Here’s chapter four from my upcoming book The Body and Leadership. Centring (aka centering ) is a term used for a very useful set of techniques that have up until now also been somewhat vague. This is the most thorough and rigorous article you will find on the subject.
Chapter 4 – Centring
…get yourself together
“We are the first system we must learn to manage” – Stuart Heller
Up until now we have been working primarily on the first area of embodied self-awareness – “How am I?”. Now let’s move into the area of self management. We all need to “get ourselves together” at times, unless we want to be toddlers having tantrums at any mishap.
What if there were a piece of technology available which could improve literally anything you do? What if it was free, took very little time to use and learn to use, measurably improves performance across a range of tasks, reduces stress and improves both individual wellbeing and relationships? Happily such technology does exist – it’s a set of techniques known as centring (aka “centering” – US). This is the most comprehensive guide to centring written.
Whatever we do, we do with our bodies and mind – when we have a bad day we are always there at the scene of the crime. Our bodymind is our power source, interface and operating system to use a computer analogy. Focusing just on outputs is crazy if you’re running an old virus-infested version of Windows with intermittent electricity – this is the general state of the world today. Time for a centring upgrade.
I first came across centring in the martial arts – in the pressure of confrontation being uncentred – off-balance and tense physically, mentally and emotionally – is a recipe for disaster. Since then I have taught centring everywhere from war-zones, to classrooms to boardrooms with people of many occupations on five continents. People all over the world have all found it found useful – it simply improves whatever they do – and is regularly assessed as the best “quick win” on leadership, time management and stress management courses. I am aware that to say something improves ANY activity is a big claim so I invite you to test it for yourselves with any measurables you can muster.
In the models so far discussed centre is the middle of all the polarities – the balance point between directions. It can be viewed both as a physical place – a person’s literal physical centre of gravity is just below their belly-button in the middle of their body – perhaps surprisingly low to our “uptight” culture. In traditional oriental systems it is known as the “hara” (Japanese) or ‘dan tien” (Chinese) and is important for many martial, meditative and health disciplines. The term is also used metaphorically in some bodymind disciplines and covers almost any form of “state management”- ways to change how you feel and what you are capable of and predisposed towards.
Challenge And The Physiological Distress Response
So when might we need to centre? Well, any potential challenge in our environment brings up attention to the stimuli, with an accompanying physiological response – usually maladaptive (it hinders not helps) and experienced as distress. Being human we can store all sorts of memories and Pavlovian associations making any stimulus a potential stressor as well as those that are physiologically preprogrammed such as pain, cold water and loud startling noises. The movement of attention towards a stimulus is normally adaptive (e.g. “shit a car is coming towards me I better do something!”) the physical response may be (adrenaline kicks in to supercharge the system in this case) or not (the stress causes muscles to contract and breathing to stop for example, both of which stop us moving quickly). In the modern world most stressors do not require the responses that evolution has endowed us with – it is unlikely that you are going to actually fight or flight form your boss for example, so we have a problem – what to do with this arousal appendix? Many health problems are one answer. I also know from the martial arts and sports that even where actual fight or flighting is involved, the left-over vestibular responses we have are mostly unhelpful. Watch any great athlete – they are relaxed, well aligned, balanced and free to move! A solider has a greater field of vision to see potential threats when realxed than when tense and with a narrow focus. I could go on.
The distress response comes in one of two main flavours, the first of which is better known and itself comes in fight or flight varieties. What any distress response does is limit the factors that we saw earlier in the chapter make a bodymind work well: relaxation (we can tense up), structure (we can collapse), balance (we can twist and go off balance) and movement (we can lose freedom and energy). Centring therefore restores these and relies upon awareness being present. Here are the two main varieties of distress response based upon your body hyping up or closing down under pressure:
– Excessive arousal (sympathetic nervous activity). Excess yang.
“Fight” or “flight” varieties both of which involve holding and contraction of muscles and breath – and therefore less relaxation and freedom of movement. Also off balancing and loss of structure – forwards for fight, backwards for flight. It would more accurately be called the “gearing you up to fight or flight and doing things which stop this happening effectively” response – like hitting the accelerator and breaks on a car while turning the drivers brain off (called an “amigdyala hijack” by some). This response requires relaxation centring to reduce arousal, e.g. focus on and lengthening on exhale.
– Lack of arousal (parasympathetic nervous activity). Excess yin
“Freezing” – involves more tension and movement inhibition, numbing (disassociation), structural collapse and unbalancing. In animals this response is related to pain reduction and “playing dead” so as not to be seen or to be left for dead by a predator. Clearly this is nearly always maladaptive in a modern context. This response requires energising and presencing centring to increase awareness and arousal, e.g. focus on and lengthening on inhale.
These responses are primitive animal instincts. There are other less primitive and socially mediated versions of hypo and hyper response patterns such as manipulation, deviousness and charm which usually involve similar but subtler patterns.
Ideally what we are looking to do with any centring technique is return to the natural, healthy and adaptive “interest response”:
– Moderate arousal (sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in balance)
Attention, curiosity and focus. Relaxed, well structured, balanced, free and energised to move. Most people confuse hyper-arousal with this “flow+think” actual “fight/fight response.
Mindfulness, Acceptance and Listening to The Body
Every centring technique relies upon mindfulness as it’s foundation. Just bringing your awareness to the present moment in any form will reduce both unhealthy hyper (stressed-out) and hypo (spaced out) arousal. If someone read this book and just came away with “when I’m stressed it’s useful to feel my body” I would be happy. Some of the techniques described simply provide an activity in the present moment that is interesting or difficult enough to ensure mindfulness! Others add to this actions which are physiologically incompatible with the distress response and reduce it through direct biological means. It is also worth reminding ourselves at this point that acceptance is necessary before any change and a certain amount of “being with” is necessary before undoing the distress response which is there to bring us information about potential threats after all! The sense is “Thank you body, I get the message, now it’s time to respond to that effectively”, rather than using relaxation centring to ignore reality or wake-up centring to push through appropriate tiredness for example. More on listening to the body in later chapters.
Ways to Centre
So how do we establish the state of grace of a healthy interest response? Enough talking already – give us the tools! Here is my collection from around the world, all of which have been thoroughly tried and tested with different groups in a variety of practical situations. I would also love to have some academic research conducted on them…While large individual differences exist in response only those techniques that I have found work with the majority of people I have worked with (several thousand in each case) have been included and I have labelled those I’ve found most consistently effective as “gold star” techniques.
Hyper arousal/ fight and flight/ excess yang antidotes
Simply telling people to relax is not specific enough to be useful. The following techniques help people to reduce unpleasant and ineffective hyper-arousal. Try them and see what works for you. Note that relaxing can bring back emotions and if you had trauma in your life it can be overwhelming to do too much too soon, so take care and take it easy as you begin!
Focus your attention on and slightly lengthen the out breath. Simple.
