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The Compass



My concept of The Compass refers to a downward movement, a break with the top-heavy Indo-European symbolism of spiritual practice seen as a ladder. Instead is introduced the symbolism of the embryo and the circle. It is the aspect of spiritual practice where you go beyond all images and ideas. I also call this The Luciferian Movement. It is the final journey into the unknown. It is the grounding meditation form called Hara Awareness.

Hara is an inner compass that leads us to the good life and keeps us in tune with the cosmos. When we listen to its subtle signals we can look forward to a life that is rich and rewarding and blessed with loving relationships (the Chinese word for Hara is Tan Tien).

This compass is so simple and foolproof that we tend to ignore it and to rely instead on complex theories, artificial rules, or belief systems. The concept of Hara reminds us that all great truths are simple and easily practiced in daily life. There is for example nothing complex in philosophy (philosophy means love of wisdom). Children philosophizes quite naturally. The degree of complexity depends on the one who philosophizes, the culture, and the people who have created the philosophy studies on Universities. The essential difference between simplicity and complexity is an important aspect of my teaching. The process of creating simplicity in your thoughts and way of life, I´m calling Art of Life (see my article What is a Life Artist?, and my page Links to Idlers).

The core of our vitality and hidden (forgotten) wisdom lies in our very center. In this area we can spontaneous sense whether we are in tune with life at any given moment. When we think or do something that does not agree with our deepest feelings, we immediately get an unpleasant sensation in our center, in Hara. This is a signal that tells us that the way we think or act at this time is not quite right. If we fail to listen to the signal, it will become stronger, to the point where we get a “knot” in the stomach. If we habitually ignore the message, we may end up with a stomach ulcer or other psychosomatic complications.

But if we think and act in tune with Hara, we notice a pleasant sensation in the belly area. We feel happy and enjoy inner harmony. In time we can learn to cultivate this state, so that it becomes a pleasant habit. Mind and body can thus function optimally and avoid needless stress.

My teaching is only a finger pointing at the moon, inviting people to rediscover their own philosophy. But one thing I ask all to practice, is Hara awareness. Though only explicitly practised in Taoism and Zen Buddhism, the concept of Hara is universal, and therefore ought to be rediscovered by all. Hara is fundamental to all wisdom traditions and natural healing professions. Hara awareness offers no philosophical systems, moral precepts, psychological analyses, or intellectual explanations. Instead we receive helpful impulses from moment to moment. Just like a child searching for Easter eggs is guided by calls of “warm” or “cold,” so we can rely on the hints from our center in our search for happiness and success. Of course there will be minutes when we notice that something is wrong. Then we feel unhappy until we remember our inner compass and follow its messages.

In the following I will explain The Compass and the art of going beyond all images and ideas by explaining my concept of Sûnyatâ Sutras. Finally I will give a short introduction to the Hara Exercise.

Sûnyatâ Sutras

I started my blog, Morten Tolboll, with writing Sûnyatâ Sutras. Check the blog archive. In my book Sûnyatâ Sutras I have published a few of them. On my photo blog, The Visual Pilgrim, I write a series of new Sûnyatâ Sutras.

What does “Sûnyatâ” mean?

The Mãdhyamika philosopher Nagarjuna said, that the Now´s lawfulness around the function of a universal negation-power, is due to, that energy works as streams and dividings within a superior wholeness. And because the wholeness is a reality, each part will always fit into a correspondent part. Firstly, this means, that each part only can be understood in relation to its negation; that is: what the part not is. This implies, that each part comes to appear as part of a polarization-pair, or a pair of opposites – like in the teaching of Yin and Yang. In that way Nagarjuna´s philosophy advocates a kind of dualism if we shall use our thinking and language in an unambiguous way. Secondly, it implies, that each part only can be understood in relation to everything else; that is: in relation to the wholeness.

So, the more you, through the Ego´s evaluations, isolate these parts from each other, the more the abandoned parts will work stronger and stronger on their polar partners. Therefore, these polar partners, in their extremes, finally will switch over in the opposite extreme. Another aspect of this lawfulness, or another way to describe this lawfulness is: energy returns to its starting point. This is also called compensatory karma, and the lawfulness works as wave movements and pendulum movements.

