This piece will be one of the most important posts I’ll ever write. It’s an amalgum of observations I have gleaned from teaching people from all walks of life, with different bodies, histories and temperaments. And I’m writing it because so many people who are active and fidgety tell me ‘Meditation is just not for me! I hate sitting still!’ And although I believe them, I still feel that the benefits of meditation can be felt and nurtured by anyone, and for some populations, the path to acquiring those benefits might not be so obvious.
Fair enough. Attention is by far one of the most important resources we humans have. How the attention span has evolved, devolved, or morphed over the last two thousand years, fascinates me and is up for debate. If traditional meditation practices were invented long before the screen-era, who’s to say there aren’t alternative ways in to the meditation state that may indeed prove to be more beneficial towards those folks who have a hard time simply sitting still? In the previous accompanying post, I mentioned that I have an alternative way in to share with you, and that’s the topic of this piece.
Can balance nullify attention span “deficits”?
I first noticed this phenomenon of circumventing “poor focus” with motion, years ago, whilst teaching a young lad diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. We’ll call him “H.”
H’s grandmother had been walking with him out in London town when they both saw the slacklining club I had founded, in action, in the park. The purpose of the club was two-fold; self-practice, and also encourage newbies to have a go, too. Now just as any young, athletic, curious, fidget would, especially upon seeing semi-ordinary folk appearing to levitate on a piece of tensioned fabric, H begged his grandmother to let him get a closer look. And ultimately once he was within my eyeshot, I asked him if he wanted to try. His face lit up and I had no idea what I was about to discover.
H’s grandmother spoke to me and said he had been having a miserable time at school. Studying in a classroom setting was just not working out. Disruption and disobedience were just two more d’s added on to his failing grades. He wasn’t enjoying going to school anymore. He’d been singled out and as a kid aged eleven, all you want to do is have friends, have fun, and fit in.
Up to this point, I’d never formally taught anyone diagnosed with A.D.H.D. Not an adult, teenager, nor child. I could tell H was sparky. His eyes picked up on motion all around him, but he was eager, polite and despite what his awful school board had told him, still full of focusable talent and just raring to go.
H clambered up on to the slackline. I gave him the same three pointers I always give students or newbies. Elbows above shoulders. Look straight ahead at the far end of the line. And keep your big toe in contact with the line at all times, toe-heel when you start walking along it.
Within about a minute, H had walked a quarter of the line. I quickly realised that the linear, progressive approach was going to work well with him. I picked up a twig, and used it as a marker.
“Your goal now, H, is to walk this far, until you reach this twig.” Immediately, H’s focus-mode switched on, and with laser-like accuracy he reached the twig. Now I placed the marker at the halfway point. He walked there. I placed it three-quarters down the line. He walked there, too. I couldn’t believe it. Seven minutes in and this lad is already doing what takes most adults at least thirty to one hundred and twenty minutes to achieve.
In ten minutes, H had walked the entire fifteen meter slackline. He was a first timer, never tried it before, never even seen it before. H was surprised. So was his grandmother. I said to her that he was not suffering from an attention deficit. He just hadn’t found anything as engaging as slacklining before. Balance, repackaged in a fun, playful way, with a form of mild-consequence just to boost up the incentive, was perfect for H. Perhaps even too easy! I said to his grandmother that H has laser-like, above average focus. He just needs to be given the right task in the right environment. And the classroom probably isn’t the best place to do it. A look of awe and relief developed across her face.
So in an activity like slacklining, where if you don’t focus, you fall, how does a child with a “deficit in attention” manage to do something that adults and teens with “normal brains” can eventually do, but eight times faster? If he really had no attention at all, he wouldn’t have been able to stand on the line, let alone walk the whole thing in fifteen minutes.
My guess is that just because you’ve been diagnosed with A.D.H.D, doesn’t mean you can’t focus. It just means that whatever you do come to focus on is probably really engaging, requires a really high processing rate of information and is potentially far outside the normal range of day to day activities, because that’s why you find it interesting enough to stay engaged in the first place.
With that in mind, is it any wonder why movers and shakers say to me all the time, “Meditation isn’t for me, I just hate sitting still!”?
My contribution here is this; what if sitting still wasn’t the only way to practice the foundation of meditation? What if there was a way, that was accessible to every healthy person on earth, to tap into the meditative state within themselves, utilising their natural banks of focus, to observe subtle influxes of information, with real time feedback towards their success?
The yogis of old knew about this but perhaps didn’t realise the goldmine they were sat on, hundreds of years before attention spans started to seriously waiver. Slacklining is an expression of balance, amongst other things. Walking is an expression of balance. Standing on one leg. Handbalancing. They all require the ability to process data received via your sense of proprioception.
(Cycling, Unicycling and Motorcycling technically speaking, too, although they won’t be included in this method.)
I believe balance is the key for learning how to meditate, if sitting still on the cushion just doesn’t work as a starting point.