The muscles of our bodies are connected like threads in a spiders’s web, so tension and relaxation tends to spread. By relaxing the muscles of the central core the rest of the body will follow. I tend to start at the top and work down relaxing the following areas. It can help to tense them first when your are learning and then undo that tension.
- Eyes – Release the eyes and the “ocular band” of muscles around the head.
- Tongue – Let your tongue hang loose in your mouth and your jaw be soft – your lips just closed or slightly open. Say “ahhh” internally or out loud like you were lying back in a nice hot bath.
- Chest – Let the muscle of the front of the chest relax down and in. If you don’t know how to do this think of someone you love and it will likely happen (see “love and power” in chapter 6).
- Abdominals – If we have a soft tummy (i.e. our abs are not tense like on all the magazine covers) like a cat or a baby we can breathe with the diaphragm which is natural, healthy and relaxing. If we are “sucking in” – i.e. tensing these “stomach” muscles – we are encouraging fear and aggression. The belly and lower back should go out slightly as you breath in if the abs are relaxed. Visualising your breath going down to below your belly button can help as can learning to do this by lying on your back and putting an object on your tummy (a toilet roll works well) and pushing it up as you breath in.*
- Lower abdominals – Relax right down to your rudies! The pelvic floor muscles you use to not wet yourself when you need to go are important to relax – unless of course you really do need to go 🙂 If you’re a man, follow the advice of the Great British rugby song and “swing low sweet chariot” if you’re a woman, let your flower open, and there’s no point any of us being a “tight arse” 🙂
- Feet – Relax “into” the floor to let it support you by undoing any clenching in the toes and soles.
NB: If I have only 10 seconds to help someone relax I usually suggest tongue and belly relaxation as my most effective techniques. These were taught to me by Paul Linden who has influenced much of my thinking in this chapter. See also the note on diaphragms and domes in the next chapter.
* according to some CPR first-aid teachers I trained with, who have observed the breathing of tens of thousands of people around the UK around 50% of people do not “belly breath” effectively meaning they are in a constant state of anxiety, the ideal state for consumerism and social control to flourish.
As James Brown said “Get on down!”. “Grounding” is a somewhat vague term for some very effective centring techniques. It comes down to these specific actions:
- Feel your feet (move them or wiggle toes if you need to to do this. Getting interested in the areas of contact also helps -”What impression would I make on sand with my feet now?) Bringing your attention down will lower stress.
- Lower your centre slightly by bending your knees a little, feeling yourself do this.
- Scan your body and relax any muscles not needed for holding you up (standing or sitting).
- Supportive visualisations. E.g. Star Wars type “energy” going down your body through your legs in the ground, your legs (and butt if you’re sitting) as tree roots extending far below, or sticky gooey chocolate melting down your body helping everything relax (this last one works great for me but also makes me hungry!). Stroking down from others helps too if you’ve got a friend handy and if not, just imagining it works.
Using the postural balancing techniques discussed in chapter three will enable the muscles to relax as the bones carry more weight, making you feel calmer.
- When standing, sway on your feet and settle back to the middle point between left and right foot and balls and heels of the feet.
- When sitting, find your sit bones with your attention and ensure you are not leaning on yourself or a chair. Uncross your legs/feet, plant your feet on the floor.
Simply putting your attention in/on your centre of gravity a few inches below your navel in the centre of your body will make you calmer and more stable physically, mentally and emotionally. Video search “ki aikido testing” for various demonstrations of this.
Heart Stroking and Self-Soothing
When people are really traumatically stressed, like in some psychiatric hospitals and war-zones, they will rub themselves, hold themselves and rock backwards and forwards. These are all instinctive forms of self-soothing, and while I hope it doesn’t go this far for most readers, more moderate versions can be consciously used. Rocking and settling on your feet can be one way – see postural alignment. Wendy Palmer teaches my favourite self-soothing technique which is to rub the hands together and then stroke from the heart to the hara (belly), which gives the feeling of moving anxiety down. People will naturally do this stroking on the backs of others in distress but it’s hard to reach your own back and the front is just as good.
Releasing the Hands and Feet
Many people find that when they are stressed they make fists of “clutching” claw-like hands and feet. In some elderly people this has become permanent.
- Tense and then let go of your hands and feet. Do this three times, breathing out as you relax (a good general rule too). After the third relaxation relax again without tensing first.
General Tense and Relax
It is often difficult for people to relax where they are holding muscular tension because they may have been doing it for so long they have gotten used to it and it is under unconscious control, and tension is a natural anaesthetic on top of this. One way around this is actually to tense more which brings feeling back and awareness of the muscular groups being used habitually to do the same thing.
- Short version – Tense your whole body while holding your breath. Quickly scan top to toe making sure you are not missing any areas, then stop doing this and breathe out with a sigh.
- Longer version. Work up or down the body tensing and relaxing one group at a time, e.g. starting with the toes, then feet, then calves, etc. Take 10-30 min for the whole body. This systematic relaxation is a traditional stress management technique and there are audio recordings of people talking you through it available online. It’s not good in the middle of life stress, however after work or to get to sleep it is useful.
NB – Learning to contract opposing muscle groups like a body builder on show does can take some skill. If you have trouble with an area it can be useful working with resistance – e.g. if you can’t flex your biceps put your hand under a table and lift up to get the feeling, or on top of the table and push down for triceps (the opposing group on the other side). Walls, weights and helpful friends can be used to enhance effort and make “getting the feel“ of a muscle easier.
Squirm and Settle
Many tensions in the bodymind can be quickly eliminated through a very natural (and delicious) “squirm and settle”. Simple move your body in any way that feels good, wriggle and relax for a moment. Follow the pleasure of ease. This may sound obvious but many people have gotten out of this animal habit or are embarrassed to do it.
Slowly, gently and rhythmically tapping one side of your body (e.g. on knees, or hands up and down) for a few minutes is very relaxing for many people. There is a version of the well established trauma therapy EMDR which relies upon this. It may be effective due to brain hemisphere integration.
The act of swallowing is relaxing and taking a mouthful of cold water and following the sensation down into you as you swallow it can be centring. Best combined with postural adjustment. Immersing the face in cold water for a few seconds is a good emergency technique that stimulates what is known as the “dive reflex” and lowers heart rate.
A very easy and effective relaxation technique is to “open” your peripheral vision up. This is incompatible with the stress response. Develop the sense of “letting vision come to you” rather than reaching out for it. If this makes no sense, think of a time you were relaxed and happy looking far away at a beautiful panorama – this is the feeling – there are various small muscles groups involved.
- Stare at a point. Now allow your eyes to relax and see left and right, up and down while keeping your gaze ahead. You can use the hands to help by moving them out either side slowly as if you were opening curtains and checking that you are aware of them both at once.
We will say more about these in chapter eleven. Here are a few for now that are good to use as and when, or alongside other centring techniques:
- You can recall a safe place you have been in your life – somewhere with only positive associations, perhaps a beach you went on holiday or an old family home.
