Ammabots • 19 June 2009

They call them the Ammabots. I met the first one, dressed in flowing white with her pupils dilated big as dimes, just inside the Radisson. “Your first time?” I smiled yes. She peeled a blue dot from a strip of paper and stuck it not to my third eye (as I somehow expected) but the edge of my sweater. And then I ascended the stairs in to an incence-filled bot-populated marketplace that seemed designed especially for the hipster Village Voice and Salon writers who would be infiltrating on their funny-cynical assignments. Circus of snark right there, for anyone who would fixate on the level of cultural otherness that is the Amma roadshow.

The exoticist set pieces on the business of east-meets-west have been written already. Hopefully some such accounts of the Amma Show include the part about the red velvet umbrella emblazoned with gold OMs. Amma twirls the OM-brella above her head as she enters the enormous conference room every morning at 10 o’clock. The room holds its breath, bells clang, and an invisible invocateur booms OOOMMM from bass-heavy speakers. My dad has a hollowed-out horn of a bull that he blows in the sanctuary when he preaches the horrible story of Jericho: the amped OM is the same portentous tone and drives any beta state hangers-on straight in to trance. Amma has the beatific gaze down perfect, the large fleshy mass of her sways like seaweed and without question she glows. You’d have to be dead not to feel that aura. Or on second thought, maybe the dead feel it even better than the rest of us.

The day I was there, I was set to meet L and G. G is a retired special forces operator who knows even more than I know about counter-insurgency warfare, but not because he’s read about it in books. He finally left the military in his sixties after some bad years in Colombia, fed up with Clinton-era drug war tactics. He went the next level more badass, and joined the Vajrayana in Tibet. He later settled in So-Cal because it’s where the women are best looking and the weather kindest to his hard-trammeled joints. But his ‘Nam-era hatred of hippies has always kept him from going fully native here. L, a woman thirty years younger than G and five inches taller, is my kundalini collaborator and in her work life some kind of cult actress. Unlike G, she drinks many kinds of Kool-Aid. Yet she is too in the moment, every moment, to be a bot for anyone in particular. She is dialed in to Crazy on her own terms, and knows too well from the receiving end how empty every groupie becomes. She is as open as G is closed, but neither of them is signing up for anything.

I’d talked to them by phone minutes before I entered the great hall, and then there was the commotion with Amma’s arrival. I somehow found myself all the way at the front of the hall, within 20 feet of her, involuntarily entranced. I knelt to touch the floor, find my own inner body in an effort to ground myself against the force of Amma’s astral wind. A rope-bodied man in white robes looked to me with those giant pupils and drew me over to a space he magically created in the crush of seated devotees. Forgetting G and L, I decided it would be a good idea to turn off my phone. 

I sat next to the man as Amma settled in to her throne and the 5-hour hugging juggernat fired up. A little train of chairs was arranged, two by two, from the back of the hall all the way to the saint. Visitors would go to the back of the line when their number was called, sitting in pairs in the last seats. As those at the front of the hug-train received their squash and their chocolate kiss, each pair of visitors would rise and move up to the next seat in the procession. I could see the composure of self and body begin to break up as people got to the last four or five seats before the hug. The actually physical vibration (which several of us mistook for earthquakes in the 4 or 5 Richter range) began to shake them loose, cognition would fate, the body would become slack, sometimes tears would begin flowing. By the time they entered their embrace they were ecstatic mush, and moments later would stumble away dazed, blessed, briefly transformed, forever a little closer to the astral plane.

Holding a number that would not be called for several hours, I settled to the floor next to the man in robes. He glowed at me as I took up a lotus and faced Amma, “Have you ever been to India?”

Aah, the litmus test. Soon the man, a 55-year old Finn called Rishi who has been following Amma everywhere for 13 years, was telling me of his first meeting with his guru. The day he met saw in Helsinki, he knew. But he gazed upon Amma now as if it was the first time, wept and smiled to me as if I were also participating in his inner experience. I told him Amma had been in Mysore when I was there in March, but I skipped it. “ Aaah, it was not your time yet,” he said, and asked my name. I gave it and he looked serious, “So you are a blessed one, a saint as well.”