The beauty of balancing versus sitting on a cushion is that you have a real-time, feedback loop which tells you if you are focused or not. If you are focused, you’re probably balancing. If you’re not focused, you’re probably wobbling around unnecessarily, about to fall, or you’re falling. This binary feedback loop; balancing or falling, gives you a very clear, visceral target to aim for. Let’s not forget, balance is one of your many in-built senses. You evolved to have it. Your survival depends on it. If you can’t balance, you can’t walk, or run away from danger.
Whether learning styles are accurate or not, I can tell you that there are people on this planet who have a higher degree of kinaesthetic awareness than others. I’ve seen it countless times with coaching, playing, and observing clients in action. These folks might like to do tasks that are hands on, they might respond best to immersive learning, and often they are good at sports or games. Whatever the case, if you don’t like to sit still, you probably have a relationship with your own proprioception that is slightly heightened. Your fast brain is able to process proprioceptive data in real-time. You were literally made for balancing and being successful at it. You’re able to feel with more sensitivity if you’re on track or not, perhaps more than most.
I’ve spent well over one hundred hours coaching people to balance and walk on slacklines, from Canada to AbuDhabi and everywhere in between. And I’ve spent more than five times that teaching people how to punch, kick, choke and lift heavy things. So when I hear more than fifty clients tell me ‘their revelation’ about a said skill-learning process, and all those revelations from everyone turn out to be the same, a pattern emerges. When teaching people of all types to slackline, a common theme that came up during the lesson was the temporary feeling of unadulterated focus; zen-like meditative attention, a clear awareness that lasts perhaps for a second, maybe two. For those students of mine who had experience with meditating in the cushion-realm prior to taking a slackline lesson with me, a very common statement would be “It’s a bit like when I meditate.”
(For those of you adept at slacklining and who have taken it to the extreme highlining level, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when I mention that highlining is about controlling yourself, your adrenaline, your breathing patterns, so that you can enter a somewhat meditative, high-performance state that allows you to cross the line efficiently, smoothly and ultimately, safely.)
When you achieve a prolonged state of balance, and this is relative, (the better you get, the longer you can balance for) you are able to enter a meditative state; one of pure awareness, where thoughts no longer occupy your focus, just real time presence within the task at hand. Slacklining students were reporting this to me, with no meditation cushion in sight.
I realised early on that the issue with seated cushion meditation practice for newbies is that there is no point of reference towards success. If success during a seated meditation practice is defined as, “Reaching a prolonged state of observational awareness towards consciousness and its contents, with the end goal being to transfer this state into every day life and its activities,” then how do you know you’ve got there when you’re sat on a cushion? What’s your feedback loop to tell you you’re actually doing it right? As far as I know, the only way to know if you’re doing it right during a seated practice is to catch yourself thinking and realise that for the entire seated meditation practice session, all you’ve thought about is what needs replacing in your fridge. And sometimes thinking is so subconscious, it can take several sessions on a cushion before you’re able to differentiate between acute focus and aimless, below-the-radar rumination (what is in my fridge?).
Now with balance, that problem doesn’t exist. You have a point of reference immediately. You know what you are aiming for. You know what it is you need to do in order to be successful. Success in a balance practice is defined as, ‘Not falling over.‘ Simple. Now you just have to stack your repeated efforts until you are successful. There’s no ambiguity. As you improve with your balancing skill, you will notice that your focus gets pulled in to the act of balancing, reflexively. There’s no choice involved when you’re learning to beat the wobble. Like young H, you are literally transfixed by the task of not falling over. And if you a self-confessed mover and shaker, you’ve already got a headstart. If you think about what’s in your fridge knowingly or not, you’ll fall over. Quickly you realise that focusing on the fridge’s contents is not worthwhile, so you keep on trying to focus on something else more useful until the task of balancing is achieved. That ‘more useful thing,’ is the breath. We’ll get to that later.
Reaching a state of thoughtless awareness was a really powerful experience for so many students that I taught. Can you imagine the number of movers and shakers who signed up for a lesson with me, simply because they liked the idea of slacklining as a novel form of corporal stimulation, yet during the lesson, stumbled upon a state of thoughtless, meditative awareness, which they had previously perceived to be impossible to attain, purely because they hated sitting still?
I’ll never forget the looks on their faces the first time they balanced on a slackline for about seven seconds and gasped “Everything just went quiet!” Welcome to the meditative state, fellow movers and shakers.
I am not suggesting that balance is more effective than a seated meditation practice, in the long run. What I am saying, is that balance training will provide the point of reference for movers and shakers to aim for, via a journey that incorporates their natural tendencies to process data by making dynamic adjustments in real time, so that when they do eventually come round to trying a seated meditation practice, they already have experienced the meditative state during balance training. They can then transfer that feeling across to a seated practice, aiming for a similar state of observation and equanimity.
how to begin with balance meditation
This is the most accessible technique on the planet. Even more accessible than sitting on a cushion. And it’s so simple, I’m not even going to include any photos on how to do it.
