on juggling and Buddhism

m. werneburg, 2009.03.27

I've come to think of juggling as a Buddhist endeavor. The trick is not so much in throwing the balls or in catching them or even in the timing. These are the mechanics of juggling. The real trick, as with Buddhism, is in letting go.

The human brain needs training to juggle. By default, it just doesn't want to start throwing something when it's already tracking another object to catch. Having two balls in the air just seems to be one too many to the untrained mind. So when you start to juggle, you find that when you've made the first throw—from your right hand, let's say—it's extremely difficult to respond by throwing the ball already in your left hand. But that of course is just what you have to do to juggle.

You have to learn to let go of the ball in your left hand before you can catch the one that's already mid-air.

At first I thought it was just me. But after I'd learned to do it, I tried teaching two classmates to juggle, and was surprised to see that they had the same problem. And it was clearly a mental thing, because they'd say, "OK, I understand," and then they'd wind up either dropping the second ball, catching the first ball without first throwing the second, or freezing up altogether. Just as I had done.

I liken it to a Buddhist exercise because in the four fundamental 'noble truths' of Buddhism we learn that unnecessary attachment is the root of all that causes suffering. That is, we refuse to let go of things that are hurting us. In my own life I've turned this conscious attachments such as material possessions (I've thrown out, given away or sold almost everything I've ever owned), bad jobs (I've quit a few), and damaging relationships (by far the hardest to sever).

I realize that refusing to let go of a juggling ball doesn't lead to suffering, and that juggling is probably not a step to the ultimate Buddhist goal of achieving enlightenment. But the refusal to let go does prevent you from attaining the goal of learning to juggle.

So, my advice to any beginner jugglers out there who are struggling: learn to let go. Don't worry about making great throws or great catches. Learn when to throw the balls of course, but be conscious that your brain is trying to prevent you from letting go of the balls in hand and be mindful of what your hands are actually doing. Once you notice that your needless clinging to that second ball is preventing you from juggling, you'll begin to make progress almost at once.

Just like learning to 'let go' in the Buddhist sense will result in immediate improvements in life.

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