Taking explorations of balance, stability, and flexibility beyond their obvious physiological realms.
“Steady states in society as a whole and steady states in its members are closely linked.”
–Walter Cannon, The Wisdom of the Body, 1934
In a world that is turbulent and unpredictable, the ability to stabilize oneself is undoubtedly a useful skill. And yet, lessons in emotional regulation and nervous system fine-tuning are not an integral part of our education growing up. We are lucky if we have role models of stable, balanced individuals nearby, and even luckier if we receive teachings from them.
Slackliners, especially highliners, are well-acquainted with processes of steadying mind and body. The classic approach to any line is to get poised to walk, and then be very still, for a brief moment or for a longer period. During this time we feel the body acclimating to the line, and we focus intensely on the here and now. That focus is sustained while we walk. Often the senses of touch and sight sharpen. Thoughts that arise become more conspicuous. Awareness and action commune and everything falls into place.
But this feeling can be disturbed when the environment poses alternative focal points. Have you walked a line over water and felt the current pull you its direction until you toppled off? Have you walked over the ocean and lost your balance as the thunderous roar of waves and tumultuous stirrings below you seduce your ears and eyes? Has a thousand feet of emptiness framed by jagged rocks sucked you into its delirious possibilities? Maybe it was a remote-controlled car, a child approaching the line, a spunky dog, a good-looking guy or lady, or a car alarm that dissolved your focus and disturbed your balance. Expand the thought, and maybe it was a painful interaction, a world event, or a loss that threw you off kilter.
We are sensitive to what is around us--we are like nerve endings of the universe as philosopher Alan Watts suggested. Beings are not isolated vessels of life that are not affected by the environment. So the fact that something can draw your attention shows that you are in relationship with your surroundings, that you are involved in and engaged with the world. This is quite delightful, but sometimes we find that to be attuned to that which surrounds us can be very painful. Alas, to be able to be sensitive to, but not dominated by what is out there, is, well…a balancing act. We want neither to be completely rigid and locked within ourselves nor torn asunder by external events.
“By an apparent contradiction [the body] maintains its stability only if it is excitable and capable of modifying itself according to external stimuli and adjusting its response to the stimulation […] In a sense it is stable because it is modifiable, the slight instability is the necessary condition for the true stability of the organism.”
–Walter Cannon, 1934
Stability depends on mobility. Being able to wave the arms at the sides and maneuver the ankles are keys to staying upright on a slackline. Steadiness arises out of the integration of strength and flexibility, of fortitude and non-attachment. She who is steady is not so because she is rigid and unmoving, but rather because she has the wisdom to know when to resist and when to yield.
The simplest method to calm oneself is to pause and to breathe slowly (by the way, it's so simple its often ignored). This subdues knee-jerk reactions and creates an opportunity to choose from a larger selection of responses to a given stimulus. But in many situations, there simply is not a template. There is not an infallible set of instructions we can follow to know how to become more stable. So it is a lifelong journey in the art of stabilization. Instead of only attempting to stabilize when we feel precarious, deepening a sense of stability when we are on solid ground can help us immensely when things get rough.
“Stability would free mankind from a vast amount of pain.”
-Walter Cannon, 1934
So our lessons in slacklining can inform how we calm and steady ourselves in all kinds of situations—in the grocery store, in traffic, during a difficult conversation. The stability we cultivate within ourselves, then, undoubtedly contributes to that of others, as each individual is simply part of every other person’s environment. The opportunity and the challenge is here. Establish a greater sense of peace within yourself, and you will make your country a more peaceful place.
“Steady states in society as a whole and steady states in its members are closely linked. Just as social stabilization would foster the stability, both physical and mental, of the members of the social organ, so likewise it would foster their higher freedom, giving them serenity and leisure, which are the primary conditions for wholesome recreation, for the discovery of a satisfactory and invigorating social milieu, and for the discipline and enjoyment of individual aptitudes.”
-Walter Cannon, 1934
In a world that is turbulent and unpredictable, you, a steady, balanced being, can become the reference point that others look to in order to in order to return to their own feeling of stability. There is profound peace in the footfalls in our local parks, among the canyons of Moab, above the valley floor of Yosemite, between boulders in Oregon, and the mountains in Switzerland.
Placing one foot in front of the other, we step decidedly toward peace.
Thank you for walking the line.