What is something you don’t miss, until it is gone? One of my favorite lines from an old movie, The Paper, has Marissa Tomei sneezing as the very pregnant wife of the newspaper editor in the movie and say, “You don’t appreciate bladder control until it is gone”.
Balance is like that – we know it most when we lose it. Physical, emotional, life balance – we feel the lack of it as we lose it or when we end up on the literal or metaphorical floor.
Balance is immediate – we know when we have it and we know when we don’t.
Balance is intangible – what it actually is, how it is affected, what supports it is a little more elusive.
What feels like balance within you? In your life? What do you do when unbalanced?
What restores your sense of balance?
How we experience balance and the loss of balance can show up in different forms. I could feel more unsure, move in more tentative ways. I can lose trust in myself and may shrink from some activities. I can feel diminished, feeling the old in my aging process. I can feel afraid, bracing against what might come.
I lost my balance once buying corn at a road side stand. I stepped back from the counter, connecting my calf with the wooden brace extending out of the front of the stand. In one moment, I was buying corn and in the next moment, I was falling backward. I felt a sense of control, then felt out of control. I was falling before I could think I was falling.
How we look at balance yields a view into what it is and how we can inhabit ourselves with a sense of balance.
Alan Questel says, “When we lose or regain our balance it is mostly recognized through how we move. We move as a result of our intentions. When we are unable to fulfill our intentions, it may show up as a loss of balance.” We have an intimate, often unconscious relationship between our intentions and our actions.
Have you had the experience of fumbling with your keys, to orient your key into the lock? This small struggle moment is when intention and action are not relating well. When I want to get through the door and I fumble with my keys, my intention does not include the process of lining up my key, of inserting it in the lock and turning the lock to release the door.
I am focused on the goal of getting into my house, getting on with it so I skip over my intention in the act of unlocking. And depending on how many re-usable shopping bags or weapons bags I am holding, I swear a little!
So how do we find the way to fulfill our intention when we move?
We use two personal resources, perception and manipulation, to fit intention to action. We tend to focus on manipulation as the skill that needs improving. I find how we use our perception is more often the initiator of the problem.
How well, how accurately, how precisely am I perceiving what is in front of me? Am I using an existing mental model of the lock in the door to guide my movement? Or am I having a full, unfettered experience to perceive what is there – my key, the lock so I am set up to do the manipulation needed.
What perceptual hygiene might be called for to clear away what is getting in the way? Am I absorbed with a rumination about a conversation? Am I drunk? Am I absorbed in thinking about what I will do next? Am I sucked into the sensations of an exhausted body budget?
Try this out – put your key into your lock but see how it would be possible to slide the tip of the key precisely into the slot of the lock without tapping, without bumping the key tip on the outer rim of the lock? What kind of attention would you need to bring to make a clean insertion? How slow or how quickly would you need to move?
So part of inhabiting a sense of balance can be expressed as a harmonious relationship between intention and action.
To return to my unbalanced corn buying story, I intended to back away from the stall and encountered an obstacle. My balance was broken. I didn’t intend to back into the wooden brace so there is another piece to looking at balance – how we interact with our environment.
Why is unlocking the door important? Our environment determines how we act in the world. What about choice? Free will? I could leave my door unlocked, removing this need to unlock it. But I don’t, because I live in a neighborhood with a steady stream of people in my back alley looking for bottles and sometimes the opportunity for something more. So I engage in this ritual to lock my door that feeds my sense of feeling secure. Growing up on a farm, we never locked our door, because a neighbor might need something when we were not at home. Different environments, different actions.
What creates balance walking up and down stairs? Do you look down at each stair as you step? Do you look straight ahead? Going down stairs, we often look down, literally rounding down to cope with the felt sense of risk while descending. Stepping down stairs feels less risky than walking down a muddy or icy slope.
A friend shared her experience of slipping down a muddy slope in a haunted house, losing her balance on the dark and unpredictable surface. How can we find balance when our environment gives us conditions that are not stable? What does it mean to have balance when we don’t know what is going to happen next? What if balance isn’t a state but a process, a response to each moment?
I admit I love watching parkour. For anyone who hasn’t seen parkour, here is a short glimpse.
This example includes high levels of athleticism but in its most basic form parkour is the practice of moving in your environment.
Playground environments are a familiar form of parkour – monkey bars, balance beams, climbing walls. Watching a child navigate a climbing structure, I see the same close attention, the regard for precisely what is possible for the next handhold or foothold, all within the comfortable range of his own reach, his body’s dimensions within the space.
In navigating uncertain surfaces, we fare better staying open, responsive to our environment. To brace, to become more rigid in reaction to fear of falling separates us from the information we could be receiving, the sense of the small ridge under your right foot, the slight slope down to the left. What if balance was the process of an unspoken, felt conversation between the person who moves and the environment she moves through? How well do we listen to our environment when we move?
An odd thing happened a couple of weeks ago. I spent a couple days checking my feet – it felt like something was stuck to the bottom of my feet – I could feel something there. Then I realized, I was simply feeling more with my feet. When I opened my awareness, I could feel the grain on the hardwood floor, feel the ridges on the linoleum, feel the texture of the welcome mat to a degree I was not conscious of before. I don’t have a well-defined “why” for how this increase in sensitivity has come to be; I do know that I have come into a better sense of balance by feeling more.
This leads me to focus on a third lens on balance – the question of our structure.
Back to the corn stand. I am falling backward, tripped over the wooden brace at the corn stand. This story is memorable for me because of how I fell. Somehow, maybe in some kind of early whisper of my aikido practice to come, I found a way to fold and roll gently onto my back. I was surprised. The woman selling corn was surprised. It just happened. No time to think. What happened? Why didn’t I just fall backward, flat on the pavement?
The question for structure and balance is – can we regain our balance once we have lost it, once it is compromised? And can we do something about our balance before it is a problem?
Clearly, we need to go beyond an understanding of structure as the form or the shape our feet, legs, hips that lets us be stable, to stand without toppling. All of that is important, but in order to live, to function fully, we need a structure that can move and be balanced.
Falling is different from movement in its reversibility. When I step forward, I can choose to pause and step backward at any time during the movement. When I fall, I can’t reverse it. At the corn stand, I was going down. I have an opportunity though, to alter the process and direction of my movement as I fall. A stumble became a roll. I was able to move in the direction I was already going and change my action. Dynamic balance involves a responsiveness to the combination of intention, environment and manipulation of our structure, a kind of flow power to create moment by moment anew our intentions, our actions. We shut this flow down when we contract, when we brace against what the moment brings. When we inhabit ourselves with a sense of balance, we call out our capacity to adapt, adjust and find postures of support.