After My Daughter Was Born, I Became a Spiritual Tourist
Anjali Kumar On Parenting, God, and Hugging Amma
In 2010, when my daughter Zia was born, I decided that I needed to find God. I told myself that she would eventually ask me questions that I couldn’t answer—and that completely unraveled me. I was senior counsel at Google at the time, and, as a lawyer, when people asked me a question, I was used to giving them an answer backed with certitude. And precedent. Or if all else failed, at least I could Google a satisfactory answer.
I also found that having a child—actually creating a life—had changed me. It didn’t help that I had struggled to get pregnant, enduring multiple, heartbreaking miscarriages, or that right after Zia was born, my doula commented, “She is from another time,” after pointing out that Zia was holding the fingers of her left hand in gyan mudra—a prayer position used in yoga and meditation. Then a few days into Zia’s life, when my father asked me when I would be taking her to our temple, my spiritual skepticism, complacency, and lassitude abruptly ended. I felt what could only be described as a newfound sense of spiritual curiosity.
Curiosity sparked by a new and completely unanticipated sense of spiritual urgency. And perhaps a touch of panic.
Now that I had a child, I wanted—needed—to believe in something bigger than myself. Not just to believe in the possibility that there is more but to know with a degree of “legal” certainty that there is something deeper and bigger than just this. So as the months following Zia’s birth unfolded, I made a firm commitment to myself—and to her—that I would make a valiant effort to find us a comfortable spiritual home. It became patently clear that my somewhat eclectic multicultural upbringing had given me deep spiritual footings but not the structure they were intended to support.
I had the foundation but not the house.
At the onset of this mission—which I didn’t embark on in a serious manner until Zia was one year old—I knew that I wouldn’t be looking for God in the usual places or in the traditional sense. Growing up, I had been exposed, first- and secondhand, to a broad sampling of both Western and Eastern religions. I was born to Indian parents and raised in America, where my family was culturally Hindu and practiced a strict and relatively unknown (at least in the West) Indian religion called Jainism. Incongruently, I was educated by Catholic nuns—well, at least until I came home from school one day in fifth grade and announced with confidence that Jesus would save us all, after which my parents promptly enrolled me in the local public school.
As a child I spoke both English and Hindi; by the time my daughter was born, I was reasonably fluent in French and Italian as well. I was well educated, well traveled, and worldly. To add to the religious and spiritual mix, my husband, Atul, an interventional cardiologist, is Hindu. As a man of science, he finds comfort in research and data and doesn’t share my spiritual thirst or my anxiety about the unknown. But for me, science wasn’t enough. And religiously and spiritually speaking, nothing I had experienced thus far was a perfect fit. I was walking barefoot, so to speak. Not because I wanted to but because I had a closet full of uncomfortable shoes.
Since I hadn’t been able to find God—or a satiating spiritual connection—in any of the obvious places, I decided to widen my net. This wasn’t an out-and-out rejection of the traditional religion that I grew up with; rather it was a deep, spiritual curiosity that left me yearning to find out if there’s more. So when I headed out to find God—him or her or it—I was looking elsewhere and everywhere. And I went all-in. I wanted to experience each of these belief systems and practices in the flesh. Nothing was off-limits or too unorthodox.
What I found was unexpected, to say the least.
Early on, what I encountered was somewhat encouraging, at times even bordering on the spiritual. That inspired me to keep looking.
But more often what I experienced was perplexing. Or hilarious. Other times, what I unearthed could only be described as shocking, intellectually discordant, or downright baffling. Or just plain-old disappointing. What I observed ranged from the very profound to the stunningly dumbfounding.
And it was crowded. I had to wait in a lot of lines. It seems everyone is looking for God—or at least one of his spiritual bedfellows.
When I first mentioned my quest to friends and colleagues, I didn’t know how they would react. So I was initially cautious. I whispered tentatively in a few, select ears.
To my relief, no one pulled back or judged me. Instead they lit up, became animated, whispered back.
A few even shouted from the mountaintops.
After all, finding a comfortable spiritual home affects us in so many fundamental ways. It provides clear direction and adds meaning and purpose to everything we do—not just for our families
and on a personal level but in our work too. And having meaningful work grounded in a higher purpose beyond the material and the here and now is profoundly life altering.
