I love cafes & coffeeshops! And though, I’ll admit to being an espresso–junkie, I love them because they are a constant source of inspiration. Humanity lives and breathes in these community spaces.
On the occasion this writing, I was at a cafe in North Boulder, CO. Between the pitch of the grinder, and the hiss of the steam-wand, I heard a woman say to her friend, “Sweetie, you need to find your center.”
We all know that eavesdropping is wrong; but this woman actually said “Sweetie.” ––She was like thirty.
And that comment, come on: “You need to find your center!”
This phrase is so over used. It really needs to be reclassified, moved into some category beyond cliché, it should be considered something like “Meta-Cliché!”
What does it even mean, ‘You need to find your center?’
Are we talking about finding the point where we are equidistant from all other things; a perspective where our thoughts are centrist or moderate; or the place where we are most concentrated?
When my students ask about ‘finding their center,’ they quite often mean ‘finding their ground,’ that sense from which our thoughts and actions arise. My answer is to focus their attention on their perception & awareness, the two faculties that will best aide their search. Though they seem similar, the two are in fact quite different.
The word ‘perception’ is derived from the Latin verb ‘percipere,’ to grasp. Our perceptions are what we ‘grasp’ from the world. They are the source of information we use situate ourselves –how we negotiate our world.
Our awareness then is the quality of our perceptions. It is what gives meaning to the raw information we perceive. Each of us is capable of perceiving an entire landscape, but it is our awareness that singles out the threats, the food, or possible shelter from an entire experience.
Or think of it like this: you perceive the lit match held against you skin, and your awareness tells you that you are being burned . . . quite often followed a brief moment of reflection that is expressed as: “Shit!” or some other exclamation.
Through the practices like Taiji, Qigong, or Yoga, we cultivate our perceptions, we deepen them. The difficulty that often accompanies this increase is that we keep trying to map our old point of view, our awareness, onto our new perceptions. The result is that we never really grasp the potential inherent in our increased awareness.
Zhuangzi, the second Patriarch of Chinese Daoism, addresses this notion in his story “The Dexterous Butcher:”
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”
Translated by Burton Watson
(Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings, 1964)
Zhuangzi’s general precept appears in the third paragraph. When “perception and understanding have come to a stop, …spirit moves where it wants.” Here we have to be aware that we are dealing with a linguistic fossil. So, we can’t take the translation too literally. For example, Cook Ting says “when perception stops,” but, continues to discuss how the knife moves, which is itself a perception.
What Cook Ting does illustrate to Lord Wen-hui is the value of separating perception and awareness. When he says that ‘mediocre cook’s’ ‘hack,’ “they only see the ox,” and experienced cooks “go at it by spirit and don’t look with [their] eyes,” Cook Ting draws our attention to the different levels of awareness that are possible. Our eyes only see the outer form of the ox, though through experience we can come to know its inner landscape. This is a beautiful, though bloody, metaphor for all of life.
In all things, there is an initial understanding, and a deeper truth. The difficulty facing practitioners is in allowing their awareness to transform along with their perception. Though it may be heretical of me to say, there are far too many mindfulness practitioners who after years of practice still experience these arts the way their teachers taught them to. This is because they adhere to the truth they learned, instead of allowing their perceptions to transform with their awareness .
One of the realities facing 21st century humans is that life is absolutely diverse. No two people can, by their very nature, experience anything the same way. Simply put, no two of us are the same. We each possess a completely unique ability to perceive the world. So although there maybe absolute truths, there is no universal perception of truth.
When cultivating ourselves, we must use our practice a starting point. It is the beginning of the path, not the whole path. As our perceptions begin to deepen we must allow our awareness to adjust, transform, and rewrite itself. Through this process our practices becomes our own. We envelop them in a sense of authenticity that is by another name our ground, or our center.
So,‘finding your center’ relies completely on your ability to cultivate your perception & awareness, to find your own sense of authenticity in life. As you do, you will be able to see deeper into both yourself and the greater universe around you. You will move from the surface into the depths; from the mundane to the extraordinary; from what is probable to what is truly possible –Sweetie!