When I began my Zen training in 1977, I was given basic instruction in zazen (Zen meditation, literally “seated Zen”). In addition to being taught how to establish my posture and concentration, I was told to breathe with my hara, not with my chest. My teachers explained further that hara is a Japanese word that refers to the lower abdomen and that I should always feel pressure in that area. Try as I might, I could not breathe with my lower abdomen, let alone keep pressure on it whether I was inhaling or exhaling. During formal zazen (seated Zen, “Zen meditation) periods, I was constantly corrected by the jikijitsu (the person in charge of the sitting), being told to “breathe with your hara!” or “set your hara!” But to no avail, my breath remained high in my chest and I had no clue how to lower it. When I asked for guidance, I was told to sit longer, or harder or longer and harder. I eventually came to think that the whole concept of hara was a hoax. In spite of this, I kept sitting zazen and, in spite of my skepticism, trying to find my hara.
It happened suddenly. More than 35 years later, I can still recall the circumstances and the bodily sensations. I can’t remember how long I had been training at the time; it was probably between six months and a year. I had had a frustrating day at work and had left feeling very angry with a co-worker. As I changed into my sitting clothes before evening zazen, I recounted to my fellow Zen students the insults of the day. As I spewed my anger, something shifted in the way I was breathing. It was an abrupt, discontinuous event; from one breath to another. I felt a relaxation of my lower abdominal muscles when I inhaled and sense of fullness in my lower abdomen when I exhaled. It was as if my stomach dropped. At the same time, my upper body relaxed and tension seemed to drain from my neck and shoulders. The changes were not just physical. I felt calm; relaxed but yet alert. My anger evaporated. My vision became clearer and it felt like I had panoramic vision. I said to myself, “So this is my hara!” I picked up my cushions and walked into the zendo (meditation hall) for zazen.
That night was the first major turning point in Zen training. While the calmness and clarity did not last over the next few days, the physical changes did. I experienced my body differently; my breathing was slower and deeper. There was less tension in my body and I felt my center of gravity was lower. Though, over time, I lost this sense of hara, I found I could regain it through zazen. And, with more training, it took less and less to regain the feeling of what I came to realize was a “set” hara.
Over the years, I have come to realize that my experience was highly unusual. Most people discover their hara in a more gradual manner. But, whether acquired suddenly or gradually, the lineage of Zen that I study and teach places considerable emphasis on hara. Perhaps this is because we explicitly integrate training in Zen with training in the martial arts. In many ways, my Zen training over the years has involved continual deepening and refining of that initial discovery of my hara.
– Ken Kushner