Growing up I had access to some cool, unsafe toys. Some of my favorites were a merry-go-round, a teeter-totter and a large slide. Each of them offered its own thrilling challenge. On sunny days, we could bring a piece of wax paper from home and use it to fly down the ridiculously hot metal slide. We tried to not fly off the merry-go-round when friends got it spinning wildly. And we tested friends’ trustworthiness on the teeter-totter: who would play nicely, and who would drop you to the ground with a “cherry-bomb” move. (Aren’t kids great?!)
Each playground piece also had a central place of balance or refuge. If we were playing tag, I could slide half-way down or climb half-way up to the center of the slide, stop there, and force my opponent to come after me. If I wanted to avoid flying off the merry-go-round or calm my spinning, queasy stomach, I'd move to its center. And sitting or standing on the middle of the teeter-totter eliminated the risk of being dropped on my behind from high in the air if my friend abandoned their seat. As a child I knew how to find control, calm and safety on the playground.
I still seek ways to gain control and calm today. “Being centered,” according to Diana Raab, PhD, “means that you have a reference point or a place to come back to when life’s challenges and emotions push you off balance. The center is the place you know you have to get back to.” Dr. Shelley Sommerfeldt describes the goal of being centered as “maintaining a balance of our thoughts and our feelings - our head and our heart.”
We humans aren’t fans of feeling out of control or unbalanced. “Something’s just off today.” “Life is so crazy!” We lash out at those around us or retreat in silence, not always exploring why we’re grumpy, sad or snappish. Deepak Chopra, MD, notes it’s natural to seek equilibrium or centering: “Medically, the necessity for the body to return to a resting state of balance, known as homeostasis, has long been recognized. If you decide to go for a run, or if you are exposed to a sudden stress, your body willingly goes out of balance temporarily . . .. Once the body’s heightened state is no longer needed, it automatically returns to homeostasis.” Our minds also crave emotional homeostasis. We crave balance.
Okay, time out to get honest here: What’s your go-to when you’re stressed or feeling out of balance? Food? Alcohol? Withdrawal? Netflix? Reading? Anger/lashing out? Online games? Exercise? Prayer? Sleep? Scrolling social media?
How helpful is your current go-to in getting you to a place of balance and preparing you to move forward and out of stress? How does it align with your faith? Why do you think it is or isn’t helpful?
The self-help world touts quite a few centering techniques. We’ll examine three of them: breathing, sensory awareness and mindful movement.
Breathing is often promoted as the first line of action in areas of emotional wellness, from working on mindfulness to easing anxiety. Clearly, you’re alive if you’re reading this, so you’re breathing! But most of us are shallow breathers, rarely filling our lungs or breathing fully into our bellies. We short-change our bodies and brains of the oxygen they desperately need to function well. And our brains are oxygen hogs, using about 25% of the oxygen we take in. We literally can’t think straight without sufficient oxygen! Managing our breath, increasing our oxygen intake is a doable, vital part of being well. Simply becoming aware of your own breathing is the first step. The next step is learning how to breathe with intention.
Try the 4-7-8 breath exercise. Sit up straight, without touching your chair’s backrest. Picture the tick, tick, tick, of the second hand on a clock as your count timer. Exhale sharply right before you begin. Now breathe in deeply through your nose, expanding your ribs to the count of 4: 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 8: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Repeat two to three times, expanding your ribs out to the sides, stretching your torso up, adding more air to your lungs if possible.
Pay attention to how your body feels. Did your mind slow down? Are you calmer?
Write what you noticed:
Our next tool, sensory awareness, promotes tuning in to our 5 senses and taking the time to really notice the sensory stimulants in our environment. Stop and breathe in deeply, not just to fill your lungs, but to feel the crisp bite of the winter wind passing into your nostrils. Run your hand over the soft edge of the blanket on your lap. Hold that bite of food in your mouth long enough to taste the different spices and feel the textures as you chew. Listen closely to what’s around you: a dog’s snoring, the whirr of the refrigerator, the crazy woodpecker who thinks he can get through the metal fascia on your house! Look at the whorls and lines on your hand, appreciating what they’ve helped you accomplish over the years. Tuning in to our senses calms our minds and focuses us on the present.
Find one thing near you to look at—just looking! If you can spot something from nature, even better. What color(s) is it? What shape(s) does it have? What makes it unique? What else is visually interesting about it?
Focus in on the sounds around you. What makes each sound? What volumes do you notice? Which sounds are soothing? Which are irritating? Any previously unnoticed sounds surface with this focus?
Our final technique, mindful movement, is a practice of moving or holding your body to bring you back to center. Intentional walking is one example. Walk slowly, paying attention to how it feels when your foot lands, rolls forward and then lifts off the floor. Focus on the feelings arising from your feet, continuing until your mind is calm. Another centering technique is Zhan Zhuang or “Stand Like a Tree.” Imagine your legs and torso are the trunk of a tree, your arms, hands and head forming the branches. Feel your feet as the roots, growing down deep into the earth, creating a sense of stability and strength.
