Therapist's hugs go on display in Old City

Mirabai Galashan (right) embraces a stranger during "The Love Seat," a performance-art piece that she hopes will bring peace of mind to people feeling lonely.
Mirabai Galashan (right) embraces a stranger during "The Love Seat," a performance-art piece that she hopes will bring peace of mind to people feeling lonely.
Posted: August 08, 2013

MIRABAI Galashan will hold you for as long as you'd like her to. You won't need to make small talk, tell her your name or explain why you'd like to be held. You can even sleep as you cuddle. In fact, she might doze off with you.

The experience is platonic, but not without tenderness.

"This really pure feeling of love comes through me" that she passes to others, says Galashan, 47, as she relaxes in Liz Afif Gallery in Old City. A petite, striking woman of Greek descent with waist-length hair, enormous eyes, a luminous smile and charming English accent, she is sitting on an inflatable love seat upon which the quiet holding occurs.

"When I do this, I don't feel like I have any needs at all," she says. "All I feel is connection."

Galashan is a therapist and health-care chaplain who works with hospice and dementia patients. In her line of work, when words fail or can no longer be comprehended, there is always touch - the massage of hands and feet, the gentle stroking of hair, the laying of her hands on another's as an act of compassion and of witness.

The most profound lesson Galashan has learned from her ministry is that love is everything.

Or, as she quotes Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba, "Love is the strongest medicine." Not just for the sick but for those who know the most painful emotion of the human condition - loneliness.

Which would be all of us.

That's how Galashan has come to be at Afif Gallery, on 2nd Street near Arch. Friday was the opening night of "The Love Seat," a "performance-art piece/public spiritual practice" in which she sits on the love seat, under two signs. One reads "Would you like to be held?" If chosen, Galashan will hold you. The other sign reads "No." In which case, Galashan will sit quietly next to you.

She wasn't sure how "The Love Seat" would be received by the hip First Friday art crowd that prowls Old City. She didn't fear holding strangers, she says; she feared being judged by them.

"What if they said, 'Who do you think you are? Why would I want to be held by you?' " she asks.

By the end of the night, though, at least 100 gallerygoers had joined Galashan on the love seat. Most leaned their backs into her and hung their legs over the armrest as she tenderly wrapped her arms around them from behind and leaned her cheek against the top of their heads.

A handful held the "No" sign in their laps and sat next to her - stoic, or serene, or anxious yet endearingly game. Galashan accommodated them all. By night's end, she said, "I felt pure joy. "

Offering free, public affection to strangers isn't new, of course. Back in 2004, a lonely Australian named Juan Mann held up a "Free Hugs" sign in a Sydney mall. His venture launched the worldwide Free Hugs Campaign.

And then there's "Amma," the Indian spiritual guru whose followers wait in line for hours for an eight-second embrace from a woman said to radiate jubilance.

Still, there's a difference between a fast, standing hug and a minutes-long embrace in which participants curl into each other. That's what Galashan and I did at the gallery.

I was grateful that the place was empty while I visited. Galashan said that, when it was going full tilt last Friday, she felt a bit like "an animal in the zoo," as passers-by stared in the window and took photos.

"The most wonderful thing would happen, though," she said, once participants joined her on the love seat. "We entered this little cocoon. It was so relaxing."

It only took me a minute to relax into Galashan, wearing a gauzy white sarong atop a white T-shirt and shorts. She looked modest, lovely and angelic. I slung my legs over the side of the love seat, and Galashan wrapped her soft arms around me, laying her hands atop mine. Her heart beat against the back of my neck; her breathing was a lullaby.

Within 30 seconds, I closed my eyes and slid into a floaty zone in which I was neither awake nor asleep. After five minutes, I sort of snapped to, refreshed.

It was incredible.

Galashan has a few more "performances" scheduled at Afif, but she hopes to move beyond gallery walls. She'd love to set up The Love Seat in the Wissahickon, in domestic-abuse shelters, on street corners among those whose lives are hardscrabble.

I ask if she is ready to hold those who've not showered, or who are mentally impaired.

"I think it's even more important to touch people like that, to show them unconditional love and acceptance," she says emphatically. "People can be so afraid of them - it's like they're our modern-day 'untouchables.' But they're just people, like the rest of us."


See "The Love Seat" at Liz Afif Gallery, 53 N. 2nd St., Saturday, noon-3 p.m.; Monday, 2-5 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 18, 2-5 p.m. More info: facebook.com/theloveseatpage.


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