There is compelling evidence that religious beliefs are not solely a result of indoctrination, that humans are born with a natural instinct to believe in divine power, which helps explain why so many of us are seeking. Broaching this topic with family, friends, and colleagues—many of them lawyers, doctors, and engineers—opened up an unexpected dialogue. Quite a few of them scribbled down names of people they thought I should meet, people they referred to as goddesses, gurus, and saints. Many of them told me, with detail and fervor, about their spiritual journeys, some successful, others disastrous and disappointing.
Then they invited me to places. Lots of places.
Apparently, while I had been negotiating contracts at Google, the rest of the world had been on a quest to find enlightenment,spiritual clarity, and salvation.
I was late to the party.
When a coworker named Gopi heard about my quest, he suggested that I meet a healer from India known as Hugging Amma. In addition to being on the marketing team, Gopi taught yoga at Google and occasionally sent me spiritual missives—sweet, inspirational sayings conveyed via e-mail. He thought I might benefit from meeting Amma, and I was intrigued. Besides, in a few weeks Amma was going to be in New York City hugging her followers at a convention center just a quick cab ride from my apartment.
Amma has a global reputation as a healing saint and a guru. She travels around the world and frequently embarks on multicity tours across the United States, delivering her message of kindness and love with the simple warmth and connection of an embrace. Over the last three decades she has dispensed more than 34 million hugs.
Amma supports a network of charities under the umbrella organization Embracing the World, which reportedly takes in over $20 million a year. Hugging is apparently big business.
And there’s no question that she helps people. After the tsunami hit in 2004, Amma had over 6,000 homes built in southern India. She has properties in Asia, Europe, and the United States—including an ashram in the Indian state of Kerala, where she built a state-of-the-art university and a medical school. But she also bought a mansion in Maryland said to be worth almost $8 million, so she’s definitely helping Amma too, as she sells her Amma-themed merchandise: Amma-branded jewelry, clothing, dolls, and even watches, which I was told keep “Amma Time”—whatever that is.
“After I had allowed the energy and emotion to engulf me, I thought Hugging Amma might just be selling what I was shopping for.“
Amma’s “children,” as she calls her followers, swear that she’s a spiritual healer. Her critics suggest she’s a guru of self-promotion. Either way, her following is undeniably enormous. I contemplated Gopi’s suggestion by asking myself if I believed that spiritual salvation and enlightenment lay in something as simple and pure, as innocent and fundamental, as a hug.
Or an aggregate 34 million hugs.
I was skeptical, but then I reminded myself that millions around the world believe that Amma is a healing saint. Besides, I reasoned, Gopi is an enviably spiritual and happy man, so I should at least give Hugging Amma a shot.
Then I reminded myself that there was some soft science behind this too. Hugs release oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone, and touch is recognized as an important element in psychological and physical healing and well-being. Maybe that alone explains it? Or maybe this was just the lawyer in me trying to find a concrete explanation for the inexplicable.
As for her critics, I rationalized that money and spirituality are always an awkward, unsavory mix. Doesn’t the Catholic Church have the highest net worth of any institution on earth? Don’t Mormons pay ten percent of their income to the church? And don’t some people who practice Judaism “pay to pray,” with temples charging for seats or memberships? Don’t many religious organizations and a lot of spiritual leaders own real estate and sell related paraphernalia?
The day I went to see Amma, I changed my clothes three times. I had absolutely no idea what to wear to meet a saint. (Add to that the fact that July in New York can be brutally hot, and I didn’t want to be sweaty for my hug.) Work clothes felt oddly formal, a loose-fitting, colorful Indian salwaar kameez seemed too costumey, jeans would be sweltering, and everything else in my closet was better suited for a night out on the town. Yoga pants, on the other hand, seemed directionally correct; I worried that they were too casual and informal—even bordering on cliché—but settled on them with a loose-fitting button-down shirt anyway.
When I finally arrived at the convention center to meet Amma, thousands of people were milling about in the front of the hall. And they were shopping. I had walked into what appeared to be an Amma-themed tchotchke sale. All the merchandise I had read about—the dolls and perfume and jewelry—was for sale. The hug might be free, but a watch with Amma’s face on it will set you back $25.