- Imagine a clear cool mountain lake or other serene body of water (I think of a sunrise over the Dead Sea I experienced in Israel once with the wind gently pushing by my ear and cheek) – involve all the senses. You can also combine this with the body such as imagining a pond in your centre reflecting the moon on a still night.
- Imagine sucking the stress and anxiety from your body into a ball – what colour, shape sound and feel does it have? Collect it all up and throw it into space, watching it explode like a fire-work, then dissipate into nothing. This can be a lot of fun.
Some people find darkness relaxing. You could try standing in the broom-cupboard for a minute for example! Closing the eyes for a few moments helps many people.
The Space Between
Despite physics telling us we and the world are mostly space, we tend to focus on “the stuff” we can see and what we are doing. This “illusion of solidity” is habitual and what can be more relaxing is focusing on all the space around us. This is another one inspired by Wendy Palmer Sensei which also has a Zen/ Taoist tone.
- Take a moment to notice all the nothing around you enclosing the stuff. Imagine all the space within you – between cells and within molecules (99/9%+ space). Be “spacious”.
Art, Aesthetic Appreciation and Creativity
Any kind of beauty whether it be visual, auditory/musical, tactile or gustatory can have a relaxing effect. Appreciating beauty and being involved in a creative process can be tremendously centring.
- Stop and smell the roses. Really enjoy that piece of chocolate. Stroke the cat. Have a doodle for one minute and see what you create.
Listening deeply is a centring practice. I particularly like striking a chime or using a Tibetan singing bowl and then “following” the sound into silence and listening “to” that. With repetition you can condition yourself so you relax deeply at the sound of the bell or whatever – Pavlov’s meditator.
Sound Centring – Sigh, Om and Ahh
Making certain noises helps us relax. There are esoteric schools which have made an art of this and various spiritual and religious traditions using sound exist from every major faith from Gregorian chant to Shinto sound-syllables.
- Simply saying “ahhhh” as if you were settling into a hot bath is one
- The classic Indian “Om” works for many people, though some say any humming will do!
- Notice what sounds you associate with relaxation and make when you relax
- Even imagining saying one of these sounds will set-up a relaxing bodymind state at times when you’d get looked at funny for having a good sigh!
Words have associations and saying relaxing words to yourself like “peace”, “relaxing” and “calm” has a noticeable effect for many people. Find one that works for you, it might be “stillness”, “ease” or something with a personal association like “sea” or “horse”.
Kinaesthetic, Auditory and Visual
Note that these centring exercises include kinaesthetic (bodily), auditory (involving words and sounds) and visual methods (using the eyes and visualisation). While centring is primarily kinaesthetic as it is the body that is uncentred and needs addressing, visual and auditory methods work well for some people as we all have our favourite “sensory modalities” and it is worth finding out what your preference is.
Eyes Open or Closed?
Most kinaesthetic and auditory centring techniques are easier with the eyes closed to disable the attention grabbing primacy of the visual sense and enable you to concentrate on the sound or sensation, and this can be quite delicious. Having the eyes closed however is less useful for life applications so unless you are just starting or are really having difficulties I recommend practising with eyes open. You need to be able to centre while having a conversation, driving, sitting in a meeting where it wouldn’t be socially acceptable to close the eyes, etc.
Other General Relaxation Factors
While we have focused here on short-term centring techniques there are other lifestyle factors which aid a general sense of relaxation. These have been well established by scientific research and include all the usual candidates:
- High levels of social support – we are social animals
- Being around people you know – strangers (e.g. when commuting) and cities are stressful to our tribal minds
- Touch – 3 hugs a day for survival, ten for growth (I made that up but you get the point). Firm non-sexual touch is the most relaxing – lighter touch affects different sense receptors in the skin and is more stimulating. Animals are a reasonable substitute for people as (sadly) many elderly and homeless people will testify too.
- Hot baths, showers and water in general
- Natural light and lower levels of artificial light – think lunch-time walks outside and lamps and candles in the evening
- Lower noise levels – background noise such as in open-plan offices is stressful
- Exercise – get some
- Nature, especially open space (think nice views), being by water (it’s not just the drugs that make Amsterdam relaxing) and green plants (research shows even one office plant can help people relax and be more creative for example).
“Wake up” Centring – Awareness Enhancers and Energisers
Hypo-arousal/ freeze and disassociation/ excess yin antidotes
There are slightly fewer techniques available to increase awareness and undo the hypo distress response, as it is less well understood. For many of the people I work with, their lives are so fast-paced it is relaxing that is the critical issue although there is often some numbing too as a result of blocking out the “loudness” of the over-stimulating modern world and trying not to feel unpleasant emotions. The following are a good start for undoing the “deadening” of hypo-arousal. My understanding of many of these has been influenced by Being In Movement (Paul Linden) and Moiaiku (a Danish body practice).
Focus on and slightly lengthen the in-breath. Simple.
Scan and Compare
The problem with numbing is that it’s hard to spot as you can’t feel the numb areas! It’s like a school teacher listening for the quiet kids in a class. One solution to this is compare parts and sides of the body to spot the ones with less “life” and then bring more awareness there, through attention.
- Scan you body comparing left and right, front and back, up and down. Where you find an area that you feel less spend some time resting your attention there. Get curious about the sensations there rather than just image the area.
Gentle Movement and Touch
Doing a gentle body movement routine such as the one found in my body awareness video available free online will bring awareness to hypo-aroused areas, as will a good general yoga or other mindful movement routine. Gentle movement can be used to bring awareness, which then brings a feeling of “aliveness”, to any area identified using the scan and compare method as can gentle touch. Touch can also be used while washing to see what areas are less present. It’s important that touch and movement be very slow and light when used in this way.
Pushing and Pulling
A hypo or collapse response can feel very disempowering. The solution to this is to feel the strength of muscular action in your body by pushing and pulling. This will also help you feel your boundaries and general sense of “being there” – solid and real. You can use weight training, gym equipment, walls and other objects for this, however this is sometimes not practical so I recommend the following:
- Plant the feet and without moving them pull in and then push out with your legs, activating the inner thigh and outer thigh muscles respectively. This can be done without anyone noticing, sitting or standing.
- If you are alone or do’t mind being seen, you can clasp you hands together as if you were clapping. First pushing and then pulling activating the chest and triceps and the biceps and back muscles. Feeling the muscles and connecting this to personal empowerment is key.
The sound that goes with these movements either out loud or internally is a gutsy “urggghhh” – as if you were a cave-man pushing a heavy car.
Making a soft fist with the thumb on the top and gently tapping the whole body is a great way to bring life to numb areas. You can be more rigorous on more muscular and yang parts and just use open-palms or finger-tips on more sensitive areas such as the face, hands and head. Remember to tap around the body’s centre and you may also want to rub the front of the chest over the heart. Tapping is one of my favourite ways to wake up when I’m sleepy.
