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When Metta’s Just the Ticket

I’m a hugger by nature. Not everyone is and I do my best to respect that. However, every once in a while I simply can’t help myself and take someone (including myself) by surprise with an unexpected hug.

The reason for this confession is a recent conversation that serves as the perfect preamble to this month’s living metta experiment.  

Someone asked whether I had heard of Amma? If the name is new to you, Amma is the nickname for Mata Amritanandamayi, a Hindu guru also known as the Hugging Saint. She travels the world embracing people, and estimates she has hugged more than 34 million strangers to date. In her own words: 

A continuous stream of love flows from me to all of creation. This is my inborn nature. The duty of a doctor is to treat patients. In the same way, my duty is to console those who are suffering.

Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma). From
Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma). From

I have never hugged Amma myself, but know those who have. From their description of the experience, I imagine Guanyin in human form playing a contagious energetic version of “tag, you’re it” with her samadhi state of pure acceptance.  

The person I was speaking with went on to explain that—to their understanding—Amma’s role on the planet was to raise the vibration of spiritual seekers. They admired my living metta experiments with people, places, and situations that perhaps wouldn’t seek Amma out or even understand the spiritual principles she stood for, and jokingly nicknamed me gangsta Amma!  

While this quip made me laugh out loud, perhaps there was also an element of truth? Was the Dharma deliberately sending Mettamorphsis (now also known as gangsta Amma) into unlikely situations as some kind of metta scout?

My previous articles for Buddhistdoor Global, such as In the World’s Secret Dharma Service by Living the Infinite “Yes” and From Happy Meals to MettaMealsexplored allowing the Dharma take the lead in how I support myself, and my experiments in generating metta in professional kitchens. While attempting to embody metta in hospitality may well be any mediator’s ultimate work-out, collecting statistics on people’s bus journeys may well be the most unlikely!   

Earlier this month, my work sent me to Newcastle upon Tyne, a city in northeastern England, for a week to survey bus passengers. When I try to describe travel survey work to friends, they roll their eyes in disbelief that such a job really exists and confess that they secretly believe I’m a spy. The job is both very real and the perfect cover for gangsta Amma experiments.

This particular survey was set in the city’s major bus stations and consisted of interviewing passengers on the origins and destinations of their journeys. Those boarding are formally known as “joiners,” and those getting off are “alighters.” With any survey script, it always takes a few hours to find a comfortable patter and the first few attempts are often stilted. In this case, the stiltedness took on an existential flavour that sparked some extraordinary conversations: 

Where have you come from? Just now . . . or in general?

Do you know where you’re going next? Does anyone?!?

Where will today’s journey end? Home, I hope!

In the UK, those over the age of 60 are eligible for free public transport. This concession travel pass is affectionately known as the golden ticket (a quaint reference to Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and those using one are known as “twirlies” (as the pass is only valid after 9.30am on weekdays, otherwise passengers are “too early”).  

The bulk of the day’s survey data is usually collected in rushed conversations at commuting peak times. After 9.30am and before 4.00pm is when things get interesting as the pace and conversations slow right down.

One woman, for instance, spontaneously shared, along with her travel data, the highs and lows of raising four children on her own after finding the courage to leave an abusive husband. She spoke with such quiet humility about overcoming a seemingly impossible situation that, without thinking, I found myself stroking her cheek and saying, “You’re extraordinary, you know?” She burst into tears and fell into my arms confessing I was the first in her life to say so before catching her next bus.

Soon after, a widower told me both where he was traveling to that day and how much he missed his late wife. Out tumbled their gentle love story, which segued into what a balm it had been to the years of terrible physical abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of his father. Sensing that I may be the first person he was sharing these memories with, I asked if I could hug him as his bus pulled in, and whispered in his ear as we embraced that no innocent child deserved what he had endured: “He may well have been your sperm donor, but he was not your father.” With tears in his eyes, he boarded his bus, mouthing a “thank you” as it pulled away.

I asked a young man about his origin and destination, and he randomly asked me what I thought of his daughter’s hair, pointing to a young blonde girl skipping around us. I admired her cute pig tails, and he seemed relieved. He then confessed he was a single dad who spent his free time watching YouTube hairstyling videos. Apparently, all the other little girls in her class at school had mothers who knew all there was to know about grooming and he didn’t want her to feel left behind . . . but he was still struggling with French braids! I grinned and simply declared that his little girl was the happiest child I had seen in a long time.  Obviously he was doing something right, not just her hair.

Another man, of whom I innocently enquired whether his destination would be home, looked at me and muttered that he was in fact homeless. I immediately apologised for my clumsy question, and he waved it away with a “nae bother” (a local expression that means no worries). I asked to hear more about his life while he waited for his bus, and out poured a horrendous tale of misfortune after misfortune that the Buddha himself would struggle to survive with equanimity. All I could do was bow to him when he’d finished, and he astonishingly told me that he was grateful for all he’d learned along the way. He then reached into a plastic bag (his only material possession), pulled out a chocolate bar, and gave it to me saying I had a long day ahead of me and needed to keep up my energy! 

Interestingly, the “refusals” ran equally deep. One man I approached threw a verbal tantrum, asking me why I didn’t realise he was a billionaire, and telling me that I should “f*ck right off,” and that he would be complaining about me to the station staff. I explained that it wasn’t my intention to distress him, wished him well, and moved on. Another man witnessed this exchange, and stopped to ask how I could possibly remain so peaceful in the face of being yelled at in public like that. I shrugged my shoulders, said it wasn’t my place to judge someone who clearly wasn’t on the same wavelength as most of us, and shared that I had grown up with a mentally ill mother who often struggled with similar paranoia. This led to a very frank conversation about mental health until his bus arrived.

This trend continued for 12 hours a day for the rest of the week, and my coworkers started noticing and commenting on the unusual turn my interviews were taking: “What exactly are you doing to people? Are you going to hug everyone you interview today?” I confessed that I wasn’t sure myself, but perhaps it was as simple as being fully present to another that lights them up? Joining them to alight them . . . a drive-by, gangsta Amma hug for the road.

So, my fellow metta-scientists, I invite you to experiment going gangsta in your own metta meditation efforts too: pick the unlikeliest setting possible, become metta, and just see what unfolds. 

Or, to metta-morphose American composer John Cage’s famous quote to “begin anywhere”:

Begin anywhere, alight everywhere.

See more

Science of Compassion – a Documentary on Amma, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (YouTube)

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