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Rule 16: Balance Life with Balance

Rule 16: Balance Life with Balance Frequently we hear about the importance of balancing our lives. Such advice seems to be the holy grail of modern life: if you are stressed, find balance. However, this quest for balance often creates a paradox. Specifically, if a person relentlessly pursues balance in all things, imbalance is created. When the concept of balance becomes a demand, “I must be balanced,” it instead creates stress because you become focused on the lack of balance in your life. When you try to achieve balance in all aspects of your life, imbalance occurs because you are using the concept of balance to the extreme.

So, what exactly IS meant by balance?

A balanced life is navigating that path of being overwhelmed with stress and avoiding stress completely. Stress has a purpose (as we will discuss). However, stress needs to be kept in check. To do this, we need to understand why we get stressed. Usually the reason for stress is because we feel some sort of demand either from outside of us or self-imposed. Therefore, it is demand that creates the stress. However, is demand necessary to pursue goals? No, in fact, we are more likely to achieve without the stress of demand. When we desire without demand we can set a goal and accept the outcome. We learn to benefit from all outcomes, and therefore, do not need to avoid pursuing something due to the fear of failure.

Describing balance and how to find it becomes a mind puzzle that can't be considered logically, similar to these statements from the Tao te Ching: “To be given everything, give everything up” or “To be full, let yourself be empty.” Likewise, the more you try to find balance, the more elusive it becomes.

As a result, several misconceptions about balance exist:

Myth 1: A balanced life avoids extremes.

To understand balance, we first need to define it. The problem with most personal definitions of balance is that it is considered synonymous with composure, self-control, and social or psychological harmony. As such it should follow that people with balanced lives never experience the extremes.

beam scale But how can that be possible? It is necessary to know the extremes to find balance. Think of an old-time beam scale in which an object is placed on a plate on one arm and weights are gradually placed on a plate on the other arm. At first the object is in the extreme position of resting on the ground because of its weight. However, as weights are placed on the other plate, eventually the object rises until the two plates are equal, or in “balance.” In the same manner, we must be familiar with the extremes in our live so as to find balance.

Balance isn't the elimination of opposites. It is the integration of them. We need both weakness and strength, love and anger, joy and sadness. Balance is recognizing the opposites in our lives so we can know when to let go and when to pursue. A balanced life is a life of action but one that can let go of the minor details to focus on the important matters.

Myth 2: A balanced life is a calm life.

Most often balance is the prescribed remedy for eliminating stress in our lives. It is perceived that if we lead a balanced life, we will be stress-free. However, as just described, balance is about finding the middle ground between two extremes. In the case of stress, balance is finding what is known in psychology as the “optimal level of arousal for best performance.” What this means is that if we have no stress we have no motivation, but if we are overly stressed we become overwhelmed to the point that performance is decreased.

Think of it this way: a person has an exam to take. If that person is too stressed about the outcome, concentration, focus, and memory may be affected to the degree that the person performs poorly on the exam. If the person is not concerned or stressed at all about the outcome, that person may be less likely to study which will cause poor performance on the exam. The “optimal level of arousal,” then, is when the person experiences just enough stress related to the desire to perform well but not too much stress caused by the demand to excel. In this case, optimal stress--not, no stress--leads to the best possible outcome on the exam.

Therefore, a balanced life means finding this “optimal level” of stress for best performance. As such, it means that life is not always calm and stress-free. The challenge is managing the stress in such a way that we use it to our advantage and keep it from overwhelming us.

Myth 3: Balance is a perfect state of equilibrium.

People often have the misconception that balance is a perfect state of being. It follows, then, that if they are stressed, or in any way not in a completely composed state, they are out of balance. This sort of belief causes people to feel overwhelmed with finding balance because they always feel like they are failing as it is impossible to be perfectly composed at all times.

The problem with this thinking is that perfect balance can never be achieved because balance is a fuzzy concept—it can't be clearly defined in every situation. In addition, what is balanced for one person may be out of balance for another person so there can never be an agreed upon definition of balance for every person in every situation. As a result, it is often hard to know when you are in balance. It is easy to know when you are out of balance because the black-and-white extremes are simple to identify.

In addition, to add to the confusion, there are times when engaging in extremes may be part of being balanced. The problem of being out of balance is when we pursue one state over all others. For instance, sometimes we need excitement in our lives--our brains crave the stimulation. Certainly, we also need relaxation in our lives. However, if we doggedly pursue relaxation (or excitement) to the exclusion of everything else, we can become out of balance.

Balance is not perfect...it is messy. Knowing this, though, allows you to be more accepting of yourself while trying to find balance.

Myth 4: A balanced life avoids challenges and risks

Just as many people believe that balance means not having stress or not going to the extremes, many believe that balance means not pursuing success. This misunderstanding is often due to the idea that balance is not compatible with achievement because success requires a unilateral focus. With this type of thinking, balance means finding a nice, cozy little niche where we are not challenged in any way.

Such thinking represents a fundamental misunderstanding of a balanced life. In fact, balance is very consistent with ambition, drive, and a sense of purpose as balance is finding the middle ground between over-responsibility and lack of commitment, between self-importance and unobtrusiveness, between ruthlessness and laziness. Therefore, people who lead balanced lives can and do take on challenges and risks while pursuing their sense of purpose.

However, and this is key, notice I say “sense of purpose” which is a higher order goal that provides structure to a person's life. It is that which gives our life meaning. It is not just “doing,” but it is doing for a reason. Thus, a person with a balanced life pursues challenges because those difficult tasks are in pursuit of purpose. I would submit that a balanced life is more compatible with achievement as it allows a person to perform at his or her highest level.

Myth 5: A balanced life is boring

Along with the idea that a balanced life is devoid of challenges is the belief that a balanced life must be boring. I suppose people have an image of a person sitting on a porch in a rocking chair doing nothing (or a guru on a mountaintop). However, this is furthest from the truth. Although sitting and relaxing in a rocking chair can be part of a balanced life, if it were a person's sole occupation, it would represent imbalance.

A balanced life is anything but boring. As indicated earlier, a balanced life is not completely stress-free but seeks the optimal level of stress for best performance. A balanced life seeks challenges in a pursuit of a sense of purpose. As such, it is not boring. For instance, I think we can agree that the Dalai Lama probably leads a life of balance. However, his life does not appear to be boring. He is the exiled spiritual guide for his people. He travels. He teaches. He writes. He meets with many people throughout the world. He is pursuing his higher purpose.

Thus, as balance cannot be perfectly defined, the challenge of finding balance in your life is to balance life with balance.

curved line