Each day at New Life starts out quite similarly. We all wake up together with the sound of a gong and choose to go to yoga or meditation. After that, we have breakfast together in silence. We break our Noble Silence every day with our community meeting, where new people have an opportunity to introduce themselves, people who are leaving can say goodbye, and we share any announcements or comments that are relevant for the community. We end the meeting with a short meditation.
Wednesdays are a special day. Instead of our usual choice of yoga or meditation, we all start off the morning meditating together, as a community. Then, at the end of the morning meeting, instead of our usual sitting meditation, we do a special kind of meditation – hugging meditation.
The hugging meditation we practice at New Life is borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition. We bow to our partner, acknowledging their presence. When we hug, we hold each other for three conscious breaths. For the first breath, we focus on our own presence in the current moment. In the second breath, we focus our attention on our hugging partner. With our third breath, we bring our attention to the fact that we are here together, sharing this moment. We then release our partner and bow to them again, to show our appreciation for them and the moment we have shared together.
The first few Wednesday mornings at New Life, I didn’t stand up for hugging meditation, but instead remained seated on my mat. Each new Wednesday brought its own anxiety. I told myself I would do it, but every single time I wasn’t able to make the motions to get up and participate. I was frozen on my little red mat, with “just get up and do it” repeating in my head to no avail. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the idea of it, but hugging others, especially strangers, seemed unfamiliar and scary.
I don’t remember what got me up that first time, but I am so happy that I was able to overcome that fear. Finding a partner, I realized how many people in the community I deeply cared about or wanted to get to know. Bowing to them, I would smile, feeling grateful for their presence. For those breaths we shared as we hugged, I brought myself back to the present, appreciating the opportunity to spend precious time with courageous people from all over the world. Bowing again, I would treasure this special moment we shared. Then, I found a new partner and did it all over again.
Hugging meditation quickly became one of my favorite parts of the week. Instead of feeling strange hugging someone I barely knew, I felt an ease and connection that hadn’t been there before. I started noticing things about people I hadn’t before, like how tall a person is or the unique features of their face. Immediately following hugging meditation, I felt more expansive, open, energized, and connected.
Currently, right after our daily morning meetings, we have a Just For Today reading. Those who are interested gather together to read a passage from the Narcotics Anonymous literature, and then we do a gratitude share. People express their gratitude for anything from bananas to their family to the good weather. Every Wednesday, though, a good majority of the people express their gratitude for the hugging meditation and how meaningful they find it. It’s an amazing way to start the day with a smile.
Recently, my mother came to visit me at New Life. She wanted to discover the place I found so special. I wondered how she would view our hugging meditation practice. After all, we never really hugged while I was growing up. I glanced over at her and indeed she had chosen to remain seated. I told myself I would go hug her after the practice ended, but I wondered if I would be able to bring myself to do it. As I hugged one person and then another, I felt my nerves fade and my body relaxed. I began to feel joyous and at peace, and right after the meeting ended I went over and hugged my mother for the first time I could remember.