Sunday, March 19, 2017

Getting the right balance?

"What, with family responsibilities, and my business at a difficult time, I'm finding it impossible to find balance," said my friend. "I've no time for myself, no time to exercise, and I can't remember the last time I read a good book."
Seemingly, balance is currently the holy grail: everyone is looking for it, and few seem to find it.
Yet, it's by no means clear what people are seeking when they want "balance."
I have often admired those little mounds of stones that someone painstakingly balances one on another. A little feat of balance engineering! But it's not the kind of balance that proves useful in life. That kind of balance is static and fragile.
It's the kind of balance I played around with as a kid when I tried to balance playing cards in a pyramid. The slightest breeze, or knock on the table, would send the carefully balanced cards crashing down. If it's that kind of thing my friend is looking for when he admits "it's impossible to find balance," I think his quest will be long and fruitless. It suggests you can find balance, but heaven forbid that any disruption occurs —your delicately balanced life will come crashing down around you.
The right balance in life must be more robust, more like the balance you achieve when you learn to ride a bike. Once you have learned to balance on two thin wheels, moving at speed, you never forget. The more you ride the better you become at remaining balanced when the terrain changes, when a curve is ahead, or when something unexpected arises to block the way. That kind of balance is not static, not fragile, but rather adaptable to changing circumstances. That kind of balance is a life skill, a life practice. I think it's that kind of life balance my friend is looking for.
But how do you develop that kind of skill? The obvious answer is practice. Yet, life is a more complex business than riding a bike, so what kind of practice?
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had some important advice. His goal was to achieve a life of well-being—eudaimonia—which, I think, approximates to what my friend called balance. In every aspect of life, according to Aristotle, we have to avoid both deficiencies and excesses, neither too little of anything nor too much. The right amount would be the Golden Mean. Too little courage and you'd be a coward. Too  much courage and you'd be foolhardy. Too little magnanimity and you'd be a Scrooge. Too much magnanimity and you'd have nothing left to live on, and be unable to fulfill your responsibilities. The trick is to take stock of all the things you do each day and check for the Golden Mean. Not enough sleep? Go to bed an hour earlier. Too much TV? Limit yourself to one episode of your favorite show and don't "binge watch." Hangover today? Clearly too much alcohol last night. Feeling sluggish? Perhaps not enough exercise. Exhausted? Maybe too much exercise! Overly worried about the state of the world? Limit your news intake.
A life "out of balance" might seem impossible to fix, if you look at it as a whole. But the little things, the everyday components, are fixable. The more of of these little things you bring to the Golden Mean the more in balance the whole becomes. When you learn the practice, it becomes  a robust balance that can manage the changes of life. Balance is in the details.
Be well!
+Ab. Andy

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

It's Lent: How's your gongfu?

So Lent begins. It's the season for traditionally "giving up things." That's not a bad thing to do. The tradition is rooted in a story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness—giving up food for forty days. Giving up something for a time shows us that the thing we give up does not master us. It shows us that we can be in control of something, rather than being controlled by it. Of course, few of us admit to such control. "I could give up chocolate [substitute your predeliction] any time I want. I just choose not to." Lent allows you to test your resolve, at least for a short time. I enter the ritual of it every Lent. But I'll not tell you what I give up. That's between me and it. Each to their own self-denial!
Even so, I no longer think of Lent merely as a time to give up something. Lent has become for me a time to reflect on my gongfu (kung fu). Those of us brought up on David Carradine's 1970s "Kung Fu" TV series, or Bruce Lee's kung fu movies, tend to think of gongfu as the martial arts. But, that's only part of the story. In Chinese culture gongfu is quite literally, "hard work," but in the fullest sense is any art form that takes practice, practice, and more practice. Google gongfu and you'll be led to the intricacies of the Chinese tea ceremony and to the complexities and beauty of Chinese calligraphy. But, gongfu is not limited to traditional practices, and can be anything that requires dedication and commitment. Playing a musical instrument requires gongfu. Becoming proficient at any sport is gongfu. Learning a craft that requires concentration, time and practice, and working with your hands is gongfu. The daily habit of journalling or writing is gongfu. Meditation, or daily prayer, is gongfu.
When I teach workshops and seminars on managing stress, I introduce participants to what I have come to call their "Life Practice." One of the reasons that many of us face so much stress that negatively impacts us, is that our Life Practice is either out of balance, or else, has become very weak. So, to combat the negative effects of stress, I suggest that folk sharpen their Life Practice, or bring their practice back into balance.
A Life Practice is a whole life thing. It's about what we put into our bodies, what we do with our time,  how we exercise our bodies, how our thoughts and feelings effect the way we live, how we rest and learn to live according to nature's rhythms. A Life Practice that is in balance is a healthy and fulfilled life.
Part of any Life Practice includes at least one area of gongfu. Your gongfu will not be something easy. It won't be something quick. Yet, the rewards for perseverance are many. Because it is gongfu it will be a mind-body thing, as all gongfu connects minds to bodies in an integrative way. It will be tactile, sensory, earthy, and at the same time deeply spiritual. Your gongfu will be a deep connection with the way of nature, and through nature with the whole universe, with the ultimately real. That connectedness with reality is what we mean by spirituality.
If you have no gongfu at present, Lent is as good a time as any to begin. Instead of merely "giving something up for Lent"—abstaining from something for a time is also a key element of a Life Practice—why not start to walk your path of gongfu.
Here's another reason to reflect on your gongfu. Many of my friends have been rather disoriented over the last year or so. It has been a very difficult time, and the difficulties and uncertainty are likely to continue. It doesn't take a guru to sense a lot of imbalance. During the election cycle last tear, many of us paid more attention to news that before. However, a daily diet merely of news (real and "fake") is likely to cause a psychological "tummy upset," which, in turn, will likely lead to physiological maladies too. Minds and bodies are connected in ways we are just beginning to fathom, and gongfu really helps. Read the news by all means, but with care. A balanced Life Practice, with a daily gongfu will keep you healthy (for sure), wealthy (maybe) and wise (I hope so).
+Ab. Andy