The notion of both/and, that dualism isn’t the way forward or any kind of path to wholeness, has been popular in the West since the 60s. Yet still we fall into dualism all the time. Everywhere in the media the image of ‘the other’ fuels divisiveness and scapegoating. So much of society is about inclusion or exclusion, about polarisation.
Centring as holism
But it doesn’t have to be this way and writers and artists are those who, amongst other things, can challenge myths that are not working. One of the writers who exemplifies this is M C Richards, a teacher at Black Mountain College and the founder of the Black Mountain Press, and also a potter. Richards saw in pottery the metaphor of how we should live without dualism through centring:
Centering is a verb… an ongoing process… a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination… an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness.
Centring for Richards is the opposite of dualism:
In centering the clay on the potter’s wheel, one centers down, yes, and then one immediately centers up! Down and up, wide and narrow, letting focus bear within it an expanded consciousness and letting a widened awareness (empathetic) have the commitment to detail of a focused attention. Not “either… or,” but “both… and.” You can perhaps feel the inner movement of a Centering consciousness that plays dynamically in the tides of inner and outer, self and other, in an instinctive hope toward wholeness.
Centring as assent
In the pull towards wholeness and the attempt to neither scapegoat the other nor project our shadow onto what is outside, we don’t have to stop using discernment. Centrism may have no truck with dualism, but that doesn’t mean that we never say no to anything. Finding our equilibrium is not a state of laissez faire, but it is life-affirming, even in what we refuse or resist. Richards puts it like this:
Centering… is the discipline of bringing in (i.e., of sympathy or empathy) rather than of leaving out. Of saying “Yes, Yes” to what we behold. To what is holy and to what is unbearable. But my experience tells me now that there is an important crucial stage of saying Yes to a No. For resistance also must be embraced. Not only accepting resistance but practicing it.
Centring as process
Centring is not a thing or objective to achieve before we move on to the next ‘virtue’ on the current checklist. Rather, centring is a continual engagement with how we experience and create equilibrium between our inner life and our outward connections. It’s a life time’s process:
I have found that Centering, like clay, … bears the future within it. For it contains a space for ongoing development and differentiation. In other words, it proves to be an open image, a vessel, holding a content that is life itself.
The deeper we go into these realms, […] the more the line between self and other may dissolve.
Centring as connection
This year, I have had one central question that has guided my quests, who I want to become and and the work I want to do. The question has been to ask of all my activities:
Does it increase connection?
Connection, like centring, cuts across dualisms and polarisation. To connect to the world and to others with empathy and generosity we have to also nourish ourselves. When we feel overwhelmed, emotionally hungry and ground down, we’re much more likely to project our darkness onto others or make a drama. It’s harder to be kind and understanding when we are stressed and spiritually exhausted. Radical kindness has to begin with the type of self care that enables us to be strong enough to face outwards.
We need to find our centres, to find equilibrium, so that we have the strength to be compassionate and outward-looking. In The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, Susan Sontag put it like this:
… “being in the center” is opposed to being marginal, and you don’t want to be in the margin of your own consciousness, or your own experience, or your own time. John Calvin, of all people, said,“The world is sloped on either side, therefore place yourself in the middle of it.” Meaning that you can fall off. We all know in our own lives that people are falling off the world all the time — they get onto that slope and then they start to slide. … But to be on level ground is what you want to do because life is very complicated and you don’t want to just be hanging on by your bitten-down fingernails on one end of things, … struggl[ing] not to fall off completely.
So how do we find our centre?
Most of us are accustomed to a world of endless motion. Life is replete with busyness, endless distractions, calls to project and judge (like/dislike). Even if we currently self-isolationg or in countries with restrictions on movement and gathering, we may have demands of home working and responsibilities to provision a family. Or we may be those in essential services who have to keep going. Or we might simply be those who feel afraid and overwhelmed in the current situation. In this dizzying whirl it’s often hard to find equilibrium, yet T S Eliot tells us:
Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
The bringing together of movement and stillness, of dance and contemplation and of fire and creativity, is at the heart of the Celtic season of Beltaine, which falls around early May. Once again the clue is in living a both/and life and in making connections, both things that writers do in order to create.
We find our centre by:
- Constantly re-adjusting
Centring is a life’s process. This is M C Richards again:
For life — I am sure of this — is […] transforming person. […] Being is not what but whom. […] Our world personifies us, …
Once we think of ourselves as ‘finished’ or ‘perfected’ we are almost certainly as off-centre as we can ever be. It’s a more dire state than Sontag’s description of people hanging on by their bitten-down fingernails.
