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Metta’s First Follower

Welcome back to the Living Metta laboratory of life, taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into day-to-day life.

Regular readers may recall my December article, “Metta’s 20/20 Vision,” looking at simple ways metta can light up others. Not long after posting, I stumbled upon another inspiring example in Liverpool city centre’s bustling Concert Square, where a man stood alone holding a handmade cardboard sign offering FREE HUGS. The scene stopped me in my tracks. I’d heard of this social movement in which individuals offer to hug strangers in public as random acts of kindness, but had never come across a real-life example.

The Free Hugs Campaign was started in 2004 by Juan Mann in Sydney airport, when he found himself with no one to welcome him and no place to call home. He felt inspired to write FREE HUGS on a piece of cardboard the way a hitchhiker might write their desired destination. In his own words:

For 15 minutes, people just stared right through me. The first person who stopped, tapped me on the shoulder and told me how her dog had just died that morning. How that morning had been the one-year anniversary of her only daughter dying in a car accident. How what she needed now, when she felt most alone in the world, was a hug. I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other and when we parted, she was smiling. (Free Hugs Campaign)

Back in Concert Square, I stood transfixed while hundreds of frazzled Christmas shoppers streamed past Liverpool’s FREE HUGS man like schools of fish. Some didn’t notice him at all, while those that did looked at him sideways with suspicion.

Not a single person was taking him up on his offer.

A hugger myself, it pained me to watch all these hungry ghosts pursuing consumption over connection. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I marched up to him, threw my arms around him, and thanked him for having the courage to do what he was doing by going first that day.


Perhaps readers will remember a three-minute Youtube video that went viral in 2010 of a shirtless guy dancing solo, inspiring an impromptu rave? Derek Sivers based his TED Talk How to Start a Movement on “dancing guy” and, in a subsequent blog post, highlighted the often overlooked importance of first followers:

Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership.
The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.
If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.

When I later told a friend about being the first to hug FREE HUGS Guy, he furrowed his brow and looked at me with sincere concern: “Aren’t you worried about norovirus?” His worry both tickled and saddened me in equal measure, especially as the only thing that hug really infected me with was my New Year’s resolution.

In the first few weeks of January, whenever someone either solemnly shared their lofty goals for 2020, or poo-poo’ed the idea of even making New Year’s resolutions at all, I would grin and declare what mine was: to give more hugs. I even bought myself a FREE HUGS t-shirt to uncover superman-style, as needed.


Some people light up at the idea and open their arms wide to receive theirs instantly, while others look at me frankly horrified for not playing by adult rules. The nice thing about years of metta “first follower” practice is keeping going with going first.

Last year, work found me doing travel surveys on Liverpool city trains. We worked in pairs for safety, starting from either end of a train carriage, asking to see passengers’ tickets and interviewing them about their journeys until we met again in the middle to move onto the next carriage.

Well, you can imagine how welcome our wake-up call was on early weekday morning commutes.

My co-worker and I quickly decided try another approach: rather than asking passengers for something, why not offer them something instead? Since we were going to have to wake up passengers one way or another, why not enjoy the process ourselves? 

And so we began bursting into carriages and into song with train-themed tracks, such as The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra’s Chattanooga Choo Choo, Cats Stevens’ Peace Train, The Isley’s / Housemartins’ Caravan of Love, Sheena Easton’s 9 to 5 (Morning Train), Tom Waits’ Downtown Train, Chris de Burgh’s Spanish Train, Gladys Knight & The Pips’ Midnight Train to Georgia, and The Clash’s Train in Vain

Hands down, The O’Jays’ disco classic Love Train (complete with dance routine) proved the most popular—particularly as the lyrics’ first stop is England!

While our efforts didn’t spark any spontaneous public transport flash mobs that went viral, we certainly sparked plenty of smiles (and a record-breaking response rate as far as head office was concerned). 

Most importantly, we had fun that day.

And it’s been the same so far with my new year’s resolution, the paradox being that the people and places least likely to inspire hugs (and metta) probably need them the most.

The other night, a fellow waitress I’ve known for more than a year surprised me during food service by asking for advice on how to be kinder to others and—followed by a noticeable hesitation—to herself. It warmed my heart to be trusted enough to be asked, and the answer that spontaneously popped out of my mouth surprised us both by stripping metta right back to first principles: “Don’t worry about how to be kinder to others at this stage. Be kinder to yourself, and the rest will follow.”

Her look of relief at being granted permission to love herself—most definitely not-playing-by-adult-rules territory—prompted me to add: “When you see me being kind, I’m not working at it. It’s just how I treat myself amplified outwards. People who work at being kind to others but are hard on themselves are hard work to be around, don’t you find?” 

She smiled knowingly, and I then told her about a study I’d once read that the average woman is told at least 30,000 times a day that she’s not (fill in your favourite blank) enough for advertising purposes . . . in the face of so many subliminal messages, is it any wonder that so many of us struggle with being kind to ourselves?

Later that evening, when our bartender was spouting off harsh remarks about our guests and co-workers at the end of the shift, I whispered to her: “This is probably how he talks to himself all the time; can you imagine listening to that 24/7?” Her eyes lit up with new understanding, and she whispered back, “Before tonight, I probably would’ve defended the people he was insulting. Now? I actually just kind of feel sorry for him.” I grinned at the student graduating to metta master so soon, silently blessed our bartender, and made him a cup of sweet tea (just how I know he likes it), so that he could share with me what was really eating at him while he finished the bar’s stocktake and I polished glasses.

Last weekend found me having coffee with a friend who had immigrated from Bermuda the same year I first moved to Liverpool. We had a great chat comparing slowly mapping the city for ourselves one “first” at a time. She then told me about her new job in the occupational health department of a hospital. Of all the stories she shared, this paradox struck me most: most of the requests for help she takes from hospital staff are for emotional—rather than physical—reasons. Essentially, it sounded to me like they’re being kinder to the people they’re looking after than to themselves.

Walking through Liverpool Lime Street railway station after that coffee, she remarked sadly that the crowds around us looked asleep—like zombies even. I had a private giggle at the Dharma’s nod to Platform 9¾ only visible to those boarding The Hogwarts Express in the very location my own Love Train had departed the previous year: rather than trying to wake up anyone around us, why not have as much fun loving ourselves first until others feel ready to get on board? Preferably in first class.

And so, my fellow metta-scientists, in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to experiment being metta’s first followers. If there’s anything to the theory of mirror neurons (where a brain cell reacts both when a particular action is performed and when it is only observed), may our inner metta mirror balls gently entrain others to join us on the Dharma’s dance floor.

Or, to metta-morphose Taoist teacher Barefoot Doctor’s excellent suggestion to forget lingerie, expensive perfume, and candlelight . . . 

Metta, once activated, will heal and energise you and enable you to do so for others.
But its also known to make you damn sexy.
Your body may be your temple, but that doesnt mean its not your nightclub, too.


See more

Barefoot Doctor: anyone for chi? (The Guardian)
First Follower: leadership lessons from a dancing guy (Sivers)
FREE HUGS Campaign

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