By Beverly Feldt
Re-presented by Omni-U Virtual University by permission of the Author
When was the last time you felt that you lost your balance? I mean physically. Did a strong gust of wind make you work to stay upright? Did some ice send you on an unexpected encounter with the ground? Did you step on a Lego, or trip over a shoe, or fail to notice that stone in your path?How did you feel? Was it a shock? Did you recover quickly? Did you get hurt?
I must tell you, I have very good balance, most of the time. A yoga teacher once told me, as we stood one-legged in the tree pose, that she wished her balance was as good as mine. But I’m also congenitally clumsy. My sister, my cousin, and my daughter are, too. We’re famous for falling UP the stairs. It’s almost a talent, really. If there is anything – anything – unusual on the floor, however visible, I will trip on it. Often repeatedly. I get a lot of bruises. Here’s the silver lining: I also get constant practice in recovering from losing my balance.
We humans, most of the time, are afraid of falling. Bipedality – walking on two legs – is a weird piece of evolution, and sometimes I think we’re not quite used to it yet. Falling is embarrassing, somehow. It seems to undermine our dignity. Our language refers to this phenomenon: “How the mighty are fallen,” “riding for a fall.”
Falling is funny, too, especially when we’re unhurt. Many years ago, my husband and I used to do children’s theatre and a surefire way to get a huge laugh from the little ones was to fall down. If you were losing the audience’s attention, all you had to do was take a dive. They were yours again.
In my movement classes in college, we learned how to fall without hurting ourselves. Later, I studied judo, mostly because I was still afraid of falling and wanted to practice it, which I did, over and over again.
Many of us older folks get into a vicious circle about falling. We know that falls account for lots of difficulties in elders, that our bones and muscles can be weaker, and so we avoid situations in which we might fall; which often means avoiding the very kinds of movement that can make our bones and muscles stronger, and make losing our balance less hazardous. We narrow our world. We lose balance of a different kind.
And, anyway, walking itself is controlled falling. As we propel ourselves forward with the back foot, we stop our fall by moving the other foot ahead. We shift our weight to find balance between our own two legs and the ground, and then we do it all over again.
If you’ve ever watched a baby teaching itself to walk, you’ve seen this. They explore that loss of equilibrium when they lift one foot and try to place it elsewhere. Then there’s that charming moment when they get some momentum going, and then they’re forced to keep moving faster to stay ahead of gravity. They lose, of course, and tumble down. And in that wonder of the world, get right up and try it again.
There’s a phenomenon in our bodies and all of nature called homeostasis. It’s the movement towards a steady, balanced state in our bodies and in nature. The steady state is never final, once and for all – it’s always lost, always sought, always approximated, never achieved for long. Balance is dynamic, not static. Our beliefs, our solutions, our identities, our relationships – all are in motion at all times. The flow of life is constant change, and wisdom is accepting, flowing with, that change. As the Taoists and the Mandalorians say, “This is the way.”
Here's an exercise to show you how maintaining balance means constant movement. Play along with me, if you’re willing and able and it’s safe for you right now. Please stand up. Find your balance. Don’t hold on to anything. Now close your eyes. Pay attention to how your body feels. Are you swaying slightly? Notice your feet and legs. Are they making subtle adjustments to keep you upright? Pay attention to your abdomen. Mine is contracting and releasing in very small movements. Where else in your body can you feel all the effort to stay balanced?That’s physical balance, of course. And like almost everything we experience in the body, we have turned it into a metaphor for other areas of our life.
So, when was the last time that you felt you lost your balance emotionally? Did a phone call suddenly make you feel that the earth isn’t solid anymore? Did joy toss you one way, then sorrow another? And do you think there’s something wrong with you because of that?
Some people dream that with enough spiritual practice, enough therapy, enough of the right purchases, they can free themselves from the ups and downs of life. That they can maintain enough equanimity not to be thrown by change. To sail serenely through all the losses and gains, rises and falls, without being knocked off balance by any of them. I wish them well, but I don’t think that’s possible.
Jack Kornfield, the American Buddhist teacher, has a concept he calls “spiritual bypass.” It’s the notion we have that if we just meditate enough, or pray enough, or study enough, we can escape pain, sorrow, disappointment, and struggle. Instead of facing up to our difficulties, our trauma, our mortality, we deny it by claiming a higher consciousness or an enlightened view. But it doesn’t work. Life remains life, and to have a balanced experience, we have to engage with it. All of it.