To relax, breathe with the belly, but to energise breath so your chest moves in and out. Think of a passionate time with a lover or when you were angry and your chest was heaving up and down – this is what I mean. Even a few breaths like this can really wake you up. This “fire breathing” technique can be really powerful and it is not recommended for people with heart conditions or high blood pressure. It can make anyone a bit dizzy so be careful and I don’t recommend doing it more than occasionally.
Jumping up and Down!
When I want to quickly raise my heart and breathing rate to energise myself I work my 70kg against gravity and jump up and down! While not strictly centring, it will wake you up. A gentler version is to bend the knees up and down to bounce without leaving the ground.
Feeling Your Spring
Our bodies’ natural springiness mentioned earlier in the chapter is a good thing to get in touch with to counter general hypo-arousal. Doing a little jump and feeling the bounce back or having a friend push down on your shoulders from above to do the same works.
Ear Massage and Face Stretch
Massaging the ears with the fingers and stretching out the facial muscles by making all sorts of silly expressions like yawning like a lion and sticking your tongue out is a fun way to become present again. Press and rub around the eyes and the bridge of the nose. I use this when teaching kids who are sleepy. People instinctively rub their faces when tired and this is just an extension of this.
If you’re having trouble staying present try stimulating one of your body’s painful but not damaging “pressure points” where nerves are close to the surface. Pinching with thumb and forefinger just in from the webbing of the hand between the other thumb and forefinger works for most people. If it doesn’t use your thumb to “hook” just under you jaw-bone on the same side as the hand you’re using and you should find another delightfully painful one. I only recommend using this and similar intense “wake-up” methods occasionally and spending time developing more subtle anti-hypo-arousal skills too. Video available on the Integration Training Youtube site regarding pressure points.
There are many visualisations possible to reduce hypo-arousal and as ever it’s a individual matter. Here is a favourite:
- Imagine you are on a sun-bed and your whole body is being warmed to the edge of sunburn. Imagine the blood inside you bringing life and warmth to every part. Now visualise stepping out of the sun-bed and hundreds of butterflies kissing your whole body with little wet lips (you could imagine a lover but that can lead to another type of arousal :-). Next you step outside and a cool breeze wafts across your whole body leaving you refreshed.
Imagined Pick Up
When you pick up a heavy object you use the strong core muscles around your centre. Just imagining you are about to will also engage these and make you feel stronger. Imagining swallowing a bowling ball will have a similar effect (courtesy of Paul Linden).
Dual Centring Techniques
Some centring techniques combine both sympathetic and parasympathetic stimulation. This may sound like taking an unhelpful mix of uppers and downers but actually normally has a balancing effect and people will naturally gravitate to the part that is most relevant to them.
Balancing and aligning the structure of the body as has been described in chapter three is useful. It’s easier to be relaxed when your bones can transfer the load of gravity into the planet, postural muscles are not unduly stressed and easy not to fall asleep when you are upright. Of course you may want to emphasise either the awakening (up) or relaxing down sides of posture (down) and having a nice lie-down can be very effective if circumstances allow and no alertness is needed!
This one was introduced in chapter two. Once you have learnt the skills of balancing the “attentional field” and “reaching out” with your mind – which will inevitably be followed by balancing micro-movements of the body, it is easy to do.
- Ask yourself, “Is my attention balanced? If it were a shape would it be a sphere or squashed at the back or on one side (we tend to be overly front-focused). What would it be like to balance and extend this sphere in all directions? Remembering what is behind you for example can help but it is having attention behind you that is important. This is the “force field” exercise from chapter two.
- “Reach out” with your intention – downwards first – use a visualisation like dropping an anchor or our light-sabre from earlier aimed down to help if needed. Now reach up, then forwards, then back, the to each side. These directions can also be combined as vertical, sagittal and horizontal dimensions. Now feel yourself reaching in all directions at once – the sphere again. Review the “reaching for an ice-cream/ unbendable arm technique in chapter two for more detail.
For relaxation you may want to reach out more down and back and for energising more forwards and up, as we tend to get “up-tight” when hyper-aroused and slump down when we have less energy.
Contrasting Limp, Extended and Tense
This can be done with the whole body or just the hand. Tense your body, then let it go totally floppy (like the tense and relax exercise) then extend it like the reaching out one. Do this several times – the comparison will enable you to find a healthy middle-ground. See chapter three box-out.
Moving around or from your physical centre and then letting this movement settle helps many people “find” their centre and relax. You can bounce the knees up and down while swinging the arms (vertical), turn the hips (horizontal) or put the feet at right angles, step forward and the bend one knee then the other (video search “tori fune” for this last one, or “aikido warm-up exercises” for all of them). As long as you are moving from the centre rather that the upper body which is usually more habitual at first, you will become more centred. You can start with large rigorous movements and then reduce them to stillness. For relaxation centring, use slower gentler movements and for energising centring bigger faster ones.
- Image your body is full of large seeds, lentils, beans or something similar. Now bounce and shake your body to move them around, loosening where they are stuck (tension) and “filling up” the areas that have none (numbing). This exercise is from the Ideokenesis system and would be a gold star technique as it’s very effective, were it not for the fact that its hard to do without looking like a lunatic.
EFT and Acupressure Points
While I question the “energy” theory they use, there is some evidence that tapping on various point of the body (e.g. certain shiatsu/acupuncture points) can have a relaxing and stimulating effect. Much of this may just be down to the mindfulness that tapping anywhere on the body brings but there may be an extra effect.
“Centring” in Commitments, Identity and Spirit
So far we have discussed centring in terms of yin and yang (hypo and hyper-arousal), the four pillars (losing relaxation, structure, freedom and balance) and four of the six questions (organising the body in terms of the spatial dimensions – “what”, “where” and “when” and using movement – “how”). One can also ”centre” in an extended sense of the word using “why” and “who”. By reminding ourselves who we are and what we are committed to, we gather and collect our scattered selves into a more functional unified whole. Centring on this level can have a depth that makes it a spiritual activity – whatever that is to you. This area will be explored more in chapter nine and for now I would recommend asking one or more of the following questions to centre yourself. For some people these are much more effective than simple physical techniques. You don’t need to provide the definite answer – in fact trying to do so may well make you stressed – it is just asking the questions that’s important.
- Who am I and how is that embodied here?
- What has meaning to me – ultimately and here?
- For the sake of what am I doing this? (Richard Strozzi Heckler’s wording)
- What do I most value – ultimately and here?
- What do I serve – ultimately and here?
- What is my higher power and who is that embodied though me here and now?
Alphabet Centring – Awesome Best Centring Devised Ever!