And since everything in this way only work correlative, yes, then Nagarjuna claimed, that we actually can´t say anything about the wholeness, only dualistic about the parts. In that way, Nagarjuna denies, that there is any position taken, maintaining that his critical arguments are simply reductions to absurdity of views his opponents hold and that he has no view of his own.

Therefore, he called the wholeness the Emptiness (´sûnyatâ) – a teaching, which had one quite determinate purpose: the neutralization of all the dogmas, theories and viewpoints, which ignorance has created.

The concept of emptiness refers to the intuitive experience of reality, that all inner and outer phenomena are devoid of independent existence and form of being. What they can be said to be, they can only be said to be in relation to something else, a complementary thing and vice versa. In that way, they are nothing by virtue of themselves, and therefore nothing by virtue of something else either, etc. They are insubstantial, or as Nagarjuna calls it: codependent originated (everything that exists does so dependently on other things) (pratityasamutpanna). In absolute sense, nothing exists independently, eternally or unchangeable. All existence is impermanent; everything that exists is transitory, lasting only a moment.

But this doesn´t mean, that Nagarjuna is an advocate of the absolute non-existence of things. Non-existence means namely neither negation nor opposition to existence. Therefore, also non-existence is, as everything else, correlative.

Codependent origination is what Nagarjuna calls emptiness (´sûnyatâ). The creation of things, images and concepts ends in the emptiness. And by trying to reveal the unreality of the relative, conventional world, you can reach the absolute reality, which is lying in this emptiness. The emptiness is in that way the inexpressible (Nirvana). Because Nirvana is lying in the revelation of the unreality (Samsara), then Nirvana and Samsara is not at all different.

And, what does "Sutra" mean then?

The oldest form of spiritual scriptures, as for example the old Indian Sutras, are intended for meditative reading. Sutras are effective hints to the truth in form of aphorisms or short expressions with a limited conceptual elaboration.     

Just like the words of Buddha, the Vedas and the Upanishads belong to the early holy teachings written down in form of Sutras. The words and parables of Jesus can, when taken out of the stories, also be regarded as Sutras, as well as the deep teaching contained in Tao Te King, the old Chinese Book of Wisdom, written by the philosopher Lao Tzu.

I have in my eight books (plus my online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien) shown, that the traditional spiritual practice contains three important concepts:

1) Critical thinking (spotting thought distortions created by dualistic unbalance, both in oneself and in others). I also call this aspect The Navigator, or the philosopher - see my book A Dictionary of Thought Distortions

2) Investigating the shadow (ignorance, the unconscious, the painbody, the cause of suffering, your own dark side, the ego). This aspect I call Learning to see with the Heart, or Heartmeditation (Tonglen) – see my articles The emotional painbody and why psychotherapy can´t heal it, and Suffering as an entrance to the source).

3) The spiritual practice (going beyond all ideas and images). This aspect I call The Compass, or Hara Awareness.

Where the six books (and the online book on Tolkien) mainly are focusing on 1 and 2, then my Sûnyatâ Sutras, in accordance with the above-mentioned description, are entirely focusing on 3. This will also be the case with my new writings on The Compass (called New Sûnyatâ Sutras), as well as my philosophical counseling practice.

Hara Awareness (and therefore The Compass) is closely connected to the concept of Sûnyatâ. When starting practicing Hara Awareness you will quite soon begin to experience enchanting changes in your health, daily life and worldview which you haven´t created with your will.

Hara is known in all wisdom traditions, though only explicitly emphasized in Zen Buddhism and Taoism. So, the name Hara is quite known, but what is less known, or rather, forgotten, is Hara as the basis for meditation. Traditional meditation teachers always instructed their students to center the mind in Hara, or, as it is called in China, the lower Tan Tien. The centrality in this is shown in the Buddha sculptures, where Buddha either sits with both hands, or the left hand, in Hara. It is therefore a peculiar phenomenon to see how modern meditation teachers often have forgotten this, though they might very well be able to sit in the correct meditation position. I therefore believe that the Buddha sculptures shows a secret which are forgotten. In the following I will explain what this secret is.

