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Taking explorations of balance, stability, and flexibility beyond their obvious physiological realms.

September 22, 2015

Where are you?:

A Meditation on the importance of proprioception today

Written By Sara Kaiser (@okayserasera)

[ See Original Post Here ]

“Bread and Butterflies” a ~190’, located somewhere. Photo by Mike Wang

“Bread and Butterflies” a ~190’, located somewhere. Photo by Mike Wang

Ever been lost? How do you figure out where you are? Besides your smartphone, signs on the road tell you what street you’re on or what city or state you’re in, semipermeable barriers at the border tell you what country you’re in. Maps help you make sense of all that information, and the compass points you north. If this is one of those inspired days that we boycott technology we have the sun, the moon, the stars and planets. We have human beings and food sources and bodies of water to orient us, and we have at bare minimum ground and sky—at least when we aren’t slacklining or elsewise airborne.


So we have a multitude of external reference points to turn to when we are lost. But without having to look anything up or exert any effort whatsoever, your body already has a system in place for navigating up, down, side to side, in out, etc. Proprioception is your body's way of locating itself relative to itself. This is handled by calcium crystals interacting with cilia in your ears, messages between eyes and brain, interactions between muscles, bones, tendons, and other relationships among body parts. You can hold an arm out to the side and feel that it is there--you don't have to look. Proprioception is also responsible for harmoniously incorporating other objects into our physical system, such as a car, bicycle, human, or slackline.


When we slackline, we cultivate our proprioceptive senses. A narrow piece of webbing provides not only less tactile surface from which to glean information about our location in space, but it is also moving! It is less predictable than a sidewalk, a balance beam, or even a tightrope, and therefore requires constant monitoring. This challenge hones the proprioceptive systems in your body and can help you rise to the level of balance champion. Close your eyes and, assuming you don’t fall right away, you will gradually enhance the acuity of your internal orientation systems. From then on, when you slackline, knowing that your proprioception is supreme, other people won’t buy your excuses that you don’t have a great focal point ahead of you or whatever (by the way, that’s my excuse so find your own.)


But no matter how good our proprioception is, we still need external reference points in order to take part in relationships. To look outside of yourself for reference is perfectly reasonable and necessary; but it can be overdone.


In balanced play, you keep one eye on yourself and one eye on the other. You act with a constantly renewing awareness of what actions mean what, and how other players will interpret what you do. In a way, slacklining is the same deal. You must have a strong awareness of your own self as well as the line. Each informs the other. How you step will cause the slackline to move in a particular way, which in turn affects your movement—on and on and on. So play depends on internal and external awareness--and requires that we switch off between the two so that we may integrate them.


 This exact analysis can be applied to intra-community interactions. If we predominantly understand the world by looking outside of ourselves, we are liable to become competitive. So-and-so walked this far, so-and-so did a leashless triple Luke Skywalker, etc etc etc.


If the approach to the play or the sport is competitive, this should be stated, explicitly or sufficiently hinted at. Because if it is not, insincere relations flourish and resentments build. No point in faking humility and supportiveness—if you are in it to win it then say so! Or don’t say anything. It’s worse to fake supportiveness than to be unsupportive. People can smell disingenuousness from a mile away. Having enemies is very grounding anyway I highly recommend it.

If you cannot stand the competitive game, your challenge is to resist it when it comes to you. It means not looking at anybody else's achievements as a reference point for your own. It means ignoring the differences in numbers, and it means focusing intensely on what it is YOU want to do. Yes, these people exist but they are few and far between. If you want to be described as "refreshing" this is a great avenue for you.


We already know that competition is a deeply rooted part of human experience. What we are also seeing these days is that external cross-referencing is a growing trend. Social media make it easier than ever to evaluate peoples’ life experiences and productions and approve them with “likes.” This might seem trivial, a pattern confined within the world of Facebook and Instagram, but it arises out of tendencies that as competitive creatures--we have been doing for a long time. We are not, however, forever doomed to pattern (make sense of) the world in these narrow, simplistic and anxious modes—there is an antidote to consistent self/other judgment and comparison. I see the slacklining community, as a collection of people fascinated with balance, as being perfectly poised to begin to shift the weight back over to the world of the interior (and there are already some subtle signs of this taking place). The importance of taking this antidote should not be underestimated, because the roots of self-judgment go very deep but can grow undetected and poison lives later on. I'm not exaggerating. Poison.


The antidote to compulsive self judgment and comparsison is solitude and open self-reflection-an intentional suspension of judgment and self/other comparison for the sake of a different point of view and the insights that arise from it. We can do it while we walk the line, while we feel our way forward without criticizing or praising what is. It is a honing of proprioception, inner awareness. And why? 


Because external reference points are unstable. They will break down and fluctuate beyond your control. When the exterior maps mislead you (or make you feel bad about yourself), imagine what good it will do you to know that you already have a GPS system within. Bad focal points on the highline? Good thing you trained with your eyes closed.


Of course we look around us to know where—and who—we are. I know myself by knowing another. But to make sense of the exterior we must also hold it up against the interior. We need time, space, and quiet to do that, and we need to do it long enough to see how permeable the boundary between self and other is. On the slackline or off, it might feel more natural, we might be more conditioned, to open the eyes and see what is outside, but there is also the option to close the eyes and to see what is inside. And when you do, you will realize exactly where you are—


You are here.