The Enlightened Hugger

Last week’s post (“The Hug Manifesto: Hold On for Dear Life”) promoted hugging to comfort and connect with others; this week I suggest ways you can use hugs to transform relationships and expand your mindfulness practice.

Deeper Emotional Connections

It’s so easy to fall into a routine and fail to connect with the people we love. Even though I exchange daily doses of hugs with my friends and family, sometimes I’m guilty of going through the motions without much awareness of the moment. So every now and then I try to step back, slow down, and appreciate these expressions of love more fully. In one memorable instance, I used the “hugging until relaxed” technique to forge a deeper connection with my Mom.

I ran across David Schnarch’s “hugging until relaxed” exercise while reading Passionate Marriage for a counseling class. This technique extends hug time beyond the cursory embrace so that participants move beyond self-consciousness to relax into one another.

In addition to the technique’s application within a marriage, Schnarch writes about the impact of hugs in other relationships. One of his examples pertained to hugging his father twenty years ago, which he compared to “embracing a tree trunk.” As the years passed, Schnarch’s father softened by degrees. At the same time, he gradually became more relaxed when hugging his son. As the duration and relaxation of their hugs increased, they fostered a more open and affectionate relationship. The hugs both reflected and contributed to their growing closeness.

While I’m all for hugging tree trunks (see below), I’m thankful that my Mom’s hugs were never wooden; instead, they were energetic and smiling—but brief. After reading about Schnarch’s experience with his father, I wondered if our hugs could be something more. So as my Mom walked me to my car after a visit, I proposed that we try “hugging until relaxed” and explained how the extended-version hug worked. She agreed to try it.

I took a deep breath and hugged her. At first there was the familiar stiffness and urge to pull away that accompanies most hugs that extend beyond the comfort zone of one person or the other. But after a few more seconds, I felt our bodies relax and a warm, nurturing energy flowed between us.

It was like a physical version of unconditional love, exactly what I had hoped to feel. As I relaxed into my mother’s hug, I was touched by her willingness to risk the kind of intimacy that didn’t come naturally to us. It was worth the risk to ask her for what I needed, and our hugs have held new meaning ever since.

Spiritual Hugs

To me, “hugging until relaxed” resembles the mindfulness elements of slowing down and being in the moment. And its principles overlap with some other, more intentionally spiritual paths to hugging nirvana.
My favorite comes from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. In Peace Is Every Step, he introduces a Hugging Meditation, which combines hugging and mindfulness to convey love and gratitude or invite reconciliation. The meditation begins with deep breaths and peaceful intention and progresses through several stages of awareness of the moment and your fellow hugger.

Another option is the Chi Hug, which emphasizes the energy exchanged during a hug. In this extension of ChiWalking© techniques, you use grounded self-awareness as a base to give and receive caring energy in a hug.

Now here’s one you may not have tried: tree hugging. While Schnarch may consider trees hard and unyielding, many feel grounded by the experience of hugging a tree. It’s no coincidence that yoga features a tree pose and that Qigong martial arts also contains a move called “tree hugging.” Trees represent stability, strength, and the peaceful energy of nature. Especially if you enjoy solitude and the outdoors, a tree hug meditation might lend variety to your spiritual practice.

Your Next Hug

I challenge you to try one of these hug variations. And as always, I invite you to share your reactions through the Life Is Now comment link. Here are links to the resources mentioned in today’s blog:

* If you sign up for Google Book Search, you can preview Passionate Marriage to read more about David Schnarch’s hugging until relaxed technique. Simply sign up, search for the book, view the contents page, and click on the “Hugging Until Relaxed” chapter link.

* Try Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Hugging

* Feel the energy in a Chi Hug.

* Get in touch with nature with this tree hug meditation.

* Remember to consider the Hugs for Health
“Rules for Hugging.”

... And be sure to tell me about any new and unique hug variations you discover.


The Hug Manifesto: Hold On for Dear Life

Hugs have a warm, fuzzy reputation. But they have a serious and powerful side, too. A well-placed hug can defuse strong emotions, bridge differences, and remind us that we are alive and valuable.

