Hugs and Compassion

Posted by Cygnus Team
26 June, 2013

Cygnus readers will not be surprised to read that hugs are good for us. In fact we hope that this magazine is a kind of a hug – a friendly presence held in your hands. The importance of hugs was a consistent message at the May Spiritual Care Conference held in Glastonbury which I had the honour of hosting. One of the speakers was David MacGeogh, the Anglican vicar of Glastonbury, who reported that a crucial part of his pastoral care was just to give appropriate hugs. Another presenter was David Hamilton, well known to Cygnus readers, who spoke about the benevolent biochemistry of touch and hugs. Without hugs and touch babies and children do not develop properly. There is poignant evidence that without appropriate physical contact children’s brains simply do not grow to fill the space inside their skulls. Baby monkeys deprived of their mothers exhibit anxiety all through their lives. There are many reasons why hugs are good for our ongoing health and wellbeing. They stimulate hormones such as oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin, which open up tissue, enable flexibility and strengthen the body’s immune system. Hugs create feelings of security, pleasure and contentment. They make us feel wanted. They help us relax, centre and be comfortable in our bodies. They teach us to give and receive. They harmonise the chakras and the flow of vitality through the body. They reassure us that all is well with the world. In fact one of America’s most influential psychotherapists, Virginia Satir, once wrote: ‘The recommended daily requirement for hugs is: four per day for survival, eight per day for maintenance, and twelve per day for growth.’ What do we do if no hugs are available But what if we are in a situation where no hugs are available? Or we are in one of those moods where we do not want to be touched? Or we are in pain and touch only makes things worse? At the Spiritual Care Conference another of the speakers was Sister Jayanti, a Hindu nun and director of the Brahma Kumaris University. After her talk, I wanted to give her a hug and peck her on the cheek as a gesture of affection and appreciation, but I knew that would not be appropriate. ‘I can’t kiss or hug you,’ I said. ‘What should I do?’ ‘In my world,’ she replied, ‘we greet each other and connect with our smiling eyes.’ Smiling and with sparkling eyes, she met my eyes and bowed in the Hindu gesture of Namaste — I greet your soul. It was a very lovely moment, a friendly connection. Thinking about it later it felt, had I actually hugged her, that her body would have melted away and I would have been hugging nothing. She was so ethereal that her physical body was hardly involved in the communication. Her eyes were acting as a gateway to her soul. The Namaste connection was not physical, but soul to soul. Less tangible and more subtle than a physical hug, it was still reassuring and loving and benevolent.

The embrace of spiritual experience

This is similar to the embrace of spiritual experience and connection. And that is always available, isn’t it? For me I most easily receive that spiritual embrace in landscape and in meditation. All I have to do is pause and allow myself to feel and receive what is there. When do you most easily receive it?

A silent embrace available to all

If I were presented with a life-long choice – hugs or meditation – I would choose meditation. In the silent calm I feel myself enfolded in the benevolent mystery of the universe. That is, for me, the best embrace of all. Sogyal Rimpoche, who wrote the modern version of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, once said in a talk at St. James’s Church: ‘If you don’t feel better after meditating you’re doing something wrong!’ But this isn’t the whole story. It is not good to set up a polarity between body and soul. If we have learnt anything from paganism and other nature-based spiritualties, it is that spirit is also fully present in our physical bodies. In Tantra and Taoism, for example, making love is taught to be an act of meditation and worship. Body and soul and spirit entwine. In a loving hug, there can be a similar entwinement of body and soul. I’m not being stoic or frigid, but because of my meditation and ongoing spiritual connection, I personally don’t want or need the prescribed twelve hugs a day. I did however certainly need them when I was a baby — and I want all children without exception to receive all the hugs, cuddles and touch they need to make them strong, confident, loving and independent. Also I want any of us who feel lonely, sad or in pain to have the hugs and touch that we too need. The poignancy is when this natural need, perhaps yearning, for physical comfort and reassurance cannot be met. When you see someone starved of care, touch and affection what do you feel? I imagine that your response is one of compassion. Is there, I wonder, some kind of natural law here, like nature abhors a vacuum? Lack of hugs = Growth of compassion. But if we have spiritual connection, we can find the most profound reassurance and comfort in the healing fields of energy that permeate the universe. In many traditions, the great mystery of the universe is understood to be our loving ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’ and this cosmic parent is always there for a limitless hug, unconditional love and embrace. So I wish you hugs. And I wish you too an ever-deepening spiritual connection.

William and the Cygnus team

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