buddha5Since the dawn of time, the navel has been the focus of some reflective form of philosophical contemplation known as omphalopsychism.

Why do people stare on their navel? Maybe it is because the navel literally represents the location of their birth. Maybe it is because that’s just where your eye falls when your head drops during meditation.

I think of the Buddha’s navel. I’m guessing that he did quite a bit of navel gazing.

The navel is also called the umbilicus or omphalodium or just the belly button. Of course, it is scar tissue from where the umbilical cord was originally attached. That’s a pretty serious and symbolic connection.

Today, we also use the expression “navel gazing” to mean self-contemplation.

Obviously, thinking about yourself is important. Know thyself. This ancient Greek aphorism was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – according to the Greek Pausanias. It has been attributed to Chilon of Sparta, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates and others. Not so important to us.

Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, when it was a major site for the worship of the god Apollo after he slew the Python, a deity who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth. The site was considered the center of the earth, represented by a stone, the omphalos or navel, which Python guarded.

So what was it telling those who entered the temple to do? Perhaps, it simply meant (though not simply accomplished) that if you can understand yourself, you can understand other humans as well.

Then again, most of those ancient Greek philosophers thought that no man can ever comprehend the human spirit and thought thoroughly. So, were they asking the impossible? Were they more simply saying that we should each know our habits, morals, temperament, and other aspects of our very human behavior that we deal with every day.

Another, more mystical, interpretation focuses on “thyself” as meaning the ego within self, the I AM consciousness.

Rodin's Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Musée Rodin

Rodin's Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Musée Rodin

I don’t know of any official navel gazing groups around today, but omphalopsychite groups have existed throughout history. I was reading about the Hesychasts, a sect of quietists who (from c.AD 1050) practiced gazing at the navel to induce a hypnotic reverie. The Hesychasts believed that through a rigorous regime of asceticism, devotion, and deep contemplation of the body, a mystic light (the uncreated divine light of God) could be seen. Based on Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to “go into your closet to pray,”  Hesychasts practiced retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.

Today, we also use the expression “navel gazing” to mean something negative – the excessive introspection, self-absorption, or concentration on yourself or on a single issue. Too much of a good thing.

With the more widespread use of mental health therapies, you can easily see both definitions at work. First, you must know yourself and examine your own behaviors in order to recognize what is causing your problems. But, become too deeply involved in that looking inward and you will no doubt need more therapy and medication.

As with so much else, a question of balance…

Deeper Gazing

Quietism (philosophy) and as a Christian philosophy

Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Musée Rodin