A few years ago I discovered a movie called Hollywood Homicide (2003). As its scintillating title indicates, this movie is a great big fat dopey melodrama containing every cop cliché in the book. What's interesting about it (apart from our hero Harrison Ford, of course) is that the female lead (Lena Olin) is a psychic. And she's not a sleazy con-artist psychic, either: she's smart, gorgeous, and uses her psychic ability to save the day for the good guys. I guess that long ago and far away are the days when psychics in Hollywood movies were always low-life creeps, like the hooker Marlene Dietrich plays in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958).
Predictably, the Lena Olin character doesn't have any problem taking money for her psychic skills (which is a colossal no-no in my eyes), but I find her likable nevertheless. She is honest enough to admit that sometimes "I just make shit up", but she does seem to have genuine psychic ability. Towards the end of the movie, when she has to discover the whereabouts of the bad guy, she zeroes right in on him. But before she can do it, however, she takes a few moments to get herself "centered". She knows that her psychic ability will not work unless she is centered and balanced first. She does this by closing her eyes, humming, and rocking back and forth on her sofa.
Well, okay--almost. The screenwriter who came up with this humming and rocking stuff was onto something, even if he didn't quite know how to show it. If you want to be psychic, you need to know how to center yourself. In other words, you don't have any chance of accessing your intuitive information unless you are in a balanced and tranquil state of consciousness first. For that matter, if you want to live your life with any kind of success, you also need to know how to deliberately go into this kind of centered consciousness any time you want to. People who go through their lives with a certain amount of effortlessness always seem to have this quality, when everything about their being--mind, body, and spirit--is flowing harmoniously and naturally. These are the kind of people who can easily focus, who can apply their minds to the task at hand without mental wandering, who operate at a full potential. Their creative abilities come to them naturally and without much effort. This kind of centered feeling can be one of the most exquisite sensations we can ever experience.
Centering is something that people do all the time, although they probably don't call it centering. If you've ever paused to take a breath before giving a speech or sitting down in the dentist's chair, you've centered yourself. You've used your breath and your body to come into a kind of unity so that you can deal with a person or a situation. Indeed, any time you pause and focus on what is before you in the present moment is a kind of centering. But just taking a deep breath here and there doesn't really get to the nitty-gritty of centering. After watching Hollywood Homicide, I started to wonder if there was anything I could deliberately do to bring a sense of centeredness into my life. This seemed a perfectly reasonable goal, something which could not only help me develop my psychic abilities but help me to live more in harmony with the world around me. You must understand that I am the sort of person whose energy is always scattering every which way, without any kind of rhyme or reason, and my monkey mind is always churning up tornadoes. All of which means that I waste too much mental and physical energy, have difficulty concentrating my mind, and get easily stressed. This is not the way that a rational human being wants to live.
I needed to find a way to bring a deliberate sense of centeredness into my
life whenever I wanted to. So I set off on a quest to find ways to center
myself. I figured there was probably lots of information about centering
which I could find--all I had to do was a little searching, both at the library
and on the net. And the first thing I discovered was . . .
Mary Caroline Richards, who wrote one of the most extraordinary books I have ever come across in my life: Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person (1964). This particular book proved to have such an impact on me that I consider it to be one of the most tremendously life-changing books which I have read over the years.
Richards (1916-1999) was a visionary artist, poet, and teacher. She received a doctorate in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley and taught at Black Mountain College and other universities. As she says in Centering, "During one period, when people asked me what I did, I was uncertain what to answer; I guessed I could say I taught English, wrote poetry, and made pottery. What was my occupation? I finally gave up and said 'Person.'"
A simple person, I guess, but she was as rare, valuable, and as astonishing as all "persons" are. Richards was one of those extraordinary spirits who can find the most profound meaning in the ordinary events and circumstances of our lives. She was also the sort of writer who can take the most commonplace object or event and transform it into a spiritual vision, radiant with meaning and truth. Her words are treasures that you linger over, think about, and do your best to make part of your own being.
Her insights into the whole idea of centering can change your very existence. By the time she had written this book, it was obvious that she had pondered the idea of centering for many years, and if ever there was a human being who knew how to center herself, she did.
Richards' book made me think for the first time about how how using our creative abilities is a kind of centering. I have long felt that one of the principle aims of our existence should be to live in harmony with the creative unfoldment of the universe. If anything in our world is actually real and actually means something, it must be creativity itself. Those people who can direct the natural outpouring of their personalities into creation, instead of lust for power, coin of the realm, or even one ring to rule them all... they are the ones who are in tune with the most basic energies of the universe. Forget Nietzsche and his fanatical ravings about the will to power, forget the trophy house, forget the creature comforts and the vacations and updating your resume... the one and only thing which matters in our lives is our ability to transmute our experiences and our vision into creative art. Throw a pot, write poetry, compose music, carve some wood, design a new spreadsheet... not only are you making the most appropriate use of your energies, you are centering yourself in the best possible way.
