My five-year-old nephew begs me to pick him up over and over again and spin circles till we fall over, dizzy and laughing. His delight, I think, is rooted in the same reason I used to roll down hillsides and rock my canoe so fiercely it’d flip. As kids, we playfully seek a loss of balance. It’s thrilling, energizing, and flat-out funny. I wonder why, then, balance becomes such a prized goal in adult life. Why do we eventually accept it as something that’s unquestionably good, as something to work towards and cultivate?
We’re all familiar with the sense of bodily balance: the ability to stay steady in some position without falling. To fall is to risk injury, so in a very fundamental way balance supports well-being. My mom once slipped on a grape and shattered her kneecap. The lesson? Losing balance sucks. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have shown how this embodied concern for balance that we all share provides a springboard to metaphorically extend the concept to other domains of life. We apply it to everything from our spiritual, relational and working lives, to our justice system, political structure, and natural environment.
I most frequently notice the nod to balance when folks consider readjusting the amount of time, effort, and resources being devoted to various areas of life. Maybe someone spent their entire vacation working, or hasn’t exercised in weeks, and now wants to reallocate their energy so all dimensions of life are thriving rather than just one area at the expense of others. Sometimes balance is referenced in the justification of mating choices. Say someone and their partner hold seemingly irreconcilable beliefs and lifestyles but, as they’re likely to explain, these very differences are what generate harmony in the relationship.
Balancing almost always means balancing things that are not inherently compatible, that don’t easily fit together. For example, each of us needs to work but also needs to play. We need to give and receive. We need to be wild and be disciplined. Balance advises us to embrace opposites, synchronize extremes, identify tension spots and then figure out a way to include both sides.
Balance can also be considered a steadiness that’s desirable not just with our bodies in space but also with our minds in time. Through meditation we practice steadying our awareness on the present, rather than always falling back in the past or forward into the future. In this sense, balance implies an equilibrium occurring at a still point in time. This is possibly the most profound kind of balance, the one I long for most, and haven’t reached beyond a few fleeting moments.
Yet, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as balance, in any sense of the word, that isn’t fleeting. As Danielle LaPorte says, “Striving for balance is a losing game.” Even if we do somehow achieve it, it’s not gonna stay. It can’t. Each of us is prone to fall out of balance in one way or another. Maybe we’ll slip on a grape. Get fired. Dream up a big future. Fall in love.
“She touches my hair and smiles, kind, trusting the rhetoric of love: Give and get. But the thought flits through my mind, There have got to be stabler things than love.” ~ John Gardner
In thermodynamics, a state of balance is understood as the end state of a closed system, the point at which that system has drained all of its ability to work and to change, and so dissipated completely. Living things are not closed systems because we openly exchange energy and matter with our surroundings. Open systems stay viable by maintaining non-equilibrium, by keeping themselves off-balance through incessant exchange so they can continue to transform and grow. In other words, according to thermodynamics, if you are alive you are imbalanced.
Maybe this is why balancing my work with my personal life, my spiritual with my social life, seems so impossible: it is impossible. There’s no way all areas of my life can always be equally vital. I go through seasons in which an amplified spirituality prevents me from socializing, and have stretches of time in which romance compels me away from my career. But the more I pursue what currently compels me, even at the expense of balance, the more energetic, creative, and happy I feel. The more focused I am. The more simple life is. The more flow I experience.
But life shouldn’t be, I think, simplified to only right now. There’s also a past, with lessons to learn from and wounds to heal, that shaped who I am now. And there will be a future, too. A future that I can shape with intentional choices. Learning how to balance in present moment awareness may be the most essential of practices, but even this kind of balance can result in a naïve denial of the beautiful mess that life really is, with all of our memories and dreams.
So, is balance a useful principle for guiding us towards happiness and realization? Or is the trick to shift our focus so as to savor imbalance, since that’s more enduring and, possibly, more purposeful? Should we try to juggle everything at once, or drown out everything except what we currently desire or love most, and attack that full-on? Friends tell me that balanced living and full-on living aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe they too can be understood as complementary aspects of a single phenomenon. The point isn’t to dismiss balance as bogus, but to turn the dogma of balance into more of a question. To not let something as cliche as the pursuit of balance rip us off from the joy of spinning in circles till we fall over, dizzy and laughing.