Bala . nce

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The word Balance hovers somewhere in the mystery of consciousness. Balance. Do you notice how crisp those seven letters are? Still remarkably agile after centuries of use. There is the pleasing symmetry of the a‘s on either side of the gentle l. The soft cadence of the ‘nce offsets the solid b. It’s a good word, easy to speak. Its ease ends there. For the word implies, like many, what it is not. A word is never just a word. Every word is an idea, Arthur Rimbaud said. Initially, balance appears to be a matter of fact, an observation of physical objects in relation to various forces. Specifically, it describes an object in a state of equilibrium relative to the force of gravity. However, it has come to mean so much more. It is also a quality of being many strive to attain.

Arthur Rimbaud 1854-1891, aged 17

The idea of ‘Balance’ appears to have gained greater currency in recent decades, perhaps indicating a deficiency thereof. The word first appears in the 13th century to describe the weighing device (scales) used to determine the mass of an object. It is only in the 1580’s that we find reference to it in the arithmetical sense of the difference between two sides. However, common sense tells me that the Sumerians using cuneiform text in the 4th century BCE must have employed the concept, if not the word. Balance as a signifier of equality seems to find traction in the early 1600’s and by the late 1700’s it has a foothold in socio-political thinking which contributes to the ideas that manifest in the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789) as the equal distribution of power between rulers and the ruled, i.e. political equality. The idea that a low-born peasant was an equally important piece on the chess board of politics is the essence of Democracy and a radical departure from the centuries old Feudal System where ownership of land was the sole criteria for gaining a political voice. The right to vote and participate in the mechanism of government which we exercise in Democratic states was paid for in blood. We tend to take liberty for granted and yet, we would do well to remember that is a fragile balance of power easily toppled. Whether equality actually exists, whether it is an abstract ideal or innate to specific social constructs is the topic for another time, but it is worthwhile noting that nothing is set in stone as truth. Truth lies behind a series of veils comprised of language and the relative perception of words. But, back to balance.

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Balance is an act of defiance. It is the condition of elegance emerging from the tension between the force of gravity and will-power. The will to walk in a toddler is a remarkable testament to the pre-verbal need for balance, for overcoming the physical forces that would otherwise have us remain prone. If only we could retain that same degree of persistence throughout our lives, we would be unstoppable. As we emerge from the cocoon of childhood we realise that we may do more than respond to the forces of the world. We begin to push back in order to create for ourselves a kingdom of Self. We learn that to keep order in our kingdom requires constant self-evaluation. In the early years we are vulnerable to outside forces like friends, work and ambition. It becomes increasingly difficult to maintain an authentic version of one’s self. This internal struggle is powered by the same Will that helped us in our infancy to walk. When we are consciously aware of this, we develop self-awareness. Self-awareness is perhaps the mechanism enabling inner balance.

Is balance a conscious choice?

A significant portion of our journey towards self-awareness is spent contemplating those points in our life where we lost the indefatigable drive which characterised our youth. Somewhere between infancy and adulthood we lost our sense of Self to the various groups that helped us to survive. Some people, not all, choose to restore their original selves as rulers of their kingdom. This process has been called many things (enlightenment, awakening) by different cultures, one of the things we might call it, is balance.

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Balance is an unforgiving master. You either balance or you fall. We are trained to balance within a year of birth. We learn quickly, fall often and get up (mostly). Physical balance is straightforward, unless there are bicycles or tightropes involved. Emotional balance is trickier. The falls seem harder. Getting up requires immense emotional stamina. We sometimes manage to hobble along at an awkward pace. A hobble is just a bruised wobble and both are underrated.

Zen Cormorant

There is also a carnivalesque quality to balance. We love watching people trying to maintain balance. Remember the Circus? Tight-rope walkers, jugglers, clowns on unicycles, elephants doing hand-stands and people balancing plates on swords on their chins. Imagine a Zen Master juggling meat cleavers whilst in a state of tranquil transcendence or Yoda, eyes closed, duelling a Sith Lord whilst levitating an X-Wing.

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Balance has become a quest and work-life balance, is the Holy Grail of modernity. We may have faith in its existence but never fully expect to find it. Balance has been neatly repackaged for modern consumers by an array of gurus and barefooted experts exuding calmness and bleached teeth. Balance is for people who do not need to work, raise a family and find the meaning of their lives in between school pick-ups, grocery shopping, homework and the five mandatory tasks for self-improvement. If you can balance a budget you can probably walk on water too.

Is it being still in the midst of chaos, or getting into the thick of it?

It may be helpful to think of balance as the tension between the opposing forces of one’s life. This tension is either a window of opportunity or a door slamming shut in your face. Where there is gravity mankind learns to walk and fly. Intense emotional pain gave Edvard Munch his Scream, Van Gogh his Starry Night, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath their words. It is a state that simultaneously contains stability and collapse, like Shrodinger’s Cat. Equal to every force acting on our lives, is a desire to escape them.

This is why, simply stated, aeroplanes mostly balance in the sky. Consciousness though, also pushes back. Our imaginations fly, our thoughts have no physical form until they are inked on paper, typed onto pages contained in machines or constructed on the ground with soil, steel, wood and other heavy materials. On earth we must manifest our thoughts for them to be real. We must pluck them from the ether of consciousness and weigh them down with the heaviness of hand and ink, set them down on the page, trap them within the luminosity of the screen so that they do not fly away. Writing is gravity 

So, what have we learnt? Balance is the manifestation of unseen forces. The moment you think about it, it’s gone. It involves falling, a lot. It entertains us when it is done well and even more when it is not. There is a spiritual quality to balance. It is evidence of a soul at peace with the world. It renders the possessor simultaneously  detached from the world whilst being fully in the world. Or is that medication? Who knows?

This is not a pipe.

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