The celebration brings up the immense gratitude I have for my mother, but it is also tinged with grief. For ten years I’ve longed to have a child, but haven’t been so blessed. Thankfully, my yoga practice has helped me look at this challenge as a kind of practice in itself–I have no other choice. My Japanese husband and I have applied to adopt, but our chances are slim. At 43, my age makes adoption even more difficult in a country where adoption is rare and bloodlines are almost feudal in their importance. I have to face it: my long road to motherhood might be at an end.
As the years have passed, I’ve had to ask myself questions many mothers never consider. Why do I want to be a mother anyway? I meditate on the answer. I want to experience another kind of love, something beyond what I know or can even imagine. Mother love.
But I’m not there yet, not at all. All the effort, pain, and disappointment of infertlity has gotten too much to bear, and I haven’t been loving myself. So while we wait for a placement from the orphanage, which looks unlikely, my husband suggests I go on a pilgrimage to the motherland—India. If I can’t have a child, can I discover another way to experience motherhood? If not, can I let go, and find contentment with life as it is?
Nothing to lose. So I pack my bags and head to India, hoping it will be the perfect place to heal and to find the mother within.
My destination is the ashram in Kollam, India, of Mata Amritanandamayi Dev, the spiritual guru Amma, whom some call the “hugging saint.” One humid August evening, I arrive at a seaside hotel after midnight and spend the night in a grass hut by the ocean. Crows caw and wild dogs howl throughout the night, sending me into a hallucinogenic state before I drift off to sleep. The sound of the waves wakes me in the morning. After breakfast, a driver takes me along roads, skirting the palm-fringed backwaters–rivers, canals and lagoons that run inland and bustle with boats ferrying fruit, fish, and cargo up the coast.
Our Jeep shares the road with cows, farmers, women carrying loaded head baskets, motorcycles overflowing with families. When we hit giant potholes, my head hits the ceiling. The cacophony outside is matched by the Bollywood hits blaring from the speakers inside the Jeep. It’s a crooked road, with lots of obstacles. As within, so without.
Hours later, we arrive at an iron gate in front of the massive pink concrete ashram. In the auditorium where Amma is giving darshan blessings, thousands of people sit on the floor, chanting devotional songs, meditating, or sleeping while they wait for their blessing. I feel peaceful and hopeful.
It’s an auspicious day. Amma, a soft, grandmotherly woman in her late 50s with thick brown hair threaded with gray, is dressed like Devi, the female aspect of the Divine. Wearing a gilded silver headdress and flowing blue and red robes, she sits on a podium surrounded by devotees. For hours on end, she opens her arms to hug people, not stopping even to go to the bathroom. I’m struck by how emotional many of them are. Some hold on to her and have to be pried off. Many weep and wail.
Is it her pure heart they’re so taken by? It’s believed that the energy transmission received in the presence of a holy one awakens those same qualities in us. Amma teaches, “One is not the limited body and mind but eternal blissful consciousness…” Are all these people tapping into this blissful consciousness? Can I?
I sit in Amma’s direct line of energy, melting into a calm spaciousness. Though she is not a biological mother, Amma–whose name means “mother” in Tamil, Korean, and other languages–is the most maternal being I’ve ever seen. She opens her arms and pulls each person to her forcefully, whether they’re covered in open wounds or wrapped in the most beautiful silk saris money can buy. They don’t care about her wisdom or philosophy. They just want to be wrapped in her hugs, to feel love. Her whole being radiates compassion. This is what it means to be a mother, I think. Surrender and sacrifice. I find myself overcome with emotion as I watch her giving unconditional comfort and love. The room is enveloped in a cocoon of tenderness. It is contagious.
As I sit on stage, jostled by the crowd, a volunteer dressed in white cotton instructs us to make a wish when we’re hugged. When my turn comes, I forget what I was going to say and whisper, “I wish to be a mother,” as I’m enveloped by Amma’s soft, warm flesh. Then she places her lips to my ear and sings a mantra. My eardrum vibrates and the sound takes over my body, and seemingly the whole room. It sounds like “Durga, Durga, Durga.”
