Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout-Musings on Gravitational Centers

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Abide with Me: A Novel“A good thing to be humbled. But now I’m scared. I guess of not having a center of gravity, the way Bonhoeffer says a grown man has. I’m not sure I have a center of gravity. But you must. Why? As a matter of fact, I could imagine that none of us has a center of gravity. That we’re tugged and pulled by competing forces every minute and we hold on as best we can. Thats a relief because sometimes Bonhoeffer has this tone like he knows everything.  He knew a great deal but I suspect if he was concerned about his center of gravity it was because his center felt pretty wobbly at times.”  Elizabeth Strout, Abide With Me, 280-1

 Abide with Me: A Novel A novel written by Elizabeth Strout about a New England minister set in the late 1950’s who loses his way after he suffers the tragic loss of his wife to cancer. The book follows him through his interactions with his family and the troubled members of his congregation.

The late ’50’s were a fearful time of unrest, the aftermath of two wars— WWII and the Korean War were still fresh wounds, our nation was caught in the midst of the Cold War as well.

Typically most Christians today when they find themselves searching for guidance and answers to moral dilemmas ask themselves WWJD?, “What Would Jesus Do?”.  However, Elizabeth Strout depicted her main character as a WWDBD? “What Would Dietrich Bonhoeffer Do?” kind of man.

He had found the works of the theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during his studies at divinity school and Bonhoeffer’s words quickly became a fulcrum for the reverend, a way to balance out his thoughts and his sermons. A plumb line for how to behave as a grown man and as a minister to his flock.

Not my usual “cup of tea” but Elizabeth Strout is a very good author, she tells a compelling story and has quite the way with words. I had read another of her books, Olive Kitteridge. I plan on reading more.

Her Reverend finds himself struggling, hard to be the person he once was, hard to find the right words in his sermons, and hard to find the right words to help others, much less himself.  Throughout the book he must come to deal with a series of humbling blows to his sense of self. Not even WWDBD is working anymore.

Above is a paraphrase of a conversation between the main character and his theological mentor set near the end of the book. This conversation struck my “yoga bone” as the use of your gravitational center is crucial to the practice of Yoga.  A physical and mental journey to bring balance to life.

“Abide with Me” as I work my way through these thoughts about gravitational centers.


A Physical Center of Gravity

In “Abide With Me”, Elizabeth Strout is referring to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian, and his reference to the complex concept of a mental center of gravity in a letter he wrote to a homesick soldier during WWII. 

A mental center of gravity involves utilizing various checks and balances that helps your conscious mind develop a sense of equanimity more than it involves the actual physical reality of the gravitational pull of the earth.

However, understanding the physical helps to make sense of the mental, at least to me, especially since at times they neatly juxtapose.

So while this post will take us away from the book my intent is to give you a better understanding of how our bodies align with the gravitational pull of the earth and how Yogis use this fundamental force to find ease and comfort in yoga poses. The next post will delve into the mental aspects of developing an inner sense of equilibrium and how having the one can translate into gaining the other.

We have a complex relationship with gravity, there must be balance, without it we quite literally wouldn’t exist.

All human bodies have a physical center of gravity because we are objects that contain mass. We float weightless in the womb but birth forever changes all that.

A center of gravity is defined as a balance of forces that produce equilibrium. Gravity always acts downward on every object on earth. Gravity multiplied by an object’s mass produces a force known as weight. If the object has its weight distributed equally throughout, its balance is at its geometric center.

A ball is a simple example because balls have a simple relationship with gravity, a ball’s center of gravity is located right in its center. But all objects behave as though their mass (the stuff they are made of) is concentrated at a point called their center of gravity.

A human body, definitely more complex than a ball, has a more complex relationship with gravity and our gravitational centers are located slightly higher than our waists as we carry more weight on top than below.

The Yogi in me can’t escape noticing that the literal location of my body’s center of gravity is located at the solar plexus, the Mani Pura Chakra. They may not have understood physics but these early Yogis did understand the concept that balance comes from the center.

You can find your own personal center of gravity by centering your upper body above your feet, your body will be balanced and you are unlikely to topple over. I would imagine that this is the driving force behind Tadasana (Mountain Pose).

When you stand perfectly upright, perfectly motionless, when all the tugging,  pulling and turning forces are exactly balanced and cancelled out, then you have found your gravitational center.  Finding it while standing still is relatively easy.

