“You were with Amma in private meetings, in her room, on journeys—did you see the kind of thing Gail is writing about?” The question was natural; as one of Amma’s photographers for the past 20 years, I have been asked by numerous people, both supporters and detractors, for my reaction to Gail’s accusations in her recent book. So, I want to share my take on this whole situation.
I met Gail when I first went to the Amritapuri Ashram. That was 1992. Within months, I moved there for good. Gail was an institution. Everyone wanted to have what Gail had: to be close to Mother, to be able to serve her day in and day out. But right from the start something puzzled me: How could someone have the blessing of being that close to Amma, and yet be so… so… bristly, so harsh and so unkind sometimes? I quickly learned to keep my distance from Gail, interacting with her as rarely as possible. So, what I am writing about here is going to be less about Gail, whom I never got to know as intimately as did others who have posted their memories here, but about Amma as I know her, and about how I, as another western disciple of Amma, came to understand what happened to Gail: how she came to leave Amma and, now, 15 years later, has published a hate-filled book that contains far more falsehood than truth.
Early in my time at the Ashram I tried to respect Gail, as one naturally would respect someone in her position. When she would be brusque or hurtful, I would say to myself, “It must be exhausting trying to keep pace with Amma, who never rests! She’s probably just having a bad day.” To be honest, these excuses didn’t ring very true to me; I knew I was really just rationalizing something I didn’t understand. For one thing, I didn’t see others who worked very closely with Mother, like Lakshmiakka, and Radhika, behaving in the unkind ways Gail did.
But a good result was, this conundrum forced me to keep looking at Amma, keep observing and confirming for myself who and what she was, despite how Gail behaved. “Keep your eyes on the guru,” we are told, “not on the people around her.” I also came to appreciate two metaphors Amma often used. One was that when a patient is seriously ill, she is placed in the ICU so that the doctors can pay closer attention to her. I began to think maybe Gail was in this category—like an ICU patient, she required more attention. The other metaphor was of a lantern: a lantern casts its light far and wide, but there will be a shadow at its base, where the light isn’t effective—this is where some who seem close to the guru are sitting: in the shadow. Does that mean that all who are close to Amma are “seriously ill” or “people in the shadow”? No, but some are, and it helped me to stop trying to rationalize Gail’s manner into something it wasn’t, and to accept that it was quite possible for someone to be physically close to Amma and yet not be a good example of a disciple, nor to be a reliable and true spokesperson for or about Amma. This, I think, is the fact about Gail: she was physically close, but spiritually and psychologically far. In all my years of being with Amma, including behind closed doors, I certainly never saw nor experienced any of the scandalous activities Gail alleges took place. And so, to me, her reports are suspect.
“..for many of us traveling with Amma at that time, the question was: “Will this happen to me? Will I too give up and leave Amma?”
All this contemplation, along with my continued observations of Gail’s severity and unhappiness over the years she and I shared at the Ashram, led me to be less surprised, perhaps, than some, when Gail left. She was obviously miserable—almost never did that face behind Amma’s have a smile on it; how many lovely photos of Amma did I (in those pre-digital days) have to discard, because over Amma’s shoulder glowered the angry face of Gail? When I heard that Gail was no longer with our tour in 1999, I felt a mixture of relief and sadness. But also confusion: How could Amma have let this happen—how could she have let anyone “fall away” from her? “If Gail was so close to her for so long, why didn’t she see how unhappy Gail was, and ‘fix’ things so that she would not leave?” And more honestly, for me and for many of us traveling with Amma at that time, the question was: “Will this happen to me? Will I too give up and leave Amma?”
For there’s no question, life with Amma can be hard, on many levels: physical, psychological, spiritual. For a guru has the job—indeed, the responsibility—to “work on” the disciple. Just as a sculptor chips away at a block of marble till the beautiful form hidden within is released, the guru chips away at us. And though a sculptor’s treatment of the marble may at times appear harsh, the sculptor will lovingly continue chipping—until a beautiful statue emerges.
I thought, when I came to the Ashram, that I was presenting Amma with a fine gift (myself)—highly educated, successful, well-respected, an achiever, a mature, liberated woman—but Amma saw a block of marble encasing something she knew how to release. Her “chiseling” was sometimes painful, as blows to the ego always are: rejections of photos I offered proudly, thinking she’d see what a fine photographer I was. Dismissals of movies I poured heart and soul (and ego) into. Comments—in public, no less—about how incompetent I was. At those times I was faced with the same questions Gail may have had: “Why should I put up with this?” and “Why not just leave?” Nothing was keeping me there but my choice. It was evident to me that anyone could walk out of the Ashram anytime.
