Center Yourself: The Most Important Skill Most People Never Learn
Overview: Learning how to center yourself is perhaps the most important skill most people never learn. This guide explains what the Center actually means and offers 15 methods to help you find it.
Do you start the day in a calm or reactive state?
Do you end the day feeling nourished or depleted?
How about during the middle: are you focused or scattered?
Your answer to all these questions all relate to the Center.
It’s an idea that may sound mystical or esoteric at first, but it’s real. And you can experience it directly in the present moment.
Table of Contents
- What the Center Feels Like
- Centering is a Skill
- Clear Indicators You’re Out of Center
- Living Out Of Center
- Returning to the Center
- Four Centers of Intelligence
- How to Center Yourself
- 15 Transformative Practices for Centering
- Breathe Like It Matters: Conscious Breathing
- Zhan Zhuang: Stand Like a Tree
- Feel Your Feet: Shift Your Awareness
- Belly Bliss: Attention on Your Navel
- Heart Centering: Attention on Your Heart
- Establish a Plumb Line: Attention on Your Third Eye
- Call Forth the Observer: Attention Above the Crown
- Access the King: Pyramid Visualization
- Find Stillness in Movement: Mindful Walking
- Capture What Troubles You: Journaling
- Grounding Exercise: Hold Your Crown
- 5 Tips for Help You Maintain Your Center
- Recap: The Power of the Center
What the Center Feels Like
From Joseph Campbell:
There’s a center of quietness within, which has to be known and held. If you lose that center, you are in tension and begin to fall apart.”
The Center doesn’t have a location, yet, there are physical regions associated it. It’s more of a dynamic point of psychic equilibrium or inner balance.
When you’re in the Center, there’s no resistance. Everything is. You are alive, alert, and active. An inner calm prevails.
Abiding in the present moment, you act spontaneously. You don’t try to achieve this present awareness; it’s a result of being in the Center.
You don’t feel happy or sad in the Center. You’re not positive or negative. In the Center, you are neutral.
Centering is a Skill
We’ve all experienced this Center before, if only for brief moments.
Anyone can learn to abide in the Center. You can train yourself to notice when you’re out of Center. Then, with the right method, you can reclaim the Center, over and over again.
With practice, you’re able to center yourself with greater frequency.
First, let’s look at signs you’re off-center.
Clear Indicators You’re Out of Center
Throughout the day, you …
- Take on too many tasks. You often multitask.
- Are reactive, checking your phone compulsively.
- Fail to differentiate what is urgent from what’s important.
- Feel fatigued early in the day.
In your mental and emotional state, you …
- Are consumed by negative self-talk.
- Are easily distracted, unable to focus.
- Ruminate about the past or hold anxiety about the future.
- Get stuck, high-strung, and overwhelmed.
In the evening, you …
- End your work day depleted.
- Struggle with impulse control with sugar, social media, alcohol, snacks, TV, marijuana, drugs, porn, shopping, etc.
- Can’t remember what you did yesterday or even today.
- Go to sleep too late or crash too early.
Any of these signs familiar to you?
Living Out Of Center
Most of us are out of the Center all the time.
Our search for happiness is a consequence of being out of Center. We strive for success or to build self-confidence largely because our Center eludes us.
Other symptoms of being off-center include overwhelm, laziness, procrastination, a fixed mindset, and self-criticism.
When we’re out of Center, we don’t trust ourselves. Gurus, thought leaders, and others become our authority.
And the truth is, when you’re not in the Center, you can’t trust yourself because you can’t connect with your instincts or true feelings.
We experience all inner fulfillment from the Center. When we don’t abide there, we feel impoverished. This forces us to look to the future or ruminate in the past.
We believe the answer lies in a better job, the right relationship, more money, prestige, and so on. Certainly, these things will satisfy my needs, we believe.
Anxiety disorders affect 18 percent of adults ages 18 to 54 in the United States.
But that just counts “disorders.” Virtually everyone experiences anxiety at various levels under certain conditions.
When you’re out of the Center, fear, anger, and shame rule you.
Returning to the Center
Thankfully, it’s easy to return to the Center, if only temporarily.
It takes two ingredients:
- Awareness: the ability to detect when you’re out of Center in the moment.
- Method: an effective practice for centering yourself.
I stress it’s easy to center yourself because if you think it’s difficult, it will be.
If you believe, as I once did, that it takes years of mind training to center yourself, it will take years.
Before we dive into a range of centering practices, it’s helpful to have a conceptual understanding of the Center.
Four Centers of Intelligence
There isn’t just a single center. There are four primary centers of intelligence. Any of these centers is a gateway to bring you back to the present.
These centers are referred to in the works of Plato, Carl Jung, G.I. Gurdjieff, Rudolf Steiner, among others.
They are found in the traditions of alchemy, Taoism, Hinduism, and Kabbalah. Neuroscience shows correlations to these centers too.
Each center provides vital information about ourselves and our world.
The Physical Center
The physical center of the body is located just below the navel. In energetic systems like Qigong, this center is called the lower dantien. In Japanese, it’s the hara.
