like much, but let me tell you, it was among the most difficult seva I have ever performed, especially when the crowds lined up, people put things in the wrong boxes, and we ran out of boxes, and... well, stressful. I guess no one said it was going to be easy. That's why it's seva.
Thurday morning began with another swami talk. He began with a little self-deprecating humor, citing verses from the Bhagavad-gita about the way a devotee should behave before a guru. He said he wasn't going to go into any detail because, if he did, we would all see him fail to meet the standard set out. The crowd chuckled.
He spent most of his hour commenting on two verses of the Bhagavad-gita:
BG 2.62: While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.
BG 2.63: From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.
He would periodically mumble the Sanskrit to himself, so he could remember the order of the stages. Bottom line: don't get attached to material things. I think I've heard it before.
He told us, "The seeker of truth must first eliminate all that is not true; then they can channel Amma's grace"
The day ended with a public program (which tripled the attendance): Devi Bhava, a special program that begins with the Atma Puja ceremony for world peace. While giving darshan, Amma wears a special outfit to represent her being in Krishna Bhava, the divine mood of Krishna, in which Amma experiences that she is one with the Lord.