Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Belly Art

In the late 1970’s I spent three years living in Tokyo. During the day I earned a living travelling around the city teaching English to company employees and in the evenings I studied a martial art called Shintaido (“New Body Way”).

One day, as the doors of my commuter train opened at Ryōgoku station, the impressive figure of a sumo wrestler stepped into the carriage. His wooden “geta” (traditional Japanese shoes) clunked noisily on the floor as he occupied a seat - or rather seats! – opposite me. His hair was tied up in a “chonmage” (topknot) and he wore a blue patterned “yukata” (summer kimono) tied with an embroidered “obi” (cotton belt) around his huge midriff.

I felt intimidated by the enormity of his presence and glanced across at him nervously. He was taller than I had imagined a sumo wrestler to be. His broad feet hung over the sides of his shoes and above his thick ankles were a pair of tree-trunk legs. Atop these rested the incredible bulk of his belly and over that his massive chest and shoulders. His round face with its small mouth seemed strangely baby-like. It was difficult to gage his age.

I could see how, when squatting down to face his opponent in a tournament, his enormous stomach would give him great stability - like a triangle resting firmly on its base. I couldn’t help comparing this to archetypal Western images of the ideal masculine physique - Superman, Mr Incredible or American football players. With their exaggerated shoulders and slim waists these popular heroes appeared more like inverted triangles balancing somewhat precariously on one point!

It was not just the sheer physical mass of his body that so impressed me. There was also something about his energy that I found fascinating. He appeared not just very grounded but also centred and he had an ineffable inner calm. Even though his eyes were half-closed and he seemed to be paying me no attention at all, I felt that there was some kind of invisible communication taking place between us. It was as if I was being scanned by an energy radiating from his belly and that he was using this to take the measure of me. After a few stops he stood up impassively and exited the train, leaving an indelible mark in my mind.

Sometime later I was invited by my Shintaido teacher to accompany him to a sumo tournament. As we watched the bouts he explained the various moves each wrestler was using to try and force his adversary to touch the ground, or step outside the “dohyō” (small circular wrestling ring).

He pointed out that there were various slapping, holding, pulling and pushing techniques, but that fundamental to them all was the ability to maintain a strong and low centre of gravity, making it very difficult to be destabilised and thrown off balance. I knew from my Shintaido training that the place in the belly where this centre is located was called the “hara”, which is three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel.

He explained that in Japan, a master of such disciplines as calligraphy, swordsmanship, tea ceremony or the fighting arts like sumo is said to be "acting from the hara". Teachers of these arts often instruct their students to centre their mind in their hara in order to anchor themselves. In addition to breathing techniques and physical exercises, developing the hara also involves emotional and spiritual practice. As a consequence, the student becomes more aware of and sensitive to both internal and external energies. Consciously communicating with someone from one’s hara is called “haragei” - literally “belly art”.

I listened attentively, realising that his words were not so much a description of what was going on at the tournament but more an instruction to me as I continued with my study of the martial arts.

Over the years I have applied the practical experience and understanding of hara I gained in Japan to different areas of my life - including to my work as a Voice Dialogue facilitator.

Like the sumo wrestler, when I facilitate clients I have to be both centred and grounded. Focusing down into my hara helps me to “scan” my clients and be sensitive to the different selves that show up during sessions. Identifying and resonating the energy of these selves from my hara helps clients deepen their experience of a particular self. The greater my capacity to consciously hold as many selves as possible “in my belly”, the better able I will be to facilitate the wonderful variety of selves my clients present.

My goal as a facilitator is, however, very different from that of the sumo wrestler. When working with clients my job is to help them become aware of, stand between and embrace as many of their selves as they can. The natural consequence of this for the client is a feeling of being more expanded, centred and grounded. Far from trying to destabilise and throw my clients off balance, my task is to help them do the opposite - to become more stable and more in balance.

I have always found the Japanese depiction of Hotei (the so-called Laughing or Fat Buddha) attractive. I love the rotund figures with their big bellies and broadly smiling faces. When I look at them I am reminded of my first encounter with that sumo wrestler on the train at Ryōgoku and of the words of my teacher: “It is in the hara that the soul of a man resides.”

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