Keeping your balance while moving is a whole different ballgame because movement involves thinking about where your weight is and how to move it — without using too much energy or losing control.

A lot of life’s daily balancing acts become routine, automatically handled through skillful monitoring by your Autonomic Nervous System in coordination with your vision and motion sensors located in your inner ears. This gives us the ability to move about our days without really “thinking” about it. The conscious mind is free to look elsewhere.

Start leaning to either side and everything changes. In the effort to maintain balance the conscious mind is required to step in, to pay attention.  A smooth paved trail requires much less attention than a rocky road.

The quest to maintain a moving center of gravity, the quest to find equilibrium while standing on one foot, demands that you drop extraneous thoughts—the ones that tug and pull your mind in different directions.

This is because balance work that is physically challenging demands your full wakeful attention, you can’t fake balance, the instant you lose focus you fall over, balance demands that you remain focused on the task at hand.

Standing in Tree Pose requires an intense unwavering alertness to maintain, yet curiously a juxtaposition arises, out of that intense focus a deep sense of mental calm surfaces as you work to minimize the swaying of your branches.

“When we balance, we align the body’s center of gravity with the earth’s gravitational field. This means to literally place ourselves in physical equilibrium with a fundamental force of nature. The sustained effort to center and recenter, when successful brings not only our flesh and bones into balance but also our nerve impulses, thoughts, emotions and very consciousness. Equilibrium brings equanimity.” Roger Cole, Plumb Perfect, The Yoga Journal August 2007

We align our bodies with gravity during a physical practice to find a comfortable sense of ease in a pose. 

Sutra II:46 STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM Posture should be steady and comfortable.

We align our conscious mind towards stillness in meditation to find a quiet sense of peaceful flow.

Sutra I:2 YOGAS CITTA VRITTI NIRODHAH Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.

We humble ourselves by attempting to balance on one leg in a variety of challenging yoga poses in front of others.

We are more able to find ease and comfort in a pose when our minds are not tugged and pulled in many directions.

We are more able to find a quiet mind when we make a concentrated effort to rest our mind on the task at hand.

We are more able to accept our failings with equanimity, by the realization that focusing only on our failures totally negates all the times our “trees” stood as steady as a mighty oak.

Sometimes we stumble, sometimes we fall, sometimes we sway in the breeze, sometimes we are steady, and sometimes we peacefully flow. The equanimity that Patanjali speaks of is the ability to place yourself mentally and physically on the very center of the seesaw that makes up your life experience, neatly balancing out the ups and downs.

We are more able to find this balance when we diligently focus on the immediate task at hand. The mind and the body come to work in the harmony of purposeful intent.

The best way to strengthen your physical balance is to practice many one-legged balancing poses and then practice them some more.

The best way to strengthen your mental balance is through meditation, the practice of centering your mind—not letting it get tugged and pulled away by extraneous thoughts. Make meditation a daily practice.


A Mental Center of Gravity

According to Wikipedia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, the founding member of The Confessing Church, a widely influential writer, his “The Cost of Discipline” being considered a modern classic. He was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi’s in 1943 and was executed in 1945. He (36) also found the time to marry a 17 year-old while being held captive by the Nazis.

During WWII he wrote a letter to a homesick soldier serving in Italy in which we find the quote alluded to by Elizabeth Strout in her book, “Abide With Me”:

“…But surely it is the mark of a grown-up man, as compared to a callow youth, that he finds his center of gravity wherever he happens to be at the moment, and however he longs for the object of his desire, it cannot prevent him from staying his post and doing his duty?” Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 74)

Like Elizabeth Strout, I suspect that indeed Bonhoeffer spent many of his final days feeling out of balance, it would be hard to imagine that newly married life in a concentration camp was an easy place in which to find equilibrium of any kind.

Human society, to say the least, makes maintaining a mental gravitational center more of a challenge. It is through our interaction with our fellow humans that the majority of our physical and mental suffering arises.

Bonhoeffer’s remarks about a grown-up’s ability to hold true to a mental center of gravity by staying in the present moment, without letting his mind tug and pull him away, regardless of the heartfelt desire to be elsewhere, is the very essence of the science of Yoga.