Hara aids control of thoughts and emotions. Acting from the Hara is traditionally considered to be related to higher states of awareness or Samadhi (Nirvana, Unia Mystica, Satori, etc.). Hara is traditionally considered to be the seat of awareness. This is in complete opposition to the Western top-heavy focus in the head, where the crown chakra is considered to be the place of enlightenment. This is a mistake created by the ideology of evolutionism, a newer European invention formulated from around 1550 to 1900. In Hara meditation you don´t move upwards, but remains focused in Hara.

You will hear Hara mentioned by all enlightened masters, simply because you can´t reach enlightenment without Hara. The concept of Hara is for example commonly known in the Hesycastic mysticism. The Hesycasts (Omphalos Psychism) is an order at Athos, who with the chin supported at the breast look at their navel, until they see the uncreated light. The masters of Athos are the Western equivalence of the masters living in monasteries and caves in Nepal and Tibet. Athos has constantly have had three enlightened masters (saints) sitting in caves. When one dies another is initiated. Just like in Tibetan Buddhism, Athos has a tradition of a lineage of enlightened masters. It is an absolutely fascinating place to visit.

You can also hear Hara echoed in the philosophy of the medieval German mystic and fully enlightened master Meister Eckhart:

I once had a dream. I dreamt that I, even though a man, was pregnant, pregnant and full with Nothingness like a woman who is with child. And that out of this Nothingness, God was born.

Eckhart spoke of the Soul as the virgin “womb” and fruitful “wife” of the spirit. He also spoke of a “ghostly spot” in the soul which is “matter-free” and which links us to our spiritual essence. The belly or Hara is the site of this receptive and fertile “soul-womb”.

In Buddhism the belly has always been understood as the centre and inner ground of human´s being. The lack of visible exterior signs of “progress” in many traditional Buddhist sculptures is a reflection of a value system in which interest in the products of the head and the processes of the heart were subordinated to a concentration on man´s inner being. Modern Western materialism is based on the values of Doing and Having, of achievement and ful-fillment – filling the belly, answering the mind´s questions and filling it with knowledge, satisfying the heart´s desires. In short: it is the philosophy of Becoming (The Mythology of Authenticity). And yet it is precisely this materialism that can leave people feeling empty rather than fulfilled. Becoming has no Being. Western philosophy is in essence the philosophy of Becoming, Eastern philosophy is a philosophy of Being.

Western man identifies Being with intellectual and emotional creativity and fulfilment, but despite the fullness of head and heart, the physical stomach feels drained and spiritual empty – for he lacks Hara. He is in reality not in a state of Being, but in a state of Becoming. Eastern man identifies Being with creative emptiness of head and heart – only to explode with the energy compressed in the Hara, and the Heart streaming with self-forgetful compassion.

So, there is an essential truth in the Buddhist practice of emptying. This is the understanding that it is only if we are able to actively clear an empty space in our head, heart and hara – our thoughts, feelings, impulses and intuitions – do we become open ourselves to receive genuinely new thoughts, sense genuinely new feelings, and let genuinely new intuitions and impulses germinate and incubate within us. This was Meister Eckhart´s understanding of the Virgin conception. The purpose of creating a “virgin” soul is to become permanently fruitful in soul, and in this way to become host to a new sense of self – one links to Being or “God”. For God is essentially “bearing”. Eckhart´s thinking was a “thinking of the belly”, understood in a fundamentally feminine way through Christian symbolism – as the pregnant “soul-womb” of the spirit.

I my view all this is more or less forgotten today (though you will hear the concept of Hara mentioned). I have myself developed the below exercise when I was in my kundalini crisis. It is developed through a contemplation of the above-mentioned Hara philosophy. My experience of healing gave me a sense of what is meant with the Buddha sculptures, and I hope it can help others as well. I believe that all spiritual crises are due to a lack of Hara, and can be described as a “Zen sickness.” I see my healing reflected in the story, Zen sickness by Zen Master Hakuin. Hakuin Zenji (1689-1769) describes the “Zen sickness” he contracted in his latter twenties and the methods he learned from the recluse Hakuyu in the mountains outside Kyoto that enabled him to cure the ailment. The cure was simply Hara, or the lower Tan Tien (in the notes to the story it is called Tanden). I invite you to find inspiration in this story, and the book from which it is taken: Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of ZEN Master Hakuin, by Norman Waddell. In the book you will hear about “the Danger of False Teachings”, a central topic of my own teaching, and a topic that has caused a lot of outrage.

