Writer Thomas Merton said “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”
Balance isn’t really a goal of itself, is it? As with wanting great levels of health, it is the fruits that we are all interested in. Feeling good about ourselves, and having the feeling that all is well in the world.
So how do we bring ourselves and our lives into balance? What practices can we use restore balance when it goes off?
This post offers a five stage process for doing that.
But before we get to it, let’s look at what balance actually is.
what is balance?
It’s all variable! Balance for you might be working 40 hours per week, whereas balance for me might be working 10 hours per week. For some people, balance is doing a medium/high intensity workout everyday. For the same person at another stage in life, balance might be working out twice per week.
It is bizarre to attempt to standardize balance, given how unique we all are and how changeable life is.
So the first thing we need to figure out is how balance looks for us individually right now (and then reevaluate as external circumstances change).
How does being balanced feel?
One definition is having a handle on various elements in your life – not feeling that your heart or mind are being pulled too hard in any direction.
The results of balanced living are that we generally feel calm, grounded, clear-headed, and motivated. The signs of being out of balance are the opposite of that.
3 useful perspectives on balance
Here are three perspectives on balance that I personally have found valuable.
internal versus external balance
To be internally balanced, you are looking at the state of your mind, heart and health.
Mind: Challenging yourself intellectually versus creating space for the mind to rest.
Heart: Giving love versus receiving love.
Health: Eating properly and moving enough versus resting and other forms of restorative self care.
External balance relates to work, social, family and fun.
Work: setting and achieving goals versus seeing the bigger picture and enjoying the journey.
Social: satisfying social desires versus taking time for solitude.
Family: fulfilling responsibilities versus creating healthy boundaries.
Fun: making time for the stuff we enjoy versus not overdoing it.
Exercise: Rate yourself on each of the categories. What aspect or aspects are out of harmony?
Balancing opposing qualities
This is a not often discussed aspect of creating balance. It is from writer and meditation expert Giovanni Dienstmann, who says:
“We may be aware of our obvious shortcomings, but are we aware of the shortcomings that come from our qualities? Personal qualities, or virtues, by nature also bring with it shortcomings. People that are too:
- patient are often passive.
- active are often restless.
- compassionate are often taken advantage of.
- calm are often slow.
- disciplined are often rigid.
- spontaneous are often inadequate.
I don’t hear many people speak about this, but in my journey it has become clear the need to develop opposing sets of qualities.
This means being strong yet flexible, creative yet disciplined, determined yet gentle. Of course, this is easier said than done, but even simply acknowledging this fact can be helpful in pointing you some blind spots.
Life is rich and complex. We need more than one set of skills to live well and flourish. Sometimes we need to accept things, and at other times change them. And there is no easy way to tell the difference.”
Exercise: Think of your top 3 personal qualities. What are the opposing virtues, qualities, or attitudes that you need to cultivate to balance these?
Holding on versus letting go
The final perspective on balance is really short and simple. It is from poet Rumi, who said:
Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.
Exercise: Ask yourself: what do you need to hold onto? What do you need to let go of?
I would suggest that for a lot of us, the kind of stuff that falls into the first category is connection, self care practices, and activities we find fun and meaningful.
five stages to restore balance and harmony
Here are five steps you can use to become your own self-correcting beacon of balance and harmony.
stage 1 – know what you value
As usual, it starts with self awareness. We have to to know ourselves. We have to know what we value.
Ways to understand what you value more is by deconditioning yourself from other people’s values and developing your own. Also try getting more in touch with what ignites your curiosity and creativity.
stage 2 – define what you value
No need to write it down (although I would recommend it).
Think of a few general statements about how balance looks. Or have them clear in your mind.
I would avoid other people’s notions of how balance looks. For example, ‘everything in moderation’, or spending the same number of hours on work as you do on personal activities. These things might not be desirable or realistic for you and therefore they are not helpful.
For me, balance looks like:
- several hours of deep work every day.
- having a few people I am close to, close in proximity.
- spending some time meeting and talking to new people regularly.
- weekly time spent learning and immersing myself in new subjects/ideas.
- daily yoga practice.
- plenty of walking.
- daily rest time/solitude.
- minimal late nights/alcohol consumption.
This lifestyle would be totally out of balance for some people – it would be too introverted. You have to figure out what’s right for you.
everything changes – including you
Another thing is to bear in mind when defining balance is that everything is changing all the time. The right balance for you today may not be the right balance for you tomorrow, or next week or next month. Our priorities change.
Part of maintaining balance is handling change. I wrote about that more here.
stage 3 – enforcing boundaries
If values are our script, then enforcing boundaries is our main tool for embodying balance in life. For many people, this is their major stumbling point. It involves being good at saying no (and for a minority of us, saying yes more).
Get good at saying no!
stage 4 – tuning in
My experience is that self monitoring is best handled through the tools of mindfulness and self reflection (such as asking yourself questions).
stage 5 – readjusting
Self correcting is easy once you know what activities you need to focus on or tone down on. Again, it is often an exercise in speaking up and asserting boundaries. At other times, it means cranking up the honesty dial on ourselves and admitting we need to change some habits.
bonus balance strategy – acceptance
Why is acceptance a balance strategy?
Non acceptance of your emotions about your personal circumstances will not help you to create or know balance. It is a state of delusion. I wrote about that more here.
Practice acceptance for better balance – and better everything else in life!
Summary – 5 stages to balance
To recap, the 3 strategies that’ll help you to assess your levels of balance:
- looking at internal/external aspects.
- assessing personal qualities.
- seeing where you can hold on and let go.
The 5 strategies that’ll help you to create/restore balance:
- know what you value.
- define it.
- set up boundaries.
- tune in and reflect.
- self correct.
Bonus practice: accepting your emotions.