Here are some sample quotes from Richards' text:
There is much, much more. If you are wondering where to start on your quest for your center, get this book and read it several times.
Richards also wrote several other books which are well worth your time:
A film has recently been made about about Richards entitled M.C. Richards: The Fire Within. I have not seen it, but it looks interesting.
Well, after discovering Richards, I knew I was well on my way to finding my
center. But I felt that there was surely much more I needed to discover.
What I started wondering about next was predictable . . .
In case you haven't noticed, the present author happens to be a tea connoisseur. So if I wanted to center myself... I suddenly remembered that I had once read a novel which mentioned something called centering tea. Exactly the kind of thing I was after.
The novel was Witchlight (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Witchlight is an excellent example of well-written light fiction about a frazzled young woman named Winter Musgrave who struggles through some intense psychic disturbance. Midway through the book, Winter makes herself a cup of "centering" tea. The tea helps to calm her nerves and bring some sanity back into her life. Bradley describes the tea as being of "a deep red, nearly the color of Burgundy, and had a woody, almost briny, scent. ... The taste of it went well with the honey she'd used to sweeten it."
Well, imagine that. A tea that actually centers you! A tea that can pull in all your scattered energy, resolve your traumas (Winter has plenty of them), and eventually enable you to live happily ever after. I was going to figure out what this stuff was if it killed me.
Bradley doesn't list any ingredients for the tea, but I was so curious about it that I ended up sending an e-mail to her website. One of her associates responded by saying that Ms. Bradley had Celestial Seasonings' Red Zinger tea in mind when she wrote the passage, although the magical effects of the tea as delineated in the book were imaginary.
Red Zinger? Well, Red Zinger tea is all well and good, but as for centering... I took a look at Red Zinger's ingredients, but I couldn't see how any of them could possibly do the trick, especially since the tea contained some kind of non-herbal "natural flavors" (which probably gives it its dark red color). Undefined "natural flavors" weren't going to center anyone or anything. Then it occurred to me that perhaps someone else had put together a tea which could be described as "centering". A quick search on the web netted one commercial site for a centering tea composed of spearmint, roses, lavender, lemon balm, dandelion leaf, and orange peel. Another suggested oatstraw, mallow, sweet grass, and roses. Once again, these teas sounded perfectly delicious, but I doubted that these particular assortments of herbs could induce any kind of centering.
The object of such a tea is to calm the nervous sytem, give strength in the center, which would be the Spleen and Stomach in Traditional Chinese Medicine: chinese zizyphus seeds (Suan Zao ren) is a great herb that has both calming and nurturing properties about 50%. Camomile also has calming and nurturing properties that helps digestion (the center 30%. Jujube dates is sweet, tonifying and promotes calm satisfaction use 4 pieces per cup of water (eat the dates). Chinese Anemarrhena root (Zhi Mu) clears heat, calms restlessness, reduces any irritation 10%. Licorice has cortisone-like, centering properties 10%. Mix the combination together in the above proportions. Simmer one to two teaspoons in a cup of water for 20 minutes. Cool and add honey to taste. It is also very pleasant with a little almond extract. I hope you enjoy it.
Well, this sounded more like it, but I was not familiar with the Chinese ingredients, which were difficult to find. And I had long been convinced that any tea which would truly do me some good could only come from plants which I had grown myself. Only the chamomile and the licorice sounded promising.
Well, I wasn't about to give up on the idea, and I started to search all of my herbal books for some mention of a "centering" effect. Nothing. I started to experiment with various herbal teas myself to see what I could discover. Nothing. I then started to wonder about real tea (Camellia sinensis), either green or black, China or Indian. Could real tea have a centering effect? After all, the caffeine in tea gives you a jolt of alertness, which might be considered a kind of centering. But I had never read or heard mentioned that regular tea could ever in any way "center" you. I didn't seem to be getting anywhere.
But one day the answer came to me without the slightest effort. If I wanted some centering tea, I simply had to make myself a pot of ... tea. Any kind of tea.
I realized that all tea is centering. Regular tea, herbal tea, Red Zinger tea, or any other kind of tea you care to name. It doesn't matter what kind of tea you set to brew in your own little pot, do it right and it will center you. Mind you, what matters here is doing it right. I am not talking about iced tea, nor the ghastly stuff which comes in bottles (yuck!), nor the powdered crap, nor what you can extract from those atrocities called teabags. You've got to take a moment in your day to fire up your kettle and properly brew some real tea in a real china pot. And then when you settle down to drink it sip by glorious sip, you've centered yourself. You're relaxing, you're letting go of all your mental chaos, and you can go into the living moment in all its richness and wonder. Presence of cat optional. And if that isn't centering, I don't know what is.
