Saturday, June 23, Los Angeles
Looking at the schedules published for Amma’s retreats, you might mistakenly think they are all alike. They are not.
On the first evening, many people are seeing Amma for the first time this tour and their longings of previous months are being fulfilled. There are even some who are meeting Her for the first time in their lives, so curiosity and excitement and perhaps a touch of nervousness are also in the air. Generally by the end of the evening, Amma has shown many of Her thousand faces: She has wiped tears, shared joyful news, played mischievous tricks, scolded lovingly.
She has been the Amma, the Guru and the Goddess, according to the needs and readiness of Her children. This is the same everywhere, but each retreat has some unexpected, unplanned events. It’s these surprises that, along with the simple fact that it is hard to leave Amma’s presence, keep the hall crowded no matter how late Amma sits for darshan.
The other night in Los Angeles, for example, near the end of the night darshan program Amma was given a bright helium-filled yellow balloon. Immediately young (maybe three or four years old) Ramu came close to Amma, staring big-eyed at the balloon so high above Her head. He pointed. She knew exactly what he wanted, and handed over the string. He was thrilled. She asked for it back-not on your life! He dashes down the darshan exit aisle as fast as he could, stopping only when he drew near his mother. Mothers always protect our interests! She indicated that he really should return it to its rightful owner. Betrayed, he sped off further, towards the door of the hall! The faster he ran, the lower the balloon came, until it caught among chairs and ropes. He untangled it, and took off across the hall, further and further from Amma. Of course Amma and all the others were laughing delightedly. Off and on through the rest of the evening Ramu would draw near Amma with the balloon, and She would pretend to try to take it, and he would scamper off. (The end of the story came the next night, when Ramu, still in possession of the balloon, brought it to the entry hall to await Amma. As he stood watching for her, his little grip loosened, and the yellow orb rose gently to the too high atrium ceiling, and there it stayed.)
The second day of Amma’s retreats features, in addition to the usual morning and evening darshan programs, classes by swamis and perhaps a yoga class. And occasionally, at the end of the morning darshan, if the mood strikes Her, Amma dances. Playing Her handbells and moving gracefully to the music She and others are singing, She dances around the inside of a big circle formed by the retreatants. When the music reaches a peak, suddenly She sits-meditates and then departs.
Amma next comes among the children for a special meditation, after which She serves dinner to everyone. There is a tradition of holding this meditation outside, as happened in San Ramon a week ago. Los Angele’s retreat, actually held in Burbank near the airport, was hard put to find a place in nature, but between the main building of the hotel and its convention centre there was a narrow space with a bit of grass; this became the meditation site. Many people forgot the sounds of street traffic and airplanes as they watched Amma sitting so still and peacefully there, a reminder of Her frequent teaching that when we can’t change externals, we need to be able to adapt ourselves with equanimity.
This year, beginning in Seattle and continuing in San Ramon, Amma has added something new after the retreat meditation. When Swamiji introduced it in LA, there was immediate spontaneous applause. “Amma has consented,” he said, “to answer your questions for the next half hour.” Hands immediately shot into the air, and half an hour was not enough. Numerous hands were still being raised after half an hour, but Amma looked ruefully at the disappointed questioners, apologizing with Her gestures for having to stop.
But She did have to, -for dinner was ready to be served in the adjoining building, so She led everyone there and, Herself, handed each person a plateful of food.
After all are served, Amma sits, not to eat much, but to feed many: all the littlest children. In the early days, She would sit at “the children’s table” and reach out to each child to feed him or her a bite of food. As the retreat crowds have continued to grow, it has become necessary to have three or four large tables for children, and the little ones now have to queue up to come near Amma for a bite of papadam (a crispy Indian snack bread).
Now and then a somewhat larger child will come forward; just occasionally Amma is “tricked” into feeding some such twenty or thirty-year-old big child! But mostly it is the really young ones who come to Her, and She holds out a piece of snack, sometimes popping it into the expectantly opened mouth, and at other times starting to pop it in and then suddenly drawing it back-a teasing that may confuse the child for a moment, while it makes the spectators laugh. At most such meals, someone will place a very small baby on Amma’s lap, and She will cuddle and feed it, or, as with one baby in LA, let it feed Her!
The darshan program on the second evening is the chance for local devotees to offer entertainment: dances, plays, and musical presentations. In San Ramon, for example, Amma sat giving darshan, as usual, and the shows were presented on the stage behind Her. Now and then, She would turn to watch, to point and perhaps laugh, or clap. Suddenly there was a most unusual spectacle behind Her: four teenage boys strutted out onto the stage and began what can only be called an Ammatised version of a Hindi film song-and-dance piece.
The words had been changed to “Give me darshan, Amma…” but the music and steps were borrowed from-or at any rate inspired by a scene in a popular film. Cheers and laughter greeted the energetic performance, and Amma found it hard to keep from turning right around for the spectacle!
On the third day of a retreat, Amma offers darshan for all registrants in the morning-and again, if they wish (and of course most do) that night at Devi Bhava. The morning program needs to move on quickly, but still Amma finds time for last minute encouragements, or jokes, or consolations-whatever it is Her children are seeking when they come to Her. By two in the afternoon, She tries to leave the hall so that it can be set up for the evening puja and all-night Devi Bhava, both of which are public programmes. So, really, the retreat is over-only to be crowned by a final darshan with Amma in the mood of the Divine Mother
And what happens when the retreat and Devi Bhava are truly finished? Amma and Her tour group-ashramites, staff, and volunteers (and in fact many devotees who simply want more!) head for the next city. Some fly; many drive. En route from LA to Santa Fe yesterday, there was a sense of the community not entirely breaking up as travellers still in white (perhaps a bit crumpled and flower-stained by now) discovered each other at gas stations and rest stops along Interstate 10 or 40, or ran into each other at baggage claim in the Albuquerque airport, ready for the last short leg of this week’s trip, up into the mountains of New Mexico.