A column by Gregory Shewchuk
originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)
Every time I ride a skateboard, I fall over. I slip out, wheel bite, hang up, over rotate, undershoot, overflip, or misstep in one way or another that sends me stumbling, sliding, or crashing to the ground. It’s not that I’m into pain or macho ideas of self-destruction — in fact quite the opposite. I like skateboarding because it is an ideal scenario for testing the limits of control, repeatedly walking a metaphorical tightrope between success and failure. Falling in skateboarding is not a sign of defeat, it is a sign that you are challenging yourself and learning and progressing. The continuous prospect of eating shit on a skateboard helps keep you humble and awake.
Skateboarding is an ongoing exercise in finding balance, using abstract motions to perpetuate the central principle of a perpendicular stance over moving ground. Courting the edge of frictional stability allows the radical insight and expression of the form. Skateboarding is an accessible state of liberation: the hands are free, the feet are not connected to anything, and the skateboard exists between the skater and the solid earth only by careful positioning in the cradle of gravity.
With development and progression of the form come more and more difficult situations in which the skater is challenged to maintain equilibrium in unforgiving environments. Movement is introduced: you learn to push and ride down steeper and steeper inclines. You learn to ride on the front or back wheels (manuals and nose wheelies). You learn to acid drop and land on the board after momentarily floating through the air. You learn ollies and ways to travel greater distances through the air before landing. You learn how to ride circular transitions up to, and beyond, the vertical plane. You learn how to balance in different maneuvers on edges and lips, often themselves curved or steeply inclined. Variations and “tricks” are introduced: riding backwards, the board locked into subtle positions of sliding or grinding, flipping beneath the feet and caught in the air before landing. Maneuvers are done switchstance, developing ambidexterity. Skateboarders go faster and faster and constantly look for new terrain and ways to approach it. There is constant progress and refinement. Edges and possibilities are pushed and validation is immediate and obvious. When you fall, you get up and try again until you ride away on both feet.
Last issue we considered skateboarding as a mind-body practice. I propose that developing balance is the essential goal of any mind-body practice. I would go so far as to say the same thing for spirituality in general, but you can’t really say anything is the “goal” or objective of spirituality because having a goal or objective is more the realm of the material. (Spiritual goals can feed what Chogyam Trungpa calls “spiritual materialism”, an enhancement of the ego that is counter-productive to spiritual wisdom.) Change and movement in the linear, physical world comes down to absolutes: quantities, qualities, achievements. The spiritual path, by contrast, is not a noun, it’s a verb. The goal is not something separate and distinct to be reached, it is internal and ongoing. Spirituality is not about achievements but the progressive means used to deal with material imbalance in a chaotic universe. The intention of Advanced Standing is to understand that finding balance—this supreme life challenge—is both physical and mental, and that the two are equally important and entirely intertwined while skateboarding.
The physical “sense” of balance is called equilibrioception, and along with proprioception (knowing the relative positioning of the body) and the visual system, development of this sense allows you to stand up and walk around and ride skateboards. Equilibrioception occurs through the detection of acceleration by the vestibular system, meaning that balance is found by measuring and responding to movement, which must be associated with a central point- an inertial frame of reference (Galilean Relativity). Call it your center. The human body is bilaterally symmetric (right and left sides), has a distinct front body and back body, and a distinct upper half and lower half which correspond with the 3 axes of physical dimension. Finding balance in physical movement involves constantly returning to the dimensional center: leaning to one side, then leaning back to the other to compensate. The more the inertial frame moves, the more sophisticated the balancing act becomes.
