Larry Cunningham, Yale University scholar in Chinese and Western philosophy recently sent me this quote from Confucius in The Doctrine of the Mean (4th or 3rd century BCE). He said it “seems to be the earliest use of the term ‘central equilibrium’ or ‘equilibrium’. The character chung (now zhong) means the center, the mean, hence central equilibrium.”
The Way cannot be separated from us for a moment. What can be separated from us is not the Way…There is nothing more visible than that which is hidden and nothing more manifest than that which is subtle.
…Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are aroused it is called equilibrium (chung, centrality, mean). When these feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and degree, it is called harmony. Equilibrium is the great foundation of the world, and harmony its universal path. When equilibrium and harmony are realized to the highest degree, heaven and earth will attain proper order and all things will flourish.
Larry went on to state, “The definition of chung here certainly seems to regard it as a transrational reality.”
In the last post I wrote a little about how establishing central equilibrium enhances your power and efficiency by aligning your body/mind to the earth and heavens. Like wu wei (“Doing based in absolute non-doing”), the idea here is that if we establish some degree of central equilibrium first, then all our actions will exhibit greater harmony. (Equilibrium is the great foundation of the world, and harmony its universal path. When equilibrium and harmony are realized to the highest degree, heaven and earth will attain proper order and all things will flourish.)
This might sound a bit too woo-woo when only viewed from the perspective of the Western Gate, but proves out very nicely in the doing.As shown in the last entry, even beginners can feel a substantial improvement by applying it.It establishes the foundation to develop “effortless power” and greatly enhances rooting.
So how is this done? Here’s the short answer: You bring your center of gravity over the balls of your feet and extend awareness up through the top of your head. Unlock your knees, relax your lower back and drop your sacrum (all without shifting your weight back into your heels).
Sounds easy enough. It’s actually pretty simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy. The above formula is only a rough sketch of the substantial (shi) body shape that can lead us to central equilibrium. It’s like saying you balance a bicycle by keeping it moving while steering in the right direction. What we are looking for is an insubstantial (xu) quality, and it’s one that we want to have in whatever position we put our body. Just as we must explore the insubstantial quality that keeps a bike from falling down before we pop wheelies and ride in traffic, we need to establish our central equilibrium in neutral positions before we use it in sparring or running.
Central equilibrium is not just balance. I made that mistake for years. It is something much deeper and more subtle. Something insubstantial.
And it is cultivating that awareness of the insubstantial that gives us insight into Confucius’ words, “There is nothing more visible than that which is hidden and nothing more manifest than that which is subtle.”
Hidden in Plain Sight
There’s a hidden factor that pretty much guarantees you won’t find it on your own without a lot of work. It’s hidden in plain sight and even when I show it to people, most reject it. Why?
Most of us learn how to walk within a couple months of a year old, give or take. It is during that time that we establish the basic template for an activity that we now expect to perform for decades. A toddler just wants to get moving and not fall down. Lots of minute adjustments are made each moment to make that happen, and after some practice those adjustments are established as an unconscious pattern. Under ordinary circumstances we don’t think too much about how we stand or walk. We trust that our body/mind will remember. (That changes when we get falling down drunk or are walking an I-beam fifty feet in the air. Then we might get very interested in how this walking thing works.) For most of us, though, we simply add to the basic program without really inspecting it.
In practical terms what this means is that 99 out of 100 people you meet will spend most of their ambulant time with their body mass centered on their heels.Most of us are unaware of where in our feet we take the load.It’s been on automatic for so long it just feels “natural”.It’s far from natural, however.It’s just the devil we know.Actually, it’s about as far back in our base as we can go: like standing at the edge of a cliff with our muscles tensed to keep from falling backward.And this acts as a constant stress on joints and connective tissue.
Our bodies are most efficient when we load up the balls of our feet.Anyone who has played a sport has been admonished by the coach to get on the toes.A tired boxer is in his heels and halfway to Palookaville; a fresh one has his weight forward.Of the five primary energy gates in Chinese medicine, two are located there.The “Bubbling Springs” (yongquan) are in that part of the foot and are the gateway for earth energy.When the yongquan is open, a circuit is completed and our energy can be grounded.Fresh yin ch’i rises from the earth and supports, calms, and replenishes us.
My high school football coach didn’t know this, of course. He just knew from experience that a linebacker or a center is going to be much more effective with his weight cente
red in the active part of his feet than rocked all the way back in his heels. I knew I could match up against a bigger, stronger opponent if I did it, and I’d get grass stains on my butt if I didn’t. My reaction time was much faster and I even felt stronger.
The Booby Trap
If it’s so great for sports, why don’t we do it all the time? Ah, there’s the rub!
That’s the internal sense we have of body position and movement.We are constantly adjusting our bodies for comfort and/or efficiency.We get a sense of where we are and what we’re doing, and try to fit that in with what has worked in the past.Oftentimes our idea of what our bodies are doing is quite different from what is actually happening (as any neophyte in t’ai chi finds out).
Our nervous systems draw maps of where to find our feet or ears.It records the nuances of catching a ball or typing a letter.It has volumes of information on standing and walking.And it’s not going to revise the basic program for the latter without a very good reason.There’s too much at stake.We established our comfort zone a long time ago and when our center of gravity goes outside a narrow range, the alarm bells go off.It doesn’t feel “natural”.Even athletes and performers who dramatically challenge the limits of human performance don’t necessarily translate that to their off duty lives.
When I adjust someone’s posture to get close to central equilibrium, there is an initial distrust.We have been doing it one way for so long that doing it differently feels really weird.Whenever I walk students through this, adjusting their weight to center on their feet rather than all the way back in the heels, they almost universally resist it.Why?They have been leaning backward so long that true vertical feels like they are going to nosedive into the floor.Their bodies get frightened.
When they finally let go and trust the process, something magical happens: not only is their balance dramatically better, but also an “effortless power” pervades their whole body.Whereas before I could easily knock them over with one finger, now they are able to withstand many times that force with little apparent effort.
I’ve done many demonstrations (one is on YouTube) where I stand in central equilibrium and a bunch of guys try to push me backward. As long as I can maintain it, I can usually handle hundreds of pounds of force coming at me. I must find my central equilibrium and maintain it in a swirl of dynamic forces. This allows me to remain calm in the presence of various challenges.
When humans respond primarily from fear-based consciousness bad things usually happen. Fear has its place, but let’s save it for situations where it is of value, like saber tooth tiger attacks. Fear usually clouds our judgment and makes us act dumb. With our weight way back in our heels our bodies already have to work very hard to keep us upright. Long-term health problems can result (sciatica, back pain, sacroiliac joint pain, neck problems—the list goes on). More insidious, though, is the unconscious stress we rack up moment by moment as our bodies execute the simplest of actions. And that stress drags us down, collapsing our consciousness.
When we are centered and rooted, the opposite can happen.We replenish our energy and feel just a bit better about life.Our spirit is calmed yet energized.Expansive.
Good stuff happens.