Do you understand how to hug well?
Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of how, when he was a young Vietnamese monk, on his first trip to America a woman came up and hugged him. He was quite taken aback. Not knowing how to respond, he just stood there. Reflecting on it later, he decided that it wasn’t such an unseemly custom after all. In fact, he composed a “gatha” about how to do it well.
Until the first century C.E. or so, followers of The Buddha composed and transmitted “literature” orally. Not surprisingly, the Pali canon contains many different kinds of mnemonic devices.
A gatha was originally a section of a text that was composed in verse meters (as opposed to nonmetrical prose). They helped facilitate memorization.
Today, gathas may be just prose sayings that help one to pay attention, to be more mindful of the present moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh (in “Present Moment Wonderful Moment”) provides a gatha that teaches us how to hug more effectively. It’s worth remembering and using. An effective hug is a mindful hug; an ineffective hug is a distracted hug.
Imagine that a girl comes into your presence. You know her; perhaps she is your daughter or a niece. If you are elsewhere, if you are worried about your checkbook balance or busy doing the dishes or otherwise distracted, is she real for you? Well, she’s there and she’s not there.
If you want her to be real, pay attention to her. Don’t dismiss her with some words or just give her a pat on the head or a quick perfunctory hug. If you want to embrace her, hug her well.
As you take her in your arms and breathe in, think or say, “I am so happy to hug this child.” As you breathe out, think or say, “I know she is real and alive in my arms.”
Why not do the same with your spouse or your friend? Why not teach them the gatha?
By paying attention to your breathing, you are bringing yourself back to the present moment. You are reuniting what you are doing (hugging) with what you are thinking about, thus overcoming separation. Because separation is the source of being ill at ease, this is very important.
Instead of being like a ghost, the child will be real to you—and, if she is paying attention to hugging you, you will be real to her.
As you continue to hold her and continue to breathe, you will become more and more aware of how precious she is.
That’s how to hug someone well. Why not use it with, minimally, all your loved ones?