So, which of these techniques might a Christian incorporate into their wellness practice?
When God created the earth, everything was perfectly centered, perfectly balanced. People didn’t eat the animals; the animals didn’t eat the people. Adam and Eve worked, loved and played perfectly together . . . naked! (Definitely not happening around our house!) And in the CENTER of their perfect garden? Two trees. Trees that allowed humans to obey, honor and thrive in their relationship with God and each other. The Tree of Life was always a “yes.” The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil--for their own protection--was always a “no.” Balance.
Then sin disrupted that balance, tainting our wisdom, especially when we make decisions without a Scriptural plumb line. There is danger in rushing into centering practices according to the worlds’ definitions: “We experience all inner fulfillment from the Center,” asserts business coach Scott Jeffrey. And Joseph Campbell states in The Power of Myth, “There’s a center of quietness within, which has to be known and held. If you lose that center, you are in tension and begin to fall apart.”
But Christians know our “inner fulfillment” and the ability to be held together will never originate from “a center of quietness within.” Our fulfillment and peace come solely through the grace and mercy of our Lord, Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins and eternal life he’s gained for us. When we realize our true Center is found solely in our Savior, these techniques can be used to calm and focus our redeemed minds away from self and back to Christ.
Let’s take a deep breath and see how these techniques might work. References to breath or breathing occur frequently in Scripture. We’re barely into the bible when God breathes into Adam to give him life (Gen. 2:7). Jesus breathes on his disciples (pre-COVID!) and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Paul assures Timothy that ALL Scripture is God-breathed (2Tim. 3:16). Dr. David Demick notes in the same way air is invisibly around us and necessary to sustain our lives, God is also invisibly present and the Source and Sustainer of our physical and spiritual lives. “Eastern mystics teach meditation upon one’s breath as a way of controlling body functions and gaining inner peace. Christians could also benefit from meditating upon breath, but in a different way,” according to Dr. Demick. “They should recognize that the breath of life is a great gift from God, and a powerful biblical metaphor used to speak of His very presence.” That kind of centered breathing benefits body and soul!
The God who created us is all about sensory awareness! “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” Wine, fruit, oil, meat, milk, cheese, honey, olives, bread, vegetables . . . are examples of tasty treats for enjoyment and sustenance. Tune your ears to the sounds of joy-filled laughter, refreshing music and the calls of birds. We’re told to admire the visual beauty of lilies in the field (Matthew 6:28-29). And have you read the Song of Solomon? Definitely some mature-audience-only visuals in there. God, the creator of the senses, blesses them for our good purposes and his glory. Tune in to what you see, hear, feel, touch and taste. God’s freely sharing his amazing creation with us!
Mindful movements can be redeemed as opportunities to focus on the solid goodness of God. Walking with God is a repeated theme in Scripture. Psalm 23:4 assures us, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” We will walk through metaphoric valleys, rivers and maybe between massive water walls as we experience trouble in our lives. “But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exodus 14:29). Did you catch that? They weren’t running, like I’d have wanted to. They were WALKING. Moving forward on dry, solid ground at a reasonable pace, trusting God with their safety and the outcome. And we can, too! Physically move your body—walk! —when you start to feel anxious or off balance. And as you walk, pray and focus your thoughts on God, feeling each step and knowing God walks with you.
Sometimes walking isn’t an option. Standing near a loved one’s hospital bed or sitting in a tense meeting, may keep you rooted in place. Standing (or sitting!) like a tree may be a better centering technique then.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” Jer.17:7-8
Press your feet into the floor below you. Breathe slowly. Imagine the soles of your feet are rooting you deeper into the solid foundation of God’s promises. Trust. Trust in the Lord. Hold your arms up like branches. (Unless you’re in that business meeting!) See your fear blowing away like a dry leaf; watch God replace dry fear with green branches of eternal hope. See the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—growing from you by the power of the Holy Spirit in you. In Christ, you, too, can “flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (Ps. 92:12).
Oh, Jesus. Too often I make myself the center of my life, focusing on my efforts as the creator of peace and strength. Work in my heart and mind to use centering techniques as a way to bring me back to you: your Word, your love, your grace, your free salvation. Remind me when I breathe, walk, and experience life that you have rooted me in your promises, eternally safe in the balanced, good plans you have for me. Amen.
Point to Ponder: Centering techniques aligned with God's Word can calm our hearts and bring us to a place of peace.
Action Step: Choose just ONE of the techniques (breathing, movement or sensory awareness). Place a reminder in your phone or written on a Post-it note. Set a 3-minute timer and practice your chosen technique once a day for a week. If you're journaling, record your experiences. Continue with the technique if it's helpful, and/or try a different one next week.