The immodestly named Awesome Best Centring Devised Ever (ABCDE) is a distillation of the most effective classic centring techniques from around the world. It is best done after practising the gold star techniques as it incorporates them. It takes about 3 minutes when done in full and can be used in 3-5 seconds with practice. It can be done standing, sitting or in any other posture, although upright is preferable. I have totally cheated with the letters to cram in all the good stuff. If you just do a bit of it that’s OK, it will still work as long as you do some relaxing (anti-hyper) and awareness and gently stimulating (anti-hypo) parts. ABCDE also stands for:
A – Aware and Accepting
B – Balanced, Boundaried and Breathed
C – Centre-line relaxed, Connected to Care and Creative imagery
D – Definitely here, Definitely relaxed and Defiantly shiny
E – Elegantly Effortlessly Energised with Ease
- Aware – Put your feet flat on the floor and put anything in your hands down. Be mindful of the present moment using the five senses, especially feeling the body, your weight on your chair/ feet and your breath. Scan up and down the body with your attention and remember to include the back. Notice what you can see, hear, smell and taste.
- Accepting – It’s all good. Start where you are, saying yes to whatever is.
- Balancing – Balance your posture and attention. Relax down so your bones not muscles support your weight. Now make sure you are floating up from the back of the head so you keep alert. Balance both sides and make sure you are not squashed or leaning more on one foot or hip. Balance front and back so you are self-supporting and not leaning on yourself or your chair. Have an expansive feeling of “reaching out” in all directions.
- Boundaried – Feel your skin boundaries and use the “pushing and pulling” technique if feeling spacey, unconfident or disempowered.
- Breathed – Let yourself be breathed. Then lengthen the in-breath to the chest to enliven or out-breath after breathing into the belly to relax, as appropriate.
- Centre-line relaxed – Relax your eyes, mouth/tongue/jaw, stomach and back muscles – breathe deeply with your diaphragm so your belly and lower back move out slightly as you breath in. You can tighten your abdominal muscles before you relax them if this helps. Focus on your physical centre of gravity – a point a few inches below the navel inside you. Relax the pelvic floor and the feet. This “centre-line” relaxation will spread to the rest of your body, enabling the muscles to be as relaxed as your (now well balanced) structure allows.
- Connected to Care – Bring to mind the reason why you are doing this (for the sake of what?) and to other people or ideas you serve and who support you now and from the past (e.g. inspiring figures or mentors).
- Creative imagery – Use an image and a word that will help. E.g. picturing a calm mountain lake and saying “calm”.
- Definitely here, Definitely relaxed and
- Defiantly shiny – these three are checking you have done the boundaries, reaching and centre-line relaxation parts, ensuring hyper and hypo-balance
- The result of all this is you will feel Elegantly awesome and Effortlessly Energised with Ease. You may wish to anchor this state by saying your word again or making a simple gesture like connecting the thumb and forefinger so you can reengage it later more readily.
That was the long form to teach you everything you need to know to get yourself together whatever the pressure. It is however way too much to remember, which is OK as it’s centring stress overkill as mentioned. You can also memorise the following paragraph or write it on a piece of paper you keep in your wallet or on a smart phone note:
I am aware of my body and accept what I find. I balance my structure and attention and intention out in all directions. I feel and reinforce my boundaries. I remember to breath! I relax my tongue, tummy and whole centre-line. I connect to what I care about and people that support me, and to a clear creative image and word that help. I check I’m definitely here, definitely relaxed and shine defiantly. I feel elegantly awesome and effortlessly energised and at ease.
or even more concise
- Centre relaxed
The advanced super short version is “F” which just stands for F**k it. See John Parkin’s scholarly work on this subject.
Centring With Distressing Stimuli
The bad news is that doing centring exercises in calm environments or as and when stressful things happen is not enough. In order to develop skill at centring you must centre under controlled and increasing levels of pressure. To centre with no pressure is too easy, and to do it under life’s strains can be too hard. This is why most meditators and yogis don’t transfer their training “off the mat/cushion”. The following methods can be to provide appropriate challenge and develop your centring skill “muscle” in the same way you’d use increasing weights to grow regular muscles.
These are in ascending order of stimulus strength although there are considerable individual differences in perception and response.
The most gentle physical way of stimulating the distress response I know of comes from Paul Linden and involves throwing a tissue (US – Kleenex) at someone. This is a very safe place to start.
- Have someone throw a tissue at you; first the body then the face if this creates no response. Observe what specifically you do in your body (e.g. twisting away, tensing the abdominals, etc). Now do one of the centring exercises and repeat. You can increase the speed of the throw, decrease the range and add a yelp to increase the strength of the stimuli when ready (see the Algorithm and note on calibration later in this chapter).
Double Wrist Shock
This is slightly stronger but still gentle and is inspired by Wendy Palmer.
- Stand facing your partner both with the same leg forward. Have you partner grab both your wrists with the thumbs forward and elbows in. They then give you a sight push. Again notice your response, centre and try again. This can also be done with a pull – you may respond differently to this as it is symbolic of a different type of challenge.
Double Handed Grab
This exercise I first learnt from Richard Strozzi Heckler and involves suddenly grabbing a person’s forearm with two hands using the kind of grip you’d hold a baseball bat with. It is a bit of a stronger stimulus than the first two. Doing it from behind and adding a shout adds more strength. Again apply the centring algorithm and watch out for watches and jewellery.
Face Clapping and Slapping
A strong form of partner practice is to clap your hands in front of someone’s face as the stimulus. You can even work with actual face-slaps – rubber “marigold” washing-up gloves are good for this – though of course be very careful, especially of the eyes. This will create a response in all but the most hypo-aroused! See the note on calibration first.
If you can not find a partner to work with, a stimulus of variable strength is your shower. The body will go into a contractive distress response when hit with cold water, especially if it goes on the face. This can be a strong practice so be careful, especially if you have health issues such as high blood pressure and heart conditions.
Fairground Rides, Martial Arts and Other Toys
Any external stimulus that activates the distress response can be used. Fairground rides are good if you have low sensitivity though they are hard to calibrate. Martial arts are ideal if you can slow down and speed up your attacker and anything that makes a loud bang (e.g. a “party popper” not aimed at anyone of course) is ideal once you have established the basics. Tickling and jokes can also be used where the context allows! Stay safe and have fun.
Flavours of Stressor
The type of stressor you use to develop centring exercises is important. I have been focusing on direct aggressive stimuli which accurately represent some of life’s challenges in the simulations we are creating. There are are however other kinds of stimuli. We have looked at pushes and pulls – the former may represent demands from a boss for example, the latter multiple friends making requests when you are busy. Both can stimulate the distress response but in different ways as they trigger different unconscious associations. I have found that reactions to stimuli correlate very highly with reactions to the real-world behaviour they model. In groups I’ll ask, “and do you do this in life when pulled?” for example and are nearly always greeted first with smiles and raised eyebrows from people who know the receiver before a “yes., definitely, I…”. We have also seen grabs from behind – things you don’t see coming in life. It is also possible to grab in a sleazy, begging, dismissive or wormy way – these are worse for many people than forceful “pushy” grabs. I invite you to experiment and get to know yourself better. We shall also see in the paired practice in chapter seven that almost anything can be a stressor.
