The Great Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on How to Do “Hugging Meditation”
“When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.”
By Maria Popova
“I embrace you with all my heart,” Albert Camus wrote in his beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. To embrace one another with our whole hearts is perhaps the greatest act of recognition and appreciation there is. To do so in more than words is the ultimate gift of our shared humanity. And yet despite this awareness — or perhaps precisely because of it; because of its enormity — we rarely give each other this gift.
How to perform this highest act of generosity is what legendary Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (October 11, 1926–January 22, 2022) explores in How to Love (public library), his luminous meditation on the art of “interbeing.”
“Spirituality doesn’t mean a blind belief in a spiritual teaching,” Nhat Hanh writes. “Spirituality is a practice that brings relief, communication, and transformation.” One of the most transformative forms of secular spirituality is communication itself, in its most sincerest semblance — the intimate bravery of letting ourselves be seen, of connecting with our fellow human beings with the vulnerability necessary for openhearted living.
In the late 1960s, Nhat Hanh invented — in the most organic and inadvertent way — a simple practice that brings embodied form to the communion and mutual understanding at the heart of this spiritual intimacy. With his signature good-humored warmth, he recounts:
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?” In my country, we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way, but I thought, “I’m a Zen teacher. It should be no problem for me to do that.” So 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.
To surmount this cultural barrier of communication, Nhat Hanh devised a fusion of East and West furnishing a universal human language for what everybody needs — a practice he called “hugging meditation,” which, in requiring that we disarm all of our chronic cynicisms, appears at first intolerably awkward but blossoms into deeply rewarding:
According to the practice, you have to really hug the person you are holding. You have to make him or her very real in your arms, not just for the sake of appearances, patting him on the back to pretend you are there, but breathing consciously and hugging with all your body, spirit, and heart. Hugging meditation is a practice of mindfulness. “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, she is so precious to me.” If you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.
At the heart of hugging meditation, Nhat Hanh points out, are the core Zen principles of interconnectedness and “interbeing,” with each other as well as with the universe. With the great simplicity and sincerity of Zen writings, he considers both the interpersonal and the intrapersonal rewards of the practice:
When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many people to reconcile with each other — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others.
But beyond the action itself the most important commitment — an intention of absolute presence with the other and with the moment’s ephemeral aliveness, which is perhaps the task most challenging yet most sorely needed for our spiritual survival in the modern world. Nhat Hanh outlines both the philosophical foundations and practical steps to mastering this delicate art of holding one another’s wholeness while fully inhabiting that blink of existence:
Hugging is a deep practice; you need to be totally present to do it correctly. When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You can train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.
Before hugging, stand facing each other as you follow your breathing and establish your true presence. Then open your arms and hug your loved one. During the first in-breath and out-breath, become aware that you and your beloved are both alive; with the second in-breath and out-breath, think of where you will both be three hundred years from now; and with the third in-breath and out-breath, be aware of how precious it is that you are both still alive.
When you hug this way, the other person becomes real and alive. You don’t need to wait until one of you is ready to depart for a trip; you may hug right now and receive the warmth and stability of your friend in the present moment.
Complement How to Love, more of which you can read here, with Jack Kerouac on how to meditate and Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.
Published May 4, 2015