January 21, 2014

The Hesitant Hugger ~ Kristy Harvey

One year ago I sat in a coffee shop and contemplated my life.

I had begun to question my happiness.

Generally, I am a happy person. I just thought maybe I could be happier. After getting a copy of ‘Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices’ by Thich Nat Hanh, I wondered if I would be able to find a mindfulness practice I could relate to.

I randomly opened the book to do whatever meditation exercise I landed on. I have always known that the Universe has a sense of humor. So when I landed on Hugging Meditation, I actually laughed out loud.

I am not a hugger. I like my personal space. I’ve never been one for a lot of physical contact. I almost closed the book and tried again. Then something stopped me. I decided to read the passage and see if perhaps the hugging meditation was exactly what I needed.

How to Practice Hugging Meditation:

“Open your arms to hug another. Hold each other for three breaths. With the first breath, you are aware that you are present in this very moment, and you are happy. With the second breath, you are aware that the other is present in this moment, and they are happy as well. With the third breath, you are aware that you are here together, right now on this Earth, and you feel deep gratitude and happiness for your togetherness. You then may release the other person.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices

All I had to do was hug another person for three breaths. That seemed almost too easy. I suffer from chronic over-achievement. So naturally, I decided to design an experiment that would challenge me.

What if I gave 500 mindful hugs in the next 30 days?

My hypothesis was simple: I predicted that by giving 500 mindful hugs in 30 days I would increase my happiness by 30%. I’m only half-kidding here. It was not very official. However, I did keep a spreadsheet to tally up the number of hugs I gave daily.

I was curious to see if I would actually stick to this challenge for the full 30 days. I don’t think I had given 500 hugs in my entire life up to this point.

As the days passed, I was averaging about 15 hugs each day. It was a little awkward at first. After the first week it was easier to ask people if they would like a hug. I never had anyone turn down a hug.

Being fully present during each of the hugs took a lot of energy. I had no idea that three breaths could last so long. Usually after the first breath I could feel my body relax. By the third breath, I could feel the other person’s body relax. Eventually, I began to feel more connected to others.

As I journaled about this experiment I noticed a pattern forming. Every hug ended with smiles and an exchange of positive energy. I was making other people feel better. In turn. I was feeling better.

On days when I was under a lot of stress, I still made hugging a priority. When I had a deadline at the office, I would take a 15 minute break to go outside and hug as many people as I could. When I returned to my desk, I was less stressed and in a more positive frame of mind, which actually improved my productivity.

On day 25 of my hugging spree, I learned of Mother Amma, the Hugging Saint. Her charities have raised hundreds of millions of dollars that have built schools, provided jobs, and given aid after natural disasters. She has dedicated her life to alleviating suffering around the world by inspiring people to action. How does she do it? She hugs.

Mother Amma has hugged over 30 million people around the world. Just 13 days after I was to finish my 30 day Hugging Meditation, she was to make an appearance near my hometown.

Coincidence? I decided that I must go see her. In the meantime I continued hugging. By day 30 I had given 427 mindful hugs.

When I arrived to see Mother Amma, I was seated next to a man named Raj from Atlanta. He and his entire family had made the trip to see Mother Amma. He asked me how I came to be there. So I told him of my 427 hugs in 30 days. He threw his head back in laughter and then gave me a hug. He said he could feel the compassion coming from my soul.

The hall began to fill up until every seat was taken. People were sitting on the floor along the walls.

Amma arrived and was showered with rose petals as she was escorted to her seat. The crowd was then led in chanting three “Om”s. I have done this chant before but this was really something. There must have been 1000 people there. The vibration was palpable.

After the meditation, it was time to receive hugs from Mother Amma. The line moved quickly. Within 10 minutes, I was the next in line. I was instructed to kneel behind the current person receiving a hug. Once that person moved out of the way, I was to put my hands on either side of Amma’s chair and receive the hug.

Our eyes met and she grabbed my head and pulled me in close to her. She smelled of roses. Her embrace was so strong. I felt safe and comforted. She leaned over to my ear and began to say “my daughter, my daughter, my daughter” over and over and over.

That’s when I lost it. The tears just came out of nowhere. She squeezed me tight. She lifted my head and placed it to the other side and continued to hug me. She repeated “my daughter, my daughter, my daughter”. I was overwhelmed with emotion.

I began to hug her back tightly and she squeezed me and began to laugh.

That hug has stayed with me ever since.

The Hugging Meditation has made me more aware of my own suffering and that of others. It prompted me to explore the concept of compassion and look for ways to be more compassionate towards myself and others.

It has opened my eyes to the capacity for kindness in the world. It has challenged me to open up more to others and to not be so guarded. I still don’t consider myself a hugger.

When I do give hugs, people often comment on what a good hugger I am. I just smile and say, “I’ve had a lot of practice.”


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Assistant Editor: Rheba Estante/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: M.A. Center, Flickr



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Kristy Harvey