May 3, 2011

“Balance” Is a False Ideal. (How’s It Working for You?)

Replace “Balance” With Something More Sacred.

Balance is the province of an elite gymnast on a beam or a yogi in a one-legged standing pose. It’s a nourishing meal – like the ones we’re often too busy to prepare or enjoy. It’s work and life, art and family. Yin and yang. Alkaline and acid. Effort and ease, in peripatetic balance.  It’s a soul-infused pie chart, where all the pieces complement each other and feed us profoundly. Balancing diet, balanced hormones, balance sheet. Balance is the means and the end. Balance is what all of us – elite athletes, yoginis and everyday people alike – are seeking. Balance is vibrant health. Balance unifies the disparate parts. Balance is the holy grail. Balance is the best soil in which to grow and live fully.

Balance is damn elusive. Pursuing balance may feel neurotic and stuck.

Some days I don’t even believe in “balance.” Maybe another word suits you more. Take your pick: symmetry, proportion, organization, harmony. Yet science loves equilibrium, especially in biochemical reactions, and not to be overly reductionistic, but aren’t we all a bunch of biochemical reactions swathed in Lululemon togs and organic skin cream?

As a gynecologist, I am board-certified in all the things that pull a woman’s body from balance. I help women balance their hormones.  Together, we get your progesterone in balance with your estrogen. As a yoga teacher, I am certified in the ways that life pulls our minds off balance at every turn, and in the ways that we are physically habituated more in one direction than another. We are balanced by nature, and one-sided from nurture or lack thereof – which I think of as bracing, early armoring, physical and emotional patterns we establish on one side more than the other. Physically, I work to help others balance their tight right hamstring with their left. In a forward fold, we hold the tighter side longer. I work to help my peeps balance sympathetic (“fight, flight or collapse”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous systems using pranayama and breath awareness. We even learned recently via Nobel prizewinner Elizabeth Blackburn that we may balance our telomeres, the little agents that act like plastic shoelace caps to keep our chromosomes from unraveling as we age, with meditation.

Daily, we run around in our varying degrees of being off-balance.  In Ayurveda, this concept is formalized into doshas, or constitutions, and our life-project is to balance our dosha. We of kapha constitution are languid and need more activity, we need to amp up our metabolsim. Those with pitta constitution are type A personalities, and need to linger more restoratively in their yoga practice, with an inward focus. Vatas are creative, flighty and fickle, and need grounding nutritionally, physically and emotionally.

Ayurvedic goals aside, often we’re angry with ourselves for not creating balance. We know that balance would help us run the gauntlet of working, grocery-shopping, care-giving, exercising, child-rearing, errand-running, bee-keeping and empire-building with our health and sanity intact. Balance would help us sail through those tasks in a less harried, frantic and fragile way.

Um… how’s that pursuit of balance working for you?

Most days, I think it sucks. Balance is one more task on a never-ending to-do list, and sometimes the last item to be considered and one more undone thing to feel guilty about.


Maybe there’s an evil fiber of perfectionism lurking in my pursuit of balance. I used to think I didn’t have a problem with perfectionism. Then I became a mother: A working yupster mother who expects to bring home the organic bacon, fry it up in a pan all the while attuning appropriately with my kids, and find the energy at the end of the day for erotic abandon with my husband. All conflict-free and devastatingly artful. Damn, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Does perfectionism lurk beneath the surface of your pursuit of balance?

Aren’t we always either imbalanced or trying to create more balance? Isn’t “balance” a mythical ideal, a destination that is always just out-of-reach. Isn’t being human an exercise in managing imbalance?

Maybe it’s not time I need more of. Maybe balance is born of consciousness. Maybe it’s more fluid and a process rather than some dry, numerically-defined destination.

Maybe imbalance is my new black, a place to linger, wear around like jeans on vacation, learn to accept and love all the more for the imperfections of it, like wabi-sabi. Maybe balance is not derived from to-do lists, but in the arduous work of really knowing my Authentic Self (who I was created to be) rather than my fictional self (who the world has told me to be). Maybe balance is the process of improvising what works for me, like a beautiful jazz riff, what keeps my hormones organized, what allows my energy to fill my vessel most fully, what best serves my Authentic Self.

Maybe we should take our old ideas of balance, if they evoke perfectionism, to the woodshed. Maybe we should not further exhaust ourselves, but rather seek to be whole, integrated, imperfectly in balance.

At times like these, some folks ask, “What would Jesus do?” My inclination is instead to ask, “What would Carl Jung say?”

Carl did in fact say this: “You meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.” Maybe he’s talking about balance. Maybe he’s talking about the disowned feelings that rise to the top when we’re seeking balance. Our destiny is to become whole. We do that by turning inward, figuring out what needs to shift and change to become more fully our Authentic Self.

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