“Life is on the wire — the rest is just waiting.” — Karl Wallenda
“I’m a slightly socially anxious person,” says Jesse Goldman, 22. As a freshman at UNC Asheville, Goldman initially found the physical and emotional terrain of navigating so many new experiences daunting. “I wasn’t exactly sure the best way to make friends. I wasn’t sure where you go hang out, when you hang out, how long you hang out for, when you leave — what is appropriate?”
One day, Goldman ventured onto the university’s quad, where he discovered that a peer had set up a slackline, a strip of fabric suspended between two points. Intrigued, he gave it a shot. “I tried just like everyone else,” Goldman says. “And couldn’t do it at all at first. But, it just provided a reason to hang out. You can sit there, you can slackline, you can sit off to the side. You don’t have to feel awkward about not doing anything — really, it was there to build community.”
For eons, acrobats and amateurs alike have been walking the line, so to speak. Tightroping, the grandfather of modern-day slacklining, dates back to at least ancient Greece. The term for the practice, “funambulism,” is in fact derived from the Latin words “funis,” meaning “rope,’ and “ambulare,” meaning “to walk.”
Slacklining, though it may initially appear identical to tightrope walking to the untrained eye (or the hesitant foot), is a distinct offshoot of tightrope walking. The practice originated with climbers, who needed a way to both improve agility and pass the time between routes. The 1- to 2-inch-wide stretch of webbing used for a slackline is wider and strung with less tension than a tightrope, creating both accessibility and the opportunity for a playful approach that the relative danger of traditional tightrope walking may prohibit.
While more frequently traversing the slackline, Goldman also nurtured an increased interest in the practice of mindfulness meditation. Exposed to the principles of the practice as a child, Goldman found that a dormant spark ignited upon his enrollment at UNCA.
“My first experience with meditation or mindfulness was in high school,” he says. “I lived close to a monastery called Chuang Yen monastery and on Sundays they would offer free dharma talks. So, a monk would lead meditation and then give a talk on some aspect of Buddhism. I went to a couple, maybe four our five.”
“So, I had an interest in this,” he says, though it wasn’t developed fully into a practice.
At UNCA, Goldman was impressed to experience the undercurrent of mindfulness that ran through the university’s curriculum, including a faculty-sponsored mindfulness group of which he became a part. “When I came out to UNCA [for] my required freshman seminar class,” Goldman says, “I got really lucky and I had Rick Chess for a professor, who’s a literature professor and also the director of the Center [for] Jewish Studies and spearheaded the mindfulness group on the faculty side.”
Yet Goldman noticed a critical gap between mindfulness practice and its accessibility to the average person. “A lot of people have this perception of mindfulness as a very solitary thing,” he says. “A thing that you go and lock yourself in a room and do by yourself. People will be like, ‘I’m not a monk living in a cave.’ You don’t have to be — it’s very simple.”
Inspired by the intersection of his experiences in slacklining with mindfulness, and having founded UNCA’s annual Mindfulness Festival, Goldman and fellow student Patrick Green, turned their sights to co-founding Slack-Librium, a slacklining instructional program for local kids designed to cultivate balance — both figuratively and literally.
Three simple steps
Focus, notice, return. These three principles guide Goldman’s personal mindfulness practice and inspired his work on the line. Traditionally, he says, the practice of mindfulness meditation entails three successive steps. One: choose an object of focus (typically one’s breath). Two: notice when you become distracted. Three: return to the breath.
By integrating an age-old meditation practice with the physical movement slacklining demands, Goldman guides youths in a mindfulness practice that engages all the senses. In Slack-Librium’s teaching, he says, the object of focus is somatic: one’s posture. Then, “[begin] noticing what distracts you,” he says, “whether that’s how you’re trying to look down or moving into a posture that’s not balanced.”
And when you fall? Goldman says this is simply one more opportunity for awareness. “Every time you fall is an opportunity to learn. You might recognize that you were looking down; you might recognize that both your arms were to one side. That process of recognizing, keeping that physical posture, noticing when you leave it and returning is forming those neural connections the same way that the mental mindfulness practice does — but it’s also forming physical muscle memory. So slacklining is really a physical and a bodily mindfulness practice. To slackline requires focus in the present moment. If you stop paying attention, you are going to fall.”
It is this precise intersection of mindfulness practice and physical activity that Slack-Librium’s young participants say they find so compelling.
“My parents meditate, but I never really got into staying very still,” says 12-year-old Ruby Leggat, a seventh-grader at Asheville Middle School. In contrast, Leggat says Slack-Librium offered her the opportunity to develop a mindfulness practice that embraced her natural inclination to move. “It definitely helped me,” she says, “because you’re actually moving while you try to focus on something.” Leggat, who now has a slackline of her own at home, says of the effects of the practice: “If I’m hiking, [I’ll] be able to notice more small stuff, feel the wind, or focus on what’s around [me] while still focusing on hiking.”
Brian Randall, co-director of Asheville City Schools’ after-school programming, In Real Life, endorses Slack-Librium fully. IRL seeks to create after-school programming for middle-schoolers that promotes the organization’s core values: “fun, love, safety, growth and collaboration.” Randall affirms the challenge in cultivating self-awareness in today’s youths. “It’s hard for students to become self-aware. We know from a biological standpoint that that part of their brain isn’t fully developed yet,” he explains. “They need this modeling . . . in order to do that. I believe that [Slack-Librium’s] approach to mindfulness and student awareness is so authentic because it’s intertwined with the physical and mental activity.”
“Kids need something to be good at,” Goldman says. “In my anthropology class, we went over this thing called ‘the three M’s’ — these are things that every human needs to feel. So, meaning: You need to feel like your life has purpose. Mastery: You need to feel like you have something that you’re good at. And membership: You need to feel like you belong to a community larger than yourself.” These principles guide Goldman’s work, inspiring him to create an environment of teacher-student connections that, through real-life experience, impart their wisdom to others.
Haskel Aaron McKinney Jiles, 15, is one such student. “When I first tried it, it was pretty cool. I was thinking I might get one for myself, and I did,” he says. “The people that run Slack-Librium gave me one. At first it was hard, but I got pretty good at it, I guess. It was kind of peaceful. It’s kind of like meditation — you have to get distracted and come back, like they told me.”
His advice to prospective slackliners: “I would say you at least have to fall 50 times until you’re good.”
IRL (In Real Life)