First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Spiritual Practice of Centering

January 13, 2019
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

READING   by Mark Nepo

. . . the practice of being a spirit—in a body, in the world—is a practice of returning to our center, where we can know the world fully. Life has taught me two things about being centered. First, returning to our center, our solid place of inborn knowing, is only nourishing because it is through our core that we find our connection to the common Center of All Life. As thirst would drive you to a well, to drop your bucket and pull up water from the underground spring that feeds all wells, the individual soul is such a well that draws on the water of Spirit that feeds all souls. We need to know where our well is.

Second, the fact that we need to return to our center lets us know that we will drift away from what matters. This drifting is part of being human, and so, there is an ongoing need to find our way back to what matters. Most of us are educated to think that if we work hard enough and are good enough and disciplined enough, we'll crack the secret of life and live at the end of all trouble. While these traits are helpful tools, being human doesn't work that way. From the very start, we're asked to stay as close as we can to all that is alive. The point of our experience is not to escape life but to live it; and the wakefulness and sleepiness, the agitation and calm, the joy and suffering we encounter, are continual. Our aim is not to eliminate these conditions but to navigate them from a living center, the way you'd steer a boat at sea while balanced in its stable bottom. (“How To Return To Your Center,” Mark Nepo:


Do any of these sound familiar?

You take on too many tasks.
You multitask.
You wake up tired.
You check email, text messages, and social media constantly.
You treat every request as urgent.
You are self-critical.
You are judgmental of others.
You are you easily distracted.
You feel like you are on an emotional seesaw.
You get overwhelmed pretty regularly.
You struggle to control your intake of sugar, alcohol, tv, drugs, pornography, shopping.
You feel spacey.
You procrastinate.
You feel depleted at the end of day.
You spend a lot of time ruminating over the past.
You are anxious or fearful a lot of the time.
You are angry a lot.
You are reactive.
You let other people define who you are. (Some items adapted from:

When people lose track of their center, they are inclined to be more easily upset, angry, spacey, frustrated, distracted, reactive, and unfocused—to experience more often the items on that list. And to stay stuck there for longer periods of time. Wow, I have to admit that sounds like some of what I’ve been struggling with every day since the 2016 presidential election!

And now there’s the government shutdown, volatile stock market, and the relentless fight over the border wall. There doesn’t seem to be a quick end in sight to the rollercoaster we’re on. And it’s important to mention that some individuals are much more directly and severely impacted by these events than others. But being centered isn’t just about the last election or the latest national crisis. Nor does it have to do specifically with the most recent personal or professional upsets in people’s lives. That isn’t to diminish the importance of any of these. These events matter—and they matter deeply.

But getting off center happens throughout the course of life. It’s part of being human. The reality is that life is ever in flux with its ups and downs. There will be less stressful and more stressful periods of time. There will be times of greater societal upheaval and other times of greater calm. That is also true of our personal lives.

There will be the natural disasters and terrible injustices such as those against asylum-seekers and people of color. There will also be the personal situations—such as an argument with a friend that left both parties bruised, getting a bad job performance review, or having the car break down en route to an important occasion.

The purpose of centering is to help us navigate these fluctuations from large to small throughout our days and years. When things seem most dire, focusing oneself might not be one’s first inclination. The first urge in response to anxiety coupled with urgency may be to fix, address, dig in, do something, anything, and to try to move quickly. Sometimes situations need to be dealt with immediately. But there are many times when taking a few moments to regroup and center can prove more useful in the long run and create a lot less damage. When I don’t do that, I invariably find myself saying and doing things that aren’t coming from a place of love, healing, care or compassion but instead erupting from outrage, anger, and fear. The challenge we face is how to respond to the shifting winds of life from a place of centeredness versus reactivity. Religious traditions advise practice. The path to being more centered is to practice centering.