Below I have described a simple guide to Hara practice. It is an extract of the Harameditation described in my book Meditation as an Art of Life – a basic reader, where you will find a longer description.

The Hara Exercise

To be practised each morning, preferable right from the very moment you open the eyes, because it´s here your absent-minded thought-activity starts with new strength (the exercise should eventually last 60 minutes, but begin with the number of minutes you feel like).

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, that the wise rules by emptying the mind and filling the stomach. Here he refers to the concept Hara (in Chinese: Tan Tien). A help to carry the awareness with you out in the everyday life, out in the action, is Hara. In Taoism and Zen Buddhism, you therefore practise focusing in Hara as basis for maintaining the awareness in action and everyday life.

Hara is your vital centre, an area in the body, a centre of gravity, which main center is situated about 4-5 cm under the navel, inside the front body. In Japanese Hara not only means stomach in anatomically sense, but has existential meaning. Hara is therefore not a chakra (psychic centre). Here I think about Svadhisthana and/or Manipura.

Place yourself in a chair where you for example can sit and look out of a window. Keep your eyes open. Be sure that the feet are warm. This is an extremely important point. Under meditation the feet must in no circumstances be cold, just as well as the head never must be warm. The feet must be warm, as well as the head must be cool. This are some extremely important signals to be aware of, because they signal whether your meditation (energy) goes off correct – and actual quite simple.

Use for example a warm footbath, or a blanket. Regardless whether you suffer from cold feet or not, it is a good idea always to practise the exercise with your feet in a warm footbath, since it improves the ground connection (unless your feet are very warm). A warm footbath is, by the way, also an excellent simple remedy against all kinds of stress, anxiety and depression.

It is important, that you are sitting comfortably. You can in other words easily sit well laid-back in an armchair while you are meditating. Yet be sure, as far as possible, that the spiral column is straight, in the sense that you are not sitting leaned out to one of the sides. You can also very well sit and drink your coffee or tea at the same time. An idea about, that you have to sit in one or the other uncomfortable meditation-position, can in other words directly spoil your meditative development. You can waste several years of meditation by forcing yourself to sit in an uncomfortable meditation-position.

As mentioned, then the eyes have to be open. You can very well shut them from time to time, in order to get into the mood, but generally they have to be open. This is a meditationtradition known from the Tibetan Buddhism (on the sculptures of Buddha you can see, that he is sitting with open eyes and with a hand placed at Hara). The reason is, that meditation must not be an escape from the world, but an investigation of the world. You have to carry meditation with you out into the everyday life, and if you are used to practise with closed eyes, then there is a tendency to create a contradiction between the meditation-state and the everyday life.

To meditate with open eyes moreover hinders, that the awareness-training ends up in a tense focused concentration, which basically closes your consciousness. A real meditative development moves itself from the focused consciousness of the neutral observation (the Harameditation) towards a relaxed, de-focused awareness which opens your consciousness, both into yourself, but also out towards the world. And it is precisely in this wordless silence, you in wonder ask the philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way.

Let your awareness rest in Hara. Imagine, that you are breathing from Hara, the point 4-5 cm under the navel. Imagine, that you are inhaling through this point, and that you are expiring through this point. Place for example a hand over Hara in order to notice it. Breath normally, not deeper, slower, or in any other way than normally – again very important to emphasize, because there exists a lot of deceptive literary about breathing-techniques. Just let the mind be neutral observing. Let the diaphragm steer the breathing-rythm. Feel the stomach lift and sink at inhalation and exhalation.

Let gradually the breathing become increasingly fine, increasingly silent, -  yes, as silent as possible, -  until it only is reflexive, and functions ”by itself”. Try for example to take a short pause in the breathing, for, in this way, to watch how it is getting going by itself. Now observe neutral how the breathing functions ”by itself”.

It is also a good idea from time to time to take a deep inhalation, where you fill the chest out. Take a deep inhalation on smells, sounds, sensations. Fill the lungs entirely out with these sensations. Feel the Now in the inhalation, and let in this way yourself out from the thoughts.

Let at the same time the mind become silent in neutral observation. Let sensations, thoughts and feelings come and go, but don´t evaluate them or follow them into the past or the future. Just be a witness. Become absolutely silent. Put notice to how you can experience the world at the same time as being focused in Hara.