Mental balance is a similar process of contrary action and compromise. The distinct hemispheres of the brain contribute to a singular focus. A balanced mental state is calm, able to find serenity in any situation. It is peaceful. The practice of meditation is meant to develop the ability to still the mind amidst the crashing waves of thought and fear. To this end there are tools: the practice of non-attachment and non-judgment; the use of a mantra or prayer to focus the thoughts and quiet anxiety and pride; the reliance on a teacher or higher power to sustain one’s faith and ability to remain upright. Here the practice of finding balance takes on transcendent possibilities: if balance is about relationships, what could be more profound than developing balance with something bigger than ourselves? That’s the thing about balance: ultimately, it’s only halfway up to you. You handle what is under your control, and the rest is up to whatever you are balancing with.
Following are five physical ways to further your pursuit of balance on a skateboard, but keep in mind (literally) that there are mental/spiritual components that compliment all of these ideas on a deeper, internal level. Pay attention to your thoughts when you are skateboarding- they reveal what you think you know, and what you are afraid of. If you can’t change your thoughts, how can you learn anything?
First, consider the breath: breathing should be natural and uninhibited, but over the course of our lives we learn unnatural habits of hesitation and restricted breathing. This hesitation, caused by fear and distraction, is the root cause of much of our imbalance. Breath is the most immediate connection between the mind and the body, and deserves continued attention.
Breath is the “trick” to relaxing, the second balancing mechanism to consider. Tense muscles lead to an unyielding frame, and if you are too stiff you’ll never be able to ride waves. Learn to relax by breathing and remember to be loose without collapsing. Find flow. Go surfing. Study the house cat for inspiration.
Relaxation is integrated with the third element, eyesight. The visual system is a primary component of balance, and you need only to try standing on one foot with your eyes closed to get an idea of how vision and balance are related. Healthy vision is relaxed vision, and the habits of hesitation and tension that are reflected in the breath are also reflected in the habits of eyesight. I suggest reading “The Art of Seeing” by Aldous Huxley as an introduction to natural vision understanding and improvement. When you skate, look to the horizon and see how that affects your balance when riding, sliding, landing, and so on. Look where you are going and learn to expand your field of vision.
Then, learn to stabilize the lower body. Build your foundation from the ground up: stand on your skateboard and plant your feet. Spread your toes and feel the four corners of each foot. Bend your knees to lower your center of gravity, without compromising the strength in your legs. Pay attention to which leg is substantial and which is insubstantial (Taiji terminology for which leg is supporting more weight). Your knees should integrate with each other, and your hips should accommodate for a lower posture. Learn the balanced action of opening the hips with tucking the tailbone (Inner and Outer spiral in Anusara Yoga).
Finally, learn to release the upper body. When the legs can support the pelvis, the spine can stretch upward and attain full mobility. The spine, and the core muscles that stabilize it, must be loose and balanced for optimum movement. The spine is erect, the central nervous system is unrestrained, the head and its instruments of balance: the eyes, ears, inner ear- can all work without strain or resistance. The shoulder blades can rest neatly on the back, and the arms are loose to hang to the sides and operate like ballasts. The arms can’t be too tense, they have to flow with the movements. Pay attention to the difference between your leading arm and your trailing arm.
Developing this physical understanding can lead to more profound insight into reality. Modern physics has shown us the nature of the space-time continuum, and we know the fabric of reality is woven inextricably with time. To find balance in time, you must be in the present. If you are consumed by the past, with guilt and remorse and longing, you are imbalanced. If you are consumed by the future, with fear and anxiety and hope, you are imbalanced. Return to the present. Every spiritual heavy will tell you the same thing. Be here now. One day at a time. In the moment. Skateboarding is a blessing in this regard: it absolutely demands attention and presence.
It is said that the universe is expanding, has no center, and no edge. It can also be said that everywhere is the center of the universe. So as you cruise through this life, riding the waves, finding the rhythm, following the middle path, know that there is a genuine stillness inside of you. And when you are riding your skateboard, tumbling and sliding through reality, and you glimpse that eternal stillness and a certain part of you stops moving, you will find that the entire world and the expanse of time is in fact spinning around you. You have found balance. And balance has found you.
Greg Shewchuk is the director of the Land of Plenty Skateboard Foundation. www.thelandofplenty.org