'Hugging saint' is compassion in action
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Ms. Martynska has taken up meditation and chanting. "It's designed to quiet the chattering mind and turn us inward ... so we can act from the center of the heart instead of being so reactive," she explains.Skip to next paragraph
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As Amma receives individuals or couples in the main hall, a swami teaches her meditation method in another room. Born within a Hindu context, she emphasizes that love and compassion are the essence of all religions. Amma set up temples in India, stirring controversy by consecrating women priests as well as men.
"She wants womanly qualities to rise up and take their rightful place in the world," says Beverley Noia, now known as Janani. Formerly a professor of comparative religion at Regis University in Denver, a Catholic institution, she serves as Amma's videographer and archivist, recording the guru's global experience. "She's taught me to be a feminist without anger."
An independent filmmaker has produced a documentary on the teacher titled "Darshan." Premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, it will be released in the US in August. Darshan is Sanskrit for "audience with a holy person" and is the name given to the lengthy hugging sessions.
Amma's inclusive outreach has brought her stature on the world stage. She was invited to speak at the UN's 50th anniversary in 1995 and at the Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000. In 2002, she won the Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence, and in May 2006, an interfaith award previously given to the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Many compare her to Mother Teresa.
While some people tend to deify her, the guru says that everyone is divine, and that each one must seek to get rid of the ego and find "their real Self."
"We human beings are just instruments of God so we should not be egoistic," Amma emphasizes in an interview. "We should have the awareness that 'I am just like a pen in the hand of a writer, or a brush in the hands of a painter.' "
The tireless teacher responds to questions through an interpreter (her native tongue is Malayalam). With each query she turns to smile and communicate eye to eye even as she continues to embrace the faithful. Afterward, she bestows on this reporter a warm hug, a gentle backrub, and a laughing kiss on the cheek.
In addition to the three regional centers, there are small groups across the US, called satsangs, where devotees meet weekly for meditation and singing. But they must also live out their spiritual practice through seva – selfless service.
Chinmayi Ruiz, for instance, who hosts a satsang in Concord, Mass., joins with other volunteers for Mother's Kitchen. On a regular basis, they cook food at home and take it to serve at various community shelters.
In Amma's words: "It is through selfless sharing that the flower of life becomes beautiful and fragrant."