Quakers begin worship by “centering down.” This process allows a space of “holy expectancy.” By centering down a person can get in touch with their own truth and connect to God. Centering prayer is a contemplative practice used by Christian mystics. It prepares the heart to be in communion with the divine. The term “centering” also describes mindfulness meditation practiced by Buddhists and others in search of deeper awareness. There’s an old Zen saying that: You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. In that case, you should meditate for an hour a day. I’ve always loved this saying. The point here isn’t to be prescriptive about the exact amounts of time needed to meditate. The point is that the more unfocused and distracted you are, the more attention you will need to give to refocusing. The further off-center you are, the more attention you will need to give to returning to your center.

Or another way to say it is, for every social media post that makes me react with anger or despair, I need to watch 5 animal videos that make me laugh or smile. That’s why I spend most of my Facebook time watching cute videos of cats and other animals and looking at photos friends are posting of their animal companions. That gives me a feeling of connection and joy vs dragging me into aggravation, arguments, and distractions.

Black Elk describes the understanding of centering from the perspective of Native American spirituality. He says, "the first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere. It is within each of us."

In a UU worship service, it isn’t uncommon to hear a worship leader invite the congregation to center themselves for worship, for a meditation, a song, or for a time of sharing joys and sorrows. The practice of centering opens the heart, mind, body, spirit to bring awareness. It enables connection at a deep level. It reminds us that we are part of the interconnected web of all existence and that we are part of the sacredness of life. Centering brings us perspective in part because it reminds us that we are an important part of the web and also that we are not the only part.

As Mark Nepo says, “The practice of being a spirit—in a body, in the world—is a practice of returning to our center, where we can know the world fully.” Centering gives us perspective on ourselves and those around us. And that center serves as a touchstone not a static state. That’s why the idea of returning to center makes so much sense and why it is taught and encouraged by religious communities. It just isn’t possible to be in that space 100 percent of the time. We will get off track and off course and need to return.

The good news is that the center is already within us. Hermann Hesse says that “Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” It’s that stillness and sanctuary you can retreat to at any time. You don’t need any special equipment to center down or return to the home of your soul.

You just need practice. Having a go-to practice or several of them means that when we get knocked off course, we will more quickly recognize what is happening so that we can return to center. A centering practice makes it more likely that balance will be restored more quickly so we can remain effective and engaged rather than being spread too thin or becoming depleted.

Breathing, mindful walking, repeating a mantra, smiling, doodling, chanting, and writing can return you to center. They bring you back to who you are. They aren’t complicated or expensive. Many of them don’t even require any tools or equipment. Others require some simple resources, such as a sturdy pair of shoes, a singing bowl, or paper and pen.

Let’s take a moment together in this worship space to practice. Take a moment to check in with yourself. Are you feeling centered? If not, how or where are you out of center? Just notice without trying to judge. And if you haven’t already I invite you to close your eyes or if you prefer find something like the chalice but not another person on which to rest your gaze. Don’t forget to breathe. Take a breath.

In just a moment, I’m going to sound the singing bowl in a couple of different ways over the next minute or so. As I do I invite you to bring your attention to the sound of the singing bowl. Follow the sound as it rises and then recedes and rises again until you can no longer hear it or experience the vibrations. Try not to anticipate but merely follow the sound until you can no longer hear the bowl. Then open your eyes.

Ring the bowl

The bowl calls us to center. To return. To return again to the home of your soul. To return to who you are, to what you are, to where you are. This returning allows us to be refreshed, to be reborn to life, to touch down on terra firma, and then to go on with purpose and persistence. It allows us to be in this life for the long haul and to have the energy and vigor to carry on in the midst of change and uncertainty. Returning to the center fills your lungs with air and gives you breath.

Mark Nepo advises that

There is a wind that keeps blowing since the beginning of time, and in every language ever spoken, it continues to whisper, You must meet the outer world with your inner world or existence will crush you. If inner does not meet outer, our lives will collapse and vanish. . . . The heart is very much like a miraculous balloon. Its lightness comes from staying full. Meeting the days with our heart prevents collapse.

I hope you’ll keep your heart filled with that lightness so you can meet the days with enthusiasm and grace. So that you can be present to your life and to the life of others. None of us can afford for the others to collapse or vanish. We need each other.

Amen. Blessed be.