- Start by standing on one leg.
- Spread your toes wide of the standing leg to lightly grip the floor and slightly unlock the knee.
- Use your arms to balance, with your arms above your head.
Keep a ninety degree bend in your elbows which are inline with your shoulders.
You should almost look like a desert cactus, standing on one leg.
- Now the goal is to simply stay balanced for as long as possible. Standing on your dominant leg quickly becomes easy, so try it on your less dominant leg. Once you can do that for about thirty seconds, you can start on your dominant leg again with your eyes shut, and then progress to your non-dominant leg with your eyes shut. Just aim to balance.
- What you’ll notice is, with enough repeated efforts, your brain is very busy and trying to distract you, but you know what you’re aiming to do; balance, so keep trying until you can stay balanced for thirty seconds. Once you’ve hit thirty seconds, either eyes open or closed, it’s time to incorporate the most important element of balancing in a relaxed state, and also an important element when starting to meditate, too; the breath.
using the breath in balance to find the way in
As you are balancing on one leg, feeling for sensations through your foot that aid you in making micro-adjustments to stay balanced, your goal is to breathe, deeply. In through the nose, out through the mouth, without falling over. Pay attention on your exhale as to where you are holding unnecessary tension in your body.
I read a book years ago by Eric Horst, called “Flash Training.” There was a passage in there where he described the process of creating deliberate efficiency within his musculature whilst climbing, in order to climb better. It was very simple. What he described was an exercise focused on creating conscious attention of tension. Simply relax certain muscle groups that are not needed in the climbing positions and tense only the required muscles to hold the position for a couple of seconds, before moving on and up to the next position.
To transfer his ideas to balancing on one leg, try and feel for where you are holding unnecessary tension and release it, whilst simultaneously maintaining the necessary amount of tension. This is very much taking the yogic angle to breathing whilst balancing. If you’re an adept tree-poser, balancing on one leg and accessing your awareness through your breath as to where you’re holding tension, will come quite quickly. If not, stick with it. It can take quite a few reps before you’re able to lock in the coordination of deliberate tension/relaxation relationships in your body, all whilst you’re stood on one leg like an ethereal flamingo.
What should happen, either on route to a successful thirty seconds, or during it, is that you reach a state where thoughts no longer invade your consciousness. You might be aware of the mental noise, but it’s not enough to make you lose focus and fall over.
Once you’ve dialled in the balancing on your weaker leg, eyes shut for thirty seconds, it’s either time to transfer your new found meditative point of reference to more balancing meditation variations (tree, half moon and warrior three poses from yoga’s asana), or, the ultimate test, apply it to a seated practice effort.
If you have a slackline, then get on it, because you can literally measure your progress; timing how long you can stay on the line without falling, and also measuring how far you can walk without falling.
Handbalancing is fantastic and works very well too, however, there is a slight athletic barrier to entry which takes around three to twelve months to surpass. You need to build your body’s work capacity to be able to even handle holding a handstand skillfully for longer than five seconds. And in order to get to the meditative point of reference we have been talking about, you’re going to want to be able to hold a handstand for at least thirty seconds. You can achieve this time against a wall, but now you’re not really balancing, so it defeats the point.
Unicycling is fantastic, but again, takes longer than the slackline to feel that initial zen-moment of equanimity. One-wheeled riding is just harder than standing on one leg. However, once you get the initial skill of balancing together, there’s nothing to say that the meditative state can’t be found during a unicycle ride. It’s just now that you’re in motion, there’s a lot more to think about with regards to safety, and that can pull you out of your desired state quite easily. There’s a reason many modern day meditation apps preface their guided sessions with “Make sure you’re not operating a vehicle whilst listening to this.” You can perform walking meditations or running ones, too, however, the goal is more about finding your point of reference and then sitting down on a cushion and seeing if you can find it there, too, instead of avoiding the cushion because you prefer running.
I hope if you’re a self-confessed mover and shaker that you glean some benefit from learning to balance with intent, first, before sitting down and trying to get something out of your cushioned meditation sessions. The key is to get familiar with the process of corporal awareness using the breath in a balancing position. Then transfer the feeling of corporal awareness to a seated position with the same heightened focus you had when the consequences of falling over were looming in the background. Some of you will notice that what I have described above is essentially a snapshot of the Tai Chi system; deliberate weight distribution through the foot, combined with focused breathing to heighten one’s focus into their own body, eventually observing thoughts and other elements contained in consciousness, without engaging with them.
Observational awareness around oneself and one’s way of being is so powerful, everyone should be able to learn, feel and benefit from it. Just because the cushion modality doesn’t work for a specific population as a starting point, doesn’t mean the whole process of seated meditation should be discarded. We just need to find another way in.