So far we have focused on physical stimuli – these are often the easiest to calibrate and learn the basics with. I would also recommend moving onto verbal-symbolic stimuli as soon as you have got the hang of the basics (this can take from 3 min to several weeks) as these are more realistic and applicable to life.
Just thinking about someone you don’t like, an unpleasant past or upcoming event or even imagining eating a food you don’t enjoy, can trigger the distress response and be used to centre with. I use this a lot in coaching and as an alternative to throwing tissues at people. I have also noted meditating that I throw myself off-centre several hundred times a day doing this! With increasing awareness one catches this quicker and gets back on balance, which is the important thing, not being a perfect Buddha.
- Ask someone to say a word to you with a “loaded” historical association. This could be anything form “washing up”, to “John Smith” to “cancer”. As ever, calibrate, centre and retry using the centring algorithm at the end of the chapter. You may need to ask your helper to alter the tone and volume of their voice and body language for best effect.
You can combine actions and imagery to make some fun and effective centring exercises. For example asking people to imagine a nice juicy steaming cow-pat full of maggots in your hand and then rubbing it in their face. Good centring practice!
- Ask someone to insult you and see if you can stay centred/ re-centre easily. Their tone an expression is important. Start with something neutral – the Paul Linden’s classic “You have too many noises!” is a good starting place, then move on to more targeted negative phrases you tell yourself (e.g “you’re useless, you can’t do it”) or insults other people have told you. This can be extremely triggering so start gently and work up as ever – calibrate, centre and retry.
We are symbolic creatures and react to symbolic simulations as if they are real – our unconscious limbic system cannot tell the difference. There are endless variations possible once you get the principle and I often ask clients, “Tell me in two sentences something that stresses you out in life” and then create a simulation based on this. Here are some examples:
“My boss checks-up on me all the time!” – I stand behind them and look over their shoulder.
“I hate it when my teenage son ignores me!” – I ask them to say his name to me, I then turn and look the other way.
“I’m scared of commitment and being tied down” – I put a bit of rope around them (very lightly) or hold them by the wrists.
“I’m overwhelmed by requests” – I have 5 people stand around them and ask them to do things relevant to their work.
Almost any social interaction can stimulate the distress response if we are sensitive enough to our bodyminds to notice it. See the exercises in chapter seven.
Necessary Concepts to Centre Safely and Effectively
While there are many types of centring, there are a few principles which need to be followed for it to be safe and effective.
Goldilocks Principle (Window of Growth and Calibration)
If stimuli used for centring are too strong, you will go into overwhelm and have a trauma response, and if they are too weak you cannot use them to grow your ability to centre, so you need to calibrate the level of the stimuli. This is the Goldilocks Principle (not too hot or too cold), also known as dosing. It is critical to safe, effective centring that you approach the upper limit of your window of growth/tolerance by starting gently, working up gradually and stopping and backing-up when a stimulus starts to seem overwhelming. Moderate is good. We all have very different limits and responses to different stimuli so if working with a partner, avoid assumptions or comparisons. Note too that what complicates this is that some people can’t always feel their own response which may look extreme from the outside, others have a very small window between under and overwhelm due to embedded hypo and hyper-patterns, others have what Freud called “repetition compulsion” where they will unconsciously re-traumatise themselves seeking healing and most of us tend to overdo it as Western culture has a “no pain no gain” idiotic philosophy of the body. If you have a trauma background, you may wish to work with a trauma professional before diving into this work.
The person doing a centring technique must be fully in charge. If working with a partner, they calibrate the dose and have a no-questions-asked immediate ”safety clause” if they want to stop at any time. I often ask clients, “Who’s in charge?” and make sure they know it’s them, when doing a centring exercise with them. The whole point of centring is to empower yourself or someone you are supporting to centre yourself/themselves so empowerment is critical. Centring is teaching people to fish, not giving them fish.
Individual Adaptation and Cultural Models
Centring is a highly individual matter and a “one size fits all” approach will not suffice – the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic aspects have already been discussed as have differences in response and stimuli. While the distress response is biological and therefore centring universal too, there are also cultural factors at work – some cultures are more centred than others, and some more hypo and some more hyper-aroused. Personally and culturally significant “helpers” can also be used. Here one develops role-models which act as archetypes to aid with the process, e.g. I might imagine the steadiness of Churchill or the upright dignity of my deceased aikido instructor William Smith Shihan. As ever, use what works for you.
Sensing vs Sense-Evaluating
People who are not yet trained in embodied work often do not distinguish between reporting concrete and specific sensations (e.g. “my hands feel warm” “my stomach muscles are contracted”) from evaluations and emotional reactions based upon these which often quickly follow (“I totally freaked out”, “I’m furious” or “I lost it”). This is unhelpful for centring as it is the specifics that need identifying in the body so they can be undone. When observing your distress pattern (and it’s slightly different for each of us) be specific. Ask “where” in my body is it? Use sensory observations not evaluations and other forms of thinking about sensation. If a sensation feels “everywhere” ask “is it in my left earlobe or right big toe?” (it usually wont be) and then go from there.
In chapter ten we shall see the importance of working with language alongside the body. When centring, it is often helpful to reframe your language around a distressing stimuli, removing what in Neuro-Linguistic Programming are called thought distortions. Someone may for example say, “everyone at work hates me” or “she rejected me”. Ask is this 100% accurate before doing centring work around a vague stimulus. I might realise for example, “OK, five people in my department made comments I didn’t like about my work this week” or “she ended the relationship”. This may sound like splitting hairs but it is important for useful centring.
Learning to identify certain bodily signals that you are moving into a distress response is useful as it acts as an early warning system so you don’t have to kick the cat, scream at your partner and get fired for insulting the boss before you realise you’re off-centre. With training you can recognise these before those around you do – a reversal of the typical situation! Look our for specific identifiable “markers” when practising centring – you may need to slow down and use gentle stimuli to do this. Common examples include the vision narrowing, the jaw clenching, breathing pausing or the stomach muscles contracting (all centre-line issues) but there are many more possibilities.
Juicing, Ritual and Anchoring
If you do a centring exercise repeatedly, and I highly recommend this, it will start to build a ‘juice” of it’s own, like saving a reserve of centring power in your body-bank. You will also develop a conditioned association to the process you use. What I mean by this is, let’s say you always sit upright and look out of the window as you start to centre, after some repetitions you will have conditioned yourself to associate this with a centred state and it will get easier. It will also mean you can cheat in the future as just doing the first part will trigger the rest of the response as you move into unconscious competence. The good news here is that you can deliberately add a little ritual or subtle “anchor” like touching your tummy or putting thumb and index finger together to create an associative rigger which you can use anytime anyplace anywhere. Eventually even the thought of centring in this way will be enough to start the process. The bad news of conditioning is that you will associate where you do the centring with the state and it will be harder to do elsewhere – the first time I forgot my aikido clothes in class or did aikido outside for a change there was a big drop in my ability to centre for example. What I learnt from this is that it is necessary to centre in different environments at different times to truly embed the skill at a general level.
