A hug can be just a friendly or incidental gesture, but it can also be a profound and meaningful act. In fact, it seems that some forms of hugging can actually offer the benefits of meditation. So, what’s the way to hug consciously? A Zen master explains.

Boaz Mizrahi April 20, 2020

In 1986, a young American named Kevin Zaborney founded a new and unique official holiday – National Hug Day. Every year since, on January 21, people in America and other countries across the globe express their affection towards their friends, family, and even strangers. What is it about a simple hug that people find so exciting, comforting, and inviting for getting closer together? Research shows that a hug has many health benefits, on both body and mind. It ignites a release of oxytocin, the “love hormone”, which aids in healthy mental development during childhood, and more. But if we consider hugging closely, we have to admit that there are many types of hugs.

In the 1960s, the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Nanh invented Hugging Mediation.  On the blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova captions his book How to Love that deals with creating meaningful relationships between people. She brings forward his insights about hugging meditation, and explains how this impactful technique truly works wonders.

Is it even allowed for a Zen monk to hug?

Like most good things in life, everything started by mistake, when Nanh said farewell to a friend before he left for his flight. In his book, he describes that, “In 1966, a friend took me to the Atlanta Airport. When we were saying good-bye she asked, ‘Is it all right to hug a Buddhist monk?’… I said, ‘Why not?’ and she hugged me, but I was quite stiff. While on the plane, I decided that if I wanted to work with friends in the West, I would have to learn the culture of the West”.

That’s how he came up with the idea of hugging meditation. Nanh explains that practicing it is a type of mindfulness – a conscious embrace, of you will. The technique involves breathing during the hugging, and also thinking about the person you are hugging. The result of such an embrace is meaningful and aware, as he explains, and “the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person [that you are hugging] and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower”.

A real hug, with awareness and appreciation
Ermolaev Alexander / shutterstock

How do you hug consciously? Combine breathing

Just as we do in mindfulness meditation, the depth and meaning of the embrace stem from our concentration on the present moment and our physical and emotional sensations. Nanh points out that when we take a person in our arms, we have to make them feel real and alive, by giving them our undivided attention, heart, spirit, and soul – and this should involve breathing. He recommends combining conscious thoughts, in between our breaths: “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, [think that] she is so precious to me.” 

Nanh explains the technique: Before you hug someone, it’s recommended to face them and breath, which establishes your presence in space and time. Then, open your arms towards them and embrace them. In the first cycle of breathing in and out, be aware that you and your loved ones are alive. In the next cycle of breathing in and out, he recommends performing a small thought exercise: “Think of where you will both be three hundred years from now”, and in the third cycle of breathing in and out, think just how precious it is that you are both alive.

The benefits of hugging meditation

“When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings”, Nanh says. This intimate connection has many beneficial implications, as he puts it. Hugging out of an aware thought about the present moment, while also breathing in and out and being conscious, can encourage reconciliation, healing, understanding, and happiness. Some of these aspects have even been proven scientifically, and Nanh strengthens this with stories about family members and friends who bridged gaps and became close again.

Unlike other meditation exercises, there is no need for any special training or participation in a workshop to be able to practice this hugging meditation. All you really need is another person who you care about, and some attention on your behalf – making any encounter a good opportunity for practicing it.

Human contact is a natural, basic need wired into our DNA. A real, meaningful embrace is one of the strongest expressions of this need, and it seems to be powerful enough to ignite many positive reactions within us. A hug is an excellent opportunity to strengthen social contacts, and spark within us a wide range of physical and emotional mechanisms that we should all adopt with open arms.

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