Mata Amritanandamayi, who is simply known as Amma (meaning mother) is a spiritual leader who hugs everyone who comes to visit her. She began this habit 30 years ago, when people who noticed her extraordinary sense of empathy started coming to her with their problems, and she began embracing them to provide solace.
People now come from every corner of the world, to be hugged by her and to be in her presence. It is estimated that, to this date, she has hugged more than 33 million people. For this reason, she is popularly known as the hugging saint.
Unlike most other gurus, she doesn’t give very long discourses. She believes a hug can be more life-changing than a five-hour sermon. But when she does speak, you cannot help but be marveled at her deep understanding of the human condition.
I first met (or I should say hugged) her five years ago, and I’ve been going back for more ever since. I’m sharing with you some of the most prominent ideas that I’ve picked up from her teachings.
1. When you get closer to what you love, you find out who you really are.
When we were kids, we knew what we wanted. We did things because we loved doing them. When we became adults, we learned to compromise who we really are. We gave up our desires and started pursuing the things that society told us are valuable.
The problem is, when we ignore our desires long enough, we forget who we really are.
Amma says this is what has happened to the majority of adults. They have ignored their deepest desires for so long that they do not know who they are anymore.
She says the solution is to start paying attention to what your heart wants, so you can find out again what you once knew about yourself.
When you get closer to that which is close to your heart, your world expands, and with it expands your understanding of yourself.
Actor Ethan Hawke once reflected this sentiment beautifully when he said:
“In order to thrive, you have to know yourself. In order to know yourself, you have to know what you love. And the more you do what you love, the more of yourself is revealed to you.”
2. To live in this world, you must learn to live and grieve at the same time.
Visitors of Amma’s ashram are given a token at the entrance. Once a man came to the ashram alone, asking for two tokens. When asked why he needed two tokens, he said the second one is for his wife.
He had lost his wife to cancer two years earlier but was still carrying her with him wherever he went. He had put his life on hold so he could live in the past.
Amma says this is the nature of grief — It makes you lose yourself to what you have lost.
The one thing all of us can say for certain is that tragedy will hit our lives, undoubtedly. But we can’t afford to pause our lives every time we are met with pain.
However tough it might be, we must come to terms with the fact that suffering is part of human life. We must learn to grieve as we live. Sooner or later we should start measuring our lives by what we have instead of what we have lost.
Author Anne Lamott once famously wrote about grief:
“It is like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly — that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you must learn to dance with the limp.”
3. Real kindness isn’t a transaction.
The first time I received a hug from Amma, I could feel a sense of struggle deep inside me. I felt guilty — as though I didn’t do anything to deserve this act of kindness from a stranger.
Many of us find it difficult to be kind to ourselves. We feel we haven’t done enough to earn kindness. But the fact is, you don’t need to earn it. You don’t need to ‘do anything’ or ‘be a certain way’ to deserve kindness.
Kindness, by its very nature, is not transactional. According to Amma, kindness is ‘help without judgment.’
She says the more we practice being kind to others without expecting anything in return, the more we will learn to be kinder to ourselves as well.
Author Roy Bennett perfectly captured the idea of kindness being non-transactional when he wrote:
“Treat everyone with politeness and kindness, not because they are nice, but because you are.”
4. You cannot master your ego until you learn to be wrong.
Your ego’s job is to continuously make your believes a reality.
For example, if you deeply believe that you are a good parent, your ego will always be looking for events that can be interpreted as proof that you are a good parent.
As long as the events in your life support your belief that you are a good parent, your ego will be happy.
But when something happens that is contrary to what you believe, your ego will use the power of your emotions to establish that the whole world is wrong and that you are right.
Using the above example, if your child does something that reflects badly on you as a parent, your ego may use anger to establish that the fault is with your child and not with you; and that you are still a good parent.
There is a rather amusing sentence from Jack Gardner’s ‘Words are not things’ that perfectly demonstrates the self-serving nature of the ego:
“We think we are being interesting to others when we are being interesting to ourselves.”
Your ego hates being wrong.
Amma says this is good news. According to her, since your ego hates being wrong, all you need to do to manage it is to internalize the possibility that we could be wrong at any time.
When you consciously consider the possibility that you might be wrong, you are essentially telling your ego that it is not supreme.
This exercise will eventually make it easier for you to bypass your ego.
5. Your suffering stops the moment you decide to let go.
A man once complained to his guru about all the problems in his life. The guru replied, “My son, all your sorrows are in your mind.”
The man was extremely annoyed by the guru’s advice and said: “It is easy for you to say that. I’m the one who is suffering.”
A few days later when the man returned, he saw his guru clinging to a tree that was covered with thorns. The guru was yelling, “I’m in so much pain. Please help.” The man was surprised by what he saw and told the guru, “Why are you holding on to that tree? Just let go and your pain will stop.”
The guru let go of the tree and climbed down. He then said to the man, “That’s exactly what I have been telling you.”
Our life is full of painful events. But those events themselves cause us less pain than our resistance to them. For example, losing a job is hurtful but ruminating on what you could’ve done differently will only cause even more pain.
The famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami once said:
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
6. Meaning is more sustainable than happiness.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with happiness.
Right from our childhood, we are conditioned to pursue the dream job, the dream house, and the ideal partner. We are told that achieving our dreams will make us happy.
Yet, when we reach these goals, instead of feeling fulfilled, we end up asking ourselves ‘Is this all there is?’
That is why Amma asks us to pursue meaning instead of happiness.
Happiness is a momentary feeling of joy or pleasure that gives us an ego boost. By its very nature, happiness is not sustainable, because it is dependent on too many extraneous factors.
Perhaps that’s why the character Don Draper from Mad Men famously said:
“What is happiness? It’s the moment right before you need more happiness.”
Meaning, on the other hand, is about aligning your actions in pursuit of something greater than yourself. Something that will bring out from within you, what is desperately trying to come out. Unlike happiness, meaning isn’t a destination, it’s a process.
7. Those who don’t feel valued find it difficult to value others.
Whether in relationships or otherwise, we expect people to show appreciation for the efforts we put in. And when our efforts are not acknowledged we immediately start questioning our self-worth.
Amma tells us before we feel hurt by what we perceive as inconsiderate actions, we must remind ourselves that the other person’s actions do not reflect our self-worth.
When a person doesn’t value your time and efforts, chances are that they are not confident in their own value as a person.
People who have never experienced any appreciation in their lives do not know the importance of appreciating others. Only when we are confident in our own value, it becomes possible for us to see value in the people around us.
Yehuda Berg, the author who popularized the term ‘hurt people hurt people’ once said:
“Pain patterns get passed on, generation after generation after generation. Break the chain today. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive, and forget about finding fault. Love is the weapon of the future.”