One anchoring technique I like is the “ruler-hoop” exercise where you image a circle of coloured light just in front of you, get into a resourceful state using memory and/or centring and then step into the hoop. Do this repeatedly to build some juice and then when you need these states, say for a job interview, presentation or difficult conversation with a partner. Simply imagine throwing the hoops down and stepping into it.
After teaching centring for some time I asked myself, “this is pretty simple, so why aren’t people centred all over the world”? One answer is that while it is simple to learn basic centring (you can teach 15 people in 30 minutes easily) it is not common knowledge or necessarily easy as it involves challenge. Another answer is that there is usually some psychological pay-off to being uncentred. In a funny way the uncentred, busy, rushing way of living that is now endemic is addictive. In it our egos can feel important, there is an adrenaline kick, we don’t have to feel tricky emotions or confront our true selves. For some individuals there may be other pay-offs to like being a victim or identity level issues (“I am a City Trader not a monk! I should be stressed!”). These may need to be address directly for any centring effort to really stick. It is always worth asking “what is my narrative around centring and who I am?” as you may need to shift this to get the most from centring.
One cunning piece of classical conditioning that will occur with an intelligently designed centring practice is tying the distressing stimuli to the new centred response. By doing this, where you were once triggered to freak out, you are now triggered to become centred! In the words of my Zen master Junpo Roshi “your angst becomes liberation!” I call this wonderful phenomena “manuring” as it turns life’s shit into something useful.
All these forms take practice, the more you do them the better you get. Like England practising penalties before the football World Cup, it’s best to practise centring when you DON’T need it. E.g. develop a daily centring routine as you turn on your computer or when you make the tea – so you have them easily available when you do. Under pressure we revert to what we have practised, so we need to practise when it’s easy so centring is available when life’s hard. After some years of practice I did the soft tongue and belly centring exercise in a car crash, upside-down at high speed (I clenched by hands so hard I indented the steering wheel rubber pattern in my hand for some weeks) but with just a little practice you can learn to “get yourself together” in a difficult meeting, crowded tube station or challenging marital row. And did I mention you need to practise! See chapter twelve for ways to support this.
So far I have only explained individual centring, however we can also “centre” in groups. All around the world when people need to get it together for love or war for example they engage in paired or group centring and coordination practices. Centring integrates us on a personal and inter-personal level. Courtship dance of some kind is cross-cultural and normally involves mutual balance (think tango) or vigour (Masai bouncing). Soldiers march in groups, new friends go for walks together (a simple non-athletic coordination practice) and the most successful rugby team in the world perform the Haka together (look up this awesome display from New Zealand up if you’ve never seen it). These are all combinations of centring exercises with coordination practices – we will look at coordination more in future chapters.
Groups can also “centre” around shared commitments, a group mission or shared vision. In the corporate world where I work the hollow shell of this possibility is often framed and ignored on walls as a disembodied “mission statement”. Happily I have also helped many business groups who work in a more embodied way to centre as a team physically and around “what we do”. This is a very beautiful and powerful thing to be a part of.
Exercise – Paired/ Group Centring
Who do you need to centre with? What might this look like? How can you start this week?
The Centred Leader
So what has all this got to do with leadership? Well, a leader is as trustworthy and has as much gravitas as they are centred, makes as good decisions as they are centred, and manages themselves and their time as well as they are centred. An uncentred leader makes rash decisions, quickly burns-out, let’s others dictate their time, and will be quickly, correctly and usually unconsciously assessed as not worthy of support by potential followers. This is not a subtle difference and personal leadership of any kind requires the ability to re-centre under pressure time and time again.
The Opposite of Stress?
It is easy with all this focusing on centring to get caught up in the negative, so as this chapter closes let’s ask what is the opposite of stress? There are many answers, and the word that works best for me is “grace”. Grace is an appropriate and lovely word as it refers both to physical movement and the body, and also to the transcendent beauty and spiritual depth that this embodiment allows. On the mechanistic level it indicates that the pillars are all in place – relaxation, structural alignment, balance and freedom and energy to move – notice all the centring techniques discussed encourage these fundamentals. Because we live in a Western medical paradigm that tends to see health as just the absence of sickness, it is not habitual to focus on the deeper aspects of grace. We can all become more centred and more graceful, and what is available at such depth is much more than just no stress or even wellbeing. What is available is our magnificent human potential which makes what is now an “acceptable” pass in health terms look like a paltry embryo of possibility.
Uncentring and Over Centring?
I begin this chapter by claiming that centring can improve anything you do. I stand by this and hope by now you have had a chance to test this for yourself. One question however is when might we not want to centre? I have noticed certain negative reactions from people who want those who are centred to be more “swept up in things” and it is possible to confuse centring with detachment and lack of expression, and even emotional unavailability and dissociation, so let me clarify that being centred does not mean not feeling but rather feeling more. There is also a “power trip” trap with excess centring at the expense of emotional development where a “nothing bothers me” attitude can develop. As a leader you will be informed if this starts to happen though so don’t worry and most people are so uncentred this risk is far off! Similarly for those working in environments that require the adaptive physical part of the distress response – soldiers who actually fight of flight for example – there could be a fear that centring could reduce the adaptive response. This is usually caused by the common misunderstanding that tension aids these skills – it doesn’t – and/or that centring is an anaesthetic that will remove the alertness of adrenaline – again it doesn’t, it just moderates the negative effects.
There are perhaps times when I would want to “lose it” – in the heat of passion perhaps (my Columbian girlfriend says I am a “little-bit Latin” even with all the centring) or when doing the “exformation” embodied practices we shall meet later in the book. To allow this consciously is quite a different experience from having no choice and if we are honest, the times that call for a complete loss of centre are rare. Centring is about gathering, collecting and getting your house in order, there is also much benefit in exploring, playing and letting out what needs to come out as we shall soon see.
Video and Online Resources
There is a video of centring while sitting online here and another from a partner grab from standing here. Paul Linden’s e-book “Embodied Peace-making” is excellent, there is a video of his tissue throwing exercise here and Wendy Palmer has a DVD showing the double-wrist grab centring exercise.
NB: The Importance of Breath
Notice how many of the centring techniques involve breathing. Breathing is one of our most essential biological activities as we can survive for such a short period without oxygen compared to say food (3 min compared to 3 weeks). It is also special as it is under both conscious and unconscious control and related to one of our primary modes of communication – talking. All the wisdom traditions around the world see it as central, and there are many myths of the gods breathing life into man or such like. Many cultures link breath to creativity and inspiration – the breath of spirit. If this book was reduced to one word it would be “breathe!” and if you take nothing else from this book but to pay a bit more attention to your breath than you would have otherwise that’d be fine. Breath is central to everything important.
