I’ve mentioned the subject recently in a Geopoetics group and I want to return to it, because the concept is fundamental to the philosophy behind my way of life. I first came across the topic when I was learning pottery way back in the 1960s. I used the experience in an abandoned novel in the 1990s, and here’s an extract:
‘Today we will talk about centering,’ he said, slapping a clay ball of about the right weight onto the middle of the wheel. ‘To be centred is to be at the point of balance, to be where the pressures are all equal, so none can overcome.’
He held the ball of clay, now spinning rapidly, against his left hand, and pushed in with a wet right hand. The left pushed down on the top, as the right moved in again and up. When he took both hands away Julie saw a smooth cylinder of clay, in which she could see no eccentricity of movement, no perceptible bulges or hollows. The process had taken under a minute.
Centering is a concept which goes way back, and it’s rooted deeply in Japanese culture, way back before Buddhism arrived there. In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, there’s a transcription of a Sanskrit text on centering. Consider a Sumo wrestler – the good ones are so centred they’re like rocks. If they had three legs they’d be tripods, and no-one could topple them. But they have two, and so can be over-balanced. So keeping centred is a dynamic thing. They move their buttocks back and their lighter torsos forward, so their point of balance is directly over these tree-trunk legs, ready to move quickly in any direction, or to hold a stance against battering odds. Keeping the centre of gravity low is essential on the potter’s wheel too. When you slap the clay down hard on the wheel it forces any trapped air out, and it sticks better to the wheel. It also lowers the centre of gravity of the clay, so it’s more stable as it spins. If the wheel didn’t spin, the clay would sit there forever. If it spun without being centred, the clay would fly off in all directions. You do the same thing mentally when you’re centering. You empty your mind of extraneous thoughts – it’s meditation in action, a harmony between mind and body. Here’s one of Shiva’s 112 ‘ways’ of centering:
“meditate on knowing and not knowing, existing and not existing. Then leave both aside that you may be.” That is so close to a Zen koan, but it’s not exclusively Zen.
I use centering in my thoughts on nature and the world. I try to observe the world from a centred position, but since I am in the world I’m observing, it’s a dynamic process. I stand, and I look outward from where I am. I acquire knowledge which informs my observations, but I try to see what is really there, not what I imagine to be there. A mental construct of reality should be no more than a hypothesis to be tested, a temporary structure, to be dismantled instantly when it’s of no further use or proves inadequate.
Where does it fit in with my writing? Well, I tend to write spontaneously and quickly, without knowing in advance what I’m going to be writing about. But the process starts long before I pick up the pen. It begins when I am in the state of readiness to write. And that comes from being centred, from years of natural meditation, from emptying my mind of distraction, becoming stable, calm, creative, open.