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Zen and the art of handstands

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Body

(This article was originally published on Medium, click here to read it there.)


I usually think about myself as two distinct entities: my body and my brain.

This is certainly not a new idea. We humans have a long history of thinking this way. Religions emphasize this mind-body duality as the divide between holy soul and mortal flesh. Self-help books will sell you a three-point plan for tricking your body into following your mental goals, using tools like keystone habits and early morning cold showers. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

I absolutely thought my body was worse than my brain. I was not blessed with any impressive athletic talent. In high school, I was mediocre to average at best at all the sports I tried — swimming, running, tennis. Even worse, my body often rebelled at being put through it’s athletic paces: I quit the swim team after a year because repeated chlorine exposure caused a nasty eczema reaction on the skin of my face. I switched to drama after that, and even then only being solidly in the middle of the pack in terms of group choreography performance and vocal ability.

And let’s not forget the unwelcome monthly event that all women have the joy of experiencing. Another example of my body pulling a fast one on me just for the sake of existing. That regular delight of hormone-induced emotional rollercoasters and physical pain.

“You’re just getting in the way, body!”, my mind screams. After all, it’s my mind that got me good grades, that wrote a clever essay for college, that passed the interview to get my first job. My brain makes funny puns and comes up with creative ideas. What did my body do during those times? It just sat there — an unhelpful fleshy container for the brain. The body just limits me, slows me down; it makes me crave sugar and then puts fat on my belly as punishment for listening to it.

Maybe you are someone who can consistently accept their body for what it is. You climb a mountain for a beautiful view and think to yourself, “Thank you, body, for making this possible. I appreciate you!” Meanwhile, I will have reached the summit and be sprawled out on the ground. The view is nice but I wish my legs didn’t hurt so much.

Part of my problem with my thinking is I’m not focused on the present. I focus on a past wrongdoing or future version of myself, what I wish my body could do or look like. If only I didn’t eat that cake. If only my legs were stronger then the next mountain would be easier. But the great philosopher Alan Watts wrote,

The self-conscious feedback mechanism of the cortex allows us the hallucination that we are two souls in one body – a rational soul and an animal soul, a rider and a horse, a good guy with better instincts and finer feelings and a rascal with rapacious lusts and unruly passions. Hence the marvelously involved hypocrisies of guilt and penitence, and the frightful cruelties of punishment, warfare, and even self-torment in the name of taking the side of the good soul against the evil. The more it sides with itself, the more the good soul reveals its inseparable shadow, and the more it disowns its shadow, the more it becomes it.

Thus for thousands of years human history has been a magnificently futile conflict, a wonderfully staged panorama of triumphs and tragedies based on the resolute taboo against admitting that black goes with white.

This is a great sentiment to read but, perhaps rather obviously, it is really difficult to internalize into daily life. After all, we are not all walking around as enlightened Buddhas. Yet the desire to reconcile my self-hating mind-body duality was strong enough that I wanted to give it a shot. It’s terribly exhausting to be mad at your body all the time — my physical state wasn’t going to change any time soon, at least not until we discover how to upload our brains to the cloud.

For several months, I tried to meditate every morning but it didn’t seem to change much. I still felt annoyed at my body. And to be honest, it felt vaguely doomed from the start. How was I supposed to achieve a serene acceptance of a unified self if I wanted it very badly and viewed meditation as a deliberate means to that end?

Around the same time I was starting to give up on meditation, I was helped from an unexpected source: I started taking acrobatics classes.

Looking back on it now, it seems completely accidental. I didn’t go into these acrobatics classes with the intention of learning an important lesson about the illusion of mind-body duality. This was not part of a strategy to explore different methods of anti-self enlightenment. A friend mentioned off-hand that he was taking some classes from a local circus school. I thought it sounded interesting, so on a random Tuesday afternoon in February 2018, I signed up for my first beginner’s class.

It turns out I really like acrobatics. It is satisfying on multiple levels, not just the meta-philosophical one. In that first class, we spent an hour and a half learning a combination of floor tumbling and handstand skills, as well as various exercises that would help strengthen our muscles and increase the flexibility our bodies. It was a great workout — the movements we were doing were very complex and challenging from an aerobic and strength standpoint. Plus, acrobatics fulfilled a great narrative arc within the story of my life. I did a year of gymnastics when I was ten years old and I always thought that I quit because my family moved across town. But in reality, my parents were actually worried that I was going to get injured and used the move as a convenient excuse to pull me out of the sport. So here I am, almost twenty years later, restarting a hobby that I loved but my parents worried about. The rebellious teenager inside me is full of glee.

