Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Balanced Life

I went to a retreat recently on finding balance in life. The timing was very good. I was feeling off-balance in my own life again! My expectations for the retreat were simultaneously ridiculously high ("maybe this at last will fix my life!") and realistically modest ("I probably won't learn anything new, but I am looking forward to the opportunity to be reminded of certain wise things I already know").

Well, it turned out that the retreat helped crystallize for me something I had, in the past, been on the brink of figuring out. The retreat leader started off by explaining that this was not a seminar in time-management. She wasn't going to teach us how to be more efficient so that we could cram even more into our already overburdened lives. A life in balance is something different from super-efficiency. It's a shift in perspective that allows us to focus better on what really matters to us, and to experience our lives in a more relaxed way, more aware of the beauty that is around us at every moment.

I have, in the past, been on the verge of grasping this, because I have had times of my life that approach this: times when I move from one thing to the next in my busy schedule happily focused on each thing in turn, delighted for what each task or meeting or class gives me. These, I now know, have been moments of attainment of balance.

The contrast is easy to recognize: within any given moment, you have trouble fully focusing, because you are worried about something coming up (a meeting later that day; a class you don't yet feel ready for; whether so-and-so will be upset with you for not sending that thing in yet -- and where did you put his address, anyway?) So your experience from moment to moment is fragmented, distracted, stressed. You race breathless from one thing to the next, feeling always a step behind. You are just trying to get through. Your only sense of satisfaction is that of crossing things off your list: "got that done' survived that; what a relief that's over now!" Even falling into bed at the end of the day is fraught: you feel guilty for all that you didn't quite finish; you feel compelled to set your alarm for a half-hour earlier (that's the only reason you let yourself go to bed now!), even though you are genuinely exhausted. But in the morning, you push "snooze" enough times that it finally gives up on you and you end up sleeping a half-hour beyond your normal waking time, and so your next day gets off to a frantic start all over again. There's a picture of the unbalanced life!

When our lives are unbalanced, it's easy to think that if we could just put in that extra effort to finally get reasonably caught up (or learn some time-management trick that would help us shortcut to this!), then we could feel a sense of balance again! Yet, try as we might, we never do get caught up.

So, I was struck when the retreat-leader pointed out with wry humor that she didn't want to help us find ways to pack even more into our already over-burdened lives. She had a point! I mean, really now, do you think you could ever actually get all caught up?

Suddenly I realized: I've never been all caught up! But, that's not been the end of the world! Despite that, I've had a pretty good life and I've gotten a lot accomplished that others really appreciate! So, what am I so worried about?

I don't wait until I've caught up on everything before I allow myself to eat, sleep, shower, etc. There are certain basic things that we keep doing more or less on schedule because we have to, to stay alive and functional. Why should the emotional and spiritual dimensions of self-care not be like this in our lives as well?

Stress is about attitude. Balance is about attitude.

Why not choose to live fully into every moment -- accepting it? "This is my life."

"Here I am at this meeting. The people I am with are treasures. It is an honor to be among them. The work we are doing together here has the potential to improve the world in important ways. How wonderful to be part of this!"

"Here I am in this classroom. These students are at a sparkling stage of life: on fire with new ideas; creatively exploring who they are and what they know. Maybe this class session will be one that they will talk about with their children years later. The material we are studying is powerful and important. How wonderful that we have all carved out this period of time to discuss these amazing ideas together!"

Living into every moment like this really is possible! It mostly requires remembering.

But there is more to it than that. It helps a lot if you do have your life set up in a way that you can and do trust it. Is your job a good fit? Is it helping you to live out what you feel your life is all about, at least to some extent? Have you made time in your life to regularly attend to what is most important to you? Do you like the people around you -- and feel liked and appreciated by them? If the basic elements of life, like these, are arranged well to support who you are and what you want your life to be like, then you can generally trust that the daily activities you find you must do are activities that help you to live out the life you want to live -- if you remember to notice that! Then it is possible to live into each moment with less stress and anxiety and more openness and joy.

But if major components of your life are all wrong for you, then it will be hard to find balance until you do some rearranging. So the quest for balance may require a deeper re-evaluation of your life. Finding balance does require figuring out what throws us off balance, and seeing what we need to do to address that.

It's all too easy to think that it's just "busyness" that is the fundamental problem, and being more efficient is somehow the solution. This is just a prevailing myth we've all been trained to internalize. It leaves us feeling bad about ourselves, thinking that we just don't seem to quite have what it takes to become that impressive "efficient" person who manages to hold it all together. The world wants us to be good, efficient workers, and plays on our insecurity in order to shame us into submission.

But we can reject that destructive thought-pattern. We can instead dare to find the beauty in each moment before us, and treasure the life we find ourselves in. Finding balance is not only possible -- it's also radical!

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