Refining the Center

Being good Daoists, us practitioners of Da Xuan do lots of work on the refining of the center, or becoming centered. Centered is a term that is used in many schools of practice, particularly in martial arts and dance. In my experience, most of the time it is taught in an incredibly vague way with instructions like “try to be more centered”. Some people get it, some people don’t. I was in the camp of nod and smile and hope they don’t notice that you have no idea what they mean when I heard such cues. I suspect I am not the only one who has experienced this, so a bit more clarity on what exactly being centered means appears to be in order.

To understand the center it is necessary to take a look at the bigger picture. Our relative experience of the world is governed by opposing forces. The ebb and flow of the opposites are the very movement of life itself. It is impossible for one extreme to exist without the other and so in any given element exists a seed or potential of its opposite. This concept is most famously realized by the symbol of the tàijítú, more colloquially known as the ‘Yin and Yang’ symbol:

The more modern version on the left, an older rendition on the right

Here we see the opposites represented by the colours black (on the right and bottom, Yin) and white (on the left and top, Yang). The curves of the symbol give the impression of movement, and the whole thing encompassed within a circle shows the cyclical nature of the opposites. Yin Yang theory is an incredibly deep study on its own and I do not want to go into that here. What is relevant to this article and what is not made apparent by the symbol (although it is obviously there) is the center – the point around which the opposites turn.

The center in this sense is not polarized. It is neither yin nor yang but it is in the middle of both. Another way I like to phrase it is that it is in-between the opposites. It has a spacious, non-fixed quality about it;  as if at any moment it could easily go towards either of the opposites. It is full of the potential of the opposites without being bound by them and so in a certain sense it fully contains both of the opposites. It is a position of open potential.

The problem with what I’ve explained is that it’s a nice idea but ideas don’t help anyone unless it can somehow become manifest in reality. To take this idea as a belief or concept that you hold on to in your mind is to do the very thing that every good spiritual tradition warns against. To make it appear in reality, we need something to do. Not just thinking about it a lot but actually engaging in a practice to bring the idea to life. The best way I have found is to explore this on the physical level first. The physical is much more tangible and obvious than the emotional or mental realms and so it’s much easier to confront the reality of it without deceiving ourselves. 

Let’s use this concept to look at our posture, and we will start at our feet. It’s useful to gauge the physical opposites so we have a working point to find that which is in between the opposites. We can have the feet internally and externally rotated, the weight forward on the toes or back on the heels, pronation (collapsing inwards) and supination (rolling outwards) of the ankle, and we can have the feet close together or wide apart. The in-betweens are feet parallel with toes pointing forward (between internal and external rotation), the weight in the middle of the foot (between forward and backwards, and between pronated and supinated) and the feet shoulder width apart (somewhere between too close together and too far apart). Our knees want to be  on top of the feet and pointing in the same direction in the toes, which is related to the pronation and supination of the ankle, and between being too straight and too bent. Our hips must hang relaxed, neither posteriorly or anteriorly tilted. The glutes and lower abdominals must be relaxed so the effort goes into the center of the leg nearer to the bone.  Our torsos are straight, the spine is neither in flexion, extension, lateral flexion or rotation at any point. The arms are hanging by the side, the shoulders are between protraction and retraction. The neck is neither too far forward (poke neck/upper crossed syndrome) or too far back (military posture), the head is lifted gently to balance the hanging hips and create space in between each of the vertebrae.

A typical postural image, the left image is a projected ideal but has not accounted for the need to sink in the hips and relax the knees

What I’ve described above is not really rocket science or anything new, most physiotherapists will talk about this kind of posture in some way or another. But we need to practice regularly to understand and dare I say embody it, then we can use this understanding of being in-between to refine it even further. Most people when asked to take such a posture will not be able to take it without torquing and tensing just about every muscle in their body. A good therapist can possibly massage some of this tension out but it will return in a day or two.

Tension is the opposite of relaxation and so winding ourselves up with heavy tension to achieve this ideal posture is counter productive, as is going completely slack and relaxed which will collapse the posture. If we recall our idea of spaciousness at the center we can use this to direct our position. The set up is a way of arranging the body so there is space in each joint.  To encourage this we need to find a way to be neither overly tensed or overly relaxed. In other words, we need to be as open in the joints as possible while simultaneously being as relaxed as possible. If I use the hand to demonstrate you can get the feel of it pretty easily: Open the hand as wide as you can and you see it invites a lot of tension into the hand.  Relax it as much as possible (just go floppy!) and you see the hand’s structure collapses and the fingers roll closed. Try instead opening the hand as much as you can while simultaneously being as relaxed as you can. If you get it dialed well, you can sometimes find in that the hand starts to vibrate or shudder.