Every time I examined the situation, I recognized within myself a strong confidence that Amma was doing the best thing for me. I had been a teacher before coming to the Ashram, and I knew just how valuable strict discipline and high expectations could be – and how dangerous too much praise could be! I remembered two of my most promising students, and how I had mercilessly demanded more and more of them, never accepting less than their best, never pandering to them. (Ah! And what they became!—but that’s another story.) I was charged then only with instructing them in essay-writing and Latin. What if I’d been charged with helping them remove the character flaws that distanced them from their best selves? Now, that would have been far more ticklish! And that, I trusted (and experience in time showed), was what Amma was trying to do with me. This is the duty of a guru; Amma is both mother and guru—oh, what a balancing act!
“Amma, where shall I go, when it is you who can reshape me?”
So, I held on. Even when I had really rough times, and friends would think surely I would quit now, I held on. I remembered Jesus’ disciples saying to him once, “Lord, where shall we go, when it is you who have the truth?” I thought, “Amma, where shall I go, when it is you who can reshape me?”
But then what to say of Gail? Had the sculptor failed to liberate a beautiful statue? Through relieving Gail of many of her responsibilities, giving her plenty of time to herself, giving her a private flat in the Ashram to live in on her own—it was obvious that Amma had tried her best to help Gail get past her difficulties and stay on the path. But the efforts had failed. How could that be?
This is what I asked Amma when she sat with us tour members in the Frankfurt airport on the way back to Amritapuri from the tour during which Gail left. I have to admit that I asked less from curiosity about Gail than from anxiety for myself, an anxiety many of us were sharing: “If someone like Gail—with all her history and opportunities with Amma—can leave, what about me? Do I have any hope of staying? Why did Amma let her go?”
Amma’s reply was simple and beautiful: She told us two key things: 1) that she respects our freedom, and will never force, and 2) that she can enter a heart that is even a tiny bit open, but not one that is completely closed.
So, our part is to open our hearts and then she will come in; and our part is to invite her to help us, and then she will do that. But no forcing. I remember reflecting at that time on a prayer I had read—a prayer of a child saying to its mother, “Please, you hold my hand, because if I hold yours I might run away and get lost!” I spoke of this prayer, there in the Frankfurt airport, and said, “Amma, if I use my freedom that you respect so—if I, in that freedom, ask you to hold onto me so that I don’t run away—will you?” Amma didn’t use words to reply, but I felt confident that her answer was “yes” because she swept me into an embrace that I have never forgotten.
When things would get hard for me, a spiritual aspirant, a block of marble, I would say from my heart, which had its door open at least a crack, “Hold onto me!” Is this something Gail couldn’t or didn’t do?
Just a few months ago I actually left Amma’s Ashram—but not in the way that Gail did. I have left the Ashram in order to return to America to take care of my 90-year-old mother. But I have not left Amma; I have brought Amma with me, and I see my sadhana—my spiritual practice—now as to put into action what Amma spent over 20 years trying to teach me:
the traps of ego
the beauty of compassion
the gentleness of patience
the tenderness of acceptance
the real meaning of love
If I can do that, I will know that all the chipping my sculptor-guru did was not in vain, and that keeping my eyes on her, and using my freedom to entrust myself to her, were right. She hasn’t finished sculpting me, but people who have known me for many years tell me that I am a far more beautiful soul now than I was those 20-plus years ago when I came to Amma, thinking I was bringing her the gift of me. I brought her a block of marble; she made it into a gift to me.
Gail, too, was a block of marble; perhaps it contained a flaw that led to its cracking during the sculpting process. But a gifted sculptor (and Amma is definitely a gifted sculptor) could take the pieces of a broken block and make beautiful sculptures from them, so my hope for Gail is that when she is able, maybe in this lifetime, maybe in another, she has the blessing to return to Amma, and ask her to start again on the project that got interrupted. There’s no question what Amma would do, because she is above all the Mother. A few years back when Gail came to San Ramon and received Amma’s darshan, Amma embraced her long and tenderly; she would do so again. She can’t help it; her love really is unconditional.
Bev Noia (Janani)