This 11 March marks the ten year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It was the first day of my exams at Oxford, and two weeks before I flew to Beijing for my course. Half my family, including my parents, were in Tokyo and Akita. I was meant to be studying, but all I could do was watch footage of the swell inundating and destroying the coastal towns on repeat.
A vending machine carried inland by the tsunami, in an abandoned rice field near Minamisoma
Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters
I was 19 and didn't feel particularly connected to Japan at the time. I hadn't lived there in seven years, and had only visited twice since. But I had enough childhood references from Japan to feel a personal connection to the architecture and topography, the vending machines and cars picked up like toys by the wave, the noodle shops and post offices being swept away. I could understand the words of terror spilling from their lips, howls of grief as everything they ever knew was dissolved into chaos, the monstrous power of Water, Mother ocean. There was something profoundly, inexplicably, primally binding me to the collective experience of this earthquake; something to do with Japanese blood, and something to do with being human.
The people of the villages that were destroyed had depended on fishing as their livelihood for as long as the villages had existed. They will have had a relationship with the Sea replete with the paradoxes and complexities that come with all relationships of any depth. She is the bearer of gifts and of treachery. She is to be thanked for her fruits, respected, feared within sensible remit, and certainly not to be heartlessly harvested.
From an animist perspective, natural disasters aren't 'neutral' events that 'happen to' have an impact upon humanity. Every element of Nature bears a character and a symbolism; every rock, every tree, every cloud breathes with messages and we as humans are in constant interaction with these elements. There is a reason that nature worship is a common thread found in all indigenous religions: since the beginning of time, from before we were even 'human', we have been dependent upon nature's gifts and generosity.
When we take the cycles of nature for granted and forget our inter-relationship, an energetic imbalance is generated.
When a volcano erupts, she is telling us a story.
When the earth quakes, she is asking us to listen.
It is we who frame these as stories of violence or destruction. Destruction is one of the outcomes, of course, but there is always an underlying message, imploring us to Pay Attention. When we lose awareness and respect for our interconnectedness with Nature, she has no choice but to send us increasingly extreme warnings to remind us - a global pandemic might be one of these. It is an opening, a puncture in the fabric of everything we've understood to be right and true, an opportunity for change, for healing, if we are willing to pay attention.
What is she asking us to pay attention to now?
It might feel overwhelming to address on a global level, and this is the problem with information overload, analysis paralysis. Today, we are assaulted with so much information that it is exhausting to decide whether or not to trust a particular source or person. It is easier to be complicit, to follow rules, to do as told. The volume of signage in the UK at the moment is baffling, telling us where to stand, where not to stand, where to look, what to sanitize. We have been deferring our intuition (and sovereignty) to other bodies for years, and now more than ever — governments, media, institutions — letting them decide what is right and wrong on our behalf. This has resulted in our senses dulling to the point where we don’t actually feel what we are experiencing.
What I have found helpful is to consider myself a microcosm of the universe. The imbalances going on in the world are absolutely occurring inside of me too, whether physically, emotionally or energetically.
The tendency is to project outwards; the medicine is to delve inwards. How?
"When they lose their sense of awe
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves
they begin to depend upon authority."
~ Laotze 老子
Hara 肚 refers to the lowest of the three 丹田 dantian (Chinese) or tanden (Japanese), located a few inches below the navel, roughly corresponding to the human centre of gravity. The dantian are the three centres of awareness in the human body: the Head, the Heart, and the Hara. The character for hara is made up of the flesh radical 肉 (which looks like 月), and the earth 土.
"Flesh of the earth"
We tend to think of our awareness residing in our head-minds. The heart-mind is also a semi-familiar notion in the West, the loose translation of 心 kokoro in Japanese. It is referenced in Christianity, the symbolic drawing of the cross over the chest. There are passing references to the hara-mind in English, notably in terms like 'gut instinct'.
The hara is indeed where our sense of intuition lives, the sense of inexplicable "knowing" we sometimes receive. Peter Wilberg refers to the hara as the 'soul womb', a soft dark emptiness of pure consciousness, an umbilical space connected to an innate wisdom of Earth.
However, by and large, Western culture and capitalism have caused us to lose touch with this hara centre of awareness. Our education systems are heavily focused on the cerebral, and even 'physical education' is almost always competitive, which does not help us to actually embody our physicality, the emphasis always external. Over-dependence on intellect and competition at the expense of pure sensory experience has created literal somatic imbalance and binary thinking in almost every level of our modern world. We feel the need to pass every experience and every decision we make through the filter of our cognitive minds.
Rationality, logic, intellect, at the expense of intuitive bodily wisdom, stagnates the natural circulation of energy. This need to justify and analyse disconnects us from the fullness of our being, and from the fullness of connection with the world around us.