I got in line for the ticket to hug Amma, thinking how this didn’t feel any more spiritual than hanging out at a flea market. I spent the next four hours standing and waiting with thousands of other people. Some, just like me, were looking for something they were prewired to want but probably would never find; many others were fervent believers, sure they had already found it.
At noon, there was a sudden flurry of activity when some of Amma’s children (identifiable by what looked like beauty pageant sashes) rolled out a red carpet. Amma entered to palpable excitement. I was standing close enough that I unintentionally ended up in a makeshift receiving line, which made it possible to reach out and touch her hand. I was wearing my new Amma watch on my wrist and had a few other Amma incidentals tucked away in my purse.
She was wearing a white cotton sari. She is all of four feet tall. For some reason, I thought she would be bigger. Maybe like Michael Jordan.
When my number was finally called and I was next in the crowd to receive a hug, the movement around me accelerated. Amma’s front man asked me what language I spoke. I stumbled, then said. “Hindi.” Oddly, he leaned over and told her that I spoke English, apparently deciding I wasn’t Indian enough.
When I approached Amma, one of Amma’s children pushed me down on my knees, and Amma pulled me in to a long bear hug. I wasn’t sure how this worked—what I was supposed to do or how I should feel. As a New Yorker, hugging strangers didn’t come naturally to me. When I started to wonder who should instigate the release, I awkwardly tried to pull away. But she held on to me with the firmness and conviction of an uncomfortably overfamiliar distant relative while chanting something in my ear, whispering in a language I did not recognize. I surrendered to the moment.
Her words felt comforting, even though I didn’t understand them. I tried my best to hold on to them but I couldn’t.
I can report that Amma smelled of sandalwood and rose and hugged with such conviction and passion that for a brief moment, mid-hug, after I had allowed the energy and emotion to engulf me, I thought she might just be selling what I was shopping for. I was hoping she would tell me something profound or answer those questions that plagued me. . . the questions that Zia would be asking me.
Why are we here?
What is the meaning of life?
What happens when we die?
Is there a God?
When she released me from the embrace, Amma held me at arm’s length, then looked and smiled at me with such honesty and purity that I felt she, above anyone else, understood who I was. And then—just like that—it was over.
Before sending me on my way, she gave me a packet of sandalwood powder and a kiss.
A kiss made of milk chocolate, wrapped in silver, and manufactured by Hershey.
I was simultaneously over- and underwhelmed. The hug, the sandalwood, the rose, the warmth, the energy, the conviction, the whispered words, her smile—all were, on many levels, compelling, even spiritual. In the depth of her embrace I had thought, at least fleetingly, that I felt something approaching otherworldly and enlightening.
I was trying really hard. I wanted to get it.
But in the end, the kiss unglued me. She told me to eat it.
Like Holy Communion? The Eucharist from Hershey?
Before I left the building, I was already obsessing about the kiss. Should I eat it now like she told me to? And if I don’t, what if it melts? What happens if I lose it? Can I save some for my husband and Zia? How do you share one little kiss?
With these thoughts racing around in my head, the questions I’d set out to answer seemed even more elusive. I had been undone by a piece of candy.
I stepped out onto 34th Street to assaulting midday heat. Looking back over my shoulder, I acknowledged that it felt better in there hugging Amma than it did out here in the heat and noise of the city streets. But I knew it wasn’t anywhere near enough. I was looking for more than a fleeting sense of comfort. I was looking for more than a sweaty hug at a convention center.
In the next few months, I would wait in more lines. I would follow detailed instructions. Instructions about energy fields and karma, cleansing rituals and seminar logistics. Instructions written by spiritual leaders who took Visa and PayPal and had websites with disclaimers, downloadable liability release forms, and links to Google Maps.
I had to remind myself that the pope uses Twitter, that the liability issues were pro forma, and that I worked for Google. It shouldn’t bother me that I was looking for God using the Internet and a credit card while signing disclaimers.
