When I was a teen, my father taught me racquetball basics. In case you don’t know, the game is played with a bouncy rubber ball, short-handled rackets and no net in a small, enclosed court. Every surface is fair game – walls, floor and even the ceiling. The play is fast-paced, aggressive, and often, in my opinion, overwhelming. Kind of like life sometimes. And you can get hurt.
Of the many skills and lessons my dad tried to teach me over the years, I can’t think of a single one that stuck any more permanently or served as so meaningful a metaphor as his racquetball wisdom. The most responsive spot on the court is at the center, he instructed me. Always come back to the center position. The strategy is to stay poised in order to move easily in any direction to return a shot. It feels tremendously risky at first because your back is to your opponent, but it doesn’t take long to understand the value of the strategy.
As a poet and an idealist, I pondered that metaphor until it came to represent the ideal of living a centered life. But what exactly is that?
Sorts, whacks and kilters. Most of us are familiar with expressions like out of sorts, out of whack, off-kilter, off the beam, off-center, off-balance, at sixes and sevens, bent out of shape. We don’t have to know the meaning and origin of sorts, whacks and kilters to get the sense that these are all ways of describing that unmistakable feeling of discomfort (and perhaps even panic) that signals an abandoned center.
For me, abandoning the center can happen in any of these ways:
- Skimping on the supportive routines that make me feel solid and grounded (rest, regular meals, solitude, journaling, meditation, movement, contact with nature, unplugging from electronic stimulation, taking care of business, free and unstructured time for play and daydreaming)
- Putting external concerns (work, social activities, volunteer commitments) above internal priorities (personal goals, primary relationships, creativity, spirituality)
- Getting over-involved and over-empathetic with other people’s problems (including not only immediate issues in the lives of friends, family and neighbors, but also the local, regional, national and world “news”)
- All of the above
Did you notice I didn’t include having my own challenges as part of the list? That’s because having my own problems does not necessarily throw me off-kilter (which, by the way, roughly means out of alignment or balance, not in good health). In fact, if I’ve stayed close to center with these core supports, I’m in the perfect position to cope with what arises in my life. I’m in the middle of the court and poised to respond. I am attentive and strong, ready and resilient.
In case of emergency. Right now in my life, things are unbelievably uncertain. I have no income and am living by faith. People who are close and dear to me are facing major hurdles: one got fired unexpectedly, two have long-term marriages in crisis, several are ill, one is in the hospital, two recently lost dear pets, and another is attending to her husband in the last stages of a terminal illness.
Tenderhearted and service-oriented as I am, it is clearly time to make sure I am in the center of my emotional-physical-spiritual racquetball court. And here is perhaps the most convincing reason why: in case of emergency, I am no good to anyone (including myself), if I have gotten off-center.
Where is the center? The center of which I speak is a metaphorical space, a symbolic place, and yet, many of us could agree, I imagine, that it exists. We can feel when we are there and we can sense when we have strayed. That is the first step, simply noticing.
I colored this design with markers when I needed to center myself (from a book by Susanne F. Fincher, “Color Mandalas for Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression”). Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, a shape that can symbolize wholeness, infinity, the self in relation to the cosmos, and much more. I find it incredibly soothing and focusing to color, play my ukulele, chop vegetables for a meal, or go for walk. Other friends accomplish the same thing by knitting, drumming, yoga, gardening and the like. These are but a few of many ways to reclaim your center court position.
What I notice these tools have in common is that they invite full presence and attention. To attend is originally from the French, meaning to “direct one’s mind or energies” and the Latin for “to stretch toward.” I feel this as a deep yearning when I get distracted, frazzled and frantic. I feel the call to attend to my own needs, to return to my center. Sometimes all it takes is to rest my hand on my chest and get still – and there it is, here I am, back in touch with myself.