A Skeptical Centering

This week’s Gaian Reflection was written by Bart Everson, who has been part of our fledgling Gaian community since it began and has been an important voice shaping its evolution. He has been doing a series of weekly meditations for his colleagues at Xavier University of Louisiana, which you can listen to here. And the following reflection is on one of those meditations.

-Erik

We returned to campus this fall, the staff and faculty and students of the university where I work. It’s an annual recurrence, but not one in which I usually participate. Usually I work on campus all summer, but this year I’d spent the summer working from home, because of the pandemic. I felt almost like a member of the professoriate as I returned to my old office, rendered strange and unfamiliar by my extended absence.

Yes, we’ve returned to campus, but everything is different this school year. There are plexiglass barriers installed in front of the reference desk in the library. A huge tent has been erected in the quad for outdoor classes. There are signs everywhere reminding us to keep our distance and wash our hands. There are fewer people to be seen, as we work staggered shifts and implement remote learning.

It’s not all bad, but it is all weird, unsettling, disconcerting. We are married to our routines, I’ve noticed, especially in academia. But now our routines have been disrupted, and everything seems uncertain.

Because of distancing and capacity guidelines, we can’t meet together for the weekly silent meditation series that I’ve convened in the campus chapel for the last several years. (I spent my first decade on the job teaching faculty how to use technology. I’ve spent the second decade teaching them to cope with the side effects of that technology. I adopted a regular practice of meditation about ten years ago, and much of my learning and sharing of contemplative practices has happened on the job.) My boss suggested I offer guided meditations online instead, and I jumped at the chance. I realized this would be an interesting synthesis of my twin interests in technology and meditation, an opportunity for me to deepen my understanding of a variety of contemplative practices, and to explore and extend a distinctly Gaian approach. I hope it helps others too, but I can’t deny relishing the process myself.

We named it Grounding, a secular meditation series that will run weekly until Thanksgiving. The live sessions are for our faculty and staff, but recordings are posted publicly on a YouTube playlist.

On the 19th of August, at 8:30am, I offered the first installment, an arrival meditation, specifically geared toward the idea that we were all arriving together in this strange new school year. Though the mind may grasp at the past and future, in a sense, we are always arriving in the present moment.

A week later I chose the theme of uncertainty. It proved almost painfully appropriate as we faced the prospect of two storms in the Gulf of Mexico during our first full week of classes, prompting a quick shift to full remote learning. This coincided with an unexpected nationwide Zoom outage. Faculty who’d only just learned Zoom were advised to use a different and unfamiliar platform for their classes. The meditation couldn’t resolve these problems, of course; we simply aimed to recognize our distress and allow it to be.

Exploring the Center of Centering

My own peculiar stumbling blocks became evident as I prepared for the third installment. I wanted to look at the idea of a centering practice, mainly because the term “centering” gets thrown around a lot. I was curious to dig into the idea and find out what it meant.

I soon found that my lack of clarity on this point was reflected in a divergence of usages by many teachers, writers, and practitioners. Centering prayer is a well-defined practice in the Christian tradition with a history of nearly fifty years. But people also use the term “centering” to refer to practices that invoke regaining our sense of balance. Some practices emphasize the concept that each one of us is, in some sense, the very center of the universe. (I can relate to that, only too well, but it doesn’t feel very Gaian, now does it?) Others focus on our bodily center, which some traditions specify as the chest or heart, while other traditions suggest it can be found deep in your lower gut, about two inches below your navel.

These diverse ideas are not necessarily contradictory or problematic, but they didn’t hang together for me in any clear way. I found myself skeptical of the whole prospect, skeptical of the very notion of a center.

It brought back memories of a beer-fueled argument many years ago, around the time I graduated from college — 1990 or so, when I was living in Bloomington, Indiana. One afternoon at Bear’s Place, I was introduced to  a notorious local intellectual, a cranky grad student who immediately accused me of being a Platonist — mere moments after having met me for the first time. I had never been so offended in my life. I wasn’t really sure what a Platonist was, but his tone made it clear that I was part of the biggest problems in the world. When pressed, he made a number of predictions about my character, including that I undoubtedly “value the center more than the periphery.” Say what? Them’s fightin’ words! We almost came to blows but decided to order another pitcher instead.

The fact is that I don’t privilege the center, and ever since that day I’ve made it a point to attend exactly how and why. Let me count the ways: I’ve spent a lot of time in movements and groups which might be described as “fringe,” in other words on the periphery of what we might call “mainstream society” — if there even is such a thing. Much of my career has been enabled by and enacted upon the internet, a network which has no central authority. Speaking of authority, I’m skeptical of centralized power, and inspired by grassroots movements that tend to develop from decentralized networks. I subscribe to the Buddhist notion that the self has no discrete, defined identity; we are literally “no thing.” Look for your center, and it evaporates under scrutiny. And finally, I’m inspired by ecological webs generally and the idea of Gaia especially. I understand Gaia to emerge from the “tightly coupled dance” of evolution, with “life and the material environment as partners” — a dance that has no particular species at the center. I even prefer the term “Earth-based” over “Earth-centered” as a way of describing my spirituality.

Then Again… 

Of course, I’m quite the hypocrite, aren’t I? If I had to chop off part of my body, I’d prefer to start with the extremities. I’m very much attached to my central nervous system, thank you. In a similar vein, the computer I’m using to type these words wouldn’t work at all without its central processing unit. When we moved into a house with central heat and air, I considered that a big upgrade. And to top it off, I actually work in a “center,” an organizational term that still seems to be in vogue for universities and nonprofits.

Obviously I am not allergic to centers. Quite the opposite: I literally could not live without some degree of central organization. None of us could.

As usual, it’s a matter of finding the right balance.

And so I managed to devise a centering practice that reflects my skepticism. Believe it or not, I found my inspiration in the form of tropical cyclones, and specifically Hurricane Laura. 

The centerless Hurricane Laura (photo from NOAA)

Yes, I know these storms are terrifying. Laura is blamed for 77 human deaths in three countries, and was the most powerful storm to make landfall in Louisiana since 1856. Immediately after the storm, we had 10,000 evacuees living in hotel rooms here in New Orleans, with thousands more in Alexandria and another 10,000 in Texas. It got worse when Hurricane Delta hit the same area just six weeks later. Now FEMA is forcing evacuees out of hotels even though they have no place to go.

Yet the image of a cyclone is striking. The more force and fury such a storm brings, the more defined its shape becomes. We’re all familiar with the eye of the storm. There is nothing at the center! Well, there is air, obviously. But the calm of that air is in stark contrast to the exterior. That’s awe-inspiring to me.

I didn’t delve into this theoretical background when I did the guided meditation. That’s what essays are for. Meditation is about practice. And because we record these sessions and publish them, I can share this particular meditation. When you have twelve minutes, give it a whirl.

You can keep up with other meditations in this series via this YouTube playlist. A new meditation will be published each week until Thanksgiving, and so far include ones focused on the equinox, belly breathing, body scanning, mindfulness, and confidence.

Share this Reflection:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.