While the brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, the digestive system has roughly 500 million nerve cells.
The gut sends electrical signals to the brain via the vagus nerve, allowing the gut to “talk” to the brain.
But the gut’s autonomous nervous system allows it to work independently of the brain. Neuroscientists often call the gut the second brain.
If you tend to take in information via your five senses, you favor the physical center. This is called a sensing type.
Returning to this center entails bringing your awareness to your bodily sensations.
Specifically, bring your full awareness to your navel region.
The Emotional Center
The emotional center is in the heart region.
Did you know the heart has a neural network too?
The heart has roughly 40,000 neurons. Yes, it has fewer neurons than the brain.
But, the electromagnetic field produced by the heart is over 100 times greater than the field created by the brain, according to HeartMath Institute.
If you tend to interpret experience through your emotions, you favor the emotional center. This is called a feeling type.
Returning to this center means connecting to your present moment feelings, centering your awareness in your chest area.
The Mental Center
The mental center is in the brain region.
Most people are familiar with this center. It gets most of our attention. We often favor this center, excluding the others.
If you evaluate the world through your thoughts and mental models, you favor the mental center. This is called a thinking type.
Returning to this center means quieting our mental chatter and emptying the mind.
The Spiritual Center
The spiritual or psycho-spiritual center doesn’t have a precise location.
Some traditions place it in the “third eye” or pineal gland region. Others place it at the crown of the head or about six inches above it.
Taoist sage Chuang-tsu said:
When there is no more separation between this and that, it is called the still-point of Tao. At the still-point in the center of the circle one can see the infinite in all things.
Taoist and Buddhist psychology use the concept of the host and guest to explain this fourth center.
The psyche is your house. At present, many guests inhabit the house.
These guests are your subpersonalities—all the characters or parts within your psyche.
The host is the higher self, or Self (with capital “S”). The Self is neutral, clear, and empty. It doesn’t get consumed by thoughts and feelings like the guests.
The host keeps order in the house, but where is the host? The house is overrun by unruly guests!
Returning to the center brings the host back to establish order, freeing the individual from being influenced by the guests.
|Center of Awareness||Physical Location||Enneagram’s Triads||Line of Intelligence||Gurdjieff’s Centers||Jung’s Types|
Table 1: The Four Centers in various psychological and philosophical systems
How to Center Yourself
The good news is that there are many transformative practices to help us locate these centers. Even better: most of them don’t take long to reap benefits.
The process is straightforward:
- Notice when you’re out of Center, and then
- Do a transformative practice that centers you.
Noticing when you’re out of Center is half the battle. We experience most of our lives out of Center. There’s a good chance you’re out of Center right now.
I was a second ago until I brought my awareness back to present.
One of the many gifts of mindfulness meditation is that it can help train your mind to remain in a state of nonjudgmental awareness.
The challenge most meditators have is they separate their meditation practice with the rest of their lives.
To remain in the Center, you want to make this reflective state more available throughout the day. It will increase your awareness of when you’re out of Center.
15 Transformative Practices for Centering
Below are 15 transformative practices that can help you center yourself.
I find it best to remain neutral toward these practices. Different practices work better under different circumstances.
Depending on your personality types, you may find certain practices work better for you than others.
I’ve selected practices effective for active, creative professionals. You should notice the effects of these powerful practices within a minute or two.
If after 2 minutes, you don’t feel a shift in your conscious state, you either are doing something incorrectly or the practice may not be right for you.
Breathe Like It Matters: Conscious Breathing
When you’re out of Center, one thing is certain: you’re not breathing properly. When your mind is racing, your breath is coarse.
Variation #1: Observe your breathing. Don’t try to change anything; simply observe the involuntary process of breathing. Let the mind follow the body, not vice versa.
Variation #2: Take deep, slow, rhythmic, quiet, breaths from your belly. If this creates tension, breathe from your chest a few times first before focusing on your belly. Just 3 or 4 breaths can help bring you closer to the Center.
Zhan Zhuang: Stand Like a Tree
This is one of the most effective ways of centering yourself. Stand like a tree with your feet shoulders width apart and your spine straight.
Imagine a cord extending from the crown of your head into the sky.
There are numerous variations of this practice:
Variation #1: Place both of your hands over your navel. While your head is “floating” above your body, allow the rest of your body to relax and sink down.
Variation #2: Imagine that you’re a tree. Your head, arms, hands, and fingers are the branches. Your legs and torso from the trunk. And your feet sprout roots far down beneath the ground. Feel how heavy your feet get as they take root.
Variation #3: Imagine you’re a giant connecting heaven above you and earth beneath you. Feel what it’s like to be a channel between these two forces.
For these practices, stand with your eyes closed for a minute or two.
Feel Your Feet: Shift Your Awareness
When you’re out of Center, you’re often over-thinking. Too much energy is swirling in your head.
Put both feet firmly on the ground. Place your full awareness on the bottom of your feet. This helps draw the excessive energy down into your body.
Pay attention to any sensations in your feet. This practice often works within 30 seconds.
