Originally published at: Reflections from the Dojo
By Richard Strozzi-Heckler Sensei
When I was completing my PhD, I talked myself into a medical school anatomy class. A large portion of the class was dissecting cadavers. Of the many things I learned as I scalpel-ed my way into the human form is that there is no center to be found. There were muscles, bones, connective tissue, organs, tubes, ligaments, tendons and the occasional tattoo, but no center. Yet, we casually speak about finding our center, being in our center, being out of our center, going to center and so forth. If there is no center, is it simply intellectual laziness that we talk this way, or are we pointing to the conversation of purposeful embodiment, which becomes embodying our purpose?
Center is not a thing, center is a process – just as our bodies are not a thing, our body is who we are as a process. To be born is to have a body, to begin a process of living; to die is to surrender the body, to end a process of living. To be embodied is to experience our livingness through the body. We don’t have a body, nor are we with a body, we live our aliveness through our bodies. Bringing our attention to the body is the beginning of the process of centering. Living our aliveness opens the possibility of purposefully directing this energy towards building a skill, cultivating a certain virtue or behavior, allowing this energy to affirm and generate purposeful living. Centering is purposeful embodiment.
The first somatic principle in purposeful embodiment is to feel the life of our body. This means that we begin to identify with sensation – the building block of life. This puts us in touch with temperature, movement, shape, pressure, and we self-experience a warming, or a condensing, or a cooling, a tingling, streaming, firmness, softening, a pooling, an unyielding container, an opening into a new shape, for example. This doesn’t mean “have a feeling,” although that may happen, but to feel life as it streams through us.
The second principle is to let ourselves be awakened by this embodied feeling of life. The initial feeling of life grows and swells. We respond to this urge by forming and un-forming boundaries that allow this “stuff” of life to move through us in its rhythm and wisdom. Emotions come to life and we begin to build trust with our livingness so as to be shaped by this primordial intelligence. We are able to see things as they are without a grasping or adding onto, nor by a pushing away, but to fully live our joys as well as our sorrows. There is an energetic pulse of yearning that is an affirmation of life.
The third principle is to embody a somatic ethic: how do we want to interact with the world. It asks us to face questions of how do we live in communities, how to take a stand for life, how to yield when restraint is called for, to celebrate fulfillment, to grieve loss, to break contact without breaking commitments, to take a stand for the dignity of all sentient beings, for the earth, for the waters. Our institutions have failed in teaching us how to live towards an embodied ethic of satisfaction and transformation. Building a somatic social ethic we self-form our behaviors and identity in the context of others, the grasses, the four-leggeds, the stones, the winged ones, the swimmers, the air. We can choose a path that enlivens our individual tissues as well as the social fabric, and the ground beneath our feet, the dome of sky above. We experience this as love, a felt interconnectedness. A somatic ethic occurs in the particular and granular, as well as in the universal and all encompassing. Our interdependence and interconnectedness is lived and felt, becoming more than a concept or intellectual framework for right behavior, but a ground from which to act our purpose. This felt sense of an intended narrative – that rings in our tissues and illuminates our imagination – is action.
The fourth principle is taking skillful action in service of this purpose. Purpose is not a thing either, but a process that is actionable and observable. For example, the purpose of embodying a healthy lifestyle may mean taking the actions of eating healthy and exercising regularly. The purpose of growing an organization may be seen as building a team, a culture, a network of commitments, and so forth. The purpose of having a more intimate relationship may be observed by shifting from a defensive posture to a more open listening posture through somatic bodywork. Or we may say that our purpose is to become One with the Universe. Whoa… that’s a big chew… yet we can see this by a committed spiritual practice and by purposeful acts of compassion and kindness instead of negative judgments and self-centered behaviors.
Embodying a respect and care for all life is the ground for a purposeful life.
Take it easy, but take it.