Category Archives: living at extremes

Finding Balance

Here we are in September. Notice how that feels, what thoughts come up for you around the end of summer, the coming of fall.

We are coming into the time of the autumnal equinox, where day and night are equal in length, so I’m drawn to think about balance — finding balance in our lives, noticing where we get out of balance.

Do you notice where you get out of balance in life? Where you over-indulge or over-effort? It’s often in certain specific areas — in our relationship with food, work, family, friends, coworkers, entertainment, exercise or access to nature. Finding balance begins with noticing what’s true in our current experience.

If you have ever watched a gyroscope in motion, you can see that it is always in balance. This example of one shows how the center portion is stable while the rest circle in all directions. The two parts of the upright pole extending vertically from the level disk remind me of our paired intentions to stay present and compassionate. Where the pole intersects with the disk can be seen as the still point of center that we cultivate through meditation and these intentions.

One kind of gyroscope animation from Wikipedia

The three outer circles in constant motion represent the causes and conditions of life, the events that are unpredictable and beyond our control. With practice our attention stays more and more centered, able to be present with all that occurs without being thrown off by it.

Finding balance is not making sure that everything is even, equal and easy in our lives, but rather that however wildly the circles of life rotate, we are grounded through our sense of presence and sense of compassion to be able to be with it. In looking at this center level disk that represents awareness, I imagine it as having grown from a very small point, the point of a pin that I’ve mentioned before to describe how it may initially feel to be present for a brief moment or two. Now awareness has grown to be this stable ample disk where we can maintain awareness for longer periods without grabbing for one of those rings.

Looking at the gyroscope animated image above, can you imagine trying to hang on to one of the outer edges, the wild swings and loops, being tossed this way and that, and trying to hold on for dear life? Imagine how easy it would be to be thrown off.

When we ride the edges of our experience, allowing ourselves to be thrown by causes and conditions, we suffer and those around us suffer. But when through regular meditation practice we stay present and compassionate, we can find joy in simply being alive even in the most difficult circumstances, while still being fully present for whatever arises. We don’t have to find a ‘better ring’ to hang onto. We simply practice awareness.

If this gyroscope image is useful for you, you might gaze at it for awhile and incorporate that image into your practice.

In our lives, sometimes we may focus more in one area than another, but we can still stay in balance. When we get out of balance, it is because we have gone unconscious and grabbed one of the outer rings of our experience. Perhaps we’re spending too much time at the computer and we’re overriding our sense of presence with a sense of need to get things done. We get into future thinking, grinding through this time in order to get to the reward time when we can relax.

Pause for a moment and think of where in your life you might be out of balance now. If nothing comes up, that’s fine. You might think of a recent example, or an area of your life where you often get out of balance.

Once you have it in mind, think of ways you seek balance when you notice it. For example, when we find we are eating to extremes and growing by leaps and bounds, a typical reaction is to determine to go on a strict diet. Often because the diet is so devoid of joy we put it off until some future date, and then knowing it is coming we figure we better eat up while we can, thus getting ourselves further out of balance!

Then when we actually go on the diet, maybe we get really into it, maybe we enjoy the rigors of self-discipline as a fresh contrast to the over-indulgence we had been experiencing. Yes, but what else is happening? Are we so focused on this regime that we are making it our life? Are we talking about it with others to the exclusion of any potentially more interesting topic? Are we defining ourselves by our ability to stick to a diet and lose weight? Are we spending more time in front of the mirror? Are we living for a future date when we will be at our target weight, promising ourselves the perfect weight wardrobe?

And then what happens? Well, let’s just say there’s a reason that diet programs always say ‘Results not typical’ under the before and after photos of celebrities that followed their program.

It’s not that it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off. It’s just that the above example, which IS typical, is how we try to balance and extreme with another extreme. This looks more like a teeter totter than a gyroscope, with us soaring and plunging and ultimately falling off.

So I am living with this in my own life: noticing where I am living at an extreme and noticing the reaction to counterbalance it with another extreme. And instead of following through with that plan, which I have seen over and over again doesn’t work, I am simply being as present as I can be and as compassionate as I can be. I am making note of little traps that I fall into and figuring out little work-arounds that help me avoid them. For example, lately at meetings I attend there have been tempting snack foods put out within arm’s reach. I am finding there is another option besides indulgence or denial, even for me. I deny myself the food until I am leaving, and then I take one piece and enjoy it. So this is an example of how each of us can find our own way around things that throw us out of balance and into unconscious behavior. Noticing what happens, and instead of over-reacting or making it someone else’s problem — i.e. “Let’s make a rule that no treats can be brought to meetings.” — simply finding ways to negotiate a workable solution that is balanced.

