I am not a social hugger. If I like you, I don’t bend forward from the waist, place two tentative hands on your shoulders and pull you in for a peck on the cheek. Instead, I step right in and slide my arms around your back till they overlap as far as possible. I squeeze gently until I can feel the solidity and the warmth of your chest and your belly against mine, and hold onto you for a few breaths. I give my body time to recognize that you’re there.
I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but I often get told I am a great hugger. Even with people I don’t know all that well, at retreats or workshops, – they will sometimes say, “You give great hugs!”
In this time of social distancing, however, there’s not a lot of hugging going on. I was online in a small support group I’m part of the other day. We were checking in and one of my friends and colleagues mentioned that she was surprised to have learned that she was more extroverted than she thought. She said she was really missing seeing people and most of all she was missing hugs. I kept thinking about this over the next few days, and came up with what I thought was a partial solution.
She and I’d had lunch together just two weeks before – just before the world shut down. We’d met at our favourite Japanese restaurant, halfway between her home in the Caledon Hills and mine toward the east end of the Oak Ridges Moraine. When I arrived, she stood up and we hugged hello. When we said goodbye, we had another long hug.
I wrote to her and suggested the exercise at the end of this post using the memory of our last hug. Feel free to try it if you too are deeply missing the physical presence of someone.
But first – a little hug theory.
The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nat Hahn has developed what he calls hugging meditation. “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.”
My beloved friend Janis, went to a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at some point in the decade before her death and experienced this meditation directly from him. Then she brought it home and taught me.
These are the instructions for Thich Nhat Hanh’s hugging meditation: Taking time to get grounded and present before the hug, step into the hug with your friend, partner, child, parent, family member, and while holding them, you offer this meditation – silently, or out loud. “Breathing in, I know you, dear one, are alive in my arms. Breathing out, you are so precious to me.” Thich Nhat Han says that if you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and he or she “will be nourished and bloom like a flower.”
I’m going to switch tracks now. If you’ve ever done a writing workshop with me you’ve probably heard me quote the research about PET scans and virtual reality when I’m talking about how to make sure that your writing comes alive for people. The more abstract your writing, the more it stays in your head, and the less emotionally involved your reader will be with it. The more physical, present and concrete will be your reader’s experience of your story or poem.
If I write that a woman keeps floral vegetation placed in the windows inside her house, your experience of that will be very different than if I tell you that Marion, with the curly brown hair, brings her geraniums into the house and keeps them on her broad windowsills all winter, where the sun’s rays pour through the leaves and flowers suffusing them with light like green and red lanterns.
The PET scan research offers a glimpse into why your experience will be so much more visceral in the second piece. When a subject (hooked up to a Positive Emissions Tomography scanner) looks at something – an orange for instance – a certain part of that person’s brain shows more activity.
When the orange is removed, and the person simply mentally visualizes the orange, the same part of their brain lights up.
Given that all our experience is actually translated through the brain, essentially the imaginary experience is almost as real to us as the present experience. I use this practice now to hold Janis again, even though she’s been gone for almost 10 years.
If you’re missing the touch of someone you love, I’m going to ask you to try this experiment. It’s going to take a little focus, so make sure you won’t be disturbed for 5 or 10 minutes.
When you’re ready, begin to notice the sensations of breath in your body to get present –take two or three breaths this way. When you feel you’re present in your own experience, begin to imagine the presence of the person you’re missing. (That person doesn’t have to be still living.)
Conjure them up before you and imagine stepping in and sliding your arms around them; feel their arms crossing over at your back. Imagine increasing the pressure until you have a deep connected hug going. Feel the warmth of their chest and belly against you. Note the differences in height. If you know this person well, you can remember their smell, the feeling of the bones beneath their skin, the flesh on those bones – how soft or hard this person feels against you, under your hands. Spend a few breaths there. Give your brain time to light up, to experience the remembered/imagined sensations of being with them physically.
And give yourself a few minutes of quiet afterward to stay with the experience. I’m a huge fan of writing as a way of concretizing experience, so you might also want to write about what you noticed in those moments together with your beloved person.
Let yourself return to this practice whenever you’re really missing a person or really missing touch and being touched.
In another post I’ll talk about how this practice might even benefit the person you’re imagining.