Holding On

A few years ago I took part in on-call crisis “care teams,” which intervened to support survivors of crises such as crimes, accidents, or suicides. Our training taught us to be present with someone as they experienced shock, horror, sorrow, and grief. Mostly, we listened or sat in silence to literally “be there” for them. Many times, we held people as they cried.

Sometimes opening my arms to these virtual strangers was the first thing I did after I introduced myself. That hug offered the person in crisis something to hold on to during a moment of extreme instability.

Being in the presence of someone in crisis can feel exceedingly awkward. A natural response is to fumble for some magic phrase to ease this person’s burden. We try to say something—anything—to fill heavy, dark silences and to help ourselves feel less powerless. Frequently, we just want to get out of there.

I suggest that we reach out instead. Recognize that while it’s impossible to remove somebody’s pain, a hug can ground and validate everyone involved, even if only for a moment. The physical contact serves as both a reality check and a sign that somebody cares.

Reaching Across the Divide

As a gesture of caring, hugs can alleviate personal pain and isolation in non-crisis circumstances, too. Consider, for example, how our society tends to marginalize or isolate groups like the elderly, disabled, developmentally challenged, chronically ill, and people with mental health concerns like depression. These are people who need affection and care the most, yet receive the least. Perhaps it’s difficult for us to acknowledge people who inhabit the very pain and challenges that we fear.

But these conditions are not contagious. We can’t let fear of difference or infirmity keep us distanced from one another. Instead, a hug reminds us of our common need for validation and acceptance.

I would extend this concept to other kinds of distancing. For one, I think we mistakenly assume that someone who frowns, seems “tough,” or is radically different from us wouldn’t want a hug. Similarly, the thought of hugging might seem ludicrous in the midst of a conflict or argument. Yet offer a smile or a hug and you may be surprised at how the barriers melt away.

Strength In Softness

A great example of this comes from my Dad, who mentioned to me that he hugs his fellow Vietnam veterans. I liked the idea, because war veterans are a group that might not initiate hugs on their own. Aside from being trained to conceal vulnerability, it’s also common for combat vets to suffer from grief, survival guilt, and traumatic memories. Sometimes they “numb” their emotions to protect themselves from feeling that pain. Unfortunately, that can block positive emotions, too.

Since my Dad’s comment, I’ve added hugs to my expression of thanks when I meet a veteran who displays a tough exterior. And, of course, I make it a point to hug my favorite veteran (my Dad) every chance I get.

My Hug Manifesto

I suggest that hugs are one small way to practice open-minded inclusion. When I feel awkward in the presence of someone who arouses my fears of rejection, mortality, or the unknown, I consider it an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and push my growing edge.

Yes, it’s scary to be in the presence of pain or the unfamiliar. Yet when my natural impulse is to shut down or escape, I try to remember that making contact can ease the tension and reassure everyone involved. When I offer a hug, I make myself vulnerable because I take the risk of reaching out first. This bestows and invites trust. It conveys goodwill.

According to the popular statement by family therapist Virginia Satir, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” According to her criteria, many of us don’t get the hugs we need to survive. But I tend to agree with her philosophy. Because once we make hugging a habit, we do more than survive. We grow.

Hug Wisely

Throughout my counseling training, I examined the ethics of touch closely. So I must emphasize that the kind of hugging that I encourage assumes a healthy respect for ethical and individual boundaries. In order to create a positive, compassionate experience, please secure permission before you hug (and see the Hugs for Health Foundation’s Rules for Safe Hugging).

I don’t believe hugs will save the world from hunger, war, or the scourge of deadly disease. But I do believe in the power of hugs. Any loving, peaceful act is a step in the right direction.

Next time: Embrace Your Spiritual Side (Hugs for Deeper Connection)


A Little Meat, a Little Cake for Lasting, Balanced Love

I recently took part in a delightful wedding that encapsulated all the best aspects of a balanced relationship. Just like other parts of our lives, marriages and relationships work best when we keep our core values in sight and infuse them with simplicity, balance, and appreciation for the everyday miracle of love.

In contrast to the flash and excess of some weddings, Laura and Angelo’s marital celebration was elegantly simple. Without pomp and pageantry, the event’s focus fell naturally on togetherness and sharing. And as a second marriage for both the bride and groom, the union reflected both the blush of romantic love and the wisdom of two souls familiar with the daily effort, compromise, and maintenance that marriage requires.

