Have you ever had the hunch that our (North American) obsession with “washboard abs” and “six pack abs” is demented? ‘Turns out you’re right. Spiritually speaking, the belly—rather than being smushed back and shrunken behind a tight, narrow plate of tissue that feels like corrugated steel—should be vital, potent, and full. Alive with presence, awareness, feeling, and power.
The belly area—especially the region just below and behind your navel—is called the Tan Tien in China and the Hara in Japan, and, in these cultures,it is a big deal. That’s why images of the Buddha portray Him with a full, round belly. Adi Da says,
“A truly spiritual individual is very strong. Traditionally, in Japan and certain other places, the vital center is valued and protected. Wherever you want to pinpoint its center, in the navel, or just below, the vital area is that entire region of the body extending from the solar plexus, or even the heart and lungs, down to the anus. It should be strong, not weak. There should be force there.”
To feel ourselves—our essence, our awareness, our sense of self—centered in the belly, is to be grounded in a much more spontaneous, intuitive, instinctual mode of being. Many Eastern systems of spirituality and development teach that an over-emphasis on the verbal, discursive intellect (ala most of us Westerners) “over heats” the mind and head. What you want, ideally, is a “cool,” quiet head and a great “fire in the belly.”
“The generalised pathology of individuals in Western culture is an exclusive identification with their own head and upper body awareness—resulting in an incapacity to ground their self-awareness in their lower body, and centre it in the hara.”
—Head, Heart and Hara, Peter Wilberg
In Japan, when a person has cultivated a deep, rooted presence in the lower-belly region of the Hara, they say that he or she “has Hara.” And,
“He who has Hara can be prepared for anything and everything, even for death, and keep calm in any situation…With Hara the world looks different, it is as it is, always different from what one wants it to be and yet always in harmony. Self-will causes suffering. Suffering denotes deviation from the Great Unity and reveals the truth of the Whole. The ordinary eye does not see this—the Hara sense apprehends it, and only when will, feeling and intellect are ‘comprehended’ in Hara do they cease to resist what is, and instead, through it, serve the ‘way’ in which all things are contained. To discover that way, to recognize it and thereafter never to lose it is tantamount to genuine striving for Hara.”
—Hara: The Vital Center of Man, Karlfried Graf Durekheim
Graf Durekheim goes on to say that, “…in Hara there is a supernatural force which makes possible extraordinary natural achievement in the world.” And: “The practice of Hara is based on an insight into the region where Man’s deeper possibilities and powers have their roots, and consequently where, in the practice of any art, the physical centre of gravity should be.”
In his book, Tan Tien Chi Kung, the great qigong master, Mantak Chia, concurs: “We can use the gut as a brain and allow the head brain to rest. Why is this important? Because the head brain is a ‘monkey mind,’ riddled with doubt, shame, guilt, and suspicion. It is always thinking, planning, or worrying…We should train the upper mind to be relaxed and to just observe when we do not need it to be involved in specific mental activity…When the upper brain is resting, brain repair and maintenance occur, and new brain cells can grow. This is the reason Taoism insists that we train the feeling and awareness brain in the gut…”
So yes, centering our awareness in our Hara or Tan Tien or lower belly is a good, grounding practice. Cultivating strength, force, heat, energy there is a wise thing to do. These practices create health, calmness and equanimity; they quiet the mind.
But opening the belly can go far beyond that. In the esoteric Traditions of the East, it is understood that, when the being is radically opened to the Spirit Force, it can fill and open the “vital” so dramatically that actual, physical changes happen. The belly region actually gets huge and Buddha-like! Swami Nityananda, revered by millions in India, is a fine example.
Adi Da Samraj says, “Look at Swami Nityananda—He severed heads all His life. Look at His belly—He is no mere celibate! He happened not to indulge in the sex act, but only because celibacy was His quality, not because He was incapable of sex or had some sort of moral preference not to have sex. No, he was stiff with life, Full of life, so much so that His belly became huge with Spiritual Force…”
Here are some more. If you’ve grown up in the West and/or are just sceptical about certain unfamiliar spiritual possibilities, you’ll probably think these are just a bunch of fat guys who eat too much and need to do go to Crossfit. Maybe. But maybe not. See if you can intuitively feel, just by looking at them, that these cats might have something else entirely going on. The first is Neem Karoli Baba (the Guru of Ram Das and musician Krishna Das). You can’t actually see His belly in this photo (I couldn’t find one in which you could), but you can imagine it pretty easily.