But of course this is still not quite enough . . .
I had already examined various herbs for a centering effect, and now I started to wonder if I could find a particular kind of stone or crystal which might also induce a kind of centering. After all, crystals and stones contain some of the most potent energies we can find. We need to remember that all objects in the physical universe, including crystals and stones, are not pieces of solid matter but energy fields--just like the human body. The energies of stones and crystals happen to be very real and can be felt by anyone with enough sensitivity. They can help us in innumerable ways if we learn how to use them correctly.
I am not as knowledgeable about crystals and stones as I am about herbs, but there is plenty of information around these days about their energies. After much experimentation, I finally decided that there are two stones which do seem to contain the right kind of energies to help you center: smoky quartz and obsidian. Most crystal pundits agree that both these stones have grounding or centering qualities. Smoky quartz has long been recognized for its abilities to draw in your scattered energies, as well a bring a sense of calmness and balance into your life. Obsidian, including the very common snowflake obsidian, is not a stone but a type of volcanic glass, but it is also known to be both grounding and balancing.
Once I concluded that these stones were what I needed, I made myself two bracelets: one of snowflake obsidian beads and another of smoky quartz. I make sure to wear one or the other every day. Am I more centered because of them? Well, I can't prove that I am, but the stones feel good, they are pretty to look at, and I don't have quite so many kill thoughts these days. So maybe something about them is working.
But of course stones are also not enough, any more than tea is. If you want to center yourself, you also need to focus on your inner energies as much as what might affect you physically. So the next thing to look at are . . .
Centering exercises are the kinds of physical exercise which you can do to center yourself.
Here I must admit that I have very little faith in western systems of exercise. When you work out at any type of western exercise, such as jogging or using some kind of mechanical contraption, it's true that your muscles do get strengthened. However, something else also happens. Your energy starts spewing out in every direction. You don't end up with any kind of balance or centeredness--you just end up with jittery nerves and scattered sensibilities. What people need to do when they exercise is move their body in a balanced fashion, not only between between polarities like left and right, but also with a sense of mind/body unity. Wasting your time at the great American health club isn't going to leave you with a sensation of centeredness. It will only serve to divorce your mind from your body.
Which in my opinion is the single most underappreciated health problem around today. And it is, alas, how most of us live out our lives. We exist today in a computerized world where what goes on above the neck is about the only thing that matters in a successful life. The physical processes of the rest of our body are never appreciated or noticed. This is especially true of those intellectual types who live in a world of words. The head is alive, all those thoughts and words and concepts are very much real, but what's happening in the rest of the body never quite registers.
However, if you want to live from your center, you need to know how to live holistically, with mind and body fully integrated into one unity. Of course, getting our mind to work in harmony with our physical being isn't the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. The mind is just an intangible and invisible something, which cannot be located in time or space. The body, on the other hand, seems to be something solid, material, and very much a part of physical reality. Bringing mind and body together seems to be about as easy as gluing a cloud to a granite block.
But it can be done. All you need to do is make sure that your mind is actually where your body is. This is a statement that probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense, at least not initially. But think for a moment about your body. Where is it right now? Where is it always going to be? Simple. Your body is always in the present moment, in the present space. As a part of three-dimensional physical reality, it will never be able to move into a different time or a different space. It is always right here, right now, existing precisely in the living present. Elementary common sense.
But where is your mind? Your mind can be anywhere. As a matter of fact, it usually is anywhere, or everywhere, scattering about in fantasies or regrets, daydreaming about the future or reliving the past, rehashing last night's drama or planning a new vacation. The only limit to the mind is the sky, which means that your mind is only rarely where your body always is, right here and right now. Your mind can go anywhere it pleases, but the body can never escape from the physical reality of the present moment. So unless your mind is securely rooted in what is happening during the present moment, it will always be somehow disjointed from your body. To truly function as a whole harmonious human being, with mind and body integrated, your mind needs to be exist fully in the here and now. Where poets, artists, visionaries, and mystics of any sort always are--right where they are.
There are numerous eastern systems of exercise which have been around for millennia and which promote the kind of unity I am talking about. My favorite is Hatha Yoga, which I took up as a teenager and which was one of the very few intelligent things I did during the days of my misbegotten youth. There is lots of information on the web about many other centering physical exercises, including:
So if you want to achieve a sense of centering, you need some kind of daily physical practice which not only joins your mind to your body, but helps to balance you out. Even just a few minutes a day sitting in the lotus position, which is of itself a kind of centering, will help.
But there is more to be said about centering our physical being. We now need to discuss . . .
A centering meditation practice, in other words.