“Who are you calling Saint, Rishi?”

“Ah yes she gave me this name to give me difficulty. It is my task to live up to it…. You know, she cannot be understood. She is mother, she is love, but also… she is in ABSOLUTE CONTROL of everything here. She is fierce and everyone does exactly what she says. The task is for my tiny mind to manage that contradiction, of total control and pure love.”

Well, I suppose that’s one way to make your head explode. Put an end to the vrittis, allright. I wanted to ask Rishi about everything he’d forked over for this deal—the home, sexuality, creative life, personal love relationships, self expression… the energy-blooms of all the lower chakras given away so that he can stay in Amma’s delta-wave forcefield and sustain himself on the one glorious love-emotion with which she infuses it.

But living on mother-love all the time has consequences. You become an emotional if not spiritual infant, do you not? Emotional addiction, trusting too much, taking responsibility too little. The spiral-eyed vulnerability and, well, neediness of the scenester-level devotees to any guru… have you ever witnessed that side of bhakti…?

The connection of Rishi and myself was uncomfortably obvious. Through the portal that is Amma, he was giving his self, jacked to the matrix and pouring himself in. So with all the other bots, creating a caravan across the spiritual desert of planet Earth, hoisting the mother on their shoulders. And to that mother, through that awesome portal of her, myself touching in for a hit of shakti, faith, love, delight. A free hit, as long as I stay grounded and recirculate it in to my own ecology. It is good that the darshan is free… but in the greater energy economy it is not really so free. I go to the see he hugging saint, and to the degree she really moves me I am playing with her fire, taking it and spreading it somewhere else. It’s a little like the tapas-strong thread that snakes around the inside of AVY culture.

There at Amma’s feet, before L finally found me and dragged me to cognitive safety outside the 100-foot perimeter, one of my synapses half-fired off a thought about Mary and Martha. If Jesus were alive now, he’d have a road show at least this well produced. And where would I be? Facing in, taking the blessing like Mary, or bustling around keeping the business of spirituality in order like Martha? As with yoga institutions, insiders pay dearly for that “special association” they seek. Energy and levels of insight are drained off to feed the system, so that the more secure seekers can touch in, take the benefits, and get on a little bit better with their lives.

The benefits of the one-off chocolate kiss are not trivial, though. To see what heights are possible with human energy and consciousness: this inspiration is so great that it almost distracts me from this new little undercurrent of love that's been deepened in me by no effort of my own. 

13 Comments

  • Posted 19 June 2009 at 7:42 pm | #

    Wow.

    And I don’t want to be a distraction here, but she really twirls an OM-brella?

  • Posted 19 June 2009 at 8:00 pm | #

    Red velvet. I can’t believe I was too in the moment to take a picture.

  • Posted 19 June 2009 at 8:06 pm | #

    no photos necessary. you describe it perfectly : )

  • Posted 20 June 2009 at 5:08 am | #

    Seriously. I thank you for the vivid picture. As for me actually witnessing this spectacle in person… I think I’d rather be boiled in oil. You are a brave one, indeed.

  • joy
    Posted 20 June 2009 at 8:36 am | #

    woah.

  • Posted 21 June 2009 at 3:01 am | #

    Yes… pretty intense. I’ve been reflecting the past days on what this has in common with my other experiences of charismatic, ecstatic religious experience. That is, Penticostalism, an ecstatic strain of Liberation Theology in Nicaragua, charismatic Quakerism. There are some of the same feelings in play. But I’ve never encountered a force like Amma… the energetic power that her body gives off, and the strong effect on different people who get in her field. This whole thing does have a dark side, like other charismatic groups have a dark side.

    I don’t really have a judgement about it, oddly. I love the people who see the light side of it and take the blessing from it, but I also love the critical spirit that sees the shadow and wants to stay the fuck away. Kind of an awkward non-positionality for me.

    Solstice is drawing nigh… off for some mild pagan esoterica… hahahaha.

