Our lives can easily seem as though they are “out of control” when we take things to extremes. When we eat or drink too much, or fail to get enough sleep, our health is out of balance. When we spend more than we earn, resulting in too little savings and too much debt, our finances are out of balance. When we devote so much time to working that we neglect our loved ones, both our career and our relationships are out of balance.
When we allocate so much of our time to others that we have no time for ourselves we create the most critical imbalance of all, for we neglect the need to be present and work on ourselves. Even when we are alone, we distract ourselves with mind-numbing entertainment or trivial tasks. If we do engage in any reflection we are prone to extremes in our thinking – giving too much thought to the past or worrying too much about the future — producing regrets and anxiety that create yet other imbalances.
Imbalances extend beyond our personal sphere of influence. The world itself is out of balance. The ecosystem, the global financial markets, relationships between developed nations and developing nations, are all interconnected for practical purposes. Imbalances in one nation or area of the world have consequences for other areas as our global interconnections increase and become more complex. There