Here I must admit that while I have always been impressed with eastern forms of physical exercise, I'm not too crazy about any kind of time-consuming meditative practice, the kind of zazen effort some people indulge in for hours at a time. All those antiquated yogic/Zen/Daoist meditative techniques were developed when people were living very different kinds of lives and had to perform brutal physical chores day and and day out, like chopping wood and carrying water. Nowadays we live a much less strenuous existence, and a good many of us spend most of our days in front of a computer. If you are like me and earn your living by manipulating all those delectable little bytes, probably the worst thing you can do to your body is sitting in motionless meditation for considerable lengths of time.
On the other hand, I am equally convinced that a limited and reasonable amount of meditative practice can do you immense good. One thing I've started to do in recent years is try to create special meditative moments throughout my days. I simply take a moment every now and then to pass into silence and become pure awareness. Whenever you let go of your churning monkey mind and simply go into the present moment, you are meditating--and you are also centering yourself in the best possible way. Of course during these moments I cannot stop the thoughts from jumping into my head, but I simply react the way good Buddhists tell me to react: I observe the thoughts and then I let them go. Making moments like these in my life is worth all aching legs from all the meditation cushions in the world.
There is one other eastern centering practice which I can wholeheartedly endorse: the 1,500 year old Vijnana Bhairava centering scripture, an English translation of which was published in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957) by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a remarkable book not only because of the information about Zen, but for this ancient Sanskrit scripture.
The scripture contains 112 dharanas, or methods of union with God. Each dharana not only can stand alone as a profoundly brilliant scripture but they can also help you to develop a more centered kind of consciousness. No aspect of human existence is ignored in these teachings: they show you that everything you experience in your life can be a means to center yourself or to find a way to union with the Divine.
Each scripture is in and of itself a meditative practice. If you read all the teachings at once, they seem very simple and not particularly impressive. But their simplicity is deceptive. If you take your time to work with one teaching at a time, memorize it, linger over it, go into it so that every phrase and syllable becomes part of your own consciousness, you will start to get a glimmer of the brilliance behind the facade.
I choose a new dharana from the Vijnana Bhairava at the start of each moon cycle and work with it for the next four weeks. I always try to pick a new one at random: over the years I've discovered that (like pulling Tarot cards) I choose the one I need to see at one particular moment in my life. I then memorize it, think about it, and try to analyze how it affects my life during the current month. And then--hello, centering.
The Zen Flesh, Zen Bones translation of the Vijnana Bhairava is online at Spiritual Learning. Another (in progress) translation is online at The Radiance Sutras. I have also been able to obtain a version of the Sanskrit text, which was published in 1918 in Bombay by the Tatva-Vivechaka Press. Most of the book, including page numbers and chapter titles, is in Sanskrit, which I can only barely decipher. But I adore this scripture so much that I have scanned it and am making a PDF copy available for download here. I find it fascinating to try to read this text--sometimes I actually manage to figure out a word or two. Discover Sanskrit!
But there is still more which we can study about centering . . .
How to exercise the breath. Of all the centering exercises which you can do, none is more important than working with the breath. I've talked about physical exercises and I've talked about mental exercises, but when you exercise your breath you are exercising them both at the same time, and in the best centering way possible.
Breath is, after all, our most vital function. We can live for hours without water or days without food, but we cannot live for more than a few moments without our breath. Breath is life. Breath is spirit. The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which means breath. Throughout history, the words for spirit or soul in countless cultures have always had some kind of connotation with the breath. In other words, the intangible, spiritual side of us humans has always been associated with the air or with the sky--you might even say that our souls are the spaciousness of the sky within us.
Breathing is something that we do every second of our lives, mostly without consciously thinking about it. But of all of our automatic body processes, it is the only one which we can deliberately control. Which means that if you start manipulating your breath, you are working with your most essential mind/body connection. I have long believed that breathing exercises are infinitely more important than physical exercises of the body. Exercise your breath, and you invigorate your spirit. You purify your mind. And you start feeling centered.
Which is why, by the way, that there is nothing more destructive you can do to yourself than inhaling an addictive substance. Snorting cocaine, sniffing glue, toking the weed, or lighting up a cancer stick--better you swallow the booze or mainline heroin than suck the stuff in with the air. Your breath is your life. Absorbing a substance through the lungs will enslave your spirit as well as your body. It's what people do when they puff their lives away. Repeated inhalations of anything addictive are not just damaging physically, they are also guaranteed to enslave the spirit.
Working with the breath is called Pranayama in Hindu culture, where it has been practiced for millennia. There are dozens of books which have been written about various pranayama techniques in recent years, and perhaps hundreds of sites on the web devoted to it. I'm no expert on pranayama, but I have practiced it for thirty years and can testify to the profound impact it has made upon my life. Indeed, I am convinced the exercise of the breath is much more important than exercise of the body, and you should devote a part of each day to it. It can be of itself a meditative practice, especially if you focus upon nothing but your breathing when you do it. And needless to say, it will engender a feeling of centeredness.
