, a website devoted to thought, culture, and what it means to be human, recently did a story on the noted Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Nanh and his concept of a “hugging meditation.”  

They quoted the Zen Master as saying that when you use hugging as a form of meditation and connection, “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.”

Though I wish it had happened differently, I have recently gained fresh insight into Hanh’s ideas.


Two weeks ago, on a Thursday afternoon, a car accident that occurred directly outside our campus took the life of an 11th grade athlete and honor student. According to the police, there were no extenuating circumstances—no drugs, no alcohol, no cell phones, and no speeding.  It was just an awful combination of circumstances and some inexperienced drivers who made a few misguided, but sadly irreversible, choices.  

Like everyone, I was shaken and devastated, though I didn’t know the boy who died, nor anyone else involved in the accident. That very night there was an impromptu candlelight vigil on our track and, following the vigil, the crowd ran a lap to honor the boy’s participation on the track and field team. The following day was one of the hardest, most difficult days I’d had in my two decade career at the school.  Other students have died during my tenure, but somehow this one was different.

In the time since, I’ve heard many teachers talk about how impressed they were with how we pulled together and how we supported each other.  They talked about how it was sad, of course, but also talked about how our response as a school community was inspiring and beautiful and uplifting.  The most amazing thing was to see so many people throughout the course of the following day just crying and hugging, all day long, all over the campus–no matter who they were, what they were doing, or where they were headed.  People just came together wherever they were and held each other.

Held each other to connect. To grieve. To embrace.  Even to begin to heal.

Two times that day, for example, my classroom door opened and a student walked in.  In a fortuitous set of events, it happened to be in the two classes where I was showing a movie that day.  As an incidental fact, the students in both cases happened to be female.  Both times, in different periods, the girls walked in, came right up to me, put their arms around me, and just hugged me for a moment.  And then, in both cases, each girl just walked back out the door, having never uttered a single word.  

During those moments, I was not worried about Professional Distance, or people getting “The Wrong Idea,” or about Making the Right Choices, which was the euphemistic name for our district’s in-service that cautioned the faculty and staff about the consequences of inappropriate relationships with students.  I didn’t worry about  any of that.  

In that moment, making the right choice meant deciding to be human.  

It meant embracing not only the person, but the connection with that another person.

It meant comforting someone who was suffering. Without an agenda and without hesitation.

It meant being there for someone.

It meant recognizing that we were alive and that our lives were precious and ephemeral and that we never knew what the next moment would bring. 

Because, as we were eloquently reminded, not a one of us does.


Later in their article on Thich Nhat Hanh’s thoughts on hugging meditation from his book How to Love, quotes Hanh as saying, “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.”  

Many of us at my school (myself included) were reminded, the day after the accident, how right Hanh was, and many of us were the recipients of the healing nature and meditative grace of embracing.  It was a time when words were woefully inadequate to express the depth of our feelings and sense of loss, so we held each other and it helped. 

We were simply there. In the moment. Holding each other. And it was enough. 

What could one say?

In fact, much like those girls who hugged me silently and then left without a word, it was impossible for me to articulate to my students how I felt that day;  I just didn’t have the words. So I started each of my classes by just saying with a great depth of sincerity and increased emphasis, “I’m glad you’re here.  Really, really glad you’re here.”  

At that moment, It was all I knew for sure.  TZT