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Structuring the Self in Figurative Space: Balance

The Unifying Power of Some Spatial Terms and Antonyms

Balance (also Upright, Straight, Level) is a very powerful idea that helps us think of the self as parts and as a whole. We use balance along all three axes of the body to generate a variety of conceptual metaphors describing aspects of the self, including our ideas of beauty, health, virtue and mathematics. The axes help us not only to distinguish these ideas of figurative balance, but also to feel that they belong to an integrated whole.

I can think of no word with the same metaphorical impact as "balance." Perhaps "proportion" and "harmony" are nearly as rich in suggesting multiple parts in good relation to each other. And they do have a similar, quite mathematical character, much like the geometric simplicity of the vertical and the horizontal. But as ideas they seem more abstract, lacking the obvious visible and kinesthetic impact of balance as a metaphor. Many of us can fail to appreciate harmony or proportions, but few can exist without the ability to balance.

As far back as Aristotle, balance has metaphorically meant such things as equivalence, equilibrium, fairness (generally, as well as in specifically economic exchanges), a mean between extremes, and virtue.

We learn physically to balance our head on our neck, then our upper body on the ground or floor, and finally our whole body on our feet. This very remarkable physical ability becomes incorporated in figures of speech that describe the mind, a person's character, their mental health, the complex relationships between parts or aspects of a work of art, fairness in our relationships, the counterbalancing of the parts of government ("balance of powers") and social justice (the oft-mentioned "level playing field"). Balance extends all the way from standing up at about age one, to the highest ethical concepts, and even to the evaluation of souls after death.

We can have a strong kinesthetic urge to straighten a tilted frame on the wall. We may respond viscerally when we see someone lose their balance. Sometimes falling can be very upsetting, whether it happens to someone else or to us. But it is also the source of endless humor.

"Balanced" — mentally and emotionally steady, poised.

Balance is a picture of comparison and of making good judgements between alternatives. The left/right axis is a good image for this for a few reasons. The bilateral symmetry of the hands means that the hands are both very similar and yet also different, and so it takes some thought to tease out both the similarities and the differences. This thought is like the virtue of judgment or wisdom; we esteem a judge who can make good decisions between competing parties. Also, our arms are like the "arms" or horizontal bar of a balance scale with two hanging plates, a common image for justice and the courts.

"On balance" means "All things having been considered…" The virtue of comprehensiveness or thoroughness.

"The weight of the evidence tilts my decision toward…"

A balanced diet — many components in the right proportions.

A balanced artistic composition, beauty. (See especially the long quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and also Suzanne Langer's remark, below).

Some important complex ideas incorporating balance:

Balance of accounts. This is one of the most common metaphors for morality, fairness and justice. Instances are paying one's debts. We start afresh. "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." We magnanimously "call it even-steven," meaning that we are forgiving any slight discrepancies we may disagree on.

Other phrases: balance of trade, checks and balances, balance of powers, and the balanced decision of a judge or other leader who weighs various people's interests on the scales of justice. Thus a quality of pre-linguistic bodily structure and kinesthetic experience is extended to describe one of the highest of all virtues, justice.

"Lose your balance." " Keep your balance." Moral strength is pictured as being able to remain upright or keep your balance despite forces pushing against you.

"Find a Balance between" A situation in which different aspects or features are treated equally or are put in the correct relationship to each other.

"The balance has shifted in our favor." — Tipping point.

Some bodily facts that make Balance such a rich metaphor:

Balance (as "ability", from Wikipedia):

In biomechanics, balance is an ability to maintain the line of gravity (vertical line from centre of mass) of a body within the base of support with minimal postural sway. Sway is the horizontal movement of the centre of gravity even when a person is standing still. A certain amount of sway is essential and inevitable due to small perturbations within the body (e.g., breathing, shifting body weight from one foot to the other or from forefoot to rear foot) or from external triggers (e.g., visual distortions, floor translations). An increase in sway is not necessarily an indicator of dysfunctional balance so much as it is an indicator of decreased sensorimotor control.

