we touched this same spot with our hands, our feet, our gaze and our dreams

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Lost Art of Finding Your Center

The words people use give us a clue as to how they experience the world. As the culture changes, so does the language. Take the word hara, for which there are over 150 expressions listed in a Japanese dictionary. When a word has different nuances, it may be pronounced the same, but written with a different character. 

Hara written with the character
(belly, abdomen) is in most common use today, and generally refers to the shape or state of the abdomen, as well as the seat of common emotions. Get hungry (hara ga heru), get angry (hara ga tatsu), be overweight (hara ga deru), be famished (hara peko), beer belly (bīru bara), eat to 80% of your fill (hara hachibunme), be determined (hara wo kimeru), be firmly resolved (hara wo kukuru). 

Hara written with the character
(center, root) is associated more with mastery and maturity, rooted in Samurai culture. To have accomplished hara is to be a master (hara no dekita hito), to have large hara is to be big-hearted and magnanimous (hara no ōkī hito), to think with hara is to think deeply (hara de kangaeru), to have seated hara is to be calm under pressure (hara ga suwatteiru), the art of communication with hara to be intuitive (haragei), to train the hara is to develop yourself through a discipline (hara wo neru), to seek out hara is to know real intentions (hara wo saguru), to speak with presence is a hara voice (hara goe). 

Both characters use the left-hand radical
(here meaning flesh, or body), but belly is a body shaped like a bulging container, whereas root is a body which is grounded to the earth. In the latter case, it refers to the center of the mind and body, and the seat of the soul. 

The word hara as center or root (
) has a long tradition, which is captured with clarity in a classic book called Hara: The Vital Centre of Man, written by Karlfried Graf Von Dürckheim (1896~1988) English translation: http://budurl.com/2r95 , Japanese translation: http://budurl.com/2pzy

Dürckheim was a German diplomat and psychotherapist, who studied Zen in Japan for 8 years, from 1938~1946. Although he was captured in 1945 by US counter-intelligence agents, and kept for eighteen months in Sugamo prison, after his release Dürckheim’s books and introductions to Zen Master D.T. Suzuki led to a chain of events that brought Zen into the mainstream of awareness in America. http://budurl.com/38jb 

But even as the West was discovering hara, mainstream Japanese culture was in the process of forgetting it. Though it is still an integral part of the martial arts and many traditional disciplines, it is fast fading from daily life. The vital center for many people seems to be shifting upward. 

In Japanese the original expression for losing your temper was hara ga tatsu (the hara stands up). Today you more commonly hear expressions like atama ni kita (it comes to the head), or even worse, kireru (to cut loose, or lose it). The English equivalent might be blew a fuse, or burst a blood vessel. If the mind is centered in the lower abdomen, even if you lose your temper, it is still possible to calm down, count to ten, or sleep on it to regain your composure. A person with a low center of gravity is grounded and composed, and can recover calmness quickly. The preferred way to be is to have a cool head and warm feet (zukan sokunetsu). 

Think how this compares to the opposite, having a hot head and cold feet! If you lose it, you’ve lost it. A person with a high center of gravity tends to be proud, self-righteous, argumentative, and inflexible, or even violent when things do not go their way. You see it on the evening news, and it’s not a pretty sight. 

The discovery of Zen in America in the 1950s and 1960s had a major impact on Western psychology. It developed over time into a greater emphasis on awareness, attitude, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. Ironically, during this time Japanese have tended to drift away from their own roots, and currently seem more interested in key words like critical thinking, compliance, and quality control. While communication used to be hara to hara, or at least heart to heart, it is increasingly head to head. Books on brain training are bestsellers, while books on training the hara are hard to come by. 

However, like a prodigal son, the culture of hara has traveled to the West, changed our psychology, and is ready to return home. As Japanese witness the unravelling of good things in their culture that they once took for granted, they will become more receptive to the echos in their own cultural heritage. 

1 comment:

  1. Vernon Wooden1:27 PM

    Japanese is not unlike Greek in this understanding of the center or seat of emotions. The King James Version translates I John 3:17 as, "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" Literally, it is "shuts his guts." The words "of compassion" had to be added so that we would understand.

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