Monday, May 18, 2009

Finding Your Center: A Meditation on Movement

by Daniel Y. Go
"This is sometimes known as the 'Devil's Chord,'" my guitar instructor says, spreading his fingers claw-like across the frets. "And not because it's a bitch to play. In medieval times composers avoided it; they believed its dissonance made it inherently unstable and inappropriate for truly well-written music."

First finger in the first fret on the thickest string, second finger in the second fret on the second-thickest string, third finger in the third fret....

"But don't worry about what it sounds like," he says as I fumble, strum and grimace. "This is an exercise in changing chords. The point is to learn how to move from the tritone chord, to this"--first finger down to fourth string, second finger to third, third finger to second, fourth to first--"with as little movement as possible."

"That's impossible!" My fingers feel stretched to their limits already, straining just to maintain their current position. Next to me, the instructor cradles his own instrument, hand curled around the smoothly polished rosewood neck. He moves his fingers between chords, back and forth, back and forth, with a relaxed fluidity that makes me frown and laugh at myself.

I'm not sure where all this motivation is coming from recently, but I'm certainly not one to object. I've spent what feels like the last couple years taking one day at a time, passing on plans, moving very slowly, cautiously, through life. Life on my own. A life of solitude and, often, a great deal of quiet. There were times when I might go two or three days in a row without uttering a word, content to spend my days off puttering around my apartment, reading or surfing blog posts online, doodling in my sketch books or walking in the park. Writing sometimes felt like speaking, except without the throat and tongue getting in on the action. Instead of the deep vibration of breath in the body, there was the tapping at the keyboard, quick fingers, "chicken pecking" they called it in tech ed. class back in sixth grade.

But over the past several weeks, I've been doing a lot of talking. Long phone calls with family and old friends, not to mention juggling a relationship that remains long-distance until the beginning of June. Then there are the in-person conversations, the laughter and joking at work, the singing and guitar practice, the running, yoga and twice-daily meditation. That's right--I've been meditating twice a day! In the morning, I set my alarm fifteen minutes earlier than usual, drag myself through my usual routine and then sit quietly in my living room, gazing into the flicker of a small tea light. At night, I make myself some tea or sit with a glass of water, close my eyes and center, align my many bodies, circulate energy and, finally, sip gently and offer libation. The hot liquid of the tea or the cold ripples of clear water trickle down inside of me like rain working its way through cracks in stone. Fire and water, wind and energy. Even moments of relative stillness have their own sort of movement, a pulse, the circulation of blood and breath. The more engaged I become, the more momentum I can feel, urging at the base of my spine, sweeping me along on the soft soles of my feet.

"The key is not in the fingers, but the thumb," my guitar instructor says, smiling patiently. "See how my thumb barely moves at all? It stays anchored against the neck and gives the support that makes the loose movement of the other fingers possible. Don't worry, you're already doing this with most of your chords without even noticing. This is just a warm-up exercise to teach you to pay closer attention..."

I'm fiddling with strings as he speaks, already beginning to get the hang of it. I try a few familiar chords, and what he says is true--I've already been learning to switch from one to another with an economy of movement, my thumb rocking gently as my fingers drape and press over the ribbed metal of the strings. I go slow, watching the pale knuckles of my left hand, tense and release, squeeze and skip, moving in and out of the diabolus in musica.

The more I move, the more I feel as though I can sense that still center deep within myself, the hub around which everything else is turning. Recently, with the encouragement of my boyfriend (who I think really just likes the way I look in sweats, bless him), I've taken up yoga in addition to my weekly running routine. Gliding gently, fluidly, from one form into the next, feeling each pose stretch my limbs (a little farther each day) and warm my skin to perspiring, I notice those places in my body that hold their shape. The delicious natural curve of the spine as I sweep from virabhadrasana into trikonasana and back. The long, hard cord of balance that suddenly pulls taut from the top of my skull all the way to my tailbone, heel and down through the wooden floorboards for that split second when, in vrksasana, I spread my toes, stop wobbling and take my hand off the wall. After two weeks of this practice, sometimes at work I find myself with the distinct sense that I'm floating, that my body is suspended like the hot-blooded gwyar around some calas-like core, and that I'm not really walking at all, but willing myself from one place to another, wafting or sailing along on the intending breath of nwyfer, spirit. Wind, water, stone. Breath, blood, bone.

by stuant63I find it fascinating how movement can teach us about stillness. Especially slow, deliberate movement done with attention, but even the quick flurry of desperation or panic. For all that time that I spent holding still, quietly waiting, there were times when that center seemed elusive. When I first began meditating off and on back in high school, this was one of the first things I noticed. I could sit very still, close my eyes and, eventually, lose my sense of the body as a bounded thing. I couldn't feel my hands resting on my thighs--all I could feel was the warm sensation of pressure on my thighs, and the warm sensation of support beneath my palms, but the two seemed distanced, unrelated. My mind seemed to unfurl into itself, into a spacious darkness in which the conscious mind always looked remarkably like a tiny, pale lima bean. Holding still, holding my body and thoughts still in meditation, taught me about my perimeter, about boundaries and limits and finitude, and the extent to which these things interpenetrate and become blurred, illusory.

But it is movement that teaches me about my center, about the eye of the storm that is my little living soul. You might think it would be the opposite--that in stillness we retreat to our center and take the time to settle down firmly and comfortably within ourselves; and that movement shows us our boundaries, our extremities, those parts of us that are always bumping into one another and rubbing raw on the external world. And maybe for some people that's how it is. Maybe I've just spent too long holding still, too long nesting in my center and not enough time venturing out to sing the dawn bright. But these days, I'm amazed by how movement and activity, how work, sends shivers of recognition and peace into the silence of my center, like so many pond ripples suggesting the secret, sinking stone.


  1. I am not a guitar player, but I think I've heard of that chord -- isn't it the one that Hendrix used to start "Purple Haze?"
    Discordant, maybe, but he made it work for the song. :)

    Finding my center is something I had been unable to do for years... Maybe I still haven't. I was surrounded by motion, swimming in motion, for a decade and more, and I forgot what it was really like to have a center, if I ever even knew. Then this spring I experienced solitude and quiet for a while, and it was like fresh water in the desert. Now things are back in motion, but I want to keep one foot on solid ground, somehow, somehow.

  2. Jeff,

    "Isn't it the one that Hendrix used to start "Purple Haze?""Yes! Or at least, that's what he told me. Of course, I've never heard that song, or at least can't remember it off the top of my head. Here is Ali, and here is the rock she lives under. :)

    I know what you mean about feeling surrounded by motion... I know there have been times in my life when I felt that way, too, and perhaps that's one reason why this new experience of stillness-within-motion is so fascinating and refreshing. It's almost like the marriage of opposites, or rather discovering that they are not in fact opposites after all!

    I don't know how exactly I managed to get to that place, unless it was simply that I stayed still and centered for so long that I was beginning to feel positively stuck, sedentary, and so a bit of movement and activity was necessary to give me a fresh perspective. If that's the case, I bet it also works in reverse, and someone who feels drained and frazzled by too much ceaseless motion might discover, with a steady practice of stillness, that there is a breathtaking motion-within-stillness as well. :)

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