  • Posted 21 June 2009 at 4:21 pm | #

    It’s hard for me to come up with an example of a cult of personality that isn’t, in the final analysis, dark.

  • e&sj
    Posted 22 June 2009 at 1:21 am | #

    I had just quit my job about 8 years ago so I went on a Tuesday morning to Burbank and got myself a number in the thousands or so and waited for the hug. I found myself in the bookstore and ended up reading an Amma biography which is so typical for ESJ. I like that in spiritual “development” we might not lose our neurosis as much as we befriend them. I was impressed by the amount of euphoria the hug induced. And I chalked it up to the super long wait in a 95th percentile wait hater. That was tapas. And for that sattvic tapas I was rewarded by all those well known biological amines – dopamine, serotonin etc. Now, I am not as concerned with “chalking it up” and there is a freedom in that. No need to denigrate or extol.

    I had another interesting interaction with the Amma hug thing as well. This time I was at her Ashram in Kerala on Christmas Day which was trippin me a bit . How did this former alter boy get there? Perhaps by force of alter ego. (I really didn’t mean to deny you Jesus, but this Amma-Durga thing seems like a pretty good show) And I got “gypped”. I was there very early and ended up with a very high number. Others, who were connected to her handlers, were just showing up and getting hugs in a few hours. So I was looking at a hug wait time of 16+ hours. So I walked to the coast, about a couple of hundred yards through some intense poverty. And I sat on the rocks, they were just like the ones in Marina Del Rey. There was a big swell, pumpin’ big time, but the jetty rocks prevented any wave crashing. I wrote the following:

    MALABAR COAST, December 25, 2004. I have been blessed. Yes blessed. Yet ESJ you have not been hugged, is this not true? Yes, no hug. And it is in the not having the hug that I have been freed from the manacles of guru-love. The projection or pedestal-forming, the icon worship is not for me. Sure it is interesting from and anthropological point of view. Sure this is what some men do in their desire to end suffering in themselves. Yet all these lines speak of spiritual one-upmanship. Each devotee trying to get “one-up” in their world. “I got a hug from Amma”. “I got a hug today and yesterday” “I got 3 hugs this….”. And so on and so forth. She lines us up to show us this lesson. She creates an inner circle to distinguish those “inners” from us “outers”. I have learned this. I worship at the feet of the most powerful guru – that one which resides within. Present and Strong. No false Gods, no pretense of spiritual perfection. No showing of mantras, yantras, t-shirt slogans or ashram clothes. No “I was his 1st disciple: or “I recall back in ’72 it was really good then”. … (The rant goes on, but I will spare you assuming you have gotten this far)

    And the next day, the tsunami hit.

  • Posted 22 June 2009 at 7:58 pm | #

    That was definitely a vivid description, and I agree with KNL- I think I’d rather be boiled in oil! ha ha!! But- it would have made for a good journalistic outing, I guess. That sort of things gives me the super willies (note: similar, but less intense religious background). I loved the velvet umbrella, and this description: “Yet she is too in the moment, every moment, to be a bot for anyone in particular. “ hilarious description. Made me think of the blond robots in the first (I think) Austin Powers movie- the ones whose heads blew off one by one.

    and… the hug train. ha ha ha!!

  • RE
    Posted 22 June 2009 at 10:32 pm | #

    Thanks for this.

  • n
    Posted 23 June 2009 at 3:59 pm | #

    Yep thanks, love the writing and analysis and openness, generosity.

  • Posted 25 June 2009 at 8:08 pm | #

    Thanks for the notes, everyone.

    The discomfort and creepiness this brings up is fascinating. Seems like there is a lot to explore here. She is the love guru to end all love gurus, or so I would like to think.

    ESJ, I had no idea you were there for the tsunami. I would like to hear more about this some time.

  • Posted 28 June 2009 at 7:46 am | #

    I have always wondered what state of mind or emotion one must be in to get sucked into following this kind of cult(leader). Maybe desperate women like me? But my first reaction is a sense of discomfort and creepiness (as Owl says it). Does that mean I am not desperate enough?

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