Brain Pickings

The Great Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on How to Do “Hugging Meditation”

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“When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.”

“I embrace you with all my heart,” Albert Camus wrote in his beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. To embrace one another with our whole hearts is perhaps the greatest act of recognition and appreciation there is. To do so in more than words is the ultimate gift of our shared humanity. And yet despite this awareness — or perhaps precisely because of it; because of its enormity — we rarely give each other this gift.

How to perform this highest act of generosity is what legendary Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. October 11, 1926) explores in How to Love (public library), his luminous meditation on the art of “interbeing.”

“Spirituality doesn’t mean a blind belief in a spiritual teaching,” Nhat Hanh writes. “Spirituality is a practice that brings relief, communication, and transformation.” One of the most transformative forms of secular spirituality is communication itself, in its most sincerest semblance — the intimate bravery of letting ourselves be seen, of connecting with our fellow human beings with the vulnerability necessary for openhearted living.

In the late 1960s, Nhat Hanh invented — in the most organic and inadvertent way — a simple practice that brings embodied form to the communion and mutual understanding at the heart of this spiritual intimacy. With his signature good-humored warmth, he recounts:

In 1966, a friend took me to the Atlanta Airport. When we were saying good-bye she asked, “Is it all right to hug a Buddhist monk?” In my country, we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way, but I thought, “I’m a Zen teacher. It should be no problem for me to do that.” So I said, “Why not?” and she hugged me, but I was quite stiff. While on the plane, I decided that if I wanted to work with friends in the West, I would have to learn the culture of the West.

To surmount this cultural barrier of communication, Nhat Hanh devised a fusion of East and West furnishing a universal human language for what everybody needs — a practice he called “hugging meditation,” which, in requiring that we disarm all of our chronic cynicisms, appears at first intolerably awkward but blossoms into deeply rewarding:

According to the practice, you have to really hug the person you are holding. You have to make him or her very real in your arms, not just for the sake of appearances, patting him on the back to pretend you are there, but breathing consciously and hugging with all your body, spirit, and heart. Hugging meditation is a practice of mindfulness. “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, she is so precious to me.” If you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.

Illustration from 'Hug Me' by Simona Ciraolo. Click image for more.

At the heart of hugging meditation, Nhat Hanh points out, are the core Zen principles of interconnectedness and “interbeing,” with each other as well as with the universe. With the great simplicity and sincerity of Zen writings, he considers both the interpersonal and the intrapersonal rewards of the practice:

When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many people to reconcile with each other — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others.

Illustration by Ben Shecter for 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow. Click image for more.

But beyond the action itself the most important commitment — an intention of absolute presence with the other and with the moment’s ephemeral aliveness, which is perhaps the task most challenging yet most sorely needed for our spiritual survival in the modern world. Nhat Hanh outlines both the philosophical foundations and practical steps to mastering this delicate art of holding one another’s wholeness while fully inhabiting that blink of existence:

Hugging is a deep practice; you need to be totally present to do it correctly. When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You can train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.

Before hugging, stand facing each other as you follow your breathing and establish your true presence. Then open your arms and hug your loved one. During the first in-breath and out-breath, become aware that you and your beloved are both alive; with the second in-breath and out-breath, think of where you will both be three hundred years from now; and with the third in-breath and out-breath, be aware of how precious it is that you are both still alive.

When you hug this way, the other person becomes real and alive. You don’t need to wait until one of you is ready to depart for a trip; you may hug right now and receive the warmth and stability of your friend in the present moment.

Complement How to Love, more of which you can read here, with Jack Kerouac on how to meditate and Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.

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Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time

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“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length.”

Long before psychologists had any insight into our warped perception of time — for instance, why it slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets twisted when we vacation — or understood how our mental time travel made us human, another great investigator of the human psyche captured the extraordinary elasticity of time not in science but in art.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 masterwork, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which also gave us her insight into the dance of self-doubt in creative workVirginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) writes:

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.

Woolf was acutely and intimately conscious of this strange elasticity of time — something she contemplated not only in her novels, for the public eyes, but also in the privacy of her diary, which she considered creatively essential. Nearly a decade before the publication of Orlando, in March of 1919, 37-year-old Woolf issues a meta-lament:

Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.

In a rather despondent entry from the following October, Woolf considers how time both gives shape to existence and warps it — it is against the firmness of time, after all, that we measure our feats and infirmities. She writes:

I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it. It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well, spending too much on food, growing old. I think too much of whys and wherefores; too much of myself. I don’t like time to flap round me. Well then, work.

