Wisdom of the Heart and Hara

By Paul Linden, PhD


We all know what the heart is—the body center of loving kindness. However, hara may be an unfamiliar term. Hara is a Japanese word. It refers to the area deep in the belly which is the body center of stability and power. Cultivating the hara is important in the martial arts, and stability is also important in everyday life.

However, defining heart and hara as abstract concepts doesn’t get across their real meaning. To truly understand heart and hara requires physical experience.

Let’s try an experiment. It will be easiest to do this with a partner, but you can do it as a thought experiment without a partner—just visualize each of the elements in the experiment, and feel how your body responds to each element.

Stand facing your partner. It happens that your partner was out in her garden last night, picking slugs off lettuce plants, and she saved all the slugs. Your partner will rub a handful of slugs in your face. What do you do when your partner does that? What do you do in your face? What happens to your breathing? Does your posture change? Do you stay relaxed and alert? Do you tense up and pull away? Or do you do something else?

The imaginary slugs, coupled with the real physical intrusion of the touch, almost always, makes people very squeamish and uncomfortable. Most people pull away, grimace, tense up, and restrict their breathing.

Take a minute away from your partner. Tense your belly. Suck it in and tighten it up. Now let it plop loose. Alternate tightening and loosening your belly a few times. The hara is the area that you experience when you let your belly out. It is a bit below the belly button and deep in the core of the body. Try walking around with your belly plopped loose. How does that affect your movement? Most people feel freer and more grounded, more in touch with their inner strength. (By the way, if you experienced something different, that isn’t wrong, just different. Whatever you experienced would be useful as a starting point for awareness work.)

Close your eyes and think of something that makes your heart smile. Everyone has something or someone—perhaps a friend, a lover, a child, a flower, a work of art—something, that when they think of it, makes their heart smile. Spend a few moments thinking about whatever it is that makes your heart smile. What happens in your body? How is your chest affected? What happens to your breathing? What sensations do you feel flowing through you? Most people experience a softening and warmth in their chest, a freeing up in their entire body, and a sense of expansiveness. The heart is the area of your chest in which the sensation of love is focused.

Now, have your partner rub the slugs into your face again. Consciously and deliberately relax your hara. And at the same time, consciously and deliberately focus on your heart smiling. How does that affect the way you respond to the slugs? Most people experience that opening the heart and the hara vastly reduces the discomfort of the exercise. Many people even find that an intrusion which was very uncomfortable at first becomes quite trivial when they maintain their power and love.

Note the wisdom operating here: in reality, the intrusion was actually trivial, and the tense pulling away was an overreaction. If having slugs rubbed in your face were the worst thing you would ever experience in your whole life, you would be very fortunate. By opening your heart and hara, you became more able to see the problem for what it was. This exercise comes from my new e-book Embodied Peacemaking: Body Awareness, Self-Regulation and Conflict Resolution. If we were working together, for the next step, I would have you explore practical ways of responding to and resolving this problem.

Balancing and integrating power and love is a key issue in the growth of every individual and for the human race as a whole. Power without love is brutal and destructive; and love without power is weak and ineffective. Power and love are somatic as well as psychological and spiritual elements, and working with the body offers a practical, concrete way of working toward a unified state of power and love. Living from this unified state, you will be more in tune with yourself, other people, and the world around you, and this will improve every area of your life.

PAUL LINDEN, Ph.D., is a body/movement awareness educator, a martial artist, and anauthor. He is co-director of the Columbus Center for Movement Studies
(www.being-in-movement.com), at which he teaches Aikido, Being In Movement® mindbody training, and the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education. Paul is the author of “Comfort at Your Computer” “Embodied Peacemaking” and “Winning is Healing—Body Awareness and Empowerment for Abuse Survivors.” His work focuses on the application in daily activities of an integrated mindbody state of awareness, power, love and freedom.