Most of us know from experience that the ability to maintain balance – at work, at home or in life more broadly – varies greatly from one person to another. But can this ability be improved? Indeed it can.
I received my first formal introduction to the importance of balance when I started to learn judo as a teenager almost forty years ago, but it was years and years (and years) before I began to understand some of the underlying lessons that I was being taught. Decades later, I do my best to impart to my own students the importance of balance, hoping that some of what they learn on the mats will eventually permeate into their lives beyond the dojo. I offer below three key lessons that apply to everyone, but first things first.
Unless you’re willing to expend a great deal of energy and are endowed with superior strength, it’s quite difficult to throw an opponent your own size who is stable and well centered. It’s much more efficient – and in keeping with the principle of Maximum Efficiency (1) – to exploit an imbalance in your opponent rather than to attempt to prevail through brute force.
This idea or breaking your opponent’s balance is known in Japanese martial arts as kuzuchi. The difficulty of course is that while you’re attempting to break your opponent’s balance, he or she is attempting to do the exact same thing to you. As a result, a judo match is a dynamic contest in which each player fights to break the other person’s balance while attempting to maintain his or her own center.
Typically, beginners can only apply their techniques (or waza) from a static position. But as skill grows over the years, students learn to find and maintain their center through ever more dynamic movement and it’s a source of awe to see top judokas maintain enough balance and control in what should be a precariously unstable instant to throw their opponent with strength, speed and precision.
If judo’s not your thing – and let’s be honest, it probably isn’t –, think instead of skilled dancers performing their astonishing feats of balance while moving across the stage with complete grace and control, something that would be hopelessly beyond reach for most of us.
The first lesson here is that what can be described as a genuine state of balance varies greatly from one person to another. Some people can achieve and maintain balance under more diverse, dynamic and stressful conditions than others can.
The second lesson is that maintaining one’s balance under different conditions is a skill that can be learned and developed. It’s true that some people, owing to some innate quality or talent, have a greater natural inclination towards this. But I know from experience in the dojo that most people will see considerable improvements through hard work and practice.
The third and most important lesson is that mind and body are so intimately connected that the state of one will naturally influence the state of the other – in both directions. (2) As a result, the body can be used to teach the mind lessons that are not easily taught using any other means. Specifically, the ability to find one’s physical center can flow, by way of the mind, into other aspects of life. That’s why activities such as dancing, yoga, meditation and martial arts – among others –, can help people develop qualities of mind and character that are essential to a balanced life.
Converting physical abilities into abilities of the mind requires time, effort and introspection but those are the dues required on the journey towards what Kyuzo Mifune, one of the most celebrated masters of judo, described long ago as “the unification of the spirit and body.” (Kyuzo Mifune, The Canon of Judo, page 22)
“The essence of judo is to maintain one’s center. […] Everything in nature and the universe seeks to maintain balance and stability. This is also true of human beings. Human beings are constantly changing throughout their life. […] Fixed objects or forms naturally posses a center of gravity, which is essential for stability. The origin of true character and instinct stems from this concept. Therefore, people who are moving through a changing mental and physical world must constantly train in order to prevent themselves from losing their center, which they should be able to find instinctively.” (Ibidem, pp. 26-27)
The ability to maintain a state of balance varies greatly from one person to another but balance there must be, or events will toss you to the mats without ceremony. Thankfully, achieving better balance in life is something that can be taught and learned. But like most things that really matter, it does require time, commitment and hard work. Oh well.