Tag: Ken Kushner

The Hara: The Belly’s Inner Magic Button (III)

­­­”The key to meditative concentration is not mental, but physical — and you can find it in your lower abdomen. — by Ken Kushner, “Meditations Off The Beaten Path”, Tricycle, The Buddhist Review, Winter 2018

What is essential is invisible to the eye. — Antoine de St. Exupery

So this is an article about the hara. What’s a hara? Well, it’s not a Chicago airport or a “Gone With The Wind” film’s lead “female character, or something scary (oh, the horror!…oh the hara!…). No, in Japanese, hara is the word for the lower abdomen. The Chinese word for the hara is dantien. Both are considered in the Buddhist/Daoist tradition to be the center of vital energy or ki…meaning that this energy can lead to samadhi or enlightenment or bring Christ/consciousness into your heart. And what does this have to do with me? Well, not a lot. I’m just a Korean-American vocalist from the Midwest who doesn’t really consider herself Buddhist nor Daoist. I grew up Presbyterian, Congregationalist, then Southern Baptist, then Universalist with a dash of Hinduism. Like Jason Mraz, I taught at a Sai Baba ashram school which included Buddhism and Daoism but I became neither nor. (Nor even a Jason… although I am an all-ages-appropriate singer…)

And alas…I have a hara…

…and my friend — no matter your religion, so. do. you.

To some degree, writing about an esoteric thing such as the hara seems rather a frustrating pursuit because in practice, the chances of absolute hara control is the equivalent of being struck by the proverbial lightning (which is about 1 lightning strike in 700,000, if you’re statistic-curious…)

This being said, this Creation (Creation being the force that beats one’s heart) is a clever one and thus finds infinite ways of teaching hara control through various people, methods, and situations.

While absolute hara control can be rare, the relaxation of the hara can be commonplace…let’s go through some more healthier/positive examples:

1) deep breathing.

2) jumping on a rebounder.

3) seaweed products.

4) doing volunteer/charity work or donating money.

5) listening to music (lyric-free music gives the mind a bit more rest). or listening to the spaces between the words spoken by another person.

6) deep dreamless sleep.

7) observing animals or young children. Or even observing artwork.

8) taking ice baths and deep breathing a la Wim Hof.

9) practicing yoga and deep breathing.

10) meditation.

11) spending time in nature and sunlight.

12) exercising. or expanding the ribcage while breathing or even wiggling the toes while talking /listening… Any outer body motion that creates inner-body awareness.

There was a time when I lived alone in Upstate New York, dedicating most of my day to creating my picture book Suriso and starting each morning with an open-eye-meditation. Sitting on the floor, I’d place my hands on each respective thigh and count with my fingers up to 108, reciting my own made-up mantra.

As I sat there, morning after morning, I’d notice something “drop” in my abdomen. And this abdomen thing would drop sooner and sooner into my morning practice…until it dropped as soon as I sat down and folded my legs into lotus position.

Somehow I knew that this “dropping” or relaxation/expansion of the hara was significant to my road to enlightenment as I felt relaxed and in the focus/concentration zone.

This newfound hara control aspect led me to the ability to meditate while opened-eyed and going about my daily work and activities. (In fact, I’m meditating as I write this article.)

Now, I’d experienced samadhi before by being around other spiritual teachers (as did others later on, a  fellow student asked me a question like, “What’s that feeling when your neck and head feel stiff like someone put a spike down through your body?” The late spiritual teacher Frederick Lenz describes the samadhi’d person’s chest breathing as slight; he chided his students, assuring them that they wouldn’t suffocate…the only difference now was that I felt I was practicing meditation with what I could only seen as “on my own” energy and was able to detect the slow step-by-step inner-body process of inner alignment. This process could be perhaps described as the connection between the following body parts: 1) hara (two finger-widths below the naval) 2) heart chakra (two finger-widths to the right of the midline near the sternum — from the perspective of the person who has the heart) 3) And the energy flowing all the way up to the head’s crown.

