Stable Equilibrium 

As we train, without quite realizing it, our lives take on the character of a stable equilibrium. That does not happen automatically. But if you practice well it will happen. 

It is essential for every able person. 

A stable equilibrium system tends to return to stability when it is disturbed. Imagine a ball at the bottom of a bowl. It will sit there. Until you give it a push. Then it will roll around. How much it rolls depends on how hard you push. But within the limits of the system, it will eventually settle down and return to a stable position at the center of the bottom of the bowl. That is a stable equilibrium.

An unstable equilibrium initially may appear to be stable. Stand a nail on its head at the bottom of the bowl. It is at equilibrium. Then give it a push. It tips over. It will not stand back up. It just lays there. You could say it has found a new equilibrium, its potential energy exhausted, fallen over, and not able to recover. It does not return to its initial equilibrium point, like the ball did.

A stable equilibrium system is resilient. It can absorb shock, gain energy, retain its system integrity, and be ready.

We are subject to disturbances continually. Some we notice. Most we do not. Trauma and life changes are stressors we all notice. What generally flies under the radar is the torrent of feelings and perceptions which attract us, repel us, seduce us, threaten us and bore us, nonstop, all day. They all produce movement in our heart and mind, and we hardly notice. 

Someone we pass on the street who looks menacing. Someone who looks beautiful. Some people we experience as little more than obstacles in our path. We may spot someone interesting, someone we will never know. And on and on. The pictures in the window, the look of the pavement, the shape of the horizon, a plant, a lot, a coffee cup, a landscape, a sign, a building façade, a scent of cooking and pigeons, a gust of wind, a leaf, a pile of trash, a flock of birds – all of it, a thousand times a second, impinging on our senses, leaving its trace, submerged unremarked in the flood of impressions. The news, the movies, the songs, the dialogues, the sights and sounds mediated and directed at us which we consume without paying much attention, as if they were merely external, merely the environment, as if they were out there at a distance while we are in here, safe in the harbor of our own mind. But they do influence us. So much so that they begin to constitute our world, form our values, guide our ideas and thinking, and impel our actions. And we never knew what hit us. 

It is difficult to navigate in that fog. But we can. We can see it, and see through it. And we can make the fog disappear. You might not think martial arts could help to do this. But it can.

Everyone knows water will adapt to the shape of its container. Pour it into a cylinder, a cup, an ocean, a drain, the water just adapts and flows and goes with it. No questions asked. 

Animals adapt to their environment. When populations grow, some move to a new area. When water is scarce, they stay as close as they dare to the spring. When predators get hungry, they range wider. When predators are on the move, prey go to their holes. 

People adapt too. But unlike water or animals – we can modify our environment by choice and by will, and we can choose how we adapt to it. When our environment is pathological, we may adapt in a pathological way. If people are deprived of access to the transcendent, we may learn to behave like animals – running from pain, scurrying toward pleasure. Preoccupation with food, sex, intoxication, money and status substitute for a purposeful, well-lived life. 

Sitting in traffic, doing meaningless, stifling work, sitting and watching strangers pretend to do things (theater, TV and movies), our hearts pulled toward expressions of dissatisfaction and desire that seem to mirror and confirm how we feel (pop culture, news and entertainment), substitute for taking hold of our own life and using it, adventuring toward freedom.

But to do that you have to know that such a thing is possible. Then you have to learn how it might be done. Only then can you do it. Martial arts, as we are practicing it, can provide a stable platform on which we can do this work.

-Taking control of your priorities, your time and your schedule.

-Using your time purposefully – moment to moment, in the service of your ultimate goal. 

-Getting your body healthy, flexible and strong so you feel good and confident. 

-Getting your will strong so that you can stand up for yourself easily and naturally, without resorting to aggression when it is not called for, and having access to it if it is. 

-Developing positive, respectful relationships: Appreciating the seniors for their skill, and for their help. Taking an interest in the development of other people. Helping them along their path to mastery, recognizing that it is as important as yours, because it is a part of yours.  Helping people with sincere effort from the start, when they are taking their first few tentative steps. Challenging and collaborating with your peers, as friends, even when the competition runs hot. 

-Developing intense, sustained focus: Little by little, with attention and repeated effort, we can maintain focused attention on exactly what we are doing – at first for a few seconds at a time, then for one kata, for a few minutes, then for the duration of the training session, even if it goes on for hours.

-Entering into advanced flow states in which our body, mind and will are fused in skillful present-time action, without conscious thought. These states are familiar to high performers in every field. They are accessible to every one of us.

Based on these aspects of dojo training it is possible to go deeper. As I have mentioned in previous articles here on the Mountain Karate site, doing deep mindfulness training, moving and seated, develops a highly refined sensitivity of mind that can detect the influences we are subject to, and our subtle, fleeting responses to them, as they happen; influences which are often toxic and destabilizing, which we need to recognize, understand and abandon. Using this heightened awareness we can replace the pathological influences, and the states of body and mind that result from them, with healthy states of body and mind which we can recognize from dojo experience. Based on the momentum of our habit of training consistently and sincerely, we can deepen and extend these to realms beyond what ordinarily seems possible. 

In this way we develop stable equilibrium as the condition of life. We will encounter turbulence, disturbances, even direct threats. We are not immune. But we are not easily off-balanced. When we are disturbed we can recover our equilibrium easily and quickly, and get on with what we need to do by responding to the dynamics of the situation – combative or otherwise – skillfully, instantly, without hesitation or haste. 

Through good training we extend the range of our life. The same hand can caress a face, play a concerto, cut a tree, break a brick and sweep the dojo clean. We need to be able to respond to conditions based on what is right and good: to take action based on what will further our highest aspirations and benefit the people who depend on us. 

Exaggerating the possibilities of martial arts training – claiming budo is a complete path to enlightenment – obscures the depth of what is actually available, and may keep us from using our training to make the most of life. 


Post by Jeffrey Brooks, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts and The Rhinoceros Tale – Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom; Post and photo copyright © 2021Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, LLC

Photo by Юрий Лаймин via Pexels

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