I’ve noticed that when I am over-efforting — spending too much time on the computer working on a project or being focused on preparing for a future event that needs to be perfect in every way (an example brought up by a student that I think many of us can relate to!) — that if I stop to think about it I realize I have gone into people-pleasing mode. This desire for perfection, for making everything right, is our fear of not being accepted, not being enough, and not being loved. It is a form of appeasement we may have developed in childhood to cope with parents whose critical faculties were in high gear, or some other such challenging situation. It’s the way we’ve dealt with it and we can’t find fault with it because working hard is a virtue, is it not?

I think we can agree there is nothing wrong with hard work, but when it begins to crowd everything out, then we know we are dealing with a matter of extremes. In the example of preparing for an event, the student mentioned that by party time she was wiped out and not present to enjoy it or to be available for others except to make sure they had what they needed. But what they needed was her! Her presence!

So that need to please and appease is something to look at when we find we are over-efforting. If that doesn’t exactly fit, we might think of it in even a broader term of needing to exist, and acknowledgement from others for a job well done is a way of knowing we exist. Of course it is only a temporary fix and doesn’t truly satisfy.

When we are under-efforting or over-indulging, as in the case of over-eating, we might look at what we are avoiding or denying ourselves. What is this indulgence a stand-in for? Where in our lives are we denying ourselves some aliveness, some joy?

When I’m looking for inner answers, I often turn to nature. When I think of balance in nature, one of the best examples for me is the tree.

A classic tree image is of roots reaching down and out in balance to the outreach of its branches. As I think about the tree with its branches reaching up to the sky, its leaves absorbing nourishment from the sun, its roots absorbing nourishment from the soil, and its whole being functioning in balance with all of life, as it takes sin carbon dioxide and releases oxygen for mobile life forms to breathe; as it provides shade, shelter and nourishment to woodland creatures; and its roots keep the earth together. Just by being, existing, a tree performs its balanced functions that benefit all of life.

Just by being, existing, attuned with our own inner wisdom, there is a distinct possibility that we too are fulfilling our natural function. Perhaps we don’t have to go to extremes! Perhaps we just need to stay present and compassionate to be fully alive and balanced.

Speaking of roots, we can revisit our exploration of shallow-rooted fear-based living versus deeply rooting in the spacious nourishing soil of life. Another way we get out of balance is between our creative non-linear impulses and our inner desire for structure and rules.  In psychological terms these are the puer and the senex. I have been rereading ‘The Wisdom of Imperfection’ by Rob Preece, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Jungian psychotherapist, and he mentions these terms. So let me bring my own exploration of shallow and deep rooting to these two aspects. The puer when it is well-rooted, coming from a sense of love and wholeness, is a font of creativity and freshness. The senex when it is well-rooted is the ability to take that creativity to its fullest expression through supplying a grounded organization for it. Preece uses the example of a craftsperson who develops senex-based skills and systems to bring to fruition the puer-based creativity of their craft. But now let’s look at the shallow-rooted fear-based puer: infantile, childish, erratic, different just to be different, using imagination to create conspiracy theories, mischief and destruction. And the senex when it is shallowly rooted in fear becomes rigid, autocratic, bureaucratic, heavy-handed, punitive and authoritarian, squelching all creativity and fresh thinking as threatening to the systems it has established.

So when the puer and senex are deeply rooted, nourished and tapped into a loving inner wisdom, they are a powerhouse of combined creativity and the supportive structure and systems that build upon and maintain the fruits of that creativity. When they are shallow-rooted in fear, puer and senex fight each other because they feel threatened by each other.

We can see this when it happens in ourselves, and we can clearly see it happening in the world around us. So that gives us a way of looking at what happens that can be very helpful to remind ourselves to attune to the inner wisdom, to stay present and deeply-rooted, knowing ourselves to be a natural expression of the universe loving itself. Just like the tree! And in that alignment we find a natural way to find balance in our lives. 

Middle Way – Discussion

Last week I talked about The Middle Way. This week we had a discussion, so that together we could find what the Middle Way is for us. Here are some of the questions I posed. As you read this post, answer them for yourself. You might want to reread the last post to refresh your memory.