The root of the word “equilibrium” is a Latin phrase meaning a balanced scale. The “librium” part of it is like Libra the constellation, the old-fashioned kind of scale like the one Lady Justice carries. To use a scale like that, you add weights to both pans until they balance. You don’t leave them empty forever, because then the scale is useless. Leaving the pans empty is like extreme renunciation or detachment – trying to achieve balance by checking out of the game altogether. You also don’t put weights only on one side or the other. In life, that would be like trying to achieve only happiness, or only sorrow; only success, or only failure. Of course, that doesn’t work very well, either.
We had a fine example of this lack of balance recently in the lawsuit E. Jean Carroll won against her attacker. The defendant’s lawyer seemed to argue that she would only be credible if she were in ruins for the rest of her life because of one incident, however painful and devastating. Those few minutes, the lawyer implied, were supposed to outweigh every other facet of her experience. But Ms. Carroll wasn’t like that. She was more balanced.
There’s a reason why Lady Justice carries scales. Don’t we all feel that justice itself is a search for balance, for making things equal? For restoring that which was taken away, for raising up the lowly and knocking the high and mighty down a peg or two? Perhaps justice is the whole group’s search for equilibrium. We speak of righting wrongs, just as we speak of righting a ship that’s listing to one side or another. Ever shifting, ever moving, constantly lost and regained, justice is an attempt to find the balance we long for, the golden mean, not too much of one thing or too little of another – but a place from which we can move in any direction and continue to dance with one another as good partners. So, how do we find our own sense of balance? Where does it come from, and how does it work?
In our bodies, the organ of balance is in a surprising place. Not our legs, not our brains, not our hands – but deep within our ears. The vestibular system is an exquisitely sensitive organ and a very small miracle of function. Each inner ear holds three semicircular canals, filled with fluid that moves when our head does..The fluid goes into a small space that contains minute hair cells, bending these cells, which then send the information via nerves to the brain.
Each of the three semicircular canals notes a different direction of movement in the head. One responds to its tilting up or down; another to its tilting left or right; and the third to the head’s turning sideways. But that’s not all! There are also two otolith organs in each ear. They work like the semicircular canals, but they use tiny crystals to send information to their hair cells. These little wonders detect acceleration. So they’re ready to note when the car brakes, the elevator moves, or the body falls.
Indeed, as the psalmist sang, we are "fearfully and wonderfully made." Of course, like everything else, it can go off the rails. I’ve had this experience myself. My seasonal allergies – ramped up to the full right now – cause my sinuses to get irritated, which sometimes spreads to my ears. When it does, I wake up, try to get out of bed, and stagger like I’m drunk, banging into walls and often falling down. (This is way beyond my normal clumsiness.) I’m dizzy, and I can’t get my body to go where I want it to. It’s awful and alarming, and when it first started a few years ago, I had myself thoroughly checked out by a specialist, since there are more serious illnesses that can cause this sort of thing.
Fortunately, it’s just my allergies, and I now have strategies to prevent this nastiness, although it still happens now and then when the tree pollen is raging. I confess to feeling sometimes that my back yard is trying to kill me. But, you have to admit, it all gives you a sense of amazement that these tiny organs usually work so well and enable us to move around the world, mostly staying upright and not crashing into one another. Mostly. It’s the ears! Who would have thought?
So, then I wonder: might it not be our ears that are the secret of balance in other parts of life? Can we use them to listen to the "still small voice within," adding another meaning to the term inner ear? Or, in the name of justice, use our ears to listen to each other’s stories – to listen deeply, so that our hands might loosen their death grip on our opinions, our hearts might soften and find a new balance between compassion and righteousness, between us and them. Ears open, hands open, heart open.
Balance has yet another meaning that might be fruitful to consider. There’s also the idea of elements being not equal, but in correct proportions. Like work-life balance. Balancing time alone and time with friends. A balance of giving and receiving, of sweet and sour, of the new and the old. And as with all balance, these proportions constantly shift and change. One week, work is the focus; the next, it may be celebration. Laying off the sweets may be a good idea, but once in a while a hot fudge sundae strikes just the right balance. Sometimes you listen more to your friend’s troubles, and sometimes your friend listens more to yours. But in the end, balance, as always, is lost and regained, constantly changing, constantly in play.
May you be blessed with a life in balance, in and out, ever shifting, ever a deep part of how we live, love, and thrive.
"Sticks and Stones and Names," an H3O Art of Life Show, Featuring: Beverly Feldt and Richard Oram.