Here are the most fundamental things I have learned over the years about pranayama:
First, when you practice your breathing, you should always take deep belly breaths from the diaphragm, instead of just shallow inhalations from the upper part of the lungs. Furthermore: you should push your belly out when you inhale and contract it when you exhale. This seems the wrong way to do it, and it takes some practice getting used to it.
Furthermore, not only should you push your belly out when you inhale, but you should also try to sense energy flowing down the front of your body. Then when you contract and exhale, feel it going up and out your back. I have read that this is the way qi energy normally flows, so when you breathe like this you are aligning yourself with the natural flow of your life force.
So as you inhale, you push your belly out while you feel your energy going down your front. When you exhale, you suck your stomach in while sensing your energy going up and out your back. Doing it like this takes some getting used to, like learning how to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. But after you get the hang of it, it seems perfectly natural.
The next thing to understand is that you should make your inhalations and exhalations as slow and as protracted as you possibly can. You should also try to exhale twice as slowly as you inhale. This is an instruction which is constantly repeated in yoga and Zen texts: you are repeatedly told to breathe out twice as slowly as you inhale. I never understood why this was so important until I figured out that the more slowly you exhale, the calmer becomes your mind. Breathing as slowly as possible is one of the best possible ways to quiet that good old monkey mind. "Whoever breathes slowest lives the longest," says Sepharial in Second Sight, a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.
You also need to pay careful attention to the pause between your inhalations and your exhalations. The Vijnana Bhairava repeatedly stresses the importance of this centering moment between the breaths. This moment is what I consider to be one of those good old between moments of special intensity, where we can always find truth or reality. So not only do you need to deliberately pause between your breaths, you need to pause as long as you can. This takes some getting used to, since your natural impulse is to start another breath immediately after an inhalation or an exhalation. But when you do the hang of it, you can feel its calming energies start to work.
Despite my dislike of lengthy formal meditation, I always allow myself a few meditative moments after Nadi Sohana. I simply go into silence, let go of my thoughts, and become pure awareness. Even just a few minutes of this after practicing Nadi Sohana can make a colossal difference in your life. This is my idea of appropriate meditative practices for a computer geek: fun, brief, simple, and effective.
There is one pranayama text available at Project Gutenberg: Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath by
Yogi Ramacharaka, aka William Walker Atkinson.
Although this book does have some helpful pointers, it is not very impressive:
Atkinson was apparently one of those all-American boys who realized he could
start milking the suckers by turning himself into a Hindu sage, complete with
silk turban and pretentious moniker. The links listed at the Wikipedia pranayama site are more helpful,
and the article on alternate nostril breath
at Wiki Health is also good.
There is another way to center yourself both mentally and physically, namely by working with the energies of the chakras.
The chakras are those esoteric energy centers which, as far as western high-tech medicine is concerned, simply do not exist. Well, in my humble opinion, it is western high-tech medicine which simply does not exist, or if it does, someday it is going to implode. Western high-tech medicine is founding upon a horrendous fallacy, namely that the human body is a machine. If you want to repair the machine, so the current thinking goes, all you have to do is cut it open and rearrange the parts, or (better still) take something out. And if this doesn't work, no problem--you then must simply persuade the owner of the machine to start swallowing the latest heavily-advertised pharmaceuticals, or make some other kind of necessary technological adjustment. What could be more simple? If your car needs repair, all you've got to do is get it fixed, right?
Wrong. Very much so. As far as I'm concerned, the human body is not a machine, nor is it a computer. The human body is an energy field, an energy field which is 99.99% empty space. You cannot repair an energy field by subjecting it to mechanical technology, no matter how sophisticated. Every time you try it something will inevitably go wrong, and then there are a bunch of whole new problems. And then newer ones, and then newer ones, and then on and on we go, down the great American health care highway which leads to nowhere. Those secular humanists who waste their time on impossible fantasies like biomedical engineering simply do not understand the bedrock reality of our physical existence, namely that it's all vibes, man.
All of which means that the energy fields which we call our bodies probably do contain those subtle energy fields called chakras. The word chakra is a Sanskrit word meaning wheel or disk. Says Anodea Judith in her book Wheels of Life (1999): "At the inner core of each one of us spin seven wheel-like energy centers called chakras. Swirling intersections of vital life forces, each chakra reflects an aspect of consciousness essential to our lives. ...Chakras are centers of activity for the reception, assimilation and transmission of life energies."