I opened my doors to let evil spirits out after I walked around my apartment burning a mixture of Epsom salts and rubbing alcohol. I downloaded a meditation timer app to my phone and snuck into the Mothers’ Room at Google to meditate every afternoon. I had my natal chart read by a man dressed like the captain on The Love Boat, joined a laughing yoga group in South Africa via Skype, and stood half naked on a beach in Mexico covered in Mayan clay and honey, trying to visualize a beautiful garden and all my dreams coming true.
I started working with an energy healer in Australia for “distance healing” via Google Hangout. She clears my energy fields quarterly, right before our scheduled video chat. Then she reminds me to envision a white protective light surrounding me while I shower and comments about the negative energy field running under the building I live in. She keeps suggesting that I sell my apartment and move. (Apparently energy healers in Australia have no idea how hard great apartments are to come by in New York.) But it’s easy to get hooked and become dependent. When I called her for advice about an issue with a family member and she didn’t get back to me for a week, I felt enormous trepidation. I had to remind myself that energy healers take vacations just like the rest of us.
To say that I was pushing my boundaries would be a grand understatement. The law is palpable and definitive, and the corporate legal work that fed and housed me anchored me in the concrete. But in my spare time, on weekends and days off, on my way to and from work, I found myself untethered and yearning for the comfort of another realm.
A realm that eluded me.
“A forty-five-minute orgasm as a route to spiritual healing and enlightenment? Invisible surgery to cure cancer or depression? Count me in.”
After one friend told me about a ten-day silent meditation retreat, another confessed that she had had a near-death experience as a child and now speaks to angels. Another gave me the name and address of her facialist in Los Angeles, a celibate Buddhist who keeps a second apartment in downtown New York, goes by the name “Goddess,” and channels angels.
I have her on speed dial.
I traveled to Brazil to meet John of God and was introduced to tantric sound healing and transcendental meditation as I SoulCycled and hip-hop yoga-d away my lingering baby weight. I got detailed and reliable first-person accounts of the spiritual exploits of others, along with speculative half-truths, hearsay, and misrepresentations. I heard the plausible and the promising tucked in between reports of routes to salvation that sounded more like spiritual black holes or marketing scams than paths to enlightenment. Each account was richer, stranger, and more implausible than the last.
I lapped them up.
A forty-five-minute orgasm as a route to spiritual healing and enlightenment? Invisible surgery to cure cancer or depression? Count me in.
Yoni worship? Cooch yodeling? A forgiveness coach? Exploring the divine feminine? I signed up for all of it.
Spiritual salvation, inner peace, and the keys to happiness were conveniently offered in weekend packages, midweek seminars, and all-inclusive retreats. Millions subscribe to these wildly popular programs. My inbox was overflowing with brochures and web links forwarded to me by friends and friends of friends, accompanied by notes written in a tenor that ranged from unflinching conviction and awe to cynical curiosity.
There were more than a few giggles. Not everyone believed. But everyone, it seemed, was looking.
So I showed up. In Abadiânia, Brazil, and Ojai, California; in Kyoto, Japan, and Rhinebeck, New York. I traveled in all directions all around the globe. I became a spiritual tourist.
Not one of my friends pointed me toward traditional philosophies or religions. Though this journey I had embarked on might eventually lead me to a spiritual place, it clearly would not be a route to a temple or synagogue or church.
Along the way, I learned to chant, to meditate, and to marvel. I wrestled with my own identity, from my ethnic and cultural roots in India, to my femininity, to my role as a woman, daughter, mother, and wife. I questioned my relationships, my core beliefs, and the possibility of otherness. Mine was a global expedition and a noble quest. I fancied myself an explorer, no different really than Magellan or Columbus. I was looking for a new world.
Because now that I had a daughter, I didn’t want to believe that the spiritual world was flat. I couldn’t just sit back and accept the possibility that if I set sail to circumnavigate this earth in search of God, I would reach the end and just fall into a void of nothing.
I intended to return home with a spiritual map and the epic stories of self-discovery to go with it. I wanted to be able to tell my daughter, with certitude and conviction, that there is more. And it is glorious.
From the introduction to Stalking God: My Unorthodox for Something to Believe In. Used with permission of Seal Press. Copyright © 2018 by Anjali Kumar.