The mastery of emotions, being in and remaining in the present moment, and the discipline to diligently focus on the task at hand are all Yogic aphorisms.

His remarks also speak eloquently to the three essential elements of balance, both physical and mental.

“The three essential elements of balance are alignment, strength, and attention. Alignment of the body with gravity is crucial, it makes balance physically possible. Strength gives us the power to create, hold, and adjust alignment. And attention continually monitors alignment so we know how to correct it from one moment to the next.” Roger Cole, Plumb Perfect, The Yoga Journal August 2007

Roger Cole neatly sums up what it takes to remain physically balanced.  I believe that those same three elements can be extrapolated out to equally apply as essential elements for mental balance.

Imagine your mind as a seesaw continually tottering between raga (that which rests on pleasure) and dvesha (that which rests on pain/suffering).  We humans have a tendency to cling tightly to our pleasures and to have deep aversions towards that which brings us pain and suffering.

To the mind of Patanjali neither pain or pleasure was worthy of cultivation, he would rather a yogi cultivate a condition in which mental activity is controlled, the mind resting in equanimity at the plumb center of the seesaw.

It is only natural for a soldier stationed far away from home and family, caught up in a truly horrible war to long to be back among the comforts of home, family and his loved ones.

Anywhere but where he actually is, and Italy during WWII must have been horrible indeed, my grandfather was also stationed there and he absolutely refused any requests to learn more about his service and experience. He didn’t want to “re-live it” and I wasn’t about to make him just to satisfy my curiosity.

While I certainly thank our soldiers for their service, I think I would prefer to look at the broad concepts of what Bonhoeffer expressed to this poor soldier instead. This post would definitely get sucked down a “fox hole” if I do not.

The callow youth is inexperienced, they jump the gun, act rashly, are subject to over the top emotional responses, love hard, hate hard, and think that they know all there is to know. Youth typically lives at either end of the seesaw.

The grown-up, one hopes, has gained mastery over his emotions through years of experience. He still has emotions certainly but he no longer allows them to control his thoughts and actions. Age seasons us, making us more reasoned and sensible, we have a more even hand. Being a grown-up means inching your way toward the center of the seesaw, a more balanced approach to life.

You don’t let your intense longing for home or your distinct hatred for this war distract you, for those thoughts left unchecked are disruptive, harmful and debilitating. You simply say to yourself that it is what is and its going to be what its going to be. 

Our likes and dislikes represent a simplified but a practical way of looking at what motivates our behavior. We seldom sit in neutral.  Our experience is pretty much always colored by our attractions and aversions. Neutrality only starts to be realized when balance comes to play, leading to equanimity—a calm sense of indifference.

This approach to life experience predisposes a certain level of emotional control, no doubt this is why Elizabeth Strout has her pastor say, “… because sometimes Bonhoeffer has this tone like he knows everything.”

Patanjali often comes off this way as well, he seemingly had little interest in teaching unqualified disciples about emotional control. Emotions are an integral part of human experience, a subject well worth exploring at a later date.

Back to our soldier.

I imagine the circumstances of his experience at that point were mostly out of his control and to dwell on those thoughts would only bring him even more angst.

I believe that what is key to finding your own personal mental center of gravity would mean gaining the ability to control that which is in your ability to control and letting go of that which is not yours to control.

So what Bonhoeffer is telling this homesick soldier is essentially this:

You miss your home, you want to kiss your wife, you are cold and hungry, you hate this war, but tonight you “man up” as you have guard duty so you stand at attention and do exactly that. The lives of your fellow soldiers depends on your ability to focus on staying at your post and doing your duty.

You align your mind to the task at hand be it standing guard straight and tall, balancing on one foot, or consistently letting go of extraneous thoughts during meditation.

Developing strength will give you the power to create, hold and adjust your alignment so that you can remain strong and steadfast in your purpose.  This remains true whether you need to remain— standing guard, standing on one leg, or sitting in meditation.

If you have ever paid close attention to your posture during meditation you will notice that your body has a tendency to literally lean into your thoughts.

So attention is also key because it allows us to monitor and observe and gives us the ability to keep moving our body’s and our mind’s back into a balanced alignment.

This way the soldier notices the suspicious moving shadow, you notice that your tree pose is listing to the left, or that you need to let go of yet another disruptive thought.

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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.