As you read last week’s dharma talk, did you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with any of it? Was there some part of you saying, ‘The Middle Way doesn’t sound sufficiently inspiring, fun or challenging?’

Are there any other reactions you noticed? Was there anything you noticed during the week after reading about the Middle Way?

So often the Middle Way is discovered through its opposite. We notice when we are over-extended. Just as in doing exercise, if we over-extend, instead of operating from our core, we run the risk of injury. Can you remember a time when this happened to you? Where you body spoke up loud and clear that you over-extended a muscle?

So too, in our lives, if we live at extremes, we run the risk of injury of a different sort.
Are there any areas of your life, or the lives of people around you, that you can see are extreme? In what areas and in what ways are they extreme? We can learn not just from our own experiences, but from the experiences of others, both people we know personally and people living their lives in public view. Instead of harping on how they should change their lives, we can use their experience to make any needed changes in our own.

In class, the meditators came up with some examples of extreme living and the consequences. One person told about how she had been so busy with her work that she forgot to eat and ended up with violent headaches every afternoon, until someone took pity on her and started feeding her. The headaches stopped and it was only then that she saw for herself what was happening.
One mentioned a young person they knew who believes in the ‘work hard, play hard’ playbook of life. As a group of women on the upper edge of mid-life, we recognized that the unnamed example was a young person with abundant energy. But that playbook only works if the energy is actually there. As it turns out this young person is often getting sick. We talked about our own experiences with the ‘do, do, do’ lifestyle, how a week on the beach was supposed to balance out 51 weeks of hectic paced office life. And how the moment you return to the office, it hits you even worse than before.

If you are caught up in that life and feeling, ‘Easy for you to say, if you don’t have to do the daily grind to make it,’ remember that even within that hectic pace there can be spaciousness. Finding balance means claiming some silence, some alone time for five minutes here and there throughout the day, where you can simply center in and breathe. It means taking walks with pauses in nature, not just running or biking through it at the same fast pace as your work day. It means using all your senses to celebrate any given moment of an experience. For example, as I write this I am aware of the sounds of the rain on the roof, and I have the door open a little so that the smells of moisture waft in. I look up often from my computer screen to gaze out the window.

Balance is not going from one extreme to the other, but finding a true middle way. When we don’t, we risk everything. I did the ‘work hard, play hard’ circuit myself, and ended up with an illness that ended my career in advertising. We are all human. Our bodies are vulnerable and rely on our common sense and compassion for well being.

For the Buddha the Middle Way was initially between over-indulgence and deprivation as he went from a life of material opulence to six years of ascetic self-denial. But these two words can be applied to many areas, not just material wealth. Where do you over-indulge or overly deprive yourself?

Does our culture support the Middle Way, or does it encourage going to extremes? Think about these terms: ‘All or nothing,’ ‘No pain, no gain,’ ’24/7/365.’ For our group, the very idea that anyone would, could or feels they should do anything non-stop around the clock, every day, was exhausting just to ponder!

‘But what about passion?’ asked one meditator. So we discussed the role of passion and if there is room for it the Middle Way. What is passion and where does it arise in your life? Does it mean you need to live at extremes? It reminds me of that old expression, ‘burning the candle at both ends,’ used to describe a person who lived at extremes and, it was understood, would burn out early.

‘Moderation in all things,’ is an expression that sounds both wise and boring at the same time. It could sound uncommitted, neither here nor there, wishy-washy. Does this expression define the Middle Way? Does it speak to you? If not, is there a better expression you can come up with that expresses the principles of the Middle Way?

Extreme living, as voiced in these expressions, has a certain romance to it. Culturally we often admire those who live at the extremes and we dread a life led in moderation. But is the Middle Way this kind of moderation rut?

Let’s return to the body to test the truth of this idea. I’m thinking of how if you did exactly the same amount of exercise everyday, without variation, how that in itself would be a kind of extreme, because it would be so rigid. The body would lose some elasticity. And so would the mind, if it was exposed to the exact same things in the exact same amounts every day. Would this be the Middle Way?

The Middle Way is not a rut. It is the opposite of a rut! The Middle Way is not boring. It is the opposite of boring! The Middle Way is not extreme. Yet it is radical! The Middle Way is opening to the truth of what arises in each moment. It has an aliveness and vibrancy that cannot be found by living life at extremes. When we find the Middle Way, we don’t need to chase, nor get lost in the chase, of extremes in order to feel fully, richly and deeply alive.

Explore for yourself in the coming week what is true for you. We will continue this discussion of the Middle Way.