As you go through this website, you’ll notice that we repeatedly talk about something we call the "inner core of calm, ease and contentment." In fact, our main theme is this: By remembering to pause and reconnect to that inner core, everything in your life will become easier and more effective. This pausing to reconnect is what we mean by the phrase, "remember to breathe".
The core is not a physical place or thing – it’s an experience that’s natural to us when our brains are balanced and well-integrated. When we have access to the experience of the core, all kinds of positive physical changes occur that can, and have been, measured. But to give you a better feeling for what the experience of the core is like, we're going to use a couple of metaphors.
One of the best ways we’ve found to illustrate what we mean by the core is psychiatrist Dan Siegel’s image of the "wheel of awareness". The image of the wheel helps us to make a simple distinction – the distinction between our awareness (the center or “hub” of the wheel) and everything we’re aware of (arrayed around the rim of the wheel).
The experience of being anchored at the hub of the wheel is what we mean by being "centered in your core." That experience has a quality of openness and freedom.
It’s open in the sense that your awareness is not stuck in any one aspect of your experience – it can be wide and flexible, taking in many aspects of experience.
It’s free in the sense that you’re not compelled to act on, or react to, anything you’re aware of on the rim – you’re free to choose where and how to direct your attention, and how to respond to whatever you attend to.
The ocean is another helpful image – one that has been used around the world for many centuries. In this metaphor, all that we’re aware of is on the surface of the ocean, and deep beneath the surface is the experience of just being aware, the experience of the core. In the depths of the ocean, all is quiet, clear, and peaceful. From those clear, calm depths we can look up and calmly see the play of thoughts, memories, hopes, and fears on the surface – without having to react to them.
One approach to contacting the core involves the development of mindful awareness. This is the practice of distinguishing between our awareness (at the “hub” of the wheel of awareness) and what we’re aware of (around the rim of the wheel). This practice helps us to remain at the calm hub of the wheel as we relate to the inner and outer events on the rim . And that gives us the ability to respond to those events with greater freedom, wisdom and compassion.
Cultivating mindful awareness trains and develops the mid-prefrontal cortex ("MPFC"), which then makes it easier and easier to maintain mindful awareness, even in the face of challenging events.
There’s another, very different way to access the core which some people find easier – that is, by evoking a positive emotion.
Scientific research over the past 20 years has shown that it’s actually possible to evoke powerful, positive emotions at will through a process we call heart-centering.
In heart-centering you take a few slow, gentle breaths, imagining that you’re breathing into and out from your heart. As you continue breathing into and out from your heart, you bring to mind a person, a place, or a moment in your life that evokes for you a feeling of appreciation, caring, love, gratitude, safety, or some other positive emotion. Once the feeling is strong and vivid, you can let go of the image that evoked it.
As you relax into the feeling, letting it fill your heart, and mind, and body, you'll get a taste of the calm and ease at the core of your awareness.
For some, experiences of the core may come spontaneously in the midst of certain activities.
The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihayli (M’high CHICK-sent-m’high) studied artists back in the 1960s, and noted that many of them described a state in which they were so completely immersed in what they were doing that they felt as though there was almost no separation between them and their painting. They had a sense of spaciousness, contentment, and ease.
In describing the experience, they used a phrase that was popular at the time – "being in the flow". Csikszentmihalyi shortened it to simply "flow" and described it as ". . .being completely involved in an activity for its own sake… Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost." Other phrases that have been used to refer to this flow-like state include being "wired-in", "in the groove", "in the zone", and "in the now".
Csikszentmihayli later spent many years talking with different kinds of people from all over the world – people of different cultures, gender, race, and age – who had all experienced this flow state. They included cyclists, elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, welders, Navajo shepherds, assembly line workers in Chicago, chess players, as well as many others involved in a wide variety of activities.
So flow isn’t about a particular kind of activity – rather, it has to do with our way of participating in whatever the activity may be. Something that was common to all those who experienced "flow" – and which seems central to having the flow experience – is being able to give yourself completely to what you’re doing, while letting go of all concern about your "self".
The "self" you’re letting go of is the configuration of desires, fears, hopes, etc. on the rim of your "wheel of awareness"with which you you identify.
As you shift your attention away from those desires, fears, etc., it becomes anchored in your core. It is this anchoring of attention in the core while being engaged in action that gives the experience of flow.
It’s not necessary to be an accomplished artist or athlete in order to contact the core. Nor is it necessary to practice mindfulness or heart-centering. The fact is, throughout the day there are many moments (though often all-too-brief) when we spontaneously let go of self-concern and come back to the hub. These moments might include stopping to take in the beauty of a sunset, having a particularly intimate conversation with a good friend, or simply sitting back to enjoy a piece of music.
Many people describe the experience of coming back to the core as an experience of "coming home". No matter where we are or whom we’re with, the spacious, heartful awareness of the core can embrace the moment with a deep feeling of ease. The more we come back to our core – the more we "remember to breathe" – the more "at home" we feel in the world.