Friday, December 18, 2009


When I ask new meditation and yoga students why they have decided to come to these practices, they often use the word "balance." They either want to improve their physical balance, or they are trying to find more balance in their lives in general. These are noble and wholesome desires, and at the same time, they bring with them some expectations that are difficult to meet.

Early in my current yoga practice, I heard teacher Gangha White say that "Balance is never static." This is obvious when we attempt some posture in which we are standing on one foot, such as the Tree Pose (vrksassana). We can see very quickly that the foot we are standing on is constantly making adjustments to keep us from falling over. It would be a mistake to try to control this movement, which almost always leads to over correcting and a complete loss of balance. We have to be present for these movements, keeping them in awareness moment-to-moment, and allow the body to find its way back to equilibrium.

It seems, therefore, that balance is a continuous play between steadiness and unsteadiness. To expect balance to be the absence of instability would mean denying that we are living organisms. The body has a built-in postural control system that is constantly displacing and correcting the position of our center of gravity over our feet to keep us upright. This interplay between destabilizing forces and this control system can be felt clearly by standing with both feet touching, and then closing your eyes.

In fact, the body is making countless micro-adjustments every second to keep itself stable through a phenomenon known as "postural sway." Try to stop this swaying, and you will see very quickly that the unconscious system is much more effective than our conscious mind. Imagine if we had to manage this system consciously all day long. It would take all of our attention. This postural control system is very much like the fly-by-wire control systems in modern aircraft. Some planes, like the F-117 Stealth Fighter, are inherently unstable aerodynamically. Therefore, a computer system is required to provide constant flight corrections which allows the plane the maintain control. Without this computer, the plane would plummet to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

So the nature of balance is that we can never be totally still. Even small events, such as breathing, can affect the postural control system. If we use the experience of balance in the body as a metaphor of our life, we can see that we can never expect perfect calm for extended periods of time. We are moving constantly from balance, to imbalance, and back again. Balance may be less like a feeling of steadiness, and more like the way choreographer Twyla Tharp once described walking: a controlled fall.

So as Gangha said, balance is never static - it is a process that is in constant motion. Balance is not the absence of movement, but the awareness of movement. So when we purposefully stand on one foot, it is not to achieve balance, but to merely be aware of the process of balance. Likewise, when we sit in meditation practice and experience pleasant and unpleasant events coming and going, we are taking part in this flow of balance.

We have to expect that there will be times of instability in our lives, and we have to know that these unstable experiences are inevitable. We also have to learn to trust our natural, inherent wisdom to help us manage these out-of-balance times, rather than reacting in a panic, and sending the whole thing crashing down. When we get in touch with the feelings of balance and imbalance - and with the pleasant and unpleasant - we can be more graceful during the wobbly, unsteady times, and more grateful during the moments of stability.
There is no secret to balance. You just have to feel the waves.~ Frank Herbert

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