The Art and Science Centering, Taoism and SCT
by Michael Robbins (reprinted from the SCT Newsletter, Fall 2005)

At some point during every Systems Centered Group or Training session we are told to ‘center’. Once members know ‘how’ to center, the instructions are usually no more detailed then that. In this article I would like to elaborate on the art of centering from the perspective of Taoist theory and practice. Although these remarks will be introductory I hope they will provide you with some useful tools to deepen your understanding of what occurs during the process of centering.        

The ancient Taoists made an exhaustive study of the art and science of centering. The cornerstone of their observations revolved around their understanding of energy or “Qi” (also translated as “Chi”). They noticed that human energy has many different phases and is significantly affected by the food we eat, the air we breathe, the weather, the seasons, by the architectural and spatial arrangements of the environments that we live in, and by our inner intention.        

As researchers, the Taoists began their investigations with the human body. They discovered that when an individual is healthy and balanced they tend to influence their environment in the direction of harmony and vitality. You might say that ancient (and modern!) Taoists are firm believers in the principle of Isomorphy, which they understood as the creation of a harmonious society based on strong, centered individuals who are capable of cooperating with each other in the service of the good of the whole.        

In terms of the human body, the Taoists observed that there are three major centers of energy that correspond to three phases of human energy. The first is the center of the belly, which is called the lower ‘Dan Tien” or ‘lower Cauldron’. This is the center of gravity in the physical body. Energetically it is correlated with the sexual vitality of a person. This is the raw energy that we use in every physical activity. It is the most dense form of human energy and also corresponds to the bones and the kidneys. If a persons energy is weak in this Dan Tien their physical vitality and stamina is low. Someone who has cultivated their energy in this center has a powerful physical radiance and magnetism. In order to live a full physical life the Taoists feel that it is crucial to develop this center. They developed many techniques, (martial arts, meditation, Taoist sexual practice and acupuncture are a few) to cultivate human energy at this level.        

The simplest technique to nourish the energy in this center is simply to bring your attention to this area of your body. If you do this right now, what do you notice in your belly, particularly your lower belly? Does it feel radiant, vibrant, weak, tense or flaccid? When you breathe, does your belly rise and fall or is there so much tension in your diaphragm that your belly hardly moves at all? Many meditative traditions focus on the rise and fall of the breath in the belly. When the diaphragm is released the energy in our chest and belly becomes more integrated. (In the next section, on the energy of the middle Dan Tien, I will go into this in more depth.) If you feel that you have a good sense of your energy in your belly, take the next step and see if you can energetically connect the center of your belly into the center of the earth. This process is called ‘rooting’ and in Taoist practice is crucial in creating a physically and psychologically stable organism. Without a strong root, you are easily blown about by the different forces in your environment. One might say that developing a strong root that is connected to the center of ones belly is part of developing a sense of inner authority.        

The next center that the Taoists study is the center of the chest, or the middle Dan Tien. Physically this center is related to the heart and the lungs. Energetically, the Taoists see this as the center of our emotional life. In life, one often hears that a person has ‘a big heart’, which we take as a description of a person’s capacity for emotional warmth and relatedness. When we are in love we feel a sense of expansion in our chest. After a painful breakup we say that we are ‘broken hearted’. The Taoists observed that in order for this center to function harmoniously the breath must be open and flowing. They also observed that physically, the center of the chest must be balanced on top of the center of the belly to support an optimal flow of energy between the two centers and for good posture. When these two centers are well integrated a persons emotional life is stable and they have clear access both to the information that their emotions carry and the physical energy necessary to influence their environment in the direction of their goals. Their sexual and emotional energy are also balanced and harmonious. The breath is a crucial connecting link between our physical and emotional life. It is impossible to feel any strong emotion without a corresponding change in your breathing pattern. Notice what happens when you become aroused in anger, feel strong affection or attraction to someone, or are in a deeply peaceful state. Each of these states affects your breathing in a unique way. The study of the various qualities of the breath is a profound one that is central to most meditative  traditions. The next time you are asked to ‘center’ in group, notice what happens to your breathing. As the group session continues, see if you can periodically check in with your breath and notice how it changes depending on what sub-group you are exploring.        

The last center that the Taoists study is the head, or upper Dan Tien. In Taoist theory this center is connected with the most refined level of human energy, which they call ‘Shen’ or Spirit. When the center of the head is functioning well we are connected with our most profound insights into the nature of reality. If one uses the model of an atom to understand the three levels, one could say that the lower Dan Tien corresponds to the matter of the electron, the proton and the neutrons, the middle Dan Tien corresponds to the electromagnetic energy that holds this matter together, and the upper Dan Tien corresponds to the empty space between them. When this center is open, the mind is quiet and we are aware of the pregnant Emptiness or Void from which all manifestation springs. In Systems Centered language, we sometimes all this the field of ‘infinite possibility’. It is at this level of energy cultivation that we begin to awaken our awareness the Observing Self or Inner Witness. Over many years of practice the awareness of the inner Witness becomes more continuous and profound in every moment of life. At the highest levels of inner cultivation this Inner Witness is even alert during dreaming and deep sleep! Without some connection to the Inner Witness or Observing Self it is impossible to explore ones experience. In Systems Centered practice the capacity to observe and explore experience and to deconstruct the assumptions that underlie a dysfunctional role or defense, is fundamental.        

A final practical suggestion; the next time you are asked to center, notice if the center of your belly is lined up with the center of your chest and the center of your head. See if you can energetically feel a channel going right through the core of your body rooting you into the center of the earth and going through the crown of your head up into heaven. Notice your breathing. Awaken the inner observer, which lives in the empty space of Infinite Possibility. When the three centers are aligned and open, observe what experiences emerge spontaneously. See if this changes the quality and depth of your experience in group!  

Awaken Healing Light of the Tao (1993) Mantak and Maneewan Chia
The Way of Qi Gong (1993) Ken Cohen