My BART train stops at 19th Street in Oakland, a block away from The Paramount Theater. As I come up out of the station, I’m stunned to see a long line of hundreds, maybe thousands, snaking out the clogged lobby doors. My eyes follow the line, all the way down to the corner and around the block. The crowd must be quadruple the size of the one that attended the Oakland Ashram programs in 1989. Clearly the word had spread.
Heading down the street and tacking myself on to the end of the line I feel suddenly empty-handed. Almost everyone else is holding something. Many carry tote bags packed with small cushions, shawls and bottled water. Others clutch bouquets of flowers or cup whole coconuts in their hands. A few even appear to be prepared with all of the above.
Once inside the opulent, Art Deco Paramount, I snag one of the last empty seats along a back row and sit. I’m early, but apparently lucky to have this spot. Glancing toward the stage I notice several rows up front are still vacant, blocked off by white computer printed signs with bold black letters that say RESERVED. I exchange a small, polite smiles with the older women seated on either side of me, then sink back into my plush green velvet chair and take the eye-popping Paramount in.
An hour later the program begins. I fidget through a long series of announcements: Where to register for the upcoming weekend Intensive; information on the new chanting tape that just became available in the bookstore; directions to the temporary Amrit Café that’s been set up across the street and will open for dinner after the program; and, finally, a flight-attendant style walk through of post-program logistics that informs us how and when the hall monitors will assist each individual row in exiting the theater prior to darshan. After Gurumayi’s talk we all need to leave our hard-won spots and then line up again outside before coming back in to see her.
This tedious list of “business items” is followed by several testimonials from well-dressed devotees whose lives have been transformed in subtle and dramatic ways since they stepped onto the Siddha path. One woman in a tailored blue dress suit shares that while deliberating over an important career move, Gurumayi appeared to her in a dream and said, “Do what you love.” Upon hearing her testimony, several pockets of the congregation let out long, audible sighs. Next, a bit of an aw-shucks but still earnest college-age guy steps up to the mike and starts by sharing that he lives near the Ashram in Oakland. He then recounts how chanting the mantra saved him from getting mugged at his local Laundromat. He’s sincere, but his reverent mention of the guru in the context of a story about a near-crime comes over a bit awkward. He receives a somewhat non-response from the hall, then sits back down.
Where is Gurumayi?
My mind wanders. My eyes wander too – along the sensuous carvings of the heavens that ascend the Paramount’s gilded walls, all the way up to the ceiling, to the Art Deco angel hovering over the proceedings, his enormous ornate wings outstretched above us all. When I return my attention to center stage, to Gurumayi’s elegant, empty chair, I realize: four years later and here I am, moments away from seeing her again. I have no idea what to expect.
The MC for the night steps up to the microphone and makes a final announcement in a low, devotional hush, “Gurumayi will be joining us soon . . . ” then sits down. Although I came here alone, I now feel my anticipation pulsing in the air, in synch with everyone else’s.
The lights illuminating The Paramount’s stenciled, cookie-cutter style ceiling, three balconies up, dim from a brilliant magenta to a soft blue. A musician near Gurumayi’s empty chair strums his tamboura and the vibrations echo through the crystalline acoustics of the hall. Another musician joins in on her harmonium, and a small group of lead chanters begins softly, “Oh-oh-om, Nah-mah, Shi-va-ah-ah-ah-ah-ayah . . .”
Little by little, each one of us lends our voice to this tender call and response, as if joining in on a cherished refrain. Within a few rounds, I feel the focus of our collective attention slowly submerge into the sweeping majesty of the mantra.
“Oh-oh-om, Nah-mah, Shi-va-ah-ah-ah-ah-ayah . . .”
I’ve been listening to this particular version of the mantra on an old cassette player in my bedroom for years. Tonight, brought to life by thousands of harmonious voices and amplified up into the rafters of this grand old theater, it has to be the most glorious music I’ve ever heard.
Time suspends. Nothing exists prior to or outside of this moment. Here we are.
I close my eyes for a moment and drift.
When I open them again I do it just in time to see her, gliding in through the wings beneath the dim blue lights. The moment feels private, intimate, like it’s just us.
