11. Spiritual Hugging as a Ritual Act

Religion and Touch - Christina Welch

Michael Houseman [+-]
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes
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Michael Houseman, anthropologist, is a Directeur d’études (chair of African religions) at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, PSL Research University (France). He has undertaken field research among the Beti of Southern Cameroon, in Benin, in French Guyana and in France. He has published extensively on kinship and social organization, and on initiation and ritual performance. His current areas of interest include ceremonial dance and emergent forms of ritual practice. His publications include Naven or the Other Self. A Relational Approach to Ritual Action (Brill, 1998, with C. Severi) and Le rouge est le noir. Essais sur le ritual (Presses Universitaires le Mirail, 2012).


This paper explores the interactive workings of the prolonged, fervent hugging found in many practices associated with what have been called contemporary spiritualities: New Age-inspired movements, Contemporary Paganisms, Personal Development initiatives, etc. One of the characteristic features of such immersive hugging is the striking hiatus between the intense personal intimacy it displays and the lack of interpersonal commitment this display might ordinarily be expected to imply. In looking closely at some of its concrete features – how it is initiated and terminated, the different phases it passes through, the qualities of positioning and touch it entails, etc. – I argue that the immersive hug be understood as a ritual performance centered less on the acing out of a special connection than on the enactment of special selves capable of making such a connection. It lets participants experience themselves, and be experienced by others, as endowed with certain exemplary if difficult-to-define qualities of thought and feeling deemed essential to the fulfilment of contemporary (middle class) Western personhood: “spontaneity”, “authenticity”, “creative expressiveness”, “openness to others”, etc. Immersive hugging can thus be seen as a ritualized process of self-construction in which participants willingly and reflexively act as resources for each other’s personal development. On a more theoretical level, immersive hugging is also shown to provide insight into the built-in, embodied reflexivity that is essential to the ritual process many contemporary spiritual practices put into play.

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Houseman, Michael. 11. Spiritual Hugging as a Ritual Act. Religion and Touch. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Sep 2021. ISBN 9781800500334. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=42179. Date accessed: 20 Apr 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.42179. Sep 2021

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