Hand open but tense; hand relaxed but collapsed; and the 'goldilocks' expression that is both open and very relaxed.

This vibration is a very typical response when nearing any of the in-betweens mentioned. It’s a confusion of sorts as the body leaves habitual fixation on a particular opposite and starts shifting from one opposite to the other in very quick succession. As you get to a more refined center position, this vibration will be experienced less on the surface but more deeply in the body. It eventually creates a paradoxical relaxed tension. The body has structure but is deeply relaxed. This conjoining of the opposites is one of the main signs that you are truly in the center and not just hanging out in an opposite nearby to it.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix to becoming suddenly perfectly centered. What you can do today though is orient yourself towards becoming more centered and refining your lived experience of this, particularly in the physical body.  To begin, just take 10 minutes a day and practice setting yourself up in the most centered posture you can, then stay there. It is important to remember that to be in between tense and relaxed means that on any given day, your most centered posture for that day will be different to what it was on another day depending on what your hidden tension and stress is doing on that day. In fact, the best current expression of the center will change as you practice. Of course we move towards an ideal, but to not acknowledge the tensions of the given day orients us towards the extremes and away from the center. The orientation in this sense is more important than the current expression.

We also see that it’s not useful to only hang out in the center. We can’t truly know that we are in the center if we aren’t intimate with the extremes, but we do want to have the center as a home base of sorts that we regularly return to to recuperate. To understand the center as precisely as possible, we must explore the extremes. If we’ve seen all of the white but only half of the black, then our center is going to be incorrectly set up a little on the white side. Again, this is a nice idea to entertain but we need a practice to understand and live it.

A simple but powerful example: Take our standing posture from the video above. Without changing the posture, shift the weight as far forward onto the toes as you can. Feel that the more you go towards the extremes of the toes, the more tension is necessary to hold you up. Return as precisely as you can to the center. Feel that as you return to the center the whole body can relax (keep your posture though!). Then we take it backwards onto the heels and we see again that the more you go towards the extreme of the heel, the more tension is needed. Once again we return to the center and we can relax. Having explored the other opposite now, we also have an opportunity to see if we over or undershoot the center. Every time we return from the extremes, we have an opportunity to be more refined with where we settle in between. You can further refine this exercise by progressively reducing how far towards either extreme you venture: you can go half way to the toes, then return, then half way to the heels, then return, or 2 centimeters towards the toe, back to the center, then 2 centimeters towards the heel, then back. The smaller the distance, the more precisely you have to be at the center upon your return, otherwise you’re just wobbling around in one of the extremes. The amount you can deeply relax will be reflective of how close you are. To confront this to reality you can do this exercise until you’re as precise as you can be and then stand for a long time (30 – 60 minutes should be enough). If you have any sense of pressure anywhere on the foot, parts of your leg falling asleep, or any other points of pressure like this it means you’re not quite there yet. No problem, just keep practicing!

This particular exercise going forward and back is a staple in Da Xuan, but it can be easily translated to other areas of the body such as bending the knees too much then straightening them too much, or hinging the hips (as if you were sitting in a chair) vs standing extremely upright (which would require significant glute activation!), or moving the head between poke neck and military neck. Whatever the case, the key ingredients are to notice the tension increasing as you approach whichever extreme, and to make a point of returning to the center as precisely as you can and noticing the relaxation.

As I mentioned earlier in the piece, establishing the center is a way of fusing the opposites by bringing awareness to that which is in between and connecting them. You will find in the beginning that the center is really vague, kind of like a big abyss and you can’t quite find it. Having it out of awareness like this is what leads to conflict between opposites and fixation on one extreme or the other. To be truly centered is to fuse the opposites and thus open the potential for either or both to occur at any given moment. Start with the physical, a few minutes a day is enough to begin with. Living in a body that is centered and thus whole is a deeply relaxing, rich and rewarding experience that is well worth the investment of daily practice. And you might just make the world a better place by letting go of your fixations on extremes.