In yet another entry from the day of her younger brother Adrian’s fifty-second birthday — don’t birthdays stir our indignation at time more potently than anything? — fifty-three-year-old Woolf’s unease with time intensifies even further:

I wonder why time is always allowed to harry one.

Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (public library) is a timelessly rewarding read in its totality. Sample it further with her reflections on the consolations of aging and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then complement this particular tussle with the story of how Galileo forever changed our relationship with time, the visual history of humanity’s quest to map time, and Thomas Mann on time and the soul of existence.

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Love Is Love: Maria Bello on Resisting the Labels We Are Given and Redefining Those We Give Ourselves

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A courageous quest for nuance that liberates the different experiences of partnerships we have in the modern world.

“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other,” Leo Buscaglia wrote in his seminal 1972 book based on the world’s first university course on love. Susan Sontag echoed this a few years later in lamenting the detrimental divisiveness of labels. It might be tempting to think that, four decades later, we live in a post-label society: that is, a society that has transcended all the categories into which we put people — race, gender, nationality, sexuality, political affiliation, basketball team preference — in order to avoid the intimate and demanding work of getting to know each other on a level beyond the superficial. And yet nearly half a century after James Baldwin admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” we still find ourselves in a world that constantly tries to tell us how we deserve to be treated through the arbitrary labels it bestows upon us based on fragments of our wholeness.

How we can begin to move past that is what actor and activist Maria Bello addresses with great courage and candor in Whatever… Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves (public library) — an exploration of “the beauty of the fluidity of love and partnership,” sprouted from her spectacular 2013 New York Times coming-out essay and titled after her twelve-year-old son Jackson’s response when she finally told him that she was in love with a woman.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride' by Sébastien Lifshitz. Click image for more.

Looking back on the flood of moving responses to her New York Times essay and on her own lifetime spent as “a woman who was both ashamed and proud of her own truth,” Bello considers what a post-label conception of love and partnership might look like for a culture increasingly needful of such liberation from limiting labels:

At the time, I had no idea how many modern families and unconventional partnerships were out there. And I didn’t realize how many people did not have labels to describe themselves or the structure of their lives. So the phrase “being a whatever” came to describe them. According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, whatever is a pronoun “used to emphasize a lack of restriction in referring to anything.” And because I am not interested in restricting myself or anyone else with a particular label, I decided that I am a “whatever,” too.

[…]

Many people in our world today are having different experiences of partnership and aren’t sure how to label these different kinds of love.

[…]

[There is] a new conversation to be had about the labels society gives us and the labels we give ourselves.

Traditional labels just don’t seem to fit anymore. These labels are limiting the possibility for people to question more and become who they are meant to be. By asking questions and challenging our own beliefs, I feel we can update all of our outdated labels and realize that labels need to evolve just like people do.

Most of us have directly experienced, in one shape or another, the way in which labels demand that we settle for smaller versions of ourselves. The more specific they get, the more our expansive wholeness is asked to acquiesce to fragmented smallness — and that slippery slope of specificity, while meant to better capture our identity, ends up suffocating it. I, for instance, could be labeled a woman, then a queer woman, then an immigrant queer woman, then a Bulgarian immigrant queer woman, and so forth. And yet, while none of these labels are incorrect, the accretion of them tips over into being wrong — wrong for concretizing a handful of psychographic variables to the exclusion of the vast variability of all the more abstract traits and tastes and talents that make a complete person. At the heart of how labels impoverish our interpersonal imagination is a dearth of nuance — something Bello captures with elegant precision as she considers the questions that thinking about being a “whatever” opens up:

My romantic partner is fourth-generation African, so why can’t she call herself an African American? My cousin Marty has dark skin but is Italian, so does she call herself African Italian? Can a gay couple consider themselves Catholic even though they are excluded from the church? Is a man who is married to a woman but kissed a boy when he was 12 considered bisexual? Are all those historical heroes of mine who also had extramarital affairs bad guys?

Illustration from 'Grandma, What’s a Lesbian?,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Remarking with warm wryness that “the person who claims to have all the answers is usually a cult leader, a dictator, or just a really pushy salesperson,” Bello argues that what is needed for this new conversation is a commitment to reframing those questions in order to discover what it takes to celebrate our singular experience and “embrace love, family, and partnership in all possible forms.” She recounts how one such pivotal question shifted her own experience as she began to fall in love with her best friend, Clare:

As I continued to look through my writing and photos, I came across a black-and-white print of a photo of my best friend and me, taken on the previous New Year’s Eve. We looked so happy and I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered how we had met two years before; she was sitting in a bar wearing a fedora and speaking in her Zimbabwean accent.

