If you have ever watched experienced and skilled martial artists at work you will notice speed, grace, power, intention, and a spatial awareness of all that is around them. Although in some disciplines the movements can look almost violent, there is always control; control that takes the move just to the very edge of what is necessary, no more, no less.
The skilled martial artist has practised the art of connecting with and moving from his or her centre. He is connected to the art of feeling what is possible. In physical terms we can think of centre as our centre of gravity, and usually this is located two or three finger widths below the navel. Think of those old physics lessons!
However, centre is much more than that. Once we find centre in ourselves we find we can access a particular energetic quality. We can organise ourselves to move and engage with others from this place with a grounded, intentional purpose. We can move with more gravitas, dignity and presence. We find greater possibility and choice when organised around our centre.
Very few of us pay attention to how we show up physically and many of us have limited awareness of sensation in our body. Why would we - it’s something that rarely gets attention - other than possibly by our parents telling us as children to walk up straight!
If we were to pay attention we would notice all sorts of new things about ourselves. Pay attention next time you are sitting in a coffee shop at how people on the street move. You will notice they all move and hold themselves differently. In time you might notice those whose heads are in the clouds, those who are not looking where they are going, those whose bodies push against the world, those whose bodies collapse inwards, away from the world. Those bodies that are unbalanced in movement, those whose stride is smaller than it needs to be, those who walk timidly or boldly.
Then notice what assessments of these bodies arise for you. Of course you have no way of checking them out, but just think, if you can make assessments of others, then they can do the same for you. We constantly assess each other unconsciously by reading other people’s bodies. We communicate to each other all of the time and often it’s below our level of awareness.
Similarly, our bodies communicate to ourselves. Amy Cuddy is about to release a new book called Presence (amycuddy.com/presence/) in which she refers to research that now proves what many in eastern traditions have known for centuries that there is a feedback loop between how our bodies are, what we feel sensationally, and the stories that we tell ourselves. This is good news. It means that if we make a change in one domain, we will see an effect in another. After all it’d be really hard to feel the joy of happiness or peace, whilst collapsing the ribcage and walking with your chin on the floor.
So how can we organise for greater effectiveness, for greater balance, for calm graceful intention, and for handling greater intensity and pressure.
We need to learn to Centre - to find centre and return to centre.
Finding a place of centre
Centre is typically located about two or three finger widths below the belly button. This is known as the Hara in Japanese martial arts or Dantien in Tai Chi. By simply breathing into this place and paying attention to it we can start the process of learning to centre.
The most effective way however to find what centre feels like is to work with the three body dimensions of length, width and depth.
If practising centering in a static position, you may place your feet in parallel, somewhere between shoulder and hip width apart or you may place your feet one in front of the other, a comfortable distance apart, the front of your back foot may be turned out slightly. Your knees should be relaxed and ever so slightly soft. It may be helpful to imagine that you have a third leg extending from your body positioned to provide you with greater stability. You do not however have to be static to practise, you can also practise whilst moving.
Dimension of Length: Connection to your vision for your life and the grounding to carry it out. Balance in this dimension evidences itself as a person who embodies dignity, meaningful and purposeful work and lasting relationships. Being out of balance with too much length, may be someone with great vision but little ability to manifest it. On the other hand, not having enough length can mean a person with his or her nose to the grindstone, preoccupied with the busy details of life and not connected to their vision; not really engaged with full energetic vitality and at its worst, resigned and defeated.
To centre along the dimension of length, align your head, shoulder girdle, torso, pelvic girdle, knees and feet directly on top of each other, releasing any tension in any of these areas. Once there is alignment along the vertical axis, relax into the downward flow of gravity by releasing the tension in the eyes and forehead, jaw and chin (opening the mouth to a natural state can help here), shoulders and abdomen, hips and pelvis, and legs. This has effect of lowering your centre of gravity.
