For the past 30 years, Amma has dedicated her life to the uplifting of suffering humanity through the simplest of gestures – an embrace. In this intimate manner Amma had blessed and consoled more than 21 million people throughout the world. Over time, Amma's popularity has risen to the point where in India she has been known to individually hug over 18,000 people in one day, sitting sometimes for over 20 hours. Lovingly called "the Hugging Saint", she travels all around the world to receive all her children around the globe.
Janet: Janine, what were the circumstances of your first encounter with Amma?
Janine: When I first met Amma I was in my forties, a psychiatrist and poet, who had been searching for years for the right spiritual path. I had sat zazen, practiced Sufi dance and meditation, and studied the ancient Hindu scriptures of Vedanta.
On a beautiful Spring evening in 1990, I walked into my Sufi class and was met by several voices crying out, “Janine, did you get Amma’s blessing?” When they saw that I had no idea what they were talking about, they told me to get back in my car and drive on to the Berkeley Community Center just blocks away, and be sure to get Amma’s blessing. I trustingly proceeded to the Center, where I found amidst a mass of cars a parking space at the front door. A woman with a baby straddled on her hip sailed into the hall and I followed as she wove her way deftly through the crowd. I could scarcely see the small dark woman in white sari seated on a chair, as the young mother approached her and sank onto her knees to receive Amma’s embrace. Soon I too was on my knees, head pulled to Amma’s shoulder, as overpowering energies seemed to invade me from all directions simultaneously. The Holy Mother hugged me in her strong arms, wrapping me in her sweet fragrance, chanting incomprehensible syllables rapidly into my ear, and pressed sandal paste onto my forehead between my brows—as if flipping me over—put something into my hand and released me back onto my feet.
I floated back to my car, and ascended the hill to my house where I opened my hand to find a melting chocolate kiss and flower petals. I placed the candy and petals upon the little altar on my dresser, understanding only one thing: that I had just received a very great blessing.
Janet: How has Amma's life and message impacted you on a personal level? As a psychiatrist?
Janine: Amma’s impact on my life has been enormous; it goes, I am sure, beyond anything I can consciously comprehend. I certainly felt the full blast of its overwhelming power on my first encounter in 1990. Her gift of love gave me the strength I needed to survive the most difficult period of my life, which was just to follow.
Ever since that time, I have felt the extraordinary impact of her grace whenever I have the good fortune to be in her vast physical presence, encompassed in the endless flow of Amma’s love for all beings, her kindness, her beauty, her blissful joy, her childlike playfulness. Amma embodies a love and goodness I had only known, before meeting her, as a mental ideal. To now know that there was someone who could actually love truly, endlessly giving her whole self, attending to others deepest needs without wearying, became a source of joy and hope which brought many tears of profound relief, as Amma gradually opened my heart.
Whenever I read Amma’s words, see her picture, or hear stories about her, I once again feel this joy and connection to the Divine Consciousness. She is continuously within me as the truth of moral action, the reality of true love, the joy of absolute beauty, the inspiration of supreme energy and light, the experience of oneness with all that exists.
Amma, who has become my teacher, encourages us to always try to be less selfish and egotistical, and more attentive to the needs of others with understanding and kindness. This lesson is, of course, one I am endlessly learning, in tiny increments. Amidst the moral confusion of our world in which all cultures are crumbling under the weight of overpopulation, mass migration, corporate dominance, and technology, Amma, with the purity of her loving intention, clarifies the deepest moral questions about life and God.
All of this has hugely affected my work, my poetry which is the expression my spiritual journey, and my psychiatric practice where the lesson of compassion always needs to be put into action, and where I have the special opportunity to encourage patients to develop their own spirituality and compassion.
Janet: What are some of the extraordinary things that you've seen in the presence of Amma?
Janine: I have heard many extraordinary stories of Amma’s love and compassion, her wisdom, omniscience, and power to heal. But the greatest thing I have seen with my own eyes is the miracle of Love constantly unfolding as Amma day and night, without leaving her chair, receives her “darling children”—thousands of people of all kinds—embracing each one, giving her blessing, wiping away tears, joking and playing, answering questions, giving spiritual practices, beaming her divinely beautiful smile. In the evenings she sings ecstatic songs, gives talks offering profound and practical guidance to the world, and receives more people with her transformative hug and tender compassion.
Amma rarely sleeps, at most one or two hours. When she is not receiving people, she answers letters from people around the world, or manages a vast and ever growing network of charitable projects created to relieve the suffering of the very poor: orphanages, schools, colleges, hospitals, medical schools, hospices, homes for the homeless, food and pensions, and more.
Amma says that her life is her message: By witnessing her life you will understand her message.
Janet: What inspired you to collect and translate Amma's wisdom into a book? How long did it take?
Janine: Years after meeting Amma, while I was meditating, the idea came to gather from her books and other resources some of the pearls which typically strew her speech, and present them in a poetic and accessible fashion, revealing the range of her teachings, re-translating where necessary (spoken in Malayalam, Amma’s words are usually transcribed by non-native English speakers), so that more people could benefit from the extraordinary inspiration of this truly great soul. The project took seven years to complete. To be a small tool in the process was a great blessing for me.
Janet: What an incredible labor of love this book is for you, Janine. Thank you so much for sharing Amma's wisdom and love throughout the world, and for taking the time for this interview.
Janine Canan is the author of 13 books of poetry, and has edited several anthologies. Janine has taught poetry, and has given many poetry readings in milieu such as City University of New York, National Poetry Week of San Francisco, Powell Books, Rutgers, Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, the Smithsonian Institute, Stanford, and UC Berkeley Art Museum, as well as on radio and television. Born in Los Angeles in 1942, she is a Stanford graduate with distinction, received an MD from NYU School of Medicine in 1976, and is today a practicing psychiatrist in Sonoma, California. You can visit her on the web at JanineCanan.com
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