On Balance: Maintaining and Returning


(Photo courtesy of the eminently well-balanced Dawn Kang.)

Yesterday, I put my laptop into my bag, slung it over my shoulder, and left the house for a long day in the city.

Millions of people do this every day without incident. But I woke up writhing in pain the next day. See, I have a slipped disk in my lower back. So when I carry an uneven, heavy weight on one side, it can easily shift the disk out of place, kinking my spinal cord like a foot to a hose and throwing my whole body off-balance. Which it did. It took me and Tom, my kind physical therapist, an hour and a half of my Tuesday to repair the damage of my Monday.

So why did I do it?

Because I was giving in to a common and foolish hope: that this time, carrying too much weight would not also carry its consequences.

This one gets me every time, and not just when it comes to my sartorial decisions. (Because it was, ultimately, a sartorial decision–I thought the bag looked cooler than my usual, evenly-balanced backpack, and I wanted to look cool.)

This constant risk of imbalance pops up frequently in my life as a freelancer, where it’s up to me to track my workload and my hidden pain points — and to avoid negative consequences for myself and my collaborators. And when too much stuff goes into that imaginary “career” bag, as it can easily do for almost any ambitious and hard-working person, it often pulls everything off-balance.

I experienced this scenario this summer, when I said yes to a number of things that individually felt right to me. I started graduate school, a lifelong goal, at the Bank Street College of Education. I wrote and edited for a Department of Education initiative called GEAR UP, which inspires inner-city kids to explore advanced post-college career opportunities. I joined a group of journalists from Narrative.ly in penning passages for Readworks, which provides thousands of teachers across the country with free, high-quality reading material for struggling students. And I helped to plan and pull off Yelp Helps, which raised a large sum of money to support the youth-focused Red Hook Initiative.

Everything was in my wheelhouse, up my alley, consistent with whatever emerging personal brand I’ve theoretically got going. Every project was led by people I admired and respected. Every task promised to help me develop crucial expertise in my desired field. And most of it was fun.

However, it was simply too much of a good thing. I struggled to meet deadlines, lost sleep, and left my partner doing double the dog duty more often than I’d like.

My full professional plate also left no time for spontaneity or changes in plan. When my younger brother’s doctor sent him to New York from Buffalo for a last-minute second opinion on his brain cancer at Sloan-Kettering, I had to struggle mightily to make room in my house and work schedule. This, for someone who should always have a corner cleared in my life. (The kicker: I’ve even written advice on this kind of corner-clearing for others!)

By the end of this marathon month, I barely recognized myself in the mirror. I had allowed myself to be pulled painfully off-track.

What I’d forgotten was that balance and integrity in my home life define me just as profoundly as do my professional projects.

What I’d had to relearn is that it’s just not possible to put all of my energy into one or the other, even for a month; they support each other.

I truly believe that work-life balance is not, as employees at Amazon reportedly joke, for “people who do not like their work” (though I’d imagine that one is at least partially tongue-in-cheek). It is for people who love their lives. When businesses falter, when marriages end, the story always seems to contain a moment when the parties involved lost their balance between work and life. I don’t want this to be my story. Do you?

I also believe that even the most skilled Buddhist monk can never truly stay balanced, will always slip away from his focus in on the meditation mat, in mind if not in body. That is the nature of being human. But as one such monk in South Korea once told me, meditation is “never about maintaining your focus. It is only about returning to your focus. Seeing that your mind has gone astray, and reminding gently it to come back.”

I would add that the same is true for work-life balance, an issue that is blissfully always fixable. We move forward in time. We finish classes and consider new ones. We re-negotiate chores at home and contracts at work. We can always return, like a meditator to her mat, to the basic breath and balance that is ours for the taking.

Put another way: having the honest determination to return in a dignified way (not the imaginary ability to maintain some kind of perfect life, nor the self-punishing compulsion to maintain a bone-crushing workload, or the secret desire to maintain a victim-like view of life in which you have no power over your work), might be the best way to define responsible behavior.

So, for the first time in this blog’s short history, I have gone away. It may not be the last time. But I will always work hard to return, responsibly and gently.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has also found themselves off-balance lately, and what your rituals are for returning.


3 thoughts on “On Balance: Maintaining and Returning

  1. I’m honored that you thought to include me in your post Ryan, and I certainly need to work on maintaining Balance in my life too! It’s all too easy to get sucked into slouching in front of the screen “working” all day instead of going for a walk somewhere, especially here in Los Angeles Car County.
    Ian and I are in a studio apartment here and both working from home and generally doing everything together all the time, so finding the balance between personal vs shared space has been a challenge.

    It’s strange how long it took for either of us to pinpoint that imbalance as the cause for so much of our drama, but such is balance and imbalance–easy enough to talk about, a struggle to practice, and often overlooked as the problem. It’s usually the details–all the work that’s piled up, the guilt from not doing the housework, the ache in the neck from sleeping badly, the paunch from driving everywhere–that get the spotlight when we’re stressing instead of the realization that things are just simply out of whack and they need to get in whack.

    For me, since the main imbalance comes from spending too much time in my head, the first thing I do to find balance is to use my body, whether that means practicing yoga or going outside for as long as I need to get perspective–to see that my world, my worries, my being, make up just the tiniest stitch in the fabric of the universe, and to remember to enjoy the short time I do have in this form by prioritizing with the heart, not the mind.

    Just this last Sunday, I rode the bike a few miles out to Runyon Canyon and hiked the long route, allowing myself to delight in the experience of meandering up dusty trails while being greeted by a constant stream of downhill-scampering, tongue-waggling pups. Away from all my To Dos and To Reads of other people Doing Things, feeling pretty rich hanging out with a parade of puppies on a hill under a clear blue sky, I was able to initiate that return to my center. The completion would be when I came back home to the computer, to the boyfriend, to the mind. It’s like leaning forward into Warrior 3: most anyone can catch it for a second, but balance is committing to return to center through the sways as you develop the awareness and ability to hold steady.

    So here’s to holding steady, Ryan!

  2. Dawn,

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on this (since I do see your yoga-teaching-self as a very balanced entity — I mean, duh, look at that incredible photo of you on the Seoul subway!).

    I agree heartily that we can sometimes focus on the granular things (i.e., my back aches) and try to fix them individually, when what we need is to bring our entire lives “back in whack.” And many of those productivity listicles we’ve got saved in our To Read folders only encourage that kind of focus (Five Ways to Fix X!). Or, as you mentioned, they focus on individual other people who seem to have it all together, and their granular tips for doing it all (Five Ways That Thought Leader Y Manages X!). But only we have the whole picture in mind for our own lives, and sometimes it takes climbing up to the top of the mountain (rather than mapping everything out in a spreadsheet) to really see it “all.” Here’s to doing more of that this year.

    Much love to you!

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