Durga is a fierce form of the Supreme Goddess, or Mahadevi, manifestation of feminine power in the world. She’s a badass warrior chick, riding on the back of a tiger, 18 arms holding weapons to slay the most formidable mental demons. Her power embodies every god in the Hindu pantheon. Still buzzing, I stumble back through the crowd. Did Amma really give me that mantra? Does she give it to everyone? Does it matter?
After meeting Amma, I feel empowered. At a sacred place in the realm of an enlightened being, it’s easier to remember who we are, to tap into an expansive energy field. I buy a string of wooden prayer beads at the gift shop, to remind me of this moment, of my mantra, of my wish. Then I work my way through the maze of the compound and find my driver, waiting outside. The mantra rings in my ears on the bumpy ride back to the seaside. Hours pass like minutes, and I’m still feeling the bliss, still held in Amma’s outstretched arms, when I return to the hotel and am lulled to sleep by the waves.
The next day, I go to an Ayurvedic treatment center south of Kovalam to take ancient cures. I’ve booked a week-long stay, hoping that Ayurveda can help me become more fertile. Or if not, I can at least relax. I meet with the doctor, who explains that in the ancient Indian science, three doshas, or elements, maintain the body’s balance. Humans are ruled by one dosha or some combination of two –or even three. Vata is air, governing movement. Pitta is fire, ruling digestion, and kapha is earth and water, giving stability. I’m diagnosed with a vata imbalance. Like many urban women, I have too much nervous energy. I’m just way too busy, and I need to get grounded.
To restore my body’s balance, the doctor prescribes a daily treatment of yoga, meditation, and abhyanga, a traditional oil massage for the week. In a coconut leaf-thatched hut, I sit naked on a wooden chair while a young woman makes an offering of water, flowers, and prayers, paints a red bindi on my third eye, and waves incense over me. Covered in sesame oil, I lie face-down on a rubber mat while she holds on to a rope suspended from the ceiling and digs her feet into my skin, moving in rhythmic strokes to stimulate my circulation and melt stiff muscles. Then I turn over and she does it all again.
It’s 110 degrees. I sweat out my vata in an oily puddle. When it’s over, I’m given a whole coconut to drink from, nectar of the gods. Breakfast is homemade bread and vegetarian curry. I feel radiant and relaxed and it’s only the end of the first day. Six more to go. This is surely heaven, I think.
After my massage, I walk down to the beach. It’s still before 8 a.m., and the local fishermen are catching small sardine-like fish in their nets. But there’s also by-catch—scores of blowfish gasping for life, their spiked bodies inflated to fight off danger. They’re freed from the nets, but they’re not even thrown back into the sea. In Japan, where I live, these deadly creatures are a delicacy, but they aren’t here. Perhaps the chefs have not learned how to serve them so their poison isn’t ingested.
Hundreds lie along the shore, struggling to breathe. This is surely hell, I think, as I almost trip over a large one, its sad eyes fluttering. I tap it lightly with my shoe, try to roll it into the ocean. But the strong waves send it back to shore again, tumbling like a stone.
I try to hold it but its spikes stick up. Then it softens–it is weak, or perhaps it feels my intention. So I hurl it into the ocean, watching it try to swim away, hoping it will reach safety. Irrationally, perhaps, I feel strongly that the fish is pregnant. How badly it must want to survive, to lay its eggs. Yet, the forces around it might be too powerful to overcome. I want to stay and watch, to make sure it doesn’t get pulled back to shore again, but sheets of rain come down and I have to take refuge inside.
In my hut, I rest and reflect. If I want to welcome a life, I must value all life forms.
Later that night, two more small lives will need attention. I will get my chance.
A bee falls into the honey pot at the dinner table and I scoop it out. A caterpillar is nearly lost in the spray of my shower. I gently intervene, realizing that there are hundreds of ways to be a mother, only one of which is to give birth.
The next morning at the Ayurvedic center, I do my yoga practice, then sit in meditation. I recall the Buddhist practice of Bodhichitta that I first learned in high school decades before, wherein I can honor my desire to be a mother by recognizing all beings as my mother and vowing to repay their kindness.
I sit and watch my breath, trying to transform my desire for a child into a quest to be as mother-like and expansive as possible. It feels right. Besides, at the moment, it’s my only option.