Dimension of Width: Our outward movement into the world. Balance in this dimension offers a person the possibility of clear personal boundaries while still being able to influence and be influenced by the world. Balance in this dimension communicates being ready and available for connection. When someone is out of balance in their width (too much width), they may generate a sense of ‘stay away’ in others - a pushing away. Alternatively, they may be unable to say no, and people will either be clinging to them or they will be clinging to people. The need for connection is out of balance. At the other extreme (too little width), maybe someone keeping people at a distance, communicating ‘please don’t come near’ or ‘I’m fearful of connection’. People with too little width are often afraid in some way of human contact – the smaller width is a withdrawal, protective response.
To centre along the dimension of width, balance left to right, stand equally on the left and right feet. Most of us are uni-lateral. either left or right handed, we usually find ourselves tilted to one side or the other. Balance in the dimension of width will mean that there is symmetry between both your left and right shoulders and left and right hips.
Dimension of Depth: Balance in this dimension occurs when there is consistency between one’s internal life and sense of self and what shows up physically - externally. When we say some one seems ‘comfortable in him or herself, their bearing is the mark of someone who embodies authentic self-acceptance. A person balanced in depth is able to fully honour and accept their history without damaging critical judgement. A person balanced in depth is able to connect with a powerful inner sense of ‘self’ from which they are able to act spontaneously and without being careless. If we think of the human body as moving through time, the front of the body may be regarded as facing into the future, the back of the body facing into, or reflecting upon what has gone before. People who tilt forwards can show up as hurrying or rushing from one thing to another without fully allowing ideas and internal perceptions to mature and come to fruition, always on to the next thing. People who lean further back, can be communicating a meekness, and un approachability, a sense of ‘laid back’ and away from the future.
To center along the dimension of depth, balance from front to back so that you are neither tipped forward nor leaning back. Human beings are typically future-orientated, pre-occupied with thoughts. We can often find that we are pre-disposed to be ahead of ourselves and out of contact with our back, our shadow, our history and traditions. By aligning front to back, neither forward nor back, we rest into our spine and open the heart and the belly, able to move into the future from with the strength and support that our past has to offer us.
Learning to centre has to become a practice. The way in which you organise yourself physically and sensationally (eg holding your breath when stressed or concentrating hard, biting your lip of frowning when reading a hard text) is something you have been practicing since you started walking. Your ‘shape’ in this sense was probably formed by the time you were about 7 years old and you have been bedding it in ever since.
It stands to reason therefore that you will not learn this new way of organising yourself overnight. It’s not a few goes and you’ve got it. You need to practice. It is said that 300 repetitions are needed for muscle memory and something like 10,000 for mastery. Don’t let the numbers put you off - and I’d say, ignore the big one. If you practice 20 times a day, 5 days a week, in 3 weeks your body knows how to organise around centre. Then you just keep at it. You do not need to find extra time in your day either. Your normal day to day activities can all be done from center, e.g. every time you go to get a coffee, wait for a bus or a train, do the washing up, unload the dishwasher. Finding repetitive activities that happen daily that you can attach centering practice to will provide easy triggers to remember to move and organise in a new way. Eventually, with enough practice you will find yourself remembering more and more to center, and when you really need it in say a tough or intense situation you will find yourself centering. And even if people don’t notice anything, or can’t say what it is is that is different, I guarantee reactions - yours and theirs, will be different.
It’s also worth noting that the trick isn’t to be centred all of the time, the skill is to notice when you are not centered, and return to it, so please go easy on yourself.
Finally being able to find balance and center along all dimensions, in time we come to experience a greater acceptance of self, less self-judgement or criticism, increased self awareness, improved perception of others and situations, and a greater capacity for powerful and concrete action, which after all is what most of us seek. Enjoy the practice, as much as the results!
For a beautifully written piece on the spiritual aspect of being entered check this blog from Richard Strozzi Heckler https://theembodiedlife.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/embodying-the-mystery-centering-as-a-spiritual-practice/