Practicing the Righting Reflex

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, October 23, 2016

Notice our choice of words in the English language: to keep our balance or to lose our balance.  This implies that balance is something we can find and then also something we might easily lose control of or misplace.  Much as we may try to always remain upright and in harmony with our surroundings, the reality is that we will, at some time, lose our footing and tumble to the ground.  Clearly, we’re not always in control of standing upright, but we know that returning to a state of balance is important at any age.

If falling is ultimately going to come into our lives, soon or eventually, might it be of some importance to learn how to fall correctly and then return to a state of balance?  Athletes, actors, stuntmen and stuntwomen, dancers, ice skaters, gymnasts, people with mobility issues, all learn the proper way to fall so they can avoid preventable injuries, spare themselves further damage, and return to a sense of wholeness and well-being.

The animal kingdom may have something to teach us about righting ourselves after a fall.  Ever notice a squirrel scampering effortlessly across a thin telephone wire?  We’re not fooled by the squirrel’s seeming inattention to its perilous path; there is focus in every step.  How about a cat’s amazing ability to land on its feet after a fall from the heights?  Like cats, some other small animals possess what’s called the “righting reflex,” an amazing, innate ability to orient themselves as they fall in order to land on their feet.  What’s important to note here is that cats are not immune to falling.  Like all of us, they fall.  What they’re exceptional at is orienting themselves, being fully aware of their surroundings in the present moment, and quickly returning to a state of equilibrium after they fall.

falling-leaf-singleSo what might we learn about falling well that we can transfer and apply to the life of the spirit?  Perhaps, flawed and limited as we are, it’s accepting the inevitability of falling and losing our balance.  And then, with God’s grace, getting up and working and praying our way back to a place of being centered.

Here are a few helps for maintaining a steady grounding and also for restoring balance and wholeness once we’ve slipped in some way.

Go barefoot.
Take off your shoes, literally or figuratively, and spend time in the created world.  Take this “barefoot time” outside, if possible, for a closer look.  Notice how your sisters and brothers of the natural world maintain a spirit of harmony and balance and observe what they do to restore and heal themselves.  Take in with gratitude the beauty of the world around you.

Learn how to roll.
A safety roll allows gymnasts and other athletes to roll in the direction of their fall instead of trying to immediately stop their momentum, which could cause more severe injuries.  Accept the reality of your imperfect, human condition.  Grow in your awareness of where you are and how you are as you enter each moment or situation.

At every moment of your life, you’re inhaling and exhaling.  When you’re anxious and concerned, your breath may be shallow and rapid.  When you’re bone-tired or shouldering a heavy burden, your breath may appear as a long, drawn-out sigh.  When you’re in a space of peace and contentment, your breath may be calm, slow, and even.

Why not make your breathing a practice of attending to the present moment, connecting with where you’re aware of God’s presence, and paying attention?  Practice breathprayer by silently praying with each inhale and exhale, or by praying with simple words, e.g., Breathing in: I breathe in Your peace.  Breathing out: I breathe peace to our world.

In the monastic tradition, there’s a practice called statio.  It’s often connected to the tradition of prayer throughout the hours of any given day. It’s a moment of quiet, a brief standing still.  Statio is the pause you take between ending one activity and moving on to the next.  You end one phone conversation and pause before dialing the next number.  You complete one piece of work and pause before taking up the next.  You pass through the doorway of one room and embrace what lies in the next.  Statio is a practice of contemplative consciousness that acknowledges the sacredness of what you’ve just finished and the sacredness of what you’re about to do next.

Dwell in Mystery.
In the aptly titled, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, Philip Simmons, a 35-fallingleaveslargeheartyear-old husband and father of two small children, was diagnosed with ALS and given, at best, a few years to live.  He chose to learn to live richly in the face of loss, the work that he called “learning to fall.”  He wrote of falling as a figure of speech: we fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love.  We fall away from ego and our carefully constructed identities, our reputations, our ambition.  And we fall into compassion, into oneness with forces larger than ourselves, into oneness with others who are likewise falling.  “We fall, at last, into the presence of the sacred,” he wrote, “into godliness, into mystery, into our better, diviner natures.”

No matter what is happening in our lives, may we continue to learn how to fall into the faithful, loving heart of God.


Reflect on a memory of falling in your life.  What learnings might you take from that experience?

How did you heal after that fall?

What restores you to wholeness?

My deep thanks for your prayer for last week’s retreat with the Sisters of St. Dominic at St. Catherine’s Health Care Center, Caldwell, NJ.  It was a delight and a grace to spend time praying and reflecting with those holy women.


To automatically receive a new blog as soon as it’s posted:
Go to the beginning of this current blog.
As you scroll down slowly, you will see a “Follow” button in the lower right hand corner.
Click on “Follow” and a form will appear for you to fill in your email address.
After you do that, you’ll receive an email asking you to verify your address.
Click on this link, and you’ll receive a confirmation that you’re now automatically subscribed.
Please note that if you’re reading the blog on your phone, you may not see the word “Follow.”  Try reading it on a PC and you should have no problem subscribing.

Thanks for signing on and Following!













4 thoughts on “Practicing the Righting Reflex”

  1. What a beautiful piece / peace!! You are such a great writer, thank you for sharing! I especially enjoyed the idea of “statio”; something I had not heard of before. Truly enjoyed this and will be forwarding to some friends!
    Thanks and God bless you!

    1. Go to the most recent blog post. At the very end of each post, there are directions for how to subscribe to receive each post as it’s published. Please note: if you’re reading the blog on a cell phone, I don’t think you’ll see the word “Follow” as described in the directions. Try logging in on a PC and then follow the directions, and you should be okay. Thank you for your interest!

Leave a Reply