Changing the World One Hug at a Time
(This article was originally published sometime between January and May 2007 in The Plant, the student newspaper of Dawson College.)
What is a hug? A hug is a loving embrace that can alter a person’s mood at instantly. A hug can turn someone form suicide to euphoria. A hug gives someone the warmth they desire. A hug gives us an emotional boost and the ability to keep going when times are tough. A hug is a sign of support, comfort, love. Hugs are what gave Martin Neufeld the incredible ability to change the world.
Martin Neufeld, (aka “The Hugger Busker”) started out as an actor. He did plays, TV, movies, the works. But his characters started to have more of a dark feeling towards them. “I made my living as a performer all my life,” he said, “but I still wasn’t happy, I still wasn’t satisfied.” He felt empty inside, and as an artist it was important to him that people connected with his work.
“The roles I was playing weren’t inspiring peopleAfter the first piece I did, a man came up to me in a wheelchair and thanked me. He said it was the first time he had laughed in many years.” Neufeld was touched by the power of what he could do. He could so easily bring something beautiful into someone’s life; laughter, joy. Because of his love for the Cirque de Soleil, he decided it was time for him to try out himself.
Preparing a series of pieces to act out in front of the Cirque required a lot of courage, but he did it, and was eager to show off his talents. Unfortunately, due to race requirements, he did not get the job. “One thing led to another, and I found myself on the street.” Though Neufeld’s statement may sound a tad depressing, what he means is that following the advice of the Cirque, he decided to take his performance and perform on the street.
Performing on the street wasn’t as easy for him as some may think. Though he had everything he had planned to do perfectly prepared, he could not muster up enough courage to actually do the performance. Frustrated, he visited his sister Annik for advice. She gave him a genius idea, something so simple. The next day he went to the street, he brought with him a small chalkboard inscribed “I have no courage.” He sat on the ground, still as a statue, and then something amazing happened.
“People were enthralled at the boldness of my action. They stopped, they stared, they came to talk to me, to encourage me, to offer advice or concern.” Every day Neufeld returned to his spot with a newfound sense of courage, and a new message on his chalkboard. He began to interact with the passerby, performing a new skit as each person interacted with him. Then one day, while walking to his spot, he came across a sign that would change his life, and the lives of others. “I thought nothing of it until I was getting ready to write something inspirational and witty on my board. Then it struck me: I could offer my own special of the day! I love hugging my friends, hugging makes people feel good, and they are free. So “Free Hugs” became my special treat of the day.
Over the next while it became clear to Neufeld that giving free hugs was bringing the public much more than light entertainment, his actions were affecting their souls. He began to see them laugh, to see them smile. People would come to him sad, weeping, and leave happy. From then on the “Free Hugs” became the heart of his performance. So many people wanted to know who he was, what his deal was, so he decided to create a website and a character for himself. He asked his partner Jade for a name, and she came up with the ideal one. “I was someone who hugs, a hugger, and I was someone who performs on the street, a busker. Thus Hugger Busker was born.” His mission was to be as charming and cheerful as he could be, and to provide the needy with warm and heartfelt hugs.
Standing still and silent all day was not as difficult as some people might think. Neufeld’s years of meditation, martial arts, and yoga gave him the ability and discipline to be able to stand so still for so long. He estimates that he can stand perfectly still for over 30 minutes, and when questioned whether it hurts for him to do so, he laughs. “I am quite content in my stillness. It is very contemplative and peaceful for me. There are even times when I will remain in stillness no matter what people do just because I feel too good in my blissful state.
Neufeld is a former Dawson student. He graduated in 1983 after spending seven years at Dawson. He did one year in Pure & Applied, but it didn’t agree with him, so he graduated from the CRLT program. He then came back and graduated from the Theatre program, and then his acting career took off.
Late in the afternoon on September 13th, he found out the horrible news. He had just finished swimming and he thought “I have to be there. I really have to be there.” He rushed home, got his costume and his bags, and headed to Concordia to try and spread his comforting hugs, but by the time he got there, there were few people still there. That weekend he contacted then president of the DSU Melanie Hotchkiss and asked if he could come to Dawson. He came in early Monday morning and set up, awaiting those seeking comfort after the tragedy. “I felt like a big brother coming back home to comfort the younger ones, and I felt like I belonged here. If anywhere, I belonged here. This is the essence of what I do. To bring comfort, joy, and loving kindness to people.”
Neufeld was amazed by the courage that was shown by others following the tragedy. Though he was the one doing the hugging, he was inspiring people to hug each other. “Hugging and affectionate touch is a beautiful thing and we shouldn’t be afraid.”