Saturday, December 26, 2009

Haragei, Breathing and the Elixir Field

Hara: Belly.
Gei: Art.
In my ongoing "Quest to do Less" I have come across the Japanese concept of Haragei.
Haragei comes with three meanings:
1. a technique used by actors to convey emotion without verbal speech or gesture.
2. a skill of achieving one's objective by influencing others but not by explicit action or speech.
3. a performance of drawing a face on one's abdomen and moving it by dancing to create funny expressions.

Japanese businessmen use Haragei as a non-verbal communication for negotiating without the use of direct words.

In Iaido we use it as a barometer to sense our opponents timing and intent.

Scientists call it "Proprioception". *

I’ve heard it described as everything from “Intuition” to “Stomach Sense”.

*Proprioception is not Haragei but like Haragei is not listed in the usual lists of the five human senses. Our tactile sense is achieved through the nerve endings in our skin and throughout our body (the most fun parts of our body are the ones that have the highest density of nerve endings). Our sense of balance and orientation comes from a different organ: our inner ear. This is what allows us to know whether we are upright or prostrate without opening our eyes. None of the traditional five senses gives us this information. Only our inner ear can tell us that but what is this information and power coming from the gut?

The Gei of Haragei

The more I read about the quiet territory of Haragei the more I wanted in.
In the dojo large amounts of time are devoted to breathing techniques and physical exercises designed to strengthen the Hara, and keep an individual centralized, because with centralization comes the balance that is necessary to gain control over an opponent who is wavering.

The Elixir Field

The Hara of Haragei is of course located in the abdomen about three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel. The Chinese call it Tan t'ien.

Hara literally means "cinnabar or red field" and is loosely translated as "the elixir field".
It is described as an important focal point for internal meditative techniques and not coincidentally happens to be your center of gravity. That’s why when you’re using it (or breathing from it) you feel “grounded.”

In Aikido it’s referred to as your “One Point” from which all your quiet balanced power emanates.

It is sometimes called the “Golden Stove”.

I’ve had tastes of this “elixir” in iaido and I wanted to explore the possibilities of using it in my work as a clown. I figured the way to tap in to the calm power of Haragei was through breathing.

Our director David Shiner’s voice admonishing us to “Breathe! Just breathe! Everything else will take care of itself. As long as you’re breathing.” still rings in my head.

Then I read the story of the Buddhist monk who was able to cross a mile long bridge on one breath. What if I could enter the stage with that kind of deep, grounded breathing?

I Am An Organism.

In the martial arts learning to prolong your breath helps to control your organism in an aggressive encounter, to cut right through undue tension and the momentary panics so that the body and mind can respond more fluidly to outside impulses. That is exactly how I wanted to be working onstage.

My first attempt at this came on the Saturday performance last week. It also coincided with the premiere of the latest incarnation of our clown trio, now comprised of myself, the effervescent and delightful Sean Kempton and Stephan Landry, taking time off from his Innocent role while Jimmy Slonina is on paternity leave, spending time with his lovely wife Robin and their latest creation Leo.

Don’t just do something. Stand there.

Our fanfare started (Miron Rafajlovic and Jim Lutz on trumpet and trombone blasting with both barrels) and I was pushed onstage aboard my chariot, breathing the deepest hara breath I could muster and…

I forgot what was next.
In a good way.

It was a fraction of a second.
Or a thousand years.
And I may have been closest to the core of my characters clueless center than ever before.

Of course I remembered in time (and in character) enough to not destroy any timings but that glimpse into the “elixir field” was enough to have me hooked and each night I’ve tried to incorporate hara breathing a little more.
I find I’m straining less, sweating less and who knows, perhaps accessing my personal Haragei has made me more sensitive to the audiences ebb and flow.

But there was no panic, no uh-oh moment.
I just calmly had no idea what I was supposed to do next.
This is after more than 250 performances.
I just stood there.
A nincompoop king.
A clown in a crown.
A scarecrow in the “elixir field.”
A dopey dinosaur standing center stage.
Clownosaurus Rex.
Clueless but breathing.

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