- Saying yes
It’s perhaps counter-intuitive to say that we say yes and are most positive and able to stand when we know know that every yes to something means no to something else. This saying no isn’t about what we label as bad or other. It’s simply about being human beings who have to discern our many paths. What Richards calls ‘saying Yes to a No.’
If you say yes to your creativity then the time and power from it has to come from somewhere. What needs less in your life in order for you to be more centred? Say yes to that.
- Taking the time to be still
The beginning of summer is traditionally a time of flourishing, of creativity, of new fires, of action (even if most of that is currently virtual action). It is a time to dance. Yet stillness and action are integrally linked. If we are ever to do more than skim the surface of our creativity and our lives, then we need to take time to be still, to find that still point at the centre. Without it, there is no dance.
Take time to be still. Take time to journal, to do whatever it is that nourishes your inner life. As Saul Bellow says:
Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos…
When we overload our lives with frantic activity we’re less likely to live in the moment. We are always concerned, instead, with the next thing on the list and the next and the next… This is inimical to creating anything. It is inimical to centring.
- Giving ourselves a break
In Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, she asserts:
Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.
To have any chance of being people who care about and witness to the world we live in, we have to be people who feel that love and forgiveness are for us too. We don’t become warm and generous through engaging in a fight to the death between willpower and self-loathing.
- Erasing the demarcation between inner and outer
It cannot be repeated often enough in a world as fragile as ours, setting up hard boundaries between self and other is as unhelpful as it is false. We find our centres when we listen to a world that is telling us in no uncertain terms that everything is connected, we are all linked and interdependent.
The more demarcations and walls we raise, the more separate we try to make ourselves, the more fragile we will feel, the more likely we are to become those Sontag characterises as hanging on by their fingernails.
Our inner lives and creative processes are urgent and precious. But they are not separate from all that exists. We’re in this together.
- Asking questions
There’s a story in John Cage’s biography of doing a class with Schoenberg. The composer wrote a problem in counterpoint and Cage wrote a solution, but Schoenberg asked for another and another. After Cage had come up with at least seven he declared their were no more solutions, to which his teacher responded:
“OK. What is the principle underlying all of these solutions?”
Cage goes on to say that set him on a lifetime course of asking questions in his work.
… the principle underlying all of the solutions that I had given him was the question that he had asked … The answers have the questions in common. Therefore the question underlies the answers.
We often feel unsettled and off-centre at not having all the answers, but it’s a huge gift to be able to find equilibrium while living with questions. Being centred isn’t knowing it all, but being able to ask and live with the not knowing. As Wendell Berry
Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…
Centring as a way of life
We find our centre in all these ways and more. We find it for a moment and lose it over and over, but that’s fine. That’s what it means to be human. Centring is a verb. It’s a way of being. We are the clay, centred down and up, wide and narrow, constantly dancing and yet with that still point at the centre.
The novice potter has to learn to nudge the clay with exactly the right pressure and direction, whilst keeping her hands and the clay moist and the speed perfect. It often fails. The pressure isn’t right, the wheel spins too fast or slow, the clay is dry and cracks, or too wet and sags into a globby mess. It’s a superb metaphor for finding our own centres. We’re often a globby mess but we throw ourselves onto the wheel again and again and …
Because sometimes we step into that still point that is always present. We stand balanced in the tranquil equilibrium at the heart of our spacious and creative core. And we know this is the place to keep returning to because this is the place that increases our connection: to self, to others, to the world.
What’s your new story of humanity?
Thank you for reading — new story and transformation has never been so urgent and writing, whether it’s your identity or the journalling that helps you think, is a big part of that. You’ll find free courses here and can also sign up to my email list. While you’re here, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life, which will connect you to more transformative ideas to become a different story.
Marina Sanchez says
Praise for your radical kindness Jan, in writing nourishing & resourceful blogs, especially at this time!
I love the potter’s metaphor and so many quotes that I shall copy on post-its to remind of being centred.
I also thought that as writers, often marginal/ised from mainstream society in the way we live & view the world; use our imagination and creativity, that at the heart of this situation, the rich paradox that even as marginal, or because of it, we need to cultivate centering for ourselves and our craft/s. Sorry if that sentence is tortuous, I hope some of what I mean comes through.
Heartfelt thank you Jan for such a life-affirming blog.
Thinking of you & your family and friends.
Thank you so much Marina — not at all tortuous. Hope you are safe and well 🙂 xx