We have seven primary chakras:
|Ajna||Indigo||Third Eye||Intuition, insight|
|Manipura||Yellow||Solar Plexus||Power, integrity|
If you have any psychic sensitivity at all, you have probably been able to sense the whirling energies of your chakras. And if you want to bring a sense of centeredness into your life, you've got to know how to bring all seven of these energies into balance. There are allegedly many different ways to do this, such as yoga, chanting, meditation, and so on. I'm no expert on the chakras and never will be, but when I started getting interested in centering, I wondered if there were any kind of chakra-balancing exercises I might start doing which would help to center me. As usual, I did a lot of research, but I didn't find anything which made sense.
Nevertheless, I did end up developing one simple chakra-balancing exercise which I do twice a day, morning and evening, and which seems to work. The exercise simply consists in closing your eyes and focusing on each of the seven chakras one by one. In the morning I focus on opening up each chakra, breathing energy into each one, and filling them with gold and silver light (as well as with the light of their appropriate color). I start with the crown chakra at the top of the head and then go downwards to the root chakra at the base of the spine. When I've finished with the root chakra, I visualize all the chakra colors coming together to form a rainbow of light in my heart chakra. I then try to focus on this light and pray to keep it within my being throughout the rest of the day.
In the evening, just before I go to bed, I again mentally focus on each chakra, but this time I do a releasing. I again start with the crown chakra and focus on its energies slowing down and growing dim. I then go downwards through all the other chakras, relaxing and releasing each one's energy into the earth. I can usually feel the energy and the stress of the day dropping out of me whenever I do this. When I finally climb into bed, all of my energy has diminished so much that sleep comes almost immediately.
That's all there is to it, and it only takes a few moments each day. Maybe it helps and maybe it doesn't, but it hasn't hurt me, and let's face it--the more meditative practices you have in your life, the better off you are.
But while working with the chakras is all well and good, we're not finished yet.
Another way to center yourself is by bringing the energies of the four elements into harmony within your own being. These are the four classical elements of earth, air, fire and water, which the ancient Greeks believed to be the basis of all physical reality.
Now the preceding statement might sound slightly ridiculous. Isn't the whole idea of four elements completely out of date? Has not modern physics identified more than a hundred elements which constitute the physical reality of our universe? Yes, of course, but... if you start talking about elemental energies instead of physical matter, the whole idea of four elements starts to make sense. Not just to me and to the ancient Greeks, but to countless poets and philosophers over the years. I long ago lost count of how many great minds interpreted reality in terms of the energies of the four elements, up to and including Empedocles, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Says Northrop Frye in his preface to Gaston Bachelard's Psychoanalysis of Fire (1968): "earth, air, water and fire are still the four elements of imaginative experience, and always will be."
I am convinced that only when these four elements are balanced in your psyche will you be centered. In reaching this conclusion I have been influenced by psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that our personalities possess four distinct aspects: thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. I must admit that I have never been overly impressed with Jung's obscure prose and lack of scientific rigor. But his theories of personality were based on his long study of the elemental aspects of alchemical literature, and they make sense to me. My own experience of life tells me that you can reasonably interpret both life and experience through the energies of earth, air, fire and water. This is especially true when you work with Tarot. It has long been noted that the minor arcana in the Tarot deck correspond not just to the four elements, but to the four sides to our personality, which can be defined as follows:
So if you want to be centered, you need to bring your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual energies into balance. If any of these energies are out of proportion, I can guarantee your life will be a mess, you will make bad decisions, and you will never get what you want. In other words, you will go through your life uncentered.
Which is something you see a lot of here in 21st century America, where emotional extremism is the great curse of our times. I used to think that people nowadays were so overly obsessed with air energies (thinking, communication, information) that they could never achieve any kind of harmonious balance in their psyches. But excesses in the realm of air are nothing compared to the kind of chaotic emotional turmoil which constantly poisons the life of millions. Everywhere you look these days you find emotions out of whack: political hysteria, corrosive relationships, lust for creature comforts, chronic self indulgence, or--worst of all--the kind of suffocating complacency you get when your vanity tells you that you are a superior being who's got everything figured out. This last is the worst. I am referring to those zillions of unimaginative egomaniacs who have decided that their political or social or religious beliefs are the correct ones, that they have positioned themselves on the side of the angels, and that there will never again be any need for reevaluation of their most cherished views. Talk about utter stagnation. This is not success in life--it is emotional excess taken to its absolute frozen limit. Settle down in a rut like this, and you will find yourself as imbalanced as a human being can get.
Well, there is a way out of everything, up to and including excessive emotions. My own experience has told me that nothing kills off watery emotional turmoil like the spiritual energy of fire. Bring more fire into your life, and all that nasty emotional excess will evaporate. Not that I'm recommending church attendance or adherence to a traditional religion, both of which are growing more and more irrelevant as we move into the Aquarian era. But when you start turning your thoughts from the temporal to the eternal, from the physical to the spiritual, from the endless crap you have to deal with to the cold clear light of the universal, you will find that all those KILL! thoughts just aren't there any longer.
