As soon as I entered the doors, two people greeted me with open arms, people I had never met before. They hugged me as if I was a long-awaited friend.
After spending 13 years as an active member of the Chilean branch of the Institute for Hermetic Philosophy, created some 40 years ago by Dario Salas Sommer, I was about to change my life completely with a move to New York City, the capital of the world, the new Rome. I arrived in the Big Apple during the coldest days of January, perhaps the worst winter in 7 years, people kept saying in the news. I had hardly any knowledge of this immense metropolis, no apartment, no relatives, no friends, no acquaintances save for 10 or 15 members of the NY branch which I had met maybe 2 or 3 times during the weeks they visited Santiago over 6 years ago.
This was not a random act. My decision to move was well planned and long deliberated. I wanted to progress in my professional career by pursuing graduate studies at a prestigious university and at the same time continue the spiritual work I had started as a shy, skinny and insecure 21 year old several years back.
Well, the weather was not the only cold thing I had to deal with. Unlike Chile, the people I met here were not accustomed to kissing upon greeting; so many times I ended up kissing the air instead of a cheek! Embarrassing to say the least. People in classes did not say hello or even talk to me in the first weeks. The school orientation events, although carefully organized, lacked warmth and human contact, not that I was expecting warm hugs and friendly faces. I just wanted to find someone to talk to and someone to give me advice, but all my questions got pretty much the same answer, which was to look it up in the booklets and manuals. My to do list was long: get my Columbia I.D. card, search for an apartment, pay my tuition, register for classes, find food, buy books, obtain a Social Security Number, open a bank account, buy furniture, get to and from the University, etc. without any order of precedence to follow. To make things worse, I found my luggage at the door of the hostel I was kicked out of, because on the 7th day I was too late in informing the management that I needed to stay longer due to the fact that I had not yet found an apartment. (This was no luxury accommodation either, unless you want to debate with the rats, which were my close neighbors.)
The effect of the above circumstances left me with the impression that New Yorkers seemed cold, unaffectionate, difficult to approach, emotionally closed, always defensive and maybe a little fearful. Did September 11 have something to do with this?
At week number 2, after getting reasonably settled, I finally attended my first meeting at the New York branch of the Institute for Hermetic Philosophy. As soon as I entered the doors, two people greeted me with open arms, people I had never met before. They hugged me as if I was a long-awaited friend. (It turns out that one of them has become a best friend who I see 3 times a week.) And these were not the only people who met me with hugs, kisses and affection, regardless of whether we had met before in Chile or not. I had seemingly less in common with these individuals than those in the University environment. My only connection and bond with these people from every age, race and background was our mutual goals in seeking spiritual development, deeper humanity, and the construction of a better world, wherein the highest values of the human being prevail.
I had to ask myself, what was so unique about the warmth of these strangers’ hugs and kisses? What made them different from the ones I always received from loved ones in Chile? The difference was that these people had no reason to love me or give me affection, nor had I anything special to give them except my own affection. They did not know me deeply, though with the best intentions they gave me the warmest reception without being forced, without fear of rejection or fear of being misunderstood. They opened their hearts to me and were genuinely interested in my well being, the only reason behind which was true fraternity and love; the true fraternity and love that so many books speak of as the goal of humankind, but which cannot so easily be found. Just ask a New Yorker on a cold winter day.
Who are these people? Are they the same as the 12 million I bump into on the street everyday? I have discovered that they are and they are not. They are because they look the same, dress the same, walk in a similar fashion. But they are not, in that there is a difference inside of them. My new brothers and sisters are not afraid of showing their emotions, allowing them to flow without outside pressure. They don't follow any pre-established protocol. They listen with all their attention. They look directly into my eyes like no one else in the city does. They sense each other's state of mind. They possess a kind of inner peace and calmness allowing the development of a real conversation, a meeting of hearts and minds, souls and spirits. They are present and I feel I have finally found human beings in this place after all.