Taking explorations of balance, stability, and flexibility beyond their obvious physiological realms.
One reason I love slacklining is that it gives unconscious processes of the mind and body opportunities to surface. Over time, the requirements for balance become integrated into muscle memory, and we don’t have to intentionally move around to stay upright. After a lot of practice, staying balanced becomes a matter of getting ordinary consciousness to back off so that it doesn’t interfere with those unconscious processes; it becomes a matter of surrendering conscious awareness to the wisdom of the deeper, unseen parts of self. Some things we do better without trying or thinking very hard.
We find that as we get better at slacklining, we have to keep track of fewer details. Soft shoulders and strength in the abdomen become automatic. Arms move freely to accommodate shifts in the body and the line. Posture adjusts as necessary to stay upright. This state requires a combination of relaxation and alertness. Fatigue and overexcitement tend to disrupt the outward flow of the wisdom of the body. Exhaustion and anxiety tend to keep the capacity for graceful expression locked inside. This is not only true with regard to slacklining.
Gregory Bateson (One of the inspirations for this blog who frequently used a tightrope metaphor in his writing) calls the part of mind that is able to get quickly what it wants “conscious purpose” (1972:434). In the chapter “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature” of Steps to an Ecology of Mind he explains that restricting oneself to the mode of conscious purpose prevents broader and deeper awareness—systemic awareness—from taking hold. Conscious purpose is the straight line, from point a to point b, that is only a small section of a larger overall pattern. In slacklining, it may be the desire to get to the end of the line. Blinding oneself to the rest of the pattern (or system) can lead to its self-destruction.
A not unlikely trap to fall into in dealing conscious purpose is to try to force it out of the way to make way for unconscious awareness, but this is self-sabotage (one of my favorite things I’ve learned about in slacklining!). I have a friend who recently came back from a fall midway across a longline and said he had lost his focus. That something had distracted him from paying attention to the line and got him thinking about something else. I gave him a funny look, because I think about all kinds of random crap when I walk, and often walk better when I’m not thinking about the line much at all. To me, it helps take away a layer of strain or forcing on the line. I let him know my perspective and he tried it out, reporting back that it seemed to help a little.
It can work, to try to create a strict focus and keep it locked in, but only for brief periods—it doesn’t stand the test of time. It is a fairly strenuous and unstable strategy. It means that as soon as your attention goes anywhere else, that’s a signal of failure and a reason to fall. As soon as you think: “I must not think! I must not get in the way of unconscious awareness and expression!”, you lock yourself into your problem. Commands, demands, and purposiveness come from ordinary consciousness.
Letting go of living on the surface of consciousness does not mean eliminating it completely; once again, taking the middle road gets us where we want to go. Balance happens when parts of mind work together. Bateson puts forth that it is the “synthesis” of the conscious and unconscious views that generates wisdom—and he also says that this is not particularly easy to do (1972:438). I agree. I think that to get to a point of walking gracefully on a line, consistent practice, dedication, and at the same time non-attachment to the outcome are all part of the process; communication and coordination of parts of mind brings steadiness.
Walter Cannon, also an inspiration for this blog and author of “The Wisdom of The Body,” observed human physiology and discovered a principle that we can relate to slacklining: “In maintaining steady-states in the blood and lymph [cells of the fluid matrix] work both for the welfare of the cells in other organs essential to the body, and also for their own welfare. In short they well illustrate the arrangements for mutual dependence […] the integrity of its individual elements, and the elements, in turn, are impotent and useless save as parts of the organized whole” (1932:291).
So if you’ve been finding it difficult to enter that state in which your corrections on the slackline are natural and spontaneous instead of strained or ineffective, consider the way you use your mind on the line. Consider whether striving for a blank mind is your gateway to steadier walking or your obstacle. Another possible strategy is to let both the mind and body do what they will do. Let them run free and make no effort to rein them in—but commit yourself to attempting to walk the line. This involves a relaxation of consciousness to allow what we have already learned to manifest, but also a maintenance of that consciousness so as not to eliminate it completely. Slacklining brings the parts of mind and body together in conversation, and that synthesis ends up being quite nice.
 Wisdom being defined as an awareness of and understanding of the interactions of all parts of the total system at hand.
Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972. Print.
Cannon, Walter B. The Wisdom of the Body. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1939. Print.