And there are also two very practical exercises you can do to dampen down your emotions: first, make time to practice Nadi Sodhana every day, and then start doing affirmations whenever you are hypnagogic. Every day in every way I am growing more and more serene...
You might also take a look at the books of one of my great heroes, Gaston Bachelard, one of the few 20th century philosophers who actually had something worthwhile to say. His four books on elemental energies are the best place to start:
A few of Bachelard's early French texts are online here.
There is also an interesting site (in French) devoted to him:
We now need to take a look at meditative techniques from Daoist traditions. Chinese sages seemed to have understood centering as profoundly as did the ancient Hindus; indeed, the most basic patterns you can find in Daoism, including the circular Yin and Yang yang symbol, always give off a sense of balance, of unity, and of centeredness. We need to remember that the most fundamental patterns of Daoism are concerned with yielding and withdrawing instead of advancing, with inaction rather than action, with returning again and again and again to the source of life. If you are a good Daoist, you discover the truth not by striving or grasping, but by releasing, surrendering, and focusing your attention on natural energies or patterns. All of which makes for very good centering.
The Secret of the Golden Flower is a celebrated Chinese classic whose anonymous author discusses various meditative techniques, all of which are designed to "turn the light around" or help us achieve spiritual illumination. The author describes his experience of spiritual reality in terms of such superb poetic beauty that The Secret of the Golden Flower is worth studying even if you don't want to follow the techniques. I reread this text recently and was struck by how frequently the author refers to the idea of the center. When the light is turned around, after all, you have brought it to the center within you.
There have been three translations of The Secret of the Golden Flower into English:
This is a very short text dating from the Tang Dynasty and well worth study. The text and commentary can be found in Cultivating Stillness (1992) by Eva Wong. An English version of the text is online at Stillness.
I know nothing about the date or author of this text, which is also online at Stillness. It is a beautiful little guide to spiritual living. The author never uses the word "center", but does talk about balance and inward tranquility.
Thomas Cleary gives us several translations of unusual Daoist texts in his book Immortal Sisters (1989). What's interesting is that all of these texts were written by women, which is not exactly the norm for most Chinese classics. One of the most intriguing is Spiritual Alchemy for Women, written by one Cao Zenjie (1899) and designed specifically for women.
When you read this text, you can immediately see that Cao Zenjie knew a thing or two about centering. Practically every paragraph gives us specific instructions about achieving balance, harmony, or union. What is of particular interest here is Cao's recommendation that women, when meditating, should direct their attention to the sternum. She writes: "Men begin practice with the attention in the lower abdomen, just below the navel. Women start work with the attention between the breasts."
In other words, men should focus on the hara when they meditate, which
corresponds to the Svadhisthana
chakra. Women, on the other hand, should focus on the Anahata or heart chakra.
The reasons for the difference are not explained, but it is obvious that Cao
knows what she is talking about--and I am willing to take her word for it.
On those rare occasions when I do attempt sitting meditation, I always focus on
the energies of my heart, and if you are a woman, I recommend that you do the
same. What, after all, could be more centering...
In 1960 German writer Karlfried von Durckheim published a wonderful book entitled The Japanese Cult of Tranquility. One of the key concepts in the book is centering, and Durckheim understood very well why it is so important:
When we lose touch with the kernel of our essential being, we identify exclusively with our outer shell. When our sense of inner achievement becomes muted, we turn to the noise of the outside world and lose all sense of our living center. We are caught in the bondage of a hardened periphery; we are alienated from our spiritual powers, and we try to find fulfillment by protecting and indulging the ego, or in the excitement of cheap stimuli, or by satisfying instinctive desires, or we get lost in the sensations of the mind. We run from ourselves. We fly from life's calm rhythm to find refuge in the measured beat of organized existence, relinquishing contact with the indestructible within ourselves for security in the transitory world. We drown the quiet voices of being in the noise of worthless illusion.
Durckheim then goes on to give us directions for exercising the center, and they are some of the best ever written:
The exercise of the center of being! To speak of center is to conjure up an image of a circle possessing a central point which is in a certain relation to the periphery. The periphery is outside, the center inside, representing depth as opposed to superficiality. All points on the periphery are related to the center equally; viewed from the center they are all eccentric. Movement from the center to the periphery is centrifugal, that from the periphery to the center is centripetal. The periphery can revolve in circular motion while the center remains motionless, governing all surrounding movement as a whole. We experience each of these aspects in the exercise of the center as they affect ourselves. We say of people that they are centered or that they are eccentric, meaning that their way of life is in harmony with their essential being, or conversely that a lack of proportion prevents them from being themselves and endangers their individuality. People all possess their own formula as to the relation between centrifugal and centripetal motion, but it seems to be generally accepted that the rhythm of such motion is to be determined from the center and not from the periphery.