I signed up for next week’s class. Then the one after that. Soon I was doing two classes a week and practicing handstands on my own at home. And I was beginning to be confronted with a situation that was challenging this long-held view of myself: my brain was getting in the way of my body.

In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel describes how Japanese Zen Buddhism is taught through a specific artistic discipline. Zen principles are not directly learned but rather are comprehended indirectly. The study of a specific art is the path and a metaphor for deeper philosophical truths. The study of archery is the main focus of the book, although Herrigel also describes his wife’s experience with flower-arrangement (ikebana) and includes a translated essay on swordsmanship by a master Japanese swordsman.

Herrigel begins his lessons full of confusion and frustration. He is bewildered by the words of his master on the goal of archery:

… it is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved centre. Then comes the supreme and ultimate miracle: art becomes “artless”, shooting becomes not-shooting, a shooting without bow and arrow; the teacher becomes a pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection.

I realized that I was also experiencing something similar through acrobatics, in my own small way. As we practiced the form of cartwheels and handstands, I kept trying to think my way to a solution. Rotate my hand here. Tense my leg muscles at this time. Remember the twenty different points of feedback my teacher has said to me in the past.

But, as I started to learn, the problem was not my body failing to do something right. It was my brain making all this noise and getting in the way. Herrigel recalls his master saying:

The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure.

It’s like looking at an optical illusion but only being able to see one picture. You know there’s a second picture there but you can’t get your brain relax and unfocus your eyes enough to actually be able to see it. The two pictures exist whether or not we can actually perceive them.

Zen teaches that the ability to shoot the arrow is just like those two images. It exists, even though you’ve never successfully shot the arrow before. The mental strain, the striving for a successful completion, the frustration at failure — all these prevent us from realizing this ability.

When I read that for the first time, I thought: “This is crazy.” It’s one thing to understand the reality of optical illusions, a separate matter entirely to think of failing to hold a handstand as itself a mental illusion. What do you mean, my body already knows what to do?

But it was true.

My instructor was a fifty-five-year-old retired professional Chinese circus performer and he proscribed a tough-love method to teaching us acrobatics. After I struggled to practice holding a handstand for the first time, he told us all to try handstand forward rolls. My mind instantly rebelled. I would fail spectacularly. I couldn’t even do a handstand, how could I do a handstand and then do a forward roll? When you fail to defeat the first level of the dungeon, the response is never: leave the dungeon, convince a farmer to give you their shovel, and then dig five levels down to face the final boss.

If I tried to do the handstand forward roll, I would hurt my back. Or my arms would give out and I’d land on my head and squish my neck. A million other terrible outcomes popped into my head.

But the rest of my class was watching and the teacher waiting patiently, standing a few feet ahead to assist me. And so with immense hesitation, I kicked up into a handstand and then tucked into a forward roll. There were minimal corrections. “Wait a little bit longer before you roll,” he said. “Try again.” I kicked up again and rolled a second time. Then a third.

I realized for the first time in acrobatics class that my body can do things my mind didn’t believe it could do. I can do a handstand forward roll. I can do a handstand without a wall, and safely cartwheel out of it. I can do a one-arm cartwheel. I can do a front handspring onto a mat, and maybe eventually one day without the mat. For all of these, I got good feedback from my teacher that I tried to remember and put into practice. But often my best execution came when I wasn’t thinking about anything at all.

It’s been a year of practicing handstands. I’m still not great at it. And though it’s certainly nothing close to the five-plus years that Herrigel spent on archery, I think I’m beginning to understand what he wrote in his book.

Every so often, I will kick up into a handstand and the hold sticks. I don’t know what I did right. I’m not thinking about my shoulders or tucking my hips. I just feel my body invert and somehow all the moving parts coordinate perfectly to lock into place. My mind is completely still. And as I hang there upside-down, suspended in space, it feels effortless.

Then inevitably, I come down and my mind starts up again. I’m not good at maintaining this calm one-ness with my body. I still think of myself as brain and body most of the time. I continue to get annoyed at my body for failing to do what I want it to do, or taking so long to get stronger and more flexible. I still feel scared of doing a handstand forward roll until the second right before I kick up into it.

But as I continue to practice handstands and acrobatics, I am more and more reminded that my body does have something to teach my mind. My body will learn and strengthen at it’s own pace, regardless of the flailing of my thoughts. Month by month, my handstands start sticking more and for longer periods of time.

“So just sit back,” my body says to my brain, “I got this.”

This state, in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and the impossible, so unswerving is its power — this state, which is at bottom purposeless and egoless, was called by the Master truly “spiritual”.

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