Centering

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We sometimes talk about feeling “centered” in daily life as a synonym for being focused, balanced. And with good reason: physical posture/balance and mental/emotional states have been shown to be intimately related.  In martial arts the importance of finding your physical center – of balance, of gravity – is often stressed as a fundamental element of technique. But exactly why and how to find that center, and what to do with it, is often left unclear.

Before a recent three-day gasshuku (合宿, “together-lodging”) training camp, I’d been re-reading Katsuki Sekida’s excellent Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, particularly the sections on posture and breathing, and was once again reminded of the overlap between Sekida’s physiological descriptions of these crucial elements of zazen (座禅) and Miyamoto Musashi’s teachings about mindset and posture in strategy.

Sekida argues that a constantly renewing tension in the respiratory and postural muscles of the lower abdomen is largely responsible for the unbroken focus and mental clarity which develop in zazen. This is consistent with a number of Musashi’s teachings, but most notably those of “centering” and“tightening the wedge”:

Musashi on centering:

“Without trying to rein it in tightly, or letting it go slack at all, and in such a way that it does not lean in any particular direction, center your mind exactly, and set it quietly vibrating. You should investigate this exhaustively, until you can sustain this vibration constantly, and not allow it to cease even for a split second.” (in Water, p. 82)

But how do you find that “center”?

Musashi again: “There is the teaching called ‘tightening the wedge’ – set your belly against the scabbard of your short sword so that your belt does not slacken.” (in Water, p.85)

The obi (belt) worn by Japanese swordsmen is broad and tied so as to to support the abdomen from slightly below; the short sword was tucked under the belt and slightly in front, so to “tighten the wedge” is to expand your lower abdomen, pressing against the scabbard and belt, and keep it that way. This is in keeping with Sekida’s explanation of “pushing the belly out” in zazen.  As for finding that center exactly, I’ve developed the following technique, derived from yoga, zazen, and martial-arts practice.

A technique for finding your center

Almost everyone has been told at one point or another when they were agitated or emotional, to “take a deep breath”, and with good reason: this is half the battle. However, exactly how a “deep breath” is taken can vary wildly from person to person without explicit instruction, so that’s what I’m going to offer here.

  1. Either seated or standing, with your spine erect, exhale all the air you possibly can.
  2. Then when you inhale, do so as deeply as possible into your abdomen (or as a yoga instructor I once had said, “Breathe into your hips”).
  3. Repeat this several times. As you do this, notice the deepest point you can feel your breath going to. It will probably be a point in front of your spine and deep in your lower abdomen (obviously your breath isn’t going down this far, but it should feel like it does). This is your center. If you divide your height in half and measure up from the floor, it will probably be very close to this point, and it will correspond very closely to your center of gravity.
  4. The idea is to keep this area gently expanded, and to keep your attention focused there as constantly as possible.

My results

I decided to pay special attention to these concepts during the gasshuku , and the results were notable. My technique was better and more consistent, and even more noticeably I did not tire anywhere near as much as I usually would. I suspect the latter effect may be because “tightening the wedge” had the effect of stabilizing my core and took a lot of stress off of the rest of the skeletal musculature (powerlifters also do a similar thing when going for a very heavy lift: they call it “big air”).

Since then I have been trying to focus on these issues as much as possible in daily life, bringing my breath, and my attention, deep into my lower abdomen, whenever I notice it has strayed (which it often does).

One interesting side effect I’ve noticed, especially when walking, is that keeping my attention on my center and “tightening the wedge”, my vision naturally becomes diffused – it almost refuses to get “stuck” on any one thing, instead absorbing my entire field of view and flowing naturally from space to space. This is enhanced by taking my line of sight about 20º down from horizontal, an effect mentioned by Austin in Zen and the Brain. 

I’ve also found that this technique seems to enhance focus when working or reading (and retention in the latter case), but this is purely subjective at this point. It would be an interesting subject to test scientifically.

Your thoughts

If you haven’t employed these techniques before, give them a try, and let me know how your experience goes. Likewise if you have any other thoughts or comments, I’d be happy to hear them.

Image courtesy of PANPOTE/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One thought on “Centering

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