Everything about Gurumayi is graceful and delicate. Gliding across the stage, her billowing silk robes appear to be as thin and soft as rose petals. She seems almost weightless. As she approaches her chair and turns towards the hall, her hand floats up in a silent, slow motion wave. Almost on cue, as if my heart has been punctured by her gesture, I burst into tears. And, just as instantaneously as when I first saw her four years ago, my tears soon become sobs. It’s as if all the self-doubt and loathing, all the anxiety and depression, all the emotional rot I’ve been stuffing away inside since I saw her last is being pumped right out of me. Feelings I didn’t consciously know I’d buried – regrets, mistakes, all the times I’d bullied myself over another failure – are being pumped in a fury to the surface and bailed away.
Gurumayi pauses before ascending the carpeted steps that lead up to her chair and bows before the giant floodlit photograph of her teacher, Baba Muktananda, suspended from the ceiling. She takes her elegant poised position on her armless, low-backed chair and folds her hands delicately in her lap. Once she is situated, a young, thin, dark-haired man in a black suit and dress socks inches in on his knees to adjust the long arm of her microphone, carefully positioning it near her mouth. As he does all his eyes remain fixed on Gurumayi, who looks past him as if he’s not there and continues her unbroken gaze toward the hall.
As the young man retreats backwards and away from her chair, Gurumayi joins us in the chant.
Her voice adds the quality of longing to our chorus and pierces some untouched place deep inside me. She chants with us briefly, maybe ten minutes, but those ten minutes feel expansive and rich. By the time the chant subsides, my sobbing has calmed.
We all sit together in silence.
After what feels like exactly a beat, the young man in the suit and dress socks inches again back up toward Gurumayi’s chair, this time to place before her a Plexiglas lectern containing her talk. Gurumayi then sings the opening invocation – a dedication to her Guru, I think. It’s a sing-songy Sanskrit tongue-twister of sorts I usually fast-forward through whenever I listen to my mom’s cassette recordings of Gurumayi’s talks. Most of those seated around me know the words and join in. I don’t know the words, or even what the song means. I just want to get to the talk. I sink back again into my green velvet seat and listen, and wait.
The invocation concludes, the final tamboura vibrations dissolve, and for a moment the entire hall feels held in a state of heightened, alert silence.
Making a slow sweeping survey of the crowd, Gurumayi seems to take each one of us in before opening her talk with her familiar and warm, “With great respect and love, I welcome you all, with all my heart.”
Her resonant voice fills the hall; no sound outside it is heard.
“It’s so perfect,” she begins, blasting us with the evening’s first blast of her mile-wide smile, “That we embark on this month of programs here, at The Paramount. Because, as you know, as Baba always said in all of his talks: The practice of Meditation is paramount!”
She laughs, we laugh, and here we are – reunited with the one who holds a place in our hearts so dear it feels like it’s exclusively hers.
I’m so glad I’m here. I'm so glad I came. It feels so good to be with her like this again. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Continuing on, her voice turns tender as she adds, “One of The Paramount’s staff members shared with us that this theater was built during The Depression. In fact, we learned that this theater was actually created as a retreat from the sadness that existed just outside its front doors. And so, as we begin this month together, what a wonderful reminder The Paramount Theater will provide us that what is inside is far more magnificent than anything we could ever find out in the world.”
I feel the whole hall smile.
Immediately after Gurumayi’s talk, I’m outside the front doors of the theater again, shifting my weight back and forth as my legs fall asleep in a darshan line that won’t budge. Four years ago, during the Oakland Ashram programs, my mom and I lined up for darshan inside the meditation hall, fifty feet from Gurumayi's chair. Back then we were whisked through the ceremony in twenty minutes. Tonight, even though I rush to claim a place in line inside the lobby, it’s all for naught. Within seconds I’m promptly herded along with the masses by a small army of efficient women plying clipboards and wearing nametags covered in color-coded stickers, back out onto the street.
I can’t believe how many people are here. But I also can’t imagine why the line isn’t moving. Maybe after going four years without seeing Gurumayi everyone has a lot to say. I stand in the same spot for two hours.