Maintaining balance requires coordination of input from multiple sensory systems including the vestibular, somatosensory, and visual systems.

  • Vestibular system:
    • sense organs that regulate equilibrium;
    • directional information as it relates to head position (internal gravitational, linear, and angular acceleration)
  • Somatosensory system:
    • senses of proprioception and kinesthesia of joints;
    • information from skin and joints(pressure and vibratory senses);
    • spatial position and movement relative to the support surface;
    • movement and position of different body parts relative to each other
  • Visual system:
    • Reference to verticality of body and head motion;
    • spatial location relative to objects

The senses must detect changes of spacial orientation with respect to the base of support, regardless of whether the body moves or the base is altered. There are environmental factors that can affect balance such as light conditions, floor surface changes, alcohol, drugs, and ear infection.

There are balance impairments associated with aging. Age-related decline in the ability of the above systems to receive and integrate sensory information contributes to poor balance in older adults. As a result, the elderly are at an increased risk of falls. In fact, one in three adults aged 65 and over will fall each year.

In the case of an individual standing quietly upright, the limit of stability is defined as the amount of postural sway at which balance is lost and corrective action is required.

A work of art is a composition of tensions and resolutions, balance and unbalance, rhythmic coherence, a precarious yet continuous unity.

— Susanne Langer, American Philosopher

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusive appropriated the name of imagination.

This power, first put in action by the will and understanding and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control (laxis effertur habenis [i. e. driven with loosened reins]) reveals itself in the BALANCE [ the emphasis is mine, P. Carleton ] or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities:

  • of sameness, with difference;
  • of the general, with the concrete;
  • the idea, with the image;
  • the individual, with the representative;
  • the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects;
  • a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order;
  • judgment ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement;

and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter, and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
Definition of Poetry
Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14

Antonyms of Balanced

aberrant
amok
ape
asymmetrical
ballistic
balmy
bananas
batty
berserk
brainsick
bughouse
certifiable
clashing
conflicting
crackbrained
cracked
crackpot
cranky
crazed
crazy
cuckoo
daffy
daft
delirious
delusional
delusionary
demented
depressed
deranged
despondent

disagreeable
disharmonic
disharmonious
disordered
displeasing
dissatisfying
distasteful
distracted
distraught
disturbed
disunited
dotty
eccentric
fixated
foolish
frantic
frenzied
fruity
gaga
graceless
haywire
hysterical
imbalanced
inartistic
incompatible
incongruous
inelegant
infelicitous
inharmonic

inharmonious
insane
irrational
irregular
labile
loco
loony
loopy
lunatic
mad
maniacal
mental
meshuga
mixed-up
monomaniac
monomaniacal
moonstruck
neurotic
nuclear
nuts
nutty
obsessed
obsessive-compulsive
odd
oddball
off
paranoiac
paranoid
pixilated

potty
psycho
psychotic
raving
scatty
schizoid
schizophrenic
screwy
senseless
skewed
strange
tasteless
unaesthetic
unbalanced
unbecoming
uncoordinated
unequal
uneven
unfortunate
ungraceful
unlovely
unpleasant
unreasonable
unsightly
unsound
unsymmetrical
wacko
wacky
witless

(more at: Thesaurus.net)

Upright

Definitions:
1. perpendicular, plumb, straight up, straight up-and-down, standing, direct, erect, on end; on one's feet.
Antonym:
horizontal
2. "an upright member of the community": honest, honorable, upstanding, respectable, high-minded, law-abiding, right minded, worthy, moral, ethical, righteous, decent, scrupulous, conscientious unswerving, undeviating, linear, good, virtuous, just, principled, of principal, noble, incorruptible.
Antonym: dishonorable
Antonyms of upright from Thesaurus.net:
deceitful, dishonest, disingenuous, faithless, falling, false, fraudulent, horizontal, hypocritical, inclined, lying, mendacious, perfidious, traitorous, treacherous, unerect, unfaithful, unrighteous, unscrupulous, untrue