To begin, my husband Karl and I arrived at the restaurant where the ceremony was being held and placed our offering in the “wishing well.” This accorded with the couple’s request that guests offer encouragement rather than tangible gifts. I liked their idea; I understand that young couples need help to accumulate household items, but by this point in our lives less is more.

Next to the well sat a commemorative plate and an indelible pen. I read the sweet, solemn messages of hope and love already on the plate. I wanted to add something that reflected the essence of marriage but couldn’t find the right words to convey what was in my heart. I decided to wait until later to sign it.

The hostess ushered us into the ceremony area: a small dining room lit by candlelight, a simple altar, and an aisle strewn with red rose petals. There were only a handful of people in attendance, a small congregation of family members and friends. The bride, Laura, and I have been friends since the early 1990’s. I also know her eleven-year-old daughter Sophie but had yet to meet her beloved, Angelo.

The ceremony was brief and heartfelt. Sophie stood at the altar next to Laura in a lavender dress. Laura shone in an elegant off-white gown and smiled broadly as she recited her vows. Angelo, too, exuded pride and serenity. After exchanging rings and words of commitment, the couple poured sand from two separate vials into one larger, heart-shaped glass vessel. This gesture symbolized the convergence of two families into one. I was touched, knowing that Angelo’s family was unable to travel from their home country to attend the ceremony.

After the ceremony, we gathered on the patio as the sun descended toward the horizon. The air was warm and a cool breeze joined me as I circulated among the guests. I reacquainted myself with Laura’s parents and chatted with some of her college friends.

Once the wedding photographer set Angelo free, I introduced myself to Angelo and felt an instant connection. He admired how Laura sustained her friendships over the years. I liked his easy manner, quick smile, and sense of humor. When I told him I hadn’t decided what words of wisdom to write on their commemorative plate, we laughed at his pragmatic suggestion: “Love is forever, as long as it lasts.”

Later, Karl and I were seated close to Angelo, Laura, and Sophie at the large table that filled an intimate, private dining room. Tea lights glowed amidst orchid and lily centerpieces. We ate an exquisite meal, replete with shellfish and grilled meats, cheesy potatoes and delicate wines. The food arrived on platters that we passed around the table; the communal nature of the meal fortified the feeling of camaraderie.

It was a time to appreciate togetherness. Guests clinked glasses to signal the bride and groom to kiss; Sophie and I competed for the record of “most napkin drops”; conversation ranged from movies and music to a good-natured ribbing of Laura’s parents for texting with their iPhones at the other end of the table.

At one point, Karl and I conferred to reconsider what to write on the plate. We wanted to avoid anything overly sentimental—that just wouldn’t suit our perspective on marriage. Karl jokingly proposed the somewhat silly, “Much love to you. Mwah! Mwah! Mwah!” (accompanied by kissy sounds). I liked it: simple, yet playful. I inscribed our message on the plate and embellished it with a poorly executed sketch of two lilies. It’s okay, I thought; imperfection and mistakes are just as much a part of marriage as love and blessings.

An array of rich desserts arrived to complement the finale: a champagne toast to our friends. As the champagne and a lovely cake adorned with orchids was placed before her, Laura spoke of the significance of gathering to share a meal. She cherished having us together at one table to support their vows and the future of their relationship. Angelo thanked us for our presence. On that day, he said, we were his family.

I might not have summed it up in a pithy phrase for the plate, but the experiences of Laura and Angelo’s wedding exemplify the essence of marriage. Along with the other guests, we enacted and embodied yin and yang, the down-to-earth and the sublime, the meat and cake of a life together.

Those brief hours contained the formality of commitment; the strength of family support; the blessing of faith; and the company of youthful energy and practiced maturity. A marriage needs those components to survive. Yet also present were the elements that allow love to flourish: music, flavor, friendship, and a hearty sense of humor.

So here’s my wish for Laura and Angelo and everyone else who vows to make love last. Cultivate simplicity, balance, and gratitude. Laugh at yourself and laugh often. Invite the contributions of your family and friends in all their imperfection. Savor the pleasures of fresh air, food, music, and affection. And much love to you. Mwah!