One of the most challenging and profound practices I ever encountered was also, perhaps, the most awkward: hugging meditation. Early in my Buddhist journey, I attended a retreat in the tradition of the Vietnamese Thien (Zen) master Thich Nhat Hanh. We stayed in cabins in the woods, and I didn’t know anyone there. On the second or third day, the teacher introduced hugging meditation, one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s many innovations. I suspect my first thought was something along the lines of “Those two words don’t go together.”
Hugging meditation is taught in a few different ways, but here’s how I learned it at that retreat. First, you hug someone (in that case, a perfect stranger). You really hug them—not a quick one-handed hug or a pat on the back, but a full-on embrace. Then you breathe together for three full, deep breaths. If there were no instructions beyond that point—if the only point was to hold someone for that long—it would have an impact; even with people we love, we don’t get a lot of hugs like that.
But there’s more. We were told that during the first breath, we should visualize the other person as a baby. For a full breath, you hold that person as you would any baby, with wonder and love and simple gratitude for them being born. In the second breath, you hold that person as they are now, recognizing how incredible it is that the two of you have somehow come together in this place and in this moment.
By now, you’ve already been hugging for a long time. But you’re not done, because in the third breath, you imagine the other person as an old person taking their final breaths; you hold them as they die. And they, in that same breath, are holding you, as you die. It’s a lifetime of compassion, spent in three slow breaths.
This practice, for me, gets to the heart of what it means to really look at suffering. It doesn’t mean being sad all the time, or feeling helpless, or feeling outraged—though we will, at times, feel all those things. Looking at suffering means looking at the human condition. And according to Buddhism, that means looking, yes, at the parts that feel hard or incomplete, but also at impermanence, at change, and at how we are never truly alone, even when we feel we are. It isn’t good news or bad. It’s poignant. And it’s in front of us all the time—in the people we love, in the people we see driving by, and in the mirror.
If you get the chance, please try out hugging meditation. I used to hold my kids this way when they were little—the first and second breaths came easy, but that last one took some work. It still does. I promise, some part of this will be tough. Maybe all of it.
It’s very possible—likely, even—that you will struggle to find someone willing to do this with you. I get it; these days, even my kids will squirm away. But you can modify it, and that’s what I want to recommend here. Instead of hugging someone for three breaths, take up the practice of seeing someone for three breaths. Maybe it’s a family member as they watch TV; maybe it’s a stranger on a park bench. In a way, it doesn’t matter.
Take those three long breaths. See the baby—look at that baby in the way you really would, with the playfulness and gentleness you already understand. Look at the person as they are now—not through the lens of your story about them, not as some narrative summary of who they are, but with the heart that knows, to be here right now is a gift. And then, with that third breath, summoning all the love and strength you can, let them go. Let them go.
Breathe that last breath all the way through, to the place where you know that all this visualization isn’t just an exercise. It isn’t just a practice. It’s real. It’s painful, and it’s beautiful, and it hurts, and it’s real. We may as well embrace it.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.