Thursday, November 4, 2010

Juggling Mindfulness

I don't mean it figuratively, I literally mean the mindfulness of juggling.

One of the many skills I've tried picking up has been juggling.  I don't know if I was on some kind of circus kick or what because about the same time I built a pair of stilts. (real ones, like strap them to your leg stilts... great fun, try it sometime.  but that's another story)  I think this time, it was a book that I saw on clearance at Half Price Books that I successfully resisted buying.

I'd always been fascinated by juggling.  The ease with which it's performed, the variety of objects.  Just pick a few things up and look at you go!

While I'd tried before, this was the first time I'd been systematic about it.  I researched the crap out of it online and found many different sites willing to show me the secrets for free.  I even hand sewed three fist sized cubes of canvas and filled them with rocks when I couldn't find the bean bags I wanted at the store.

The first important thing that I learned was the need for a decently weighted object to juggle.  It's important for your body to feel where the objects are since your eyes can't track multiple objects at the same time.  While tennis balls or golf balls are easily available, they're pretty light. (and tend to roll and bounce away when you drop them)  The bean bags that I made, and later the professional looking rice filled balloons I made later, have a nice heft to them and don't roll away.

Practicing over a bed or a couch that you stand next to is a good idea, too.  You don't have to bend over so far when (not if) you drop your objects and the heavy ones can be a little loud on the floor, you don't want to disturb your neighbors.

So what does this have to do with mindfulness?

Juggling is hard!  "But it looks so easy!" you say.  Well, so does sitting.  "Sit, staring at a wall and don't think about anything."  That sounds easy, too, doesn't it?

When you start juggling, you have to accept that it won't come easily.  After all, you're basically reprogramming your mind and body to interact in a new way, a very complicated new way.  Any frustrations you have will only cloud the mind and get in the way, hindering your progress.  You get comfortable with the weight of the objects, toss them up and down a little to get a sense of the forces involved.  Alone, it's easy to process, you've tossed a ball around before.  But as soon as you introduce another, things go crazy.

When we start sitting, we have trouble accepting that it won't come easy, it sure sounds like it would.  But then we learn the reality of it.  Sitting is practice in that we have to accept that sometimes we can focus and sometimes our minds are all over.  But it's the effort, that makes us get "better" at it.  Just like juggling, any frustrations will lead us away.  You have to accept whatever comes.  So really there is no "better" to get.  What matters is that we show up and put out the effort.

But back to the juggling... So after a couple hours of solid dedication, like two tosses with one catch for the first hour, my mind started to loosen up a bit along with my body.  After a while though, I kind of got in a groove: two catches, then three, almost four.  Another hour or two and I could keep it up for about 10 seconds at time.  Now, I'm pretty coordinated to begin with, so don't think I'm some juggling natural.  I worked really hard for hours to get this down, and I hit a 10-30 seconds plateau that lasted for a long time without any further progression.  What did it was the effort.

Once the mind relaxed and I let my body just move, it became very meditative and calming.  I still had to maintain focus, I didn't just bliss out and watch the magic.  I could neither increase my focus to watch what my body was doing, nor let my mind wander to something else or the spell would be broken.  The moment was what mattered and I had to stay there.

While I'd started all this well after I'd begun my practice, I didn't really made the connection for a long time.  My body has relaxed and strengthened to where good posture is easy to maintain, leading my mind to relax into the moment as well.  I'd made this connection before with things like martial arts and brush painting, you have to put effort into acquiring the skills to make it look effortless.  Only then will it become meditative, the mind wills the body and the body responds without even a gap the width of a hair.

Juggling requires constant adjustments in speed, force and position.  The concentration required by the brain to compute each task is total.  There is no room for anything else, no space to wander away from the moment.  Each toss is a moment coming one after the next with nowhere for you to go but into the next throw because there's a catch right behind it. 

Wonder how many Zen jugglers there are in the world...

Learn How To Juggle
Learn How To Juggle (if you don't have a sense of humor)
Another good site


  1. I loved your article. I started to juggle after seeing a Penn & Teller segment on the Dr. Oz show. At the same time, I began reading about mindfulness. It occurred to me that the tendency to grasp the balls (ideas) keeps you from being able to juggle. Also, the tendency to panic or to push away negative thoughts (dropping the balls) keeps you from being able to juggle. You have to be in the present moment of awareness, and you will be able to juggle. I can juggle now and I can meditate, although I may still encounter hindrances with both.

  2. Great insight into the process of learning to juggle. I teach juggling and it's amazing how easy it is to learn when you embrace the attitude and concepts you describe. Learn from each drop instead of freaking out, and you'll be there in no time. Thanks!