In the start the awareness-training will be characterized by, that you again and again discover, that you already long ago have absented in your thoughts by evaluating, comparing, hoping and worrying, that you again and again are being distracted by the thoughts. Don't get impatient because of this tendency, for it is an important part of the realization-aspect of the training. What it is about, is that you become aware of this fact, and sober-minded again and again take yourself out of this already automatically confirmed stream of words and images. It was this practice Shankara called the Crown juvel of Discrimination. Day by day, year out and year in, it is necessary to keep the Crown juvel of Discrimination clear. This is done by discriminating between neutral observation and distraction, again and again.

If you under the meditation become dull and drowsy, then try to look straight out in the room in front of you. You can also very well stand up and walk around a bit, as long as you maintain the neutral observation. Be also aware, if you have had enough sleep. If you are troubled, then try to look down at the floor two meters in front of you, or look directly at Hara and the stomach. You can for example try to shut the eyes. Yet remember, that you most of the time should keep the eyes open. 

If the thoughts can´t be silent at all, then write them down. Have a block of paper and a pen lying beside you when you are meditating. This is an old technique to finish the stream of thoughts, which for example also Krishnamurti recommended. Just let the thoughts bloom as they will, but write them down in time with, that they arise in your mind. Don't evaluate what you write. Write all thoughts down, regardless how trivial, incoherent or foolish they occur to you. Continue until they fall to calmness (more about this writing exercise under the supporting exercise The Philosophical Diary).

The walking Harameditation

The English author Bruce Chatwin had an intuitive feeling of the spirituality of walking, which he again and again described in his books, for example in the book The Songlines. And of course the spirituality of walking also is known from the pilgrimage.

All kind of action, work and everyday life can namely be done meditative. It can be done with love and awareness in the Now. It can be supplied with a new quality, where it goes from something you have to get over, to a possibility of finding inner calmness and energy. Children are natural centered in Hara, the body´s reservoir of energy and life-joy. It is therefore they do things with an incredible lot of joy and vitality. To work with centring in Hara means that you become like a child again.

There are two fundamentally different ways of using the body. The one is performance-oriented, where you in a certain physical activity have to achieve something or acquire something. The second is about being physical active with a meditative mind. Here you also can achieve something, but rather than being focused on the goal, you are present in the moment of action. You are your activity.

By focusing the awareness in Hara, by letting the consciousness rest in this point when you are standing, moving, working and functioning in the everyday life, the body will by itself go into another balance, and existentially you will be more present and real in the Now. 

The walking Harameditation is as follows: When you for example is out going for a walk, then let your consciousness rest in Hara. Let the mind be neutral observing. Let sensations, thoughts and feelings come and go, but don't evaluate them or follow them into the past or the future. Just be a witness.

Whenever broodings over the past, or worries over the future, automates your awareness, gently bring the full awareness back to the Now. Again and again. Use smells, sounds and visual impressions as entrances to the Now. Take a deep inhalation from time to time, where you fill the whole of the breast out. Let all the negative thoughts out in the expiration.

Further reading and practice:

My Teaching in a Nutshell (short introduction with links to texts for further study)

Meditation as an Art of Life – a Basic Reader (my first book, where you can find the full description of the Hara exercise as well as other supporting exercises. In the start of the supporting exercises I advice the reader also to practice some simple Hatha yoga exercises in order to keep the body fit. In the following link you can find a Yoga cycle guide, which will instruct you in the same yoga exercises I myself practice. Here you will also find the Savasana, the lying relaxation exercise, which I describe in my supporting exercise The Relaxationmeditation: - Click here for the Yoga Cycle Guide).

Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien (free Ebook. In chapter 5, Epistemology, part 6, Hara – Rediscovering Existence, I give a longer description of Hara as The Compass. Here I explain how you with this simple tool can skip just about any kind of psychotherapy, simply because of the fact that most psychological problems are due to a lack of Hara centredness).

The Nine Gates of Middle-earth (free booklet. Here I describe Hara seen in relation to the chakra-system, and how the correct opening of the chakras happens.

In the blog archive to my blog, Morten Tolboll, you can find related texts under the category, The Meditations of a Forest Pilgrim).

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