Photo: Felipe Elioenay
On the Airbnb experiences page of things you can do in San Francisco, you’ll come across a man promising to push you past your “limiting beliefs through the art of rock balancing.”
This is another way of saying that Travis Ruskus, 27, is going to take you on a beautiful hike on the Land’s End Trail to a beach and then he’s going to get you to do something you’ve likely never done before: arrange a pile of rocks into a structure that stays upright, like you wish you would.
Hearing this, you may feel apprehensive or skeptical. What can putting rocks on top of each other teach me? But Ruskus says doing it flips your “‘I can’t’ into ‘I can.'”
There’s a joy to seeing something that should fall stand instead. The rocks have lessons in them. It’s saved him and he wants it to help save you.
Ruskus says he’s taught rock balancing to 5-year-olds and 95-year-olds, to “any race, religion, gender,” and what he’s noticed is that everyone gets the “exact same look when [the rocks] balanced…It’s like pure elation.” Ruskus says he can teach anyone in a minute.
Ladders talked to Ruskus about how to convert rock balancing non-believers, his career, and how workers can apply the theory behind rock balancing to their own lives.
From a cook to a stone balancing artist
This is what Ruskus will tell you in his conversion speech. A few years ago, Ruskus was in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, standing halfway in a creek full of rocks looking at his life, which had hit rock bottom. He had just been fired from his previous job as a line cook and had gone through a painful breakup. He needed something to believe in and he found it through holding a rock.
Standing there shin-deep in water, he began to connect to “the abundant energy that surrounds us all.” He began to notice the nature surrounding him, the gravity and weight of the rock in his hand, and less about the own weight of his problems.
“The less I thought, the more I was able to feel the now and the present,” Ruskus said. He decided to challenge himself. “I wanted to balance a rock in the most difficult way possible, just to prove to God or whatever spirit that I had a voice…that I can do whatever I want.”
And after about 45 minutes of frustration, he had exhausted his mind and balanced rocks into art.
People began to notice Ruskus at the park and take photos of his structure. Ruskus wanted to take his “deep spiritual experience in the river” and share it.
Fast-forward to Ruskus moving to San Francisco and monetizing his passion.
Airbnb is helping Ruskus legitimize his passion and get people to pay for rock balancing. But Ruskus is aware that he needs to “walk a tightrope of not attaching myself too much to a brand, because that dilutes you as an artist.”
Ruskus, like many artists, does other side jobs with websites and digital marketing, but he says rock balancing is “the one that gets me to wake up in the morning.”
Rock balancing teaches you how to say “I can do this”
He cites one agoraphobic woman’s experience as particularly memorable. She was a client who had chosen to attend his Airbnb experience, but was hitting a wall. For Ruskus, he described it as noticing someone who had “been beating themselves up for so many years. and then to have something you need to do, and you’re telling yourself, ‘I can’t do this.'”
The woman began to panic, but through breathing exercises, she worked through it and by the end, had built a rock structure that was as big as her legs. It became an “external validation for the strength she had inside.”
We all carry self-defeating myths about ourselves that can become reality if we listen to them. That’s what rock balancing wants to shake people out of.
“You can’t do a rock balancing halfway. You have to put everything into it,” Ruskus says about how his art gets people out of their heads.
Breathing exercises to balance rocks and balancing emails
For people that don’t have rocks readily available, Ruskus still says you should “go find some rocks.” But there’s a breathing exercise he says you can use for balancing rocks and balancing the stress of emails.
Drawing upon Chade-Meng Tan’s “three breath principle,” Ruskus believes anyone can create joy on demand. In the first breath, Ruskus teaches his clients to breathe in and “bring awareness of the oxygen in your body.” On the second breath, you breathe in and “just relax. Pretend there’s a CAT scan going from your head to your shoulders to your legs.” On the third breath, you breathe in and experience joy. Remember things that make you happy. For people on a sunny San Francisco beach, that’s easy. But Ruskus says workers can find it too. “The joy could be you just got paid, or your husband or wife had a good day, or you just had a good day.”
Ruskus’ eventual goal is to get his work shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and transition to rock balancing full-time. Like with his clients, Ruskus has had to teach himself to eliminate self-defeating thoughts “because this gallery owner didn’t get back to me or yadda yadda yadda, but ultimately I know that they’re just excuses.”
But whether or not he makes it to the SFMOMA, Ruskus is happy to know that he’s found his passion. “For me, I could be rock balancing the rest of my life, and I’ll be completely happy with that.”