We don't know what we can depend upon, in the absence of a solid intuitive base to return to. And so we turn to authority figures who we hope might have solutions. Unfortunately, these authority figures and institutions lack connection to any sort of 'centre' themselves, which is, broadly speaking, why the world seems to be disintegrating around us.
"When they no longer trust themselves
they begin to depend upon authority"
What does it feel like to trust oneself?
When the body is aligned, intuitive knowing spirals through the body, manifesting as trust in "oneself", which is actually trust in the inner wisdom innate to all humanity. Being in our centre is a literal physical state where all three dantian are aligned and connected to Heaven and Earth.
The more I have practiced this alignment through an internal martial arts form (taiji daoyin 太極導引) and meditation, the more this curious phenomenon arises, where I begin to lose and gain all sense of dimension at once.
The core of the Earth, which is very far away, and very large, at times 'becomes' the flame within my soul womb. My soul womb then glows with the enormity of the star and radiates this light throughout the cells of my body, until every nucleus in every cell is vibrating with this light, and burns as bright and as big as the Sun itself. The length of my spine expands to the distance between my pelvis and the core of the Earth. Simultaneously, the distance from my head the Heavens shrinks to the length of my nose. I become the Universe. I am simultaneously tiny and huge. The Universe, in all its enormity and complexity, somehow humming and racing around inside my physical body, as electric impulses cascade up and down along neural pathways, rivers of blood run through my convoluted topography, alchemy occurring with every breath in every cell, regenerating itself in every moment, recalibrating to a new cosmic balance or imbalance, continuously, endlessly, and Time itself becomes embodied as a non-existent, constantly disappearing and irrelevant construct.
This phenomenon is curious and magical enough to experience alone, but it is amplified when experienced as a group, as I did three times a week with my taiji daoyin class in Taipei. The class was held near where I used to live at the foot of Yangmingshan, near the National Palace Museum. It is beyond a low ridge of mountains from the city, accessible only via tunnel, or over a mountain. This subtle shift in topography lent the location a mystical air, still sultry with the heavy wetness of the subtropics, jungled roadsides laden with humidity, but fresher - a clear break from the city sink of pollution.
land of trees with wandering limbs - formosan jungle
So simply by arriving, there was a shift in paradigm; I don't think it any coincidence that this was where such magic could be spun. It almost feels as though this story should not be told; a secret that belongs to the moments that dropped through the prism of the universe, replete for those subsections of time, and then gone. And so it will be vague.
The other students were mostly Taiwanese folk in their 50s or 60s who had been attending the class for decades. They welcomed me with curious smiles as we rolled around on 'medicine balls' before class to loosen the spine. And then we moved together, very, very slowly, in silence. It is difficult to explain such slowness without actually experiencing it; sometimes I would wonder if our teacher was actually still moving, or if he had paused in meditation. Sometimes it was both, and never did it matter. Our teacher was a man of few words and deep wisdom; he could see exactly what I needed, and the adjustments he gave showed my body exactly how to move to connect my head with my hara, and allow the 'spiral' of energy to course.
The education came through presence. The education was in simply being there and experiencing the slowness and fullness of Time and Space collectively, free from prejudice or pretence. I loved opening my eyes after our final meditation and seeing the same world with new perspective, swimming in fractal layers of light. Everyone would be humming with this earthly iridescence, united in our experience of simply existing, together.
When the Earth quakes, she is asking us to listen - to the Earth within ourselves, within each of us. We may feel powerless about our ability to change the world around us, so may we start within. The problems we have in the world around us are a culmination of centuries, millennia, of individual avoidance, of being unable to look with honest gentleness at the pain within our own conditioning, looking to blame another, looking to authority for answers.
Embodiment and presence help us to look at ourselves without judgement or fear. To remember that life is a gift, not an inconvenience. To know the abundance present in awareness, the undercurrent which binds us all. When we experience our bodies as traps, we don't trust them. We don't listen to the messages encoded in the body.
When we trust our bodies, and listen, and recognise the belly deep roar and ancient womb wisdom weeping from our centres, it becomes possible to express the divine. We are conduit to all earthly expression.
to live with the deep gratitude we can choose to exist in
to make every act sacred
every moment a prayer
to see the beauty and love in people,
even in the system, especially in the system
to be unafraid of feeling.
to be unafraid of receiving.
In my healing sessions, I spend a good amount of time ensuring that both the client and I are grounded, connected to our hara.
Especially in our era of online communication, where video calls only show the top half of our torsos, it is easy to fall into believing that human connection comes entirely through speech and sight.
I guide the client through simple meditations to do this; there is nothing mysterious about the process of grounding. We each drop into the sense of unconditional gravitational support, feel it in our physical bodies, and connect with one another through this simple understanding that we are sharing the experience of being on Earth. We are more than just a head on a screen, more than just brains, more than just what we say; we are beings experiencing the full spectrum of sensation that comes with being human.
When we interact from this place, we share in a sense of trust that enables deeper connection and healing.