When I was a teenager, I belonged to a figure skating club. I was never a star of the show but was capable of a few jumps and spins and some of the team maneuvers.

One of our more entertaining moves was a straight-line version of crack-the-whip. A single girl would start turning in place in the middle of the ice. Two by two, the other skaters would skate out to join her, one on either side, facing in opposite directions. I couldn’t find a photo of this but it looked something like two-thirds of the “wheel” formation in the photo below, connected in the middle.

Marigold IceUnity, courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons

Marigold IceUnity, courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons

Eventually the line would stretch almost to the sides of the rink. The fun started when the line got longer, and the girls skating to catch the ends had to skate faster and faster to get there. I remember the audience standing and cheering when, after skating and skating and skating and skating and skating, one of the girls finally caught on. (No, thankfully, it wasn’t me.)

Meanwhile, the girl in the middle was calmly pivoting in one spot.

Life can be a lot like crack-the-whip

Sometimes it’s exciting to be like the girls on the ends, dashing through life, chasing our dreams, focusing intently on our goals, giving our all to get there. Let’s call that soar-skating – the kind where the wind blows your hair back and you’re pumped full of energy and loving the feeling of the cold air on your face.

But sometimes it’s exhausting to be the girl on the ends. Let’s call that stress-skating – the kind where the goal you’re trying to reach keeps moving ahead of you, or your muscles are sore or, in fact, you’d rather be anywhere else than chasing the damned thing anyway.

Sometimes it’s better to be the girl in the center.

In the center, things move slowly and with more control. Breathing is easier. Things feel held together. You’re still out on the ice but you don’t feel frantic about it.

Even if you aren’t in the absolute center, being anywhere on the line closer to it than the extreme edges is easier.

An Aikido master I trained with once said we all get knocked off center; the trick is knowing how to return to center. Even the Dalai Lama gets un-centered – he just knows how to re-center really, really quickly.

Five steps for returning to your center

1. First, acknowledge whether you are off-center.

Sometimes good-busy and stressed-busy look and feel similar. If you aren’t sure, ask yourself: “If my life were a crack-the-whip line, where would I be on it?” and “If I’m at the edge, am I having fun or am I exhausted?”

2. Figure out how your center-spot feels.

When you’re in your center, you will be able to feel it physically – and it feels really great. One of my young clients calls it his “yummy-warmy” sensation; for me, it feels like my heart is open and connected to everything around me.

As someone who spent the majority of her life in her head, doing more thinking than feeling, learning how to feel centered was a revelation. Here’s a version the “Body Compass” process I learned from life coaching trainer Martha Beck.

Sit or lie comfortably somewhere you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Now imagine the following:

    • Your favorite kind of outdoor setting. What do you see? What is in the distance? What is nearby?
    • What is your body doing? Are you sitting? Lying down? Skiing? Completing a race? Hugging someone?
    • How does the air feel? Is it breezy? Still? What can you feel on your skin? Warm sunshine? Cool rain? Sea spray?
    • What can you smell? Salt air? Fresh cookies baking indoors? Your favorite fragrance? Your baby after a bath?
    • What do you hear? Birds? Thunder? The roar of an engine?

Now notice what’s happening inside your body. You may be breathing more slowly and deeply. Some of your muscles may have relaxed. What else? Do an inner-body scan, from your head to your toes. Where do you feel lighter or looser? This is your ‘body compass’ pointing toward your center.

3. Have at least one technique that helps you return to your center.

Some people can quiet their minds with meditation and conscious breathing, but I find this tricky. Here are a few other techniques I use:

    • Taking three deep, slow breaths into my lower belly.
    • Looking lingeringly and lovingly at the photos of my kids above my computer.
    • Watching clouds out my office window and imagining the perspective I’d get if I were up there.
    • Remembering that all of this is only temporary.
    • Thinking of a few things I’m thankful for.
    • Listening to the guided meditation for my Enneagram personality type that I downloaded from cdbaby.

4. Understand your triggers.

What knocks you off-center? It’s likely there are a few things that get you over and over again; what are they? When you’re conscious of your triggers you can develop strategies to avoid them or to use one of the re-centering techniques you identified in step 3.

5. Do a deep dive to unearth the source of your triggers — and deal with them once and for all.

I recently did the deepest personal work I’ve ever done to understand, and change, a behavior pattern that wasn’t serving me well. I’ll save the messy details until we know each other better; suffice it to say that I was tired of my tendency to be overly sensitive when I was (or imagined I had been) criticized.

I found my most profound insights in Beatrice Chestnut’s description of my Enneagram subtype. Dr. Chestnut is the world’s leading expert on this topic and I was able not only to see my behavior patterns clearly but also understand the source of those patterns. Over the course of several days I read, reflected, journaled and drew until I had figured it all out. I feel like I’ve excised an emotional and psychological tumor that won’t grow back. It was sort of painful digging that deep but the procedure was necessary and I’m healing nicely.

I’ve been coaching a client through the same process and it’s really helping him, too; after a long tough patch at work he recently told me he’d had “a most brilliant couple of weeks.” Hallelujah to that.

When we’re spinning around the edges of our lives, it’s hard to do much more than just hold on and try not to fall down. When we’re centered, we’re capable of so much more. I hope you find and spend as much time in your center-spot as you can, and would love to hear your experiences with this process or techniques you use to center yourself.

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