The Deeper Meaning of Hara
The hara is regarded as one of the most important aspects of Japanese life and of its people’s spiritual practices. But what is it exactly?
Translated from the Japanese hara simply means belly, yet there is so much more to this intriguing word. At a deeper level the word, hara, means one’s true nature; who one truly is as a human being. So it is not just a physical centre in the body but also the centre of one’s true nature.
Take for example the Japanese phrase hara o waru; to slit open one’s hara/belly. This phrase isn’t literally stating that this is what one does. Instead, it represents one who is sincere and speaks the truth – open and frankly. When we remember our true nature then we are completely open and at ease with ourselves and speak the truth. Here we can see that the word hara has greater depth than simply meaning belly.
Yet another example of the less physical sense of the word hara is hara ga dekite iru; the stomach is complete. This phrase refers to being completely calm in any, and every, situation. In Japanese esoteric teachings the practitioner reaches a space where complete calm is experienced even in the face of death – this is hara ga dekite iru.
The head instead of the belly
The word, hara, in Japan is also deeply interlinked with the word, tanden (Chinese – dantian). Tanden is translated from the Japanese to mean cinnabar field and is also known as the elixir field. It can therefore be understood as a place in the body where the elixir of life is created.
In many Western schools of thought discussions abound as to whether the hara and tanden are the same thing. In Japan, however, the words hara and tanden are not intellectual concepts, they instead refer to the actual experience.
This brings us to a commonly held approach to spirituality that exists today where it is believed that to follow the spiritual path one must develop the energy centres in the head (often called the third eye or crown centre). One of the main reasons for this is the modern craving to understand spirituality from an intellectual rather than an experiential standpoint. It appears that to begin your training from the mind is to create an unbalanced energetic body.
Imagine it in this way – when you expand your energy solely at the head, with no expansion of energy below your navel or in the lower part of your body, your energy becomes like an upside down pyramid. And the problem with being an upside down pyramid is it is top heavy, cannot balance and will topple.
In all major traditional spiritual practices it is a solid foundation which is first needed in order for one to grow spiritually. This foundation is centred below your navel.
Nature itself reflects this. For a tree to reach the heavens it must first grow a thorough root system. Without this, the tree is liable to be affected by each small change of weather that moves around it until one day a gust of wind breezes along and blows it over.
Traditionally in Japan it was considered a benefit if one had a protruding belly – this was a sign of a strong hara and well stabilized life. In the modern world, however, we are always tucking away our bellies and throwing out our chests. In fact, weren’t you told at school to do just that? This is the beginning of the creation of an upside down pyramid.
When you see seated meditators, their legs are either crossed or in seiza – they physically resemble a solid base, that of the foundation of a pyramid.
According to Professor Takashi Saito, in his book Karada Kankaku wo Torimodosu (Restoring Your Body’s Feeling), people in Japan “in their 80s and 90s use relatively more phrases that include the word hara (stomach) than people of younger generations.”
So it seems that even the Japanese are stepping away from their historical and cultural foundation of being hara.
A practical approach
The physical space where the hara or tanden is located is a couple of inches below the navel, inside the body, closer to the spine than the navel. As mentioned earlier it is not so much the physical space that matters, but the energetic or spiritual aspects represented by these words. In this sense, experience of the hara can be spoken of as simply being hara.
In practical terms we talk of bringing the energy down to the hara. Yet there are many layers to be discovered within this concept of hara, so where exactly are we bringing the energy to?
In training we learn and experience one step at a time. Therefore to make the study of the hara easier to understand it is taught that the tanden is the focus point in the belly while hara is our true nature.
For this reason at a beginner’s level practices and techniques guide the mind to focus on the tanden – helping it not to wander. These practices aid you in gaining a fuller understanding of the tanden as your mind calms and you become less distracted. This is the perfect way to begin your training, and the deeper you go, the more your understanding changes and develops.
After what may take many years of practice, you will begin to experience that the tanden actually becomes hara. This growth in understanding is interlinked with a clearer understanding of who you are. At this point your mind is not focused on one point anymore but merged with everything.
If the mind remains focused at the tanden for your entire spiritual journey, you will become stuck and restricted.
At the point of hara the mind has no place to stay still for it is everywhere, completely in union with the universe, no beginning and no end. It is open and at ease. This is hara, or in other words, you have realized your true nature. Here your mind never hesitates or stops; it is like water, when encountering a rock, it simply flows around obstacles.
The Japanese story of the cat and the sparrow describes this journey perfectly. There was once a cat that kept catching sparrows. The cat is put on a lead to teach it what it may or may not do. After the training the cat is let loose. As it has learned from its training it is no longer distracted by the sparrows and both animals can live in harmony together. If the cat, however, remains on a lead it will always be restricted and never run and jump or live as a cat should.
The sparrow represents our attachments (like worry, fear etc…) and the cat is our mind. Our mind tries to hold onto these attachments. To train ourselves we sit and focus on the tanden, teaching our mind. After much practice we can then let go of placing our mind at the tanden and allow the mind to travel freely without distraction as we have now become hara.
Hara and hands-on healing
Hara is very important when practising hands-on healing on ourselves and others. It is the foundation of healing, for without it a very shallow form of healing is practiced. Why? Well, how can we heal others if we there is no connection to our own centre or true nature (hara)?
When, however, you have hara (this connection to your centre or true nature), hands-on healing becomes something entirely different. Placing your hands on someone connects to their hara, centre or true essence and healing takes place at a much deeper level.
Usui Mikao is claimed to have said that we cannot heal others unless we heal ourselves . It is through the traditional hara practices taught in the system of Reiki that self-healing and eventually the healing of others begins.
There are many meditations and techniques within Japanese spiritual and martial arts which help you to locate the tanden and hara. As the system of Reiki is a Japanese practise, it, too, draws on these traditions. At different levels within a traditional branch of the system a variety of aspects of hara meditations and techniques are included.
In Shoden Level I, Reiki students begin developing their understanding of the tanden/hara. Meditations and techniques are provided for students to continue these practices until Level II.
In Okuden Level II these techniques focus on blending the earth hara (below the navel) together with the mind hara (at the head). This blending occurs within the heart hara (at the heart. In his book The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido, William Gleason (6th Dan Aikido teacher who has been practicing aikido for nearly 40 years of which 10 years was spent in Japan) writes this about developing hara:
“In the center of the brain is another energy-producing center or hara, from which new consciousness is born. When these two centres [below the navel and the head] are combined, great spiritual power can be realized…….Practicing Aikido day in and out, these two hara centers become united vertically; the will becomes rooted in the body’s physical center and the excess activity of the mind ceases. Heaven (mind) and earth (body) are united through spirit (the will). In this way the total meaning of hara, body-mind, is realized.”
In Shinpiden Level III the student is taught techniques to further move into a space of hara, to continue the journey of discovering one’s true nature.
Bronwen and Frans Stiene are the co-founders of the International House of Reiki and co-authors of The Reiki Sourcebook, The Japanese Art of Reiki, Your Reiki Treatment, The A-Z of Reiki Pocketbook and the Reiki Techniques Card Deck. Bronwen and Frans teach in the USA, Europe and Australia. Visit the Courses page to find a course near you.