From then on, I try my Bodhicitta on with everyone I encounter at the treatment center, trying to see them as countless mothers over countless lifetimes. I’m put to the test when the massage therapist asks if I have children–she’s half my age and has two. Feelings of shame, then jealousy, arise. I breathe deeply and remember my practice. I watch those feelings surface, let my awareness guide them to another response. She is my mother. She’s asking because she loves me. I will repay her kindness.
When the massage is over, I offer her a red envelope stuffed with money for her children.
After all these years of being asked that question, I suddenly have an answer that gives me hope.
“Not yet,” I say.
At my check-up, the doctor looks at me sympathetically as she tells me about a village where women use their wombs to grow others’ babies. “You could go there,” she says. I catch myself feeling defensive at her unsolicited advice. Over the years, everyone has a special treatment, diet, doctor or visualization that has worked for their sister-aunt-friend-second-cousin-twice-removed. None of them have worked for me.
I take a breath, remember: She’s my mother. She loves me. She only wants me to be happy.
I thank her for her care. In my mind, I give her a hug. I channel Amma.
Over lunch, I open a newspaper and learn that Amma was attacked the day I visited her ashram. A man had run up to the stage with a knife. The weapon was quickly confiscated, and he was arrested. It happened at 6:45 p.m. Amma didn’t want to cause panic, so she didn’t stop hugging until 5 the next morning. The visitors in the back were oblivious; those in the front knew. That’s why they’d been so emotional. Amma forgave her attacker, saying, “All those who are born will die one day. I am going ahead keeping this reality in mind.”
Everyone is mother.
If I forget this, I’ll recall Amma’s compassion even for one who might harm her.
I want to experience this same kind of earth-shattering, unconditional absoluteness of a mother’s love for her child, sent out to anyone and everyone.
I’m starting to feel it. To believe.
They are my mother. I am their mother, too.
Durga, Durga, Durga.
The next morning’s meditation brings back a long-buried lesson from the Hebrew School of my youth. Somehow, the more I embrace yoga and Buddhism, the more my mother’s Jewish wisdom also resonates. The Torah says a miracle is what happens when G-d (or call the Divine what you will) moves beyond natural law and demonstrates unlimited power. A test is when G-d invites us to do the same. People who pass tests cause “miracles” to happen. In the Torah, all tests break the barriers between creation and creator.
When something doesn’t come easy, it’s often a test. A test helps us to awaken to and hopefully grow beyond perceived limits. Could my crooked road to motherhood be a test, and could this test be a miracle in itself?
Soon it’s time to leave India. The last morning, my husband calls from Tokyo to say the orphanage we’ve applied to has found us a match. There are hundreds of young couples ahead of us, higher on the priority list. It’s some kind of miracle, I think. I get down on the ground and kiss the earth.
At the Ayurvedic center, the news spreads quickly. My new friends give me a surprise baby shower. They drape me with flowers and shower me with song as we make offerings to the great Mother Earth and the ocean. I allow myself to receive their blessings and to hope. I’m filled with love for them, for Amma, for the female doctor and the massage therapist, for the mothers who lend their wombs, for the pregnant blowfish who refuses to die and for the heart-mind that is perceiving them all–mine.
Shortly after arriving home from my pilgrimage, my real journey begins. My miracle is coming. His name is Shinji, and my love for him is already limitless.
I can’t wait for the next mother’s day. My first.
But then again, now I know: every day is mother’s day.
Leza Lowitz (www.lezalowitz.com) lives in Tokyo, where she owns Sun and Moon Yoga (www.sunandmoon.jp). She’s the author of the amazon best-seller Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By, Sacred Sanskrit Words (with Reema Datta), Yoga Heart: Lines on the Six Perfections, and the Young Adult novel about the last living female ninja, Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, winner of the 2014 APALA Award in Youth Literature. This essay is excerpted from her forthcoming memoir, Here Comes The Sun: A Journey to Adoption in Eight Chakras (Stone Bridge Press, June, 2015) http://www.cbsdsmarttools.com/sites/m89832/index.html. She can be followed on Twitter at @lezalowitz
Grateful acknowledgement to Yoga Journal, where this essay first appeared in another form.