The Challenge Algorithm
– challenge – notice – learn – repeat – centre – increase – repeat
This is the centring process we have been exploring in this chapter.
- Introduce a manageable challenging stimulus – start with a very gentle stimulus and calibrate upwards, making more intense and realistic until a noticeable but not overwhelming distress response is reached
- Ask yourself/ client to notice your/ their distress response – make/ ask for specific body based descriptions rather than evaluations. Repeat stimulus if not able to identify response
- Learn/ teach an appropriate centring technique using culturally sensitive language, role-models and images
- Repeat stimulus – equal strength asking yourself/ client to employ centring technique, targeting specific distress response
- Notice reduction in distress response and subjective feelings of distress
- Increase stimulus strength
- Repeat centring
As long as you/ the client do not feel overwhelmed you can keep increasing the strength of stimuli and centring.
E.g. (Based on a true story).
Albert is a client who has been referred by his company HR department. He attends a day-long stress management workshop and along with all the other senior managers at the fast paced technology company he works for does half an hour of tissue throwing as part of the day. He has quite a strong hyper-reaction which doesn’t surprise his colleagues as he’s known as a stressed guy with some aggression issues. Sceptical at first, he sees that just relaxing his centre-line makes a big difference to first his physical reaction and then how he is thinking about a conflict with the purchasing department (he uses the phrase “no budget” as a second trigger after the tissues). He does a follow-up lunchtime 1-1 concerned about his CEO’s views on his anger, his current level of stress-related drinking and deteriorating relationship with his wife. We move onto some more challenging stimuli (an arm grab and a phrase his wife says that annoys him) and embed centring techniques further, giving him daily practices – each time his phone rings – and reminders – set up on this Blackberry. People start noticing a difference at work and home. This encourages him to continue and while he remains a speedy “no nonsense” guy he feels better, starts drinking less and has fewer conflicts with purchasing and other departments.
Postscript: It‘s Not The Force Luke, it’s a New-Age Delusion – ‘Energy”
I use and define the word “energy” as “subjective potential for action”. This is the common-sense use of the word in non-new-age circles. When we feel energised me are predisposed to move and have awareness of this area (i.e no hypo-arousal). It is a subjective matter – upper left in Wilber’s quadrants from chapter 1 – and not an energy like electricity we can zap people with like Yoda.
I am also happy to talk about “energy” as the pattern of sensations – how sensation is organised through bodymind. This has an objective (upper-right) basis of course, but given what we know of anatomy and physiology, this is likely to be radically different from the flowing streams of stuff it can feel like. There are sensations generated not by external stimuli but by the brain itself and many of the feelings labelled “energy” are an unconscious- conscious form of embodied communication in my opinion.
“Energy” is however sadly the most misused and misleading word in many alternative circles. In alternative health, martial arts and now even some business training groups this word is banded around with either no or multiple meanings. As many of these relate to the body, I’d like to make a few distinctions and clarifications.
As a way of talking about subjective feeling, the word “energy” is meaningful to me. I feel “energised” or “have sluggish energy today” for example. Visualisation where one imagines “energy” as some kind of electricity, fluid or light also has it’s uses. There is a significant effect for example of imagining healing energy around an injured muscle – such body-mind links are well established in scientific literature, I have used them myself many times and seen people achieve results with them worldwide. Imaging such energy has a very definite effect on the body, for example aikido “energy arm” aka “unbendable arm” as we saw earlier, where it becomes very hard to bend a persons’s arm when they imagine water or light running through it. The image of energy flowing may align the body in a desirable manner, but here’s the thing, all such tricks are explainable using biomechanics, and the “energetic” image is merely a useful short-cut to what could be achieved through standard physical movement. Sometimes called “subtle” energy as it’s tricky to find scientifically…many phenomena describes as involving “subtle” energy are just subtle in the sense of involving not very big movement shifts – which can lead to big results though. We have seen how attention and intention (two more phenomena thrown in the “energies” bucket) produce micro-movements within the body and other subtle but useful changes in physiology and mental states. These changes are tangible just small and hard to spot without training – but can be explored in a systematic, logical and rigorous way. Many “energy” systems like Reiki work with this – the images produce a real physiological change (usually relaxation and warmth) which is then picked up by the recipient through body mirroring (if you relax and then touch me or I see you I relax), combined with a powerful placebo effect. Placebo effects are really very large which is why evidence based medicine controls for them so rigorously, and also attest to strong body-mind links.
Another use of the term “energy” is embodied group disposition (more on this later) and the changes that happen again through unconscious mirroring of other bodies. It is not magic when you walk into a funeral and suddenly feel bad – your mirror neurones are empathising in an embodied way with the other people in the room, which may at a subjective level feel like being “hit” with a wave of “energy”. This type of event is not energy like electricity – which is why it has not been measured (the objective upper-right truth test). Because humans are social animals and evolution has strongly selected those who respond to even very subtle changes in a tribe’s mood, these effects can be very powerful subjectively and what is causing them often below the conscious radar, only surfacing as intuitive “gut” instincts and powerful feelings.
There are of course tangible, measurable electromagnetic energies in the more traditional sense emanating from a human body, and there is evidence they interact in some way at close range, but let’s not imagine all of the phenomena I have described fit into this category and let’s be rigorous in establishing when this type of direct electro-magnetic communication is occurring. People keen to promote “energy” in the non-rigorous sense will often steal terminology like “wavelength” and “frequency”, as well as some dubious misunderstandings from quantum physics, in order to sound legitimate. You will not hear mention of “subtle” or “energy bodies” in this book again as they are not necessary concepts to explain the evidence and can be a grossly misleading blind-alley.
As a martial artist this is not just a theoretical question to me, I want to know how to kick you in the causal head or bite your causal nose off? I can’t, so it’s not energy in he sense electricity is. Incidentally, Google “energy vs MMA” or “George Dillman fraud” to see what happens when “energy” action men believe their own advertising in martial arts – it’s not pretty. What about acupuncture? I have looked into the evidence for this having once been a believer (“energy” is an orthodoxy in many traditions I have trained in) and it is very limited indeed aside from a placebo and endorphin mediated effect on pain, and studies on acupuncture on horses that I was once convinced by but now seem to be flawed too.
I suggest we dispose of such ideas of energy and subtle bodies as pre-modern superstitious baggage, or at least become “energy agnostic” so we can examine bodymind phenomena with more rigour and move the field forward. Perhaps there are extra “bodies”, but the evidence doesn’t support this and it is often not a helpful belief for working with the one that’s evident in my experience. I have been quite reluctant to come out and say this as both on examining the evidence I had to let go of some of my own cherished beliefs from my embodied education and because I have experienced quite a back-lash from a community that holds these notions with a religious fever. The time however has come to speak plainly.