If we should set about the exercise of the center in the same form of consciousness as we would any other task, in other words, with the ego asserting itself as the subject and accordingly determining and fixing the thing to be done as object, we will not be spared an unpleasant experience.
In our efforts to find the center within ourselves, the more determinedly our ego asserts itself and causes us to make ourselves into an object and to adhere hard and fast to this object, we will only reach a painful state of rigidity in which all life comes to a standstill. We would experience in an almost unprecedented manner in our own person the extent of the threat offered by the forces of the ego, which turn the living natural world into so many dead "factors." We are not concerned with the question as to how far the human mind and its talent for creative activity is rooted in this ability of the ego; we are only concerned with its negative aspect, that when we regard ourselves from the viewpoint of the ego we become the victim of our own reflection. But we are more than just an ego, and therefore, if we take ourselves and our ego's instinct to be the central point seriously while practicing the exercise of the center, we can perceive life coming to a standstill in ourselves.
This experience may be accompanied by a serious shock, when all of a sudden we feel unable to escape from the state of rigidity forced on us by the ego. It is not possible here to examine how this painful state may be overcome and gradual outgrown. It depends, in all cases, on people relinquishing their own small self as the subject of the search for a center. If we succeed in doing this through conscious meditation (not concentration!) we will feel the rigidity in ourselves giving place to some new center. This new center is quite distinct from that other one, which in reality was nothing but the ego, identical with itself and reflecting its own identity eternally. We can now experience the center of our being as something far more than ego, far more than just self. Having succeeded in attaining it will we now discover everything being submitted to it and being made a harmonious part of it in such a manner as to transcend the tension between subject and object. Everything is now centralized in perfect harmony with the systole and diastole of the universe.
We all know something of this state of being from those fleeting moments in life when we suddenly feel as if we were "rounded off" and perform whatever we have to do with perfect ease. Everything seems in its proper place and we can accept in perfect equanimity disturbances which at another time might have deeply distressed us. It is not until this sensation is destroyed by some sudden thought or emotion that we are thrown once more into the old decentric tension of subject and object, and it is only by sheer concentration of the will that we can master the situation. Life from the living center is replaced by life governed from the periphery. The exercise of the center aims at giving us as a lasting possession, something that we ordinarily only experience as a passing happy moment--occasionally, for example, on awakening--as the gift of chance, of whose significance we are hardly aware. This is the exercise of becoming a "hinge" which remains motionless even when the door is turning on it--to use an image from the German mystic, Meister Eckhart. The Japanese people to whom I mentioned this story felt it to be a perfect designation for what they themselves experienced in exercises of the center.
The exercise of the center is integrally linked with those of immobility and breath, and lies at the core of all Japanese education. The Japanese have a special word for the center of body and soul: hara. The number of expressions in which it is found indicates its importance for them. There are master schools that make hara the sole object of their exercise, while every master art in Japan considers that it is necessary to possess it in order to achieve success in whatever one is doing. To the Japanese, what we experience in the "center of being" is none other than the unity of life, bearing all, permeating all, nourishing and enfolding all. Our consciousness is ego-centered and thus separated from the true center: the purpose of these exercises of immobility, breath, and of the center of body and soul is to help us to regain it...
Well, there it is. All you really need to know about centering in some
very beautiful prose.
I am almost at the end of my centering treatise. Here are a few final odds and ends about centering practices which I think are valuable:
Contemplating a mandala as a meditative practice always produces a centering kind of sensation. The mandalas which have been created in eastern cultures over the years have got to be some of the most wondrous works of art ever created. Spend some time contemplating these designs, go into them as deeply as you can, and you will get the same effect as great music. You don't necessarily have to focus your attention on a mandala: any kind of centering design, such as that of the Tree of Life or sacred geometric design will have this effect.
You go into your center whenever you pray. This is a practice which never fails: any attempt to reach or communicate in some way with the divine will automatically bring your mind, body, soul and spirit into a unity.
And saying a prayer or a blessing before a meal is a particularly effective way to center. Kaiten Nukariya's The Religion of the Samurai (1913) tells us of "a contemporary Zenist who would not drink even a cup of water without first making a salutation to it." Here is a centered human if there every way one: a human being who is neither to be rushed nor distracted by the ephemeral, who is continually aware of the enormities of time, space and eternity, and who is humble enough to feel gratitude for even a sip of water. Get into a mindset like this, and the grace of centeredness will be yours.
To conclude: the one single thing that matters in all of the above is Buddhist idea of practice, namely that the practice itself is the goal, not the alleged goal itself. You do it just for the sake of doing it, not in the hope that you will actually get anywhere. So if you want to be centered, all you need to do is practice being centered, and behold... that is what you are.