Hugs are good for us. This was a consistent message at theÂ Spiritual Care ConferenceÂ Â we hosted in Glastonbury a few weeks ago. David MacGeogh, Anglican vicar of Glastonbury, reported that a crucial part of his pastoral care was just to give appropriate hugs. Author David Hamilton spoke about the benevolent biochemistry of touch.
Without hugs and touch babies and children do not develop properly. There is poignant evidence that without appropriate physical contact childrenâ€™s brains simply do not grow to fill the space inside their skulls. Baby monkeys deprived of their mothers â€˜ hugs 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 bodyâ€™s immune system.
They 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 Americaâ€™s most influential psychotherapists, Virginia Satir, once wrote: â€˜The recommended daily requirement for hugs is: four per day for survival, eight per day for maintenance, and twelve per day for growth.â€™
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.
â€˜I canâ€™t kiss or hug you,â€™ I said. â€˜What should I do?â€™
â€˜In my world,â€™ she replied, â€˜we greet each other and connect with our smiling eyes.â€™
Smiling and with sparkling eyes, she met my eyes and bowed in the Hindu gesture of Namaste â€” 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. Although there was no physical touch it was reassuring and loving and benevolent.
This is similar to the touch, the embrace of spiritual experience and connection. The biggest embrace there is. And that is always available, isnâ€™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?
If I were presented with a life-long choice â€” hugs or meditation â€” I would chose meditation. Â In the silent calm I feel myself enfolded in the benevolent mystery of the universe and the healing resonance of the natural world. Â 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. Jamesâ€™s Church: â€˜If you donâ€™t feel better after meditating youâ€™re doing something wrong!â€™
But I do not want to set up a polarity between body and soul, between physical hugs and spiritual rapport. If we have learnt anything from paganism and other nature-based spiritualties, it is that spirit is fully manifest in our physicality too. Body and soul and spirit entwine.
Perhaps it is because of my meditation and ongoing spiritual connection, or perhaps its just my character type, but I personally donâ€™t want or need the prescribed twelve hugs a day. An occasional hug works for me.
I did however certainly need them when I was a baby and a child â€” 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 â€” healing â€” 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 and wanting to reach out and â€¦ touch â€¦ hugâ€¦
Is there, I wonder, some kind of natural law here, like nature abhors a vacuum? Lack of hugs = Growth of compassion.
On a greater scale I believe that the benevolent mystery of the universe also responds to a hug-less, loveless vacuum.
If we open to spiritual connection, we can find the most profound reassurance and comfort in the healing fields of energy that permeate the universe and nature. Â In many traditions, the great mystery of the universe is understood to be our loving â€˜Fatherâ€™ or â€˜Motherâ€™ and this cosmic parent is always there for a limitless hug, unconditional love and embrace.
So if and when you need a hug, and you are alone or ignored, relax as best you can and receive the deep reassurance, love and comfort of Mother Earth and Father Sky.
So I wish you hugs. And I wish you too an ever-deepening spiritual connection.