We had an immediate connection but neither of us thought of it as romantic or sexual. She was one of the most beautiful, charming, brilliant, and funny people I had ever met, but it didn’t occur to me, until that soul-searching moment in my garden, that we could choose to love each other romantically.

What had I been waiting for all of these years? My friend is the person I like being with the most, the one with whom I am most myself. The next time I saw her, in New York, I shared my confusing feelings.

We began the long, painful, wonderful process of trying to figure out what our relationship was supposed to be.

Even so, the tyranny of “supposed to be” warps the very asking of those questions, including that of what a “partner” really means in the modern world — something that circles back to the challenge of being labeled by the outside observations of others rather than by the inner truth of our experience. Bello writes:

It’s hard for me even to define the term partner in my life, but others would try.

For five years I considered the closest thing I had to a partner to be a dear friend who just happened to be in his seventies. He was a former producer and studio head named John Calley, and I spoke to him daily until he died. We both loved books and, being seekers in life, always worked to understand ourselves and the world more.

What seems imperative is that we decouple the notion of a “partner” from evolutionary biology’s implication of “reproductive partner” — a primitive definition that doesn’t even begin to capture the kaleidoscope of nuance that partnership has in contemporary life. Bello addresses this by examining the further narrowing of that definition:

I have never understood the distinction of a “primary” partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too? To me, a partner is someone you rely on in your life — for help, companionship, mutual respect, and support. Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters, have lived together for 15 years, and raised a daughter together. Are they not partners? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. And yet, everyone thinks of them as partners.

[…]

My feelings about attachment and partnership have always been unconventional. Jack’s father, Dan, will always be my partner because we share Jack. Just because our relationship is nonsexual doesn’t make him any less of a partner to me. We share the same core values, including putting our son first.

Our partners are often revealed at times of crisis — when life throws its curveballs, only true partners show up to catch them. Bello, who was nearly killed by an undiagnosed parasite she had contracted while doing humanitarian work in Haiti, reflects on how that episode clarified the question of partnership:

At one point during my illness that summer, I thought I might not survive. But the people who were at my bedside every day at the hospital were all my life partners: my mother, Jackson, Dan, my brother Chris, and Clare.

Clare rarely left my side and called every doctor she knew to help figure out what was wrong with me.

Illustration from 'Heather Has Two Mommies,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Shortly thereafter, Bello came out to twelve-year-old Jackson, who issued the heartening proclamation after which Bello’s memoir is titled: “Whatever, Mom… love is love.” Indeed, embedded in this exchange is the very thing that makes Bello’s book significant — a vibrant testament to the idea that in every realm of human rights and equality, what is needed isn’t merely tolerance but acceptance, wholehearted and unconditional. And this begins with the values we bequeath to the young, be it through parenting in the literal sense or through a kind of societal parenting by the heroes and role models of the culture we live in — the indirect parenting of personhood that happens through what legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead called our “spiritual and mental ancestors.”

And here is the beauty of it: We can choose who our spiritual parents are by choosing whom we admire and whose advice we heed — in fact, we are being parented all the time in the larger nest of culture, which incubates our values through direct and indirect guidance from those in the public eye. This is why it is both so courageous and so crucial for people like Bello to speak out and reaffirm the values of social justice and equality — and what more intimate a frontier of justice than the evolving definition of what a modern family is?

Bello writes:

The label of “partner” as only your sexual partner is outdated. An updated label of partner might be anyone who is significant to you in some fundamental way. The definition of the family is changing, too, and I hope it’s working to bring people together with a new respect for different kinds of relationships. So I would like to consider myself a whatever, as Jackson said. Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, “love is love.” … Maybe, in the end, a modern family is just a more honest family.

In the end, it comes down to not letting others define us — a commitment demanding, above all, that we do as young André Gide aspired in his diary: prioritize being over appearing. Bello reflects on this gargantuan task and the urgency at its heart:

The old ideas of love, marriage, children, and happily ever after just don’t apply to most of us. I have come to see that the labels that other people might give me about my partnerships, family, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and spirituality do not define me. I am only concerned with the only labels that matter—the ones I give myself.

[…]

All I hope is that we all keep questioning our labels, get rid of the ones that hold us back, and hang on to the ones that shine light on the beauty of who we really are.

Whatever… Love Is Love does precisely what it promises to do — question the labels we give ourselves, not for the sake of simplistic and static answers but in a noble quest for nuance in the dynamic act of answering. Complement it with Susan Sontag on how labels limit us, Diane Ackerman’s superb natural history of love, and modern love patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, then revisit history’s most beautiful love letters by “whatevers,” including Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

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“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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