From Buddha's Little Instruction Book by Jack Kornfield
Back in the 1950s and 60s, meditation was frequently described as "contemplating your navel." We tried this. "OK, it's an innie. Got a bit of lint. Now what?" It didn't seem like a very satisfying spiritual practice. In fact, the idea of contemplating one's navel seemed so silly that the phrase was popularly used to deride meditation and poke fun at Eastern religion. Possibly we missed something in our initial attempt at meditation.
Later, a football coach would teach us about being aware of our "center of gravity." He would say, "If you run around with a high center of gravity your opponent is going to knock you on your kiester. So move as if your center of gravity is a couple of inches below your belly button." It turned out that if you maintained mental consciousness of your weight centered in your abdomen you could flatten large young men moving at high speeds. It was better to be the flattener than the flattenee.
Farther down the road we encountered an Aikido master who taught about keeping one point of consciousness at the hara. Hara is the Japanese word for a point in your body about two finger widths below your navel. It is a major center of ki (chi, life energy). He demonstrated how maintaining "one point" was useful, not only in Aikido, but in daily life. When he put his consciousness at his hara he became immovable. Several men much larger than he could not lift him, nor could they push him off his base stance. Yet in demonstration he could throw six attacking students in what appeared to be a graceful and nearly effortless dance of martial art. We found that by putting our minds at our hara we were more balanced, and activities like opening heavy doors, pushing a car, or even just walking and running were easier and more graceful.
The hara has many names: t'an-tien, dantien, chi-chung, second chakra (or third chakra in some systems). In any discipline that is sensitive to the subtle energies of the body it will be identified as an important seat of power and balance. Using the hara in meditation can help counterbalance our tendencies to be in our head.
Westerners, especially, are trained to focus consciousness in the upper energy centers. We are thinking people or feeling people. Our life energy seems to be centered in our heads or hearts. Some of us identify our egos with our brains and we experience the world through our heads. It is as if our bodies just dangle down from our noggins never really touching the earth. Or we go through life centered in our hearts. We feel deeply. We are compassionate loving beings, yet we can be swept away in our emotion, and our hearts are prone to breaking.
As children our attention is drawn away from our lower centers of energy. We are taught not to touch the "naughty bits." We are instructed not to look at our nether parts or those of others. Anything below the navel and above the knees is off limits to any more than a passing awareness. Consequently, some of us become absolutely fascinated with the region and others cut off any relationship with it.
Given these circumstances, one might predict that Western civilization would develop a struggle between sexual titillation and self-righteous prudery, and that it would have some difficulty maintaining its sense of harmonic balance with the planet.
So let us consider a practice of meditation that is immanently simple, but that will allow us to bring our energy down to earth, find our balance point, and connect with a locus of balanced power.
Traditionally, this meditation would be done in a classic cross legged sitting meditation position. However, it may also be done sitting in a chair. Luckily, the proper position for sitting at a computer is nearly identical to the proper position for meditating in a chair. If as you do this, your boss asks what you are doing, you may say that you are performing an experiment in computer workstation ergonomics. In fact, if you find the correct meditation position and apply it to your keyboard work you will likely experience less muscle strain.
Adjust your chair so that with your feet flat on the floor your torso, thighs and shins roughly form the shape of a stair step. In other words, the angle between your spine and thighs is about 90 degrees and the angle between your thighs and lower legs is about 90 degrees in the other direction. It is better that these angles be a little more than 90 degrees rather than less. Your head should rest comfortably on your neck. Your spine should be erect so that your head balances there without much muscle tension keeping it in place. Sit up straight and find that balance point. Your gaze should be slightly downward.
Your nose and your navel should be in line. So should your ears and your shoulders. You may rock a little front to back and to each side to find the balance point.
When keyboarding, your hands should be in such a relationship with your body that the angle between your upper and lower arms is 90 degrees or a little more. If it is less than 90 degrees you will likely develop muscle strain in your neck and shoulders. For meditating you may simply rest your hands on your thighs. Alternatively, you can place your hands in the traditional Buddhist meditation position, the "cosmic mudra."
Shunryu Suzuki, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, says, "If you put your left hand on top of your right, middle joints of your middle fingers together, and touch your thumbs lightly together (as if you held a piece of paper between them), your hands will make a beautiful oval. You should keep this universal mudra with great care, as if you were holding something very precious in your hand. Your hands should be held against your body, with your thumbs at about the height of your navel. Hold your arms freely and easily, and slightly away from your body, as if you held an egg under each arm without breaking it." This hand position will assist you in focussing on your hara.
Now release any remaining muscle tension and concentrate on your breathing. Let your breathing become very natural. It will find its own pace and you may notice that it slows and deepens. Allow the breath to sink into your abdomen. Imagine that the breath is moving like a wave between your lungs and your hara, that point in the center of your abdomen a couple of inches below and behind your navel.
Bring your attention fully to that energy center, that balance point we are referring to as hara. Allow all of you attention to focus at that point. It may be helpful to imagine a point of red light in the dark of your abdomen. Some people imagine a tiny Buddha there sitting perfectly still in total peace. Whatever image you choose, allow it to aid you in focussing, and then when it has lost its usefulness, let it go.
Continue to return your awareness to your hara whenever it drifts away. Focus all of your attention there. Be in that place. Own that part of your body. Note any sensations you have there and let them go. Releasing your mental constrictions there will allow the energy of this chakra to move up your spine and throughout your body. You may feel energized, yet at the same time you may feel the peace of being in balance. Experience whatever comes without grasping. Focus your attention without desire for any particular result. Check your posture and bring it back to balance when you feel it slip. Allow the emptiness of non-doing to bring you peace.
Consider making this exercise a part of your daily meditation practice.
© 2002 Tom Barrett