ONCE IN ANCIENT INDIA a bamboo acrobat set up his bamboo pole in the center of a village, climbed up the pole with great agility, and balanced carefully upon its tip. He then invited his young assistant to scamper up and stand on his shoulders, saying to her: “You look after my balance, my dear, and I’ll look after your balance. With us thus looking after one another and protecting one another, we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment, and safely climb down the bamboo pole.” “No, no, master; that will never do!” said the girl. “You must look after your own balance, and I will look after my balance. With each of us thus looking after ourselves and protecting ourselves, we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment, and safely climb down the bamboo pole.”
The Buddha tells this story in the Satipatthana-samyutta to illustrate the practice of mindfulness meditation, and the image of this perilous balancing act works on many levels to help understand what he was pointing to. The physical sense of balance is so immediate, so intimate, and so accessible in every moment of experience; it is often the first thing one gets in touch with when sitting down to meditate, and the story derives much of its strength from this fact. We are so used to projecting our attention out into the world around us, it is a noticeable shift when we face inward and feel the subtle swaying of the head on the shoulders, along with all the muscular microcompensations keeping our body centered in gravity. The acrobat, like the meditator, is bringing conscious awareness to a process that is always occurring but is generally overlooked, which is a vital first step to learning anything valuable about ourselves.
The story also vividly demonstrates why it is so important to attend to the quality of one’s own inner life before critiquing what others are doing. It’s just not possible to keep someone else’s balance, and it takes this graphic image to drive home such an obvious truth. Moreover, the acrobat’s assistant will only be able to maintain her own balance if the acrobat, upon whose shoulders she stands, is steady and reliable. In other words, the best way he can protect her from harm is to look inward and attend carefully to his own equilibrium. This is true of many things in life.
The analogy pertains to, for example, the impact a parent has on a child. As we all know, a parent can go on and on about what a child should or should not do, or say, or think, but nothing is going to influence a child’s developing personality more than the example actually set by the parent. Not until a mother or father keeps their own emotional and moral balance, will the child be able to learn how to steady herself upon their shoulders and understand their admonitions. The same applies to the doctor and patient, the teacher and student, the therapist and client, the politician and constituent, the author and reader—indeed to virtually every one of the relationships we form in our world. The quality of every relationship is enhanced by the care brought to it by each party, and this is especially important when one person depends directly upon and trusts the attentiveness of another.
Life itself is a balancing act. We are each of us perched upon a precarious pole, trying to stay centered in a swaying, breezy world. It is difficult enough staying safe ourselves, let alone trying to keep track of all the things stacked upon our shoulders. Mindfulness is a tool for looking inward, adjusting our balance, and staying focused on the still center point upon which everything else is poised. The quality of the present moment of awareness—that bamboo pole upon which we all hover—can be calm, stable, and focused, and when it is, our well-being and that of all those who depend upon us is well protected. When it is not, no amount of pointing to the doings of others can compensate or restore our balance.
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