Or energy flowing in the reverse direction. It can go both ways.

There are other ways to relax the hara…some less than positive and certainly more expensive than the ones listed above:

Drugs, alcohol, and even white sugar can do the trick. The only complication would be that after an initial hara relaxation and high, the side-effect would be something like dehydration and magnesium-loss. Dehydration would, in my anecdotal experience (with sugar…only with sugar!) lead to the eventual hara-tightening-up (and coupled with magnesium-loss, lead perhaps to chronic disease and/or drug rehab) and the energetic alignment/samadhi is lost. The hara relaxation would be temporary, often requiring another round of input, perhaps at a larger dose to reach the same potential high.

The practice  of hara control isn’t limited to just Buddhists, Willie Nelson and/or even the hippiest of Willie Nelson fans, but also to Christians, Muslims, Jainists, and others including the battle’s side waving the white flag…yes, for anyone understanding the concept of surrender.

Recently, I was on an Austin city bus and a man wearing a wide-brimmed Aunt-Mamie-style hat sat across me and asked me if I went to church. Being a Monday, I found myself providing him with a more casual, secular roundabout response. I said I’d died for a little while in 2016 in a Near Death Experience. He excitedly told me the same thing happened to him…he’d experienced “the joy and bliss of Heaven”.

He then asked me if I knew about the Catholic church. After listening to his story, I told him I’ve attended a Catholic service once or twice with friends. I told him of my more Universal belief/concept of “surrender” which silently expressed itself in every major religion and spiritual sect. After him calling me “pretty” and inviting me to service several times, it was soon time for me to stop stop responding and get off the bus. On my way out the door a passing female passenger told me the Catholic NDE-er gentleman was a bus regular who gives similar remarks to others. I patted her on the upper arm and went about my day.

So you’re probably wondering about my Near Death Experience and what this has to do with the hara.

Well, in the past, I had told many friends, family, and strangers about my Near-Death-Experience and how death felt just like meditation, except absolute noiselessness…like the bus man, bliss enveloped me, and my heart chakra sang while the hara relaxed…

The way I experienced it, death was surrender…a sustained surrender.

Immediately, I knew I had died and decided to return for my then 18-year-old kitten. I was gifted with the conscious decision of which way to go. And to Earth I went.

Upon my return to Earthly life I experienced rapid healing to my broken knee-cap with much hara relaxation…waves of energy flushed over my body for days afterwards which could only lead me to surmise that a relaxed hara is the key to being present and aware…which leads to healing and wellness. With awareness, (along with strength training and yoga, and nutrient-dense foods) I was able to draw towards me the information and resources I needed to rehabilitate my leg. Within one week, and the help with a smaller safety-pinned brace, I was able to walk.

Healing, wellness, and yes, happiness. That hara.

Most importantly, through practicing hara relaxation/awareness, I’ve found the “stop button” on the thoughts in my head.

Having PTSD from 2010 to 2016 was a real “mo-fo” (it ended because of the Near Death Experience…ha.ha.ha.) and my PTSD was all the more recently eradicated due to the following physical body/ mindful/hara healing process:

1) Perceive and feel  the triggering/phobia-ridden thought/image coming up.

2) Realize this image brings fear to the body. Consciously choose to be the observer of this image,/thought. You can say “There’s the thought, and here I am, the observer and now I’m observing that thought.” (Paraphrased from Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now) Cognitively, the person can opt to wear a rubber band and snap the band.

3) Breathe and relax the hara (see my illustrated breathing technique). Just by being the observer/consciousness behind the thought, the hara relaxes.

4) Feel the burst of energy/body alignment, release the image. Feel presence.

You might perhaps need to repeat the four steps, but overall, you’ll see yourself becoming phobia-free, not to mention, addiction-free.