Straight

Definitions:
1. "one as straight as an arrow," unswerving, undeviating, unbending.
Antonyms:
winding, zigzag
2. level, even, in line, aligned, square; vertical, upright, perpendicular; horizontal.
Antonyms:
askew, crooked
3. in order, tidy, neat, shipshape, organized, sorted out, straightened out.
Antonyms:
untidy, messy
4. "a straight answer": honest, direct, frank, candid, truthful, sincere, forthright, straightforward, plainspoken, blunt, straight from the shoulder, unequivocal, unambiguous.
Antonyms:
indirect, evasive
5. "straight thinking": logical, rational, clear, lucid, sound, coherent.
Antonyms:
irrational, illogical
6. informal meaning; respectable, conventional, conservative, traditional, stuffy, square, fuddy-duddy.

adulterated
akimbo
alcoholic
alloyed
amalgamated
ambiguous
anfractuous
aquiline
arced
arched
arching
arciform
arcuate
askew
atrocious
awry
bad
base
befouled
befuddled
bending
besmirched
besotted
bibulous
black
blameworthy
blasted
blended
blind
blitzed
blotto
bombed
boozy
bowed
canned
cheapened
circuitous
circumlocutory
civil
close-mouthed
coalesced
cockeyed
coiled
coiling
combined
commingled
compounded
conjoined
considerate
contaminated
contorted
corkscrew
corrupt
corrupted
courteous
crapulous
crisp
crocked
crooked
curled
curling
curly
curved
curvey
curvilineal
curvilinear
curving
curvy
debased
debauched
deceitful
defiled

deflective
degenerate
depraved
devious
dilute
diluted
diplomatic
dipsomaniacal
discontinuous
dishonest
dishonorable
dissembling
dissipated
dissolute
doctored
dopey
double dealing
eellike
entwined
equivocal
errant
erring
erroneous
evasive
evil
evil-minded
falcate
falciform
fallacious
fallen
false
flexuous
fouled
fried
frizzly
frizzy
fused
gassed
gay
geniculate
gnarled
gnarly
hammered
high
homosexual
hooked
hooklike
hypocritical
immoral
improper
impure
in series
inaccurate
inconsequent
incorporated
incorrect
incurvate
incurved
indecent
indecorous
indirect
indirectly
inebriate
inebriated
infamous
inhibited
iniquitous
intermingled
intermixed
intoxicated
joined
juiced

kinked
kinky
knobbed
knotted
knotty
laconic
libertine
linked
lit
lit up
loaded
long-winded
looped
looping
lopsided
low
lying
malposed
maudlin
mean
meandering
mendacious
merged
mingled
misleading
mixed
nappy
naughty
nefarious
nonconsecutive
noncontinuous
objectionable
offensive
oiled
permed
perverted
pickled
pie-eyed
plastered
polite
politic
polluted
potted
prolix
quiet
recurvate
recurved
reflexed
refractive
reprobate
reserved
restrained
reticent
ringleted
ripped
roundabout
rounded
semicircular
serpentine
sickle-shaped
sinful
sinuate
sinuous
sinusoidal
skew-whiff
sloshed
smashed
snakelike
snaky
sneaky
soiled

sottish
soused
sozzled
spiral
spiraling
spoiled
squiffed
squiggly
stewed
stiff
stinking
stoned
sullied
swirled
taciturn
tactful
tainted
tanked
tiddly
tight
tight-lipped
tipsy
tortuous
turned
turning
twined
twining
twisted
twisting
twisty
two-faced
unbecoming
uncommunicative
unconventional
underhand
underhanded
unerect
unethical
uneven
united
unprincipled
unrighteous
unscrupulous
unseemly
untidy
untruthful
upcurved
veering
verbose
vicious
vile
villainous
voluminous
warped
wasted
watered-down
wavy
weaving
wicked
wiggly
windblown
winding
wiped out
wonky
wordy
writhed
writhen
wrong
wry
zigzag
zigzagging


(more at: Thesaurus.net)