There are moments, surely, when each one of us is conscious of the wonder of being alive. And of how lucky we are to live in this big, bountiful and spacious land. All gripes aside, it's not a bad place to live!
I had such an "epiphany" recently on the balcony of the Fremantle Passenger Terminal on a warm Sunday morning with the Indian Ocean beyond shimmering under a cloudless blue sky. To add to my sense of joie de vivre, this scene was the brilliant backdrop to a conversation with Amma, the revered Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, the motherly spiritual leader who inspires devotion among millions around the world and whose words and deeds now bring increasing acclaim from the secular, as well as the spiritual, world.
This Sunday morning I'm able to share Amma's wisdom and grace with just a few hundred - a larger crowd will come in the evening. But compared to the 150,000 people who crowded into a stadium in Cochin in her native Kerala in Southern India to celebrate Amma's 50th birthday in September 2003, it's tiny. And while her tour organisers always hope for more - as one follower laughingly confides "Indians love a crowd" - it simply reinforces in my mind how lucky we are, both to welcome her in our midst in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast and to be able to do it in such comfort!
I am not one given to easily extolling the saintliness of spiritual leaders, (His Holiness the Dalai Lama excepted!) and, deliberately, have never used the word "enlightened" as a defining description. It's something I've been saving to avoid further devaluing its currency. But now that time has come - Amma has earned respect and love around the world for her enlightened words and deeds and I am privileged to be granted a lengthy interview through her senior disciple Swami Amritaswarupanda who acts as our translator. And all the while, Amma bestows her love and kindness, and, of course, her trademark embracing hug, to a long queue of followers who kneel and patiently wait in expectation. I can only marvel at her patience and full hearted focus.
When I ask Amma what she has learned from people's preparedness to wait so patiently to receive one of those famous hugs, she responds:
"While they are standing in line, they are remembering love and trying to awaken that love within them so they don't even feel that they are waiting for a long time because of the love within.. and the love that they are going to receive.
"Anyway I only think what I can offer to them because it's not the action itself but the attitude behind the action that determines the result. For a mother who gives birth to a child it's not a tiresome or exhausting job to take care of that child, but for a maidservant it's an exhausting job. For me, it is not at all a tiresome job or an exhausting job to take care of the people who come to see me because I work out of love. And it is not even work - when you are full of love you are in bliss."
She continues with her analogy of the pregnant woman patiently awaiting the time of her delivery:
"It's just like everyone here is also carrying something, they are also here to conceive something, they're also here to conceive love. It's a new birth of love. There is no question of exhaustion or impatience here, because people are expecting love, they are here to meet with love."
Which brings us neatly to the subject of my second question: "People seem so much in need of love. How can we all bring love into our lives?"
Amma: The power of love is within everyone - infinite love is within everyone - we just need to awaken that. In today's world, people only want to take love, they're not willing to give love. Once we start giving love, the spring of love will automatically start opening up within - we are all kings and queens of love but we live like beggars and we die like beggars. It's because we don't experience the giving of love, we only want to take love. So even though we are kings and queens of love we remain like a beggar, begging love without giving love. The infinite pressure of love is within us, we just need to find that source and tap into it and experience it. There is infinite potential within - both the porter and the scientist use the same head but the porter uses it to carry luggage while the scientist uses his head to dive deep into the mysteries of nature. So the potential is within everyone - it depends on how we channel it.
The urbane Swami Amritaswarupanda who has compiled several books on Amma's life and works and translated her words widely for a Western audience, signals a short wait while his guru gives her full focus to a young woman, like many others in tears in her embrace, then a family group who share a group hug like no other!
Then we continue and, as before, Amma turns to answer him directly and share with me the fullness of her gaze.
Q: "There is so much suffering and fear in the world. What does the future hold and can we influence it?"
"Suffering can totally be removed because suffering is mostly because of poverty and starvation. Amma says there are two types of poverty in today's world. One is the poverty due to the lack of the basic necessities of life - food, shelter and clothing - and the second is poverty to the lack of love and compassion. But if the second can be taken care of, if we can feel love and compassion, the other sort of poverty can easily be taken care of. If there is love and compassion, then we can certainly serve the needy people, the poor people, the starving people.
"However Amma says that nature is still in a very agitated state, and this is mainly because human minds are full of hatred, anger and revenge and that reflects in nature. The hatred and anger within us is a more powerful atom bomb than the external atom bomb. Maybe we can control the external atom bomb to a certain degree, but the internal atom bomb that each one of us is carrying in the form of hatred, anger and revenge is difficult to remove. Amma can still see dark clouds hanging in nature - only the cool gentle breeze of grace can lift this darkness. We should all pray for that."
All of a sudden, a large TV screen very close to us leaps into action with an Amma video, with the accompanying soundtrack a distraction to all but the most focused - I'm hoping some of Amma's extraordinary power in this area will rub off on me and I have a feeling it does. Swami Amritaswarupanda's imperturbability has an infectious quality - I think again of what it must be like when 150,000 people are hanging on her every word! I realise I've already seen this video and remember being hugely impressed at the achievements it documents - and the fact that they are so little heard of here in the self-absorbed West.
Did you know, for instance, that Amma's organisation has built and maintains a state-of-the art Western-style hospital in Kerala, a beautiful but largely unsophisticated part of India; that it has already embarked on its second target of 100,000 homes in the next 10 years for Kerala's homeless (the first 100,000 cottages have already been completed); that she has summoned the services of 1008 lawyers to offer free legal services to the poor and needy; that her organisation has been at the forefront of arranging relief for victims of the Boxing Day tsunami in Kerala, Tamil Nadhu and Sri Lanka and has contributed a staggering $US23 million towards reconstruction; and, in a caring gesture for India's destitute lovers, organised a mass wedding ceremony for 158 couples with no financial support. It seemed an occasion of extraordinary grace and even intimacy.
Amma herself, whose influence belies her short stature and matronly air - and, more tellingly, apparent lack of fluent English - has addressed the United Nations, the Parliament of the World's Religions, the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders... and more besides. While the documentary lists her achievements, it's really Amma's patience with me and all those demanding her attention that really wins me over. We continue:
Q: "When you talk of God, what do you mean?"
"When I talk of God I mean good qualities, divine qualities- those of pure love, compassion, concern, right attitude and right action. However, for me God is not an individual who sits up above the clouds on a golden throne; God is pure consciousness which dwells in everything, both living and non living. God is everywhere, all pervading consciousness, all embracing love- that is God for me.
However, because God is omniscient, he can also assume any form he- or she - wants. We should also keep that in mind. God, to me, has three main qualities - omniscience, omnipotence and all pervasiveness. Because God has all these three powers, he or she can assume any form."
I decide to test my luck with one final question: "Have you noticed a rising consciousness in your travels around the world- is it a time of transformation?"
"There is a change because people are becoming more and more loving and compassionate. Actually there's nothing to change because it's already there, the power is already there within each and every person, each and every being. We just need to realise that. But there is certainly a change in consciousness, of realisation, but there needs to be more. A spring of love exists within us all, we just need to realise it."
And with that, my chance to speak to this remarkable woman is at an end - but the hug still awaits! And it really is worth your wait when next she visits our shores. I can understand now why so many are moved to tears. There is something extraordinarily intimate about a hug given so generously, with a mantra spoken close to my ear (I can't understand the language but I can understand the love) and a generous kiss to my hair. Wow! You'd have to be a statue not to have a tear or two in your eye after that!
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