Embracing the world with love

The Oakland Tribune/June 4, 2010

Castro Valley - Kirsten Lindelsee will never underestimate the power of a hug.

That is what Mata Amritanandamayi, better known as Amma the "hugging saint," can do to people after receiving an embrace from the Indian spiritual leader.

"I thought nothing would change," Kirsten said moments after receiving a hug from Amma. "But it really brought me into the moment. I can't explain it. I feel 'tingly' inside."

Kirsten, 14, of Redwood City, is one of hundreds who waited hours Thursday before receiving a hug from Amma.

Thousands of others are expected to do the same and make their way to the M.A. Center in Castro Valley to visit Amma, where she will be daily until June 12 as part of a 10-city United States tour. It is estimated that she has given more than 30 million hugs in her life.

Amma sits at the end of a middle aisle as hundreds of followers pray and mediate while sitting or kneeling inside the two-story center.

Behind her, on the stage, a few musicians and singers play soothing Indian music.

She is surrounded by several aides who carefully organize those waiting to be embraced.

Many visitors carry flowers, fruits and other gifts they offer before kneeling before Amma, who then pulls them into her as if they were her long-lost child.

The embrace is an individual experience.

She guides the person's head onto her right shoulder, and warmly presses their body against hers before she whispers a prayer into their ear. A gentle kiss on the head concludes the experience.

Some say they receive a blissful energy at that moment. Others cry. Many describe an out-of-body experience.

"You have problems going on in your life and after the embrace, you just can't remember what they were," said Amalia Darling, of Richmond. "For that moment, it's a retreat — an escape."

Amma, also a humanitarian and teacher, is known in the Bay Area for opening "Mother's Kitchen" in Oakland in 1996. The soup kitchen program, which feeds the poor, has spread to more than 30 cities nationwide.

She also has raised millions of dollars for a variety of causes around the world, including disaster relief.

Amma is hoping to create a charitable orphanage in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in response to the devastating earthquake that hit the Caribbean nation earlier this year.

In a brief interview in between hugs, Amma said through a translator that the world is suffering a lack of basic necessities and a lack of love and compassion.

"If the wealthy and rich can have love and compassion, then they can take care of the poor people," she said. "I'm doing what I can to console and counsel others in helping them find love and compassion so that they can grow strong internally and spiritually."

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