And here is Swami Rudrinanda.
And a photo of a very young Adi Da Samraj in India:
So how do our tummies get unhappy—constricted, knotted, clenched? Adi Da says it is a symptom of what He calls “vital shock.” Vital shock is, “…the awakening of Consciousness Itself into apparent identification with the form of life…Birth is that shock, not merely the original physical event that may be remembered, but every moment’s cognition of being alive”—alive as an apparently separate, discreet, dying entity.
In other words, when the Infinite Field of Consciousness identifies Itself with a separate body and mind, it creates contraction throughout the whole being. This is the ego, which Adi Da calls the “self-contraction.” And we feel it most profoundly in “the vital.”
“This vital center is like the shutter of a camera. Like the shutter in a camera, it curls in on itself in order to close, or else it unfurls in order to open. It is like your hand. If you clench your fist and hold it together as tightly as you can, it begins to become painful. Just so, this vital center is alive, sentient,and when it contracts, like your hand, it causes a sensation. It causes not only a physical sensation, but also many other reflections in life and consciousness. Therefore, when this contraction occurs in the vital, you not only get a cramp in the stomach, but you have a whole life of suffering.”
“Every aspect of vital existence is controlled by this image, this state, this vital shock…what people are suffering is not their peculiar life-patterns, or strategies, in themselves, but this original shock, in the form of a primary reaction, this contraction…”
—Adi Da Samraj
The self-contraction—the chronic activity of doing egoity, of being the separate-self-sense—inherently contracts the entire vital region of the body. And, “Every person seeks by every means to be relieved of his or her suffering, but the suffering cannot be relieved, this contraction cannot be uncoiled, without the ‘me’, which is its center, dissolving.” And that, of course, is the work of our Spiritual practice. He says, “Real spiritual life involves the undermining of the whole point of view of vital shock.”
“When the contraction unwinds, conductivity replaces obstruction…As long as this compulsive contraction, or shock, exists, there is no conductivity. There is only obstruction, or limitation and constriction, of the flow of life.”
Stuff to do
1) Simply put your awareness in your belly-region as often as you can remember to do it. Martial art legend Peter Ralston describes this in his book, Zen Body-Being:
“Our usual tendency is to continually hold our awareness too high up, closer to the head…In locating the body’s center, an instant unification takes place…It’s useful to center your attention in the mid-section to increase your sense of body presence…but ‘centering’ isn’t something mystical, as some like to hold it. It is simply locating the place in the body that is middle to the mass. Physically sensing the area of the lower abdomen should do it.”
2) Unwind the knots in your belly through direct, physical manipulation. Ideally, get yourself some bodywork, like Maya Abdominal Massage, Chi Nei Tsang or Rolfing. But, failing that, you can also do a lot of good work on yourself. The book to read is Unwinding the Belly.
Or, here’s another cool approach:
3) Belly breathing. Throughout your day, whenever you think about it, breathe slowly and fully, into and out of your belly. Feel your breaths 3-dimensionally, too—expanding and relaxing your low back, the sides of your body, and so on.
4) Practice qigong (aka chi kung). My acupuncturist once told me to do this practice every night: put my feet in hot water, then, while standing there (I used a big metal pot, but a few inches of hot water in the bathtub would work, too) in the hot water, imagine a big ball of fire growing in my lower belly (Tan Tien or Hara). (There was some specific number I was supposed to count up to while imagining the fire-ball growing, and a different number to count down to while imagining it shrinking, but I can’t remember that part.) Manta Chia guides us to “smile into” the belly, as a practice.
5) Practice simply relaxing your belly. Soften the whole area. Allow yourself to feel there. Adi Da instructs us to relax and soften the entire “frontal line” of the body, to allow the ever-descending, incarnating life force to circulate down the whole front of the body.
Lastly, think how your belly will relax and unwind knowing that you will not miss a single jolly post of Spirit Mojo! This you can do by subscribing! Also, while you’re at it, if you know someone who has a belly, why not send them this post! Their tummy will thank you.