In Qigong and Tai Chi, the center of your body is the lower dantien, about two inches below your navel.
Place your awareness in this area and breathe naturally. Sometimes it’s helpful to put one or both hands over your navel as you breathe.
Combine this with conscious breathing practice (above) for greater benefit. You’ll probably notice the effects within 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Heart Centering: Attention on Your Heart
Your heart is working all day and night for you and you likely give it little attention. Place your awareness on your heart region as you breathe naturally.
Smile inwardly at your heart. Acknowledge your heart on the inhale, saying, “I see you.”
And then express gratitude to your heart on the exhale, saying, “Thank you.” Repeat this five times.
Establish a Plumb Line: Attention on Your Third Eye
To construct a vertical wall or a door jam without using a level, carpenters must first establish a plumb line. A plumb line is a straight vertical line. There’s a plumb line in the body too.
In an upright seated position, gaze with both eyes at the tip of your nose.
As you do this, place your awareness on your “third eye” region in the center of your forehead, about an inch above your brow.
This practice may take a little trial and error, but you’ll know when you get it. Once you do, you can establish a plumb line quickly whenever you need it.
Call Forth the Observer: Attention Above the Crown
When there’s chaos on the surface, sometimes you need to seek higher ground.
When you are out of Center, place your awareness about six inches above the crown of your head.
Take the position of an observer and watch your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
This is a powerful practice. It can instantly provide space between your Self (host) and whatever drama might be happening in your ego (guests).
Maintain this observer perspective for as long as it’s comfortable for you.
Access the King: Pyramid Visualization
This practice comes from Jungian psychologist Robert Moore. The King is a powerful archetype in our psyche that represents an organizing principle of the Self.
Visualize a crystal pyramid. A pyramid is a symbol associated with this sacred King.
Imagine a crystalline pyramid in your heart area or a larger pyramid encompassing your entire body.
Feel the invincible, eternally durable presence of this pyramid. Hold this image until you are more centered. Or, you can try accessing King energy by praying for guidance.
Find Stillness in Movement: Mindful Walking
Sometimes standing or sitting still makes your internal chaos worse. In these cases, mindful walking can serve you.
Walk as slowly as you can, staying fully present with every step. Keep your breathing slow and steady.
Try to sync your breathing with each step. For example, a two-count for each stride.
Try this for a minute or two. If it feels good, do it for longer. If possible, walk in nature to further assist the centering process.
Capture What Troubles You: Journaling
To use journaling to help you find the center, write about your current challenges: problems, fears, upsets, insecurities, and indignations.
Dump it in your journal. Express your emotions and it might let it go, allowing you to center yourself.
Sometimes you can be more centered in a matter of minutes. Other times, you may need to journal for longer.
In Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise, you write three pages, which takes around 20 minutes.
Grounding Exercise: Hold Your Crown
When you’re off center, place one hand directly over the crown of your head. It will help ground you more quickly.
Try this in combination with any of the above methods. Keep your hand there until you are more grounded, usually one minute or less.
5 Tips for Help You Maintain Your Center
1: Pay Attention
Before, during, and after you do these practices, pay attention to your mental, emotional, and physical state.
Notice any changes that take place during and after you use these exercises.
Attention builds awareness. Awareness precedes transformation.
2: Anchor In the Positive Results
To stay in the Center with greater frequency, create positive associations with your experiences being centered. If you feel lighter or energized with a more calm, clear mind, take note.
Some people turn these exercises into a chore—something they should do. I’ve done this many times. I’ve tried certain exercises for the sake of doing them—simply to feel better about myself.
If you turn them into chores, it creates resistance in your unconscious mind. As a result, you’ll quickly forget to use any methods and stay off-center.
3: Adopt a Beginner’s Mind
Any ideas or preconceived notions you have about the Center will reduce or block the effectiveness of these practices. Your mind will try to discount the value of these practices and the Center itself.
So when you practice, adopt a beginner’s mind. Stay curious and open.
4: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment!
You have a menu of options to choose from. Each time you try a method to center yourself, hold it as an experiment.
You’re the subject of the experiment and the scientist making the observations. See what you discover.
Are you more in the Center after running an experiment or not? Can you detect any new sensations? Are you more present in your body? Is your mind calmer?
5: Be Playful
I often act serious, so I’m writing this as a reminder to myself and to the part of you that’s serious too. Seriousness is a sign you’re out of Center.
Seriousness creates internal tension. When you’re in the Center, you’re relaxed, alert, and spontaneous—all of which are signs of positive mental health.
Recap: The Power of the Center
The Center is a dynamic point of equilibrium within us.
There are four primary centers of intelligence: a physical center below the navel, an emotional center in the heart region, a mental center in the brain region, and a psycho-spiritual center near the crown of the head.
When you access any of these centers, it brings you to the present.
When you center yourself, you feel alive, alert, present, and resourceful.
Centering is a skill. Once you know how to center yourself, you can access the Center when needed.
To center yourself: (1) identify when you’re out of the Center, and (2) use a method to return to it. This guide offers 15 different methods for experimentation.
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