Another litmus test on hara control, besides flying in the air like a Kung Fu master, or to moving objects at a distance, is the unofficial “tickle test” whereby one person lays supine (chest up) on a flat surface and sincerely intentions a relaxed hara. Another person would approach the other person’s ribcage, perhaps with wiggling fingers and the latter would keep a straight stoic face.

To resist tickling or to heal the world, this meditative concentration and Life’s invisible “essential” can be yours with hara control.

May this conscious energetic force be with you.

The Hara: The Belly’s Inner Magic Button (II)

Developing the breath, using the hara…and the specific singing breath taught to me by opera singer Maria Todaro…I teach this to all my strength-training/yoga (Yoga’bells) clients.

In the magazine Tricycle (Winter 2018), in writer Ken Kushner’s article entitled, “Meditations Off The Beaten Path”, Kushner says that throughout his years as a Zen teacher, he’d been struck by how many people experience the same difficulty he once had in finding hara. “Even those who have had extensive experience in other traditions of meditation or have trained in yoga or martial arts struggle with this.” And then Kushner says, “The only people who seem to find hara quickly are singers and wind instrument players — people who are already well practiced in taking long, deep inhalations”.

In the above photo, you can see my several-years-old illustration of breathing with ribcage expansion for singers, the singing technique taught to me by opera performer Maria Todaro. In short, the technique is about — through big inhalation — intentionally expanding the ribcage as far outwards horizontally as possible (the shoulders remain down) and KEEPING the ribcage expanded as one sings, talks, and yes, exhales…the result of this is the automatic relaxation/expansion of the, yes, you guessed it, hara.

(It also results in greater VO2max, endurance, and smoother singing voice…I’ve seen this result with every one of my clients of all ages up past 90 years old in a relatively short time period of 2 months…yes, you’re welcome…)

So, yes, it might be easier to find the hara with someone like this Helenbobelen who’s already found hers, but just remember (from the earlier chapter) that the hara is located about two finger-widths below the belly button…and once you 1) inhale, 2) expand out your ribcage and hold it in that horizontal position (as depicted in the above illustration) 3) sense a certain “drop” or as Ken says, “a pop” of the hara/lower abdomen 4) and then sense a certain cessation of mind chatter and a burst of energy that can flow up through the spine up to the crown.

As Kushner writes in the same Tricycle article, “To say that someone has ‘accomplished or finished’ developing their hara conveys that the person is a mature individual. A corollary statement says that one who has not developed their Hara is not fit to lead.”

To me, someone like “Iceman” Wim Hof has employed his hara development to be able to magically endure extreme cold temperatures…neither of us are Zen Buddhists…but use our deep inhalations and exhalations to our athletic advantage. In fact, I’m not sure if Hof has pinpointed his hara, but I really enjoy the fact that he’s demystifying Eastern spirituality for many young Westerners about so-called “proper guru-prescribed breathing technique”.

One time, while I was teaching a meditation class on Long Island, an Indian woman quizzed me on the “proper way” to breathe while sitting zazen. All I knew at the time was that I could easily trigger a samadhi experience for myself and that I’d never had Zen training and only received spotty meditation training for a period of three years. And even then, not to impress you, but to impress upon you the idea that Destiny plays in our spiritual development, at the beginning of those three years, was I able to experience samadhi…and then later — on my own — be able to understand what the individual components were in the body’s inner sensations that caused the hara to relax/expand.

And as Wim Hof describes his method, it doesn’t really matter if you breathe with your mouth open or closed…at the very least, just breathe and breathe deeply.

One last thing to remember about the hara and the idea of hara development…I’m not too sure that the definition of hara development is it’s continual relaxation expansion. (Jiddu Krishnamurti said something to the effect that then one is “dead” all the time.) I tend to think that hara development is the acute awareness of its relaxation/expansion so that one can still think, plan, experience, and yet still understand that there’s some underlying genius (and often humor) in the unfolding of Life’s events.