Darkness and Light – The Institute for Zen Leadership
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darkness and light

The winter solstice is upon us: the darkest time of the year in this northern hemisphere. And with the recent terrorism in Paris and San Bernadino, this time can feel especially dark. One of the major themes of the last Republican debate was “keeping America safe.” And while candidates offered blustery words around borders and background checks, the darker truth is that our own people and our own love of guns are now being used against us. Fear is being stoked and sold everywhere; on black Friday (the shopping day that ostensibly drives businesses into the black, but now takes on a darker, dual meaning), we broke the record for gun permits and sales. Somehow, I’m not feeling safer.

Contrast that with “Ho, Ho, Ho,” and the jolly, generous spirit of Santa Claus – another hallmark of this season. The dissonance between these two may seem jarring at first but I would offer that it is the resilience of the second that is our best resource in facing the darkness of the first. I’m not talking about a mindless, rose-colored optimism or a national Santa Claus policy, but rather a personal resource each of us can draw upon to center ourselves, dissipate fear, and offer our gifts. And that resource is literally our own center, or what the Japanese call hara.

Hara is the center of our power and most effective action. In the Japanese martial arts, the hara powers the punch, the pivot, the cut of the sword and draw of the bow. In our line of Zen training, we learn to bring strength into the hara by setting it at the start of every exhale, which has the effect of regulating the lungs from underneath and giving us the deepest, slowest, most clarifying breath possible. My good friend, Ken Kushner Roshi hosts a blog at haradevelopment.org where you can learn more about hara, including information on a biofeedback and teaching device – the harameter™ – for measuring this deep, centered breathing. If you’d like to practice hara breathing yourself, you can download this exercise.

In the neurological sense, the region of the hara is home to more than 500 million neurons. To regard it as a seat of consciousness is not mere metaphor. Two of the four energy patterns are centered in the hara: the Driver at the base, giving us push and power, and the Collaborator near the belly button, giving us rhythm and resilience. Indeed, experiencing your own hara is no further away than a good deep belly- laugh: Ho, Ho, Ho! Say those words – not just to yourself in your head, but really SAY them right down in your belly – and you’ll feel your hara go in and out. Let your breath settle into the hara and you become stronger, more stable and resilient. The connection to joy – Ho, Ho, Ho! – is no accident either. I could tell you that, in our research, Collaborator energy correlates with positive emotion. Or I could just tell you to look at Santa Claus.

And what does Santa Claus teach us about handling dark times? That when we’re not a victim or stuck in fear, but rather acting from strong, joyful generosity, we cannot take away all the darkness in the world, but we do make everything we touch brighter. Wishing you wonderful holidays and a bright year ahead!


Of interest:

Teal enso logo with a treeLast chance to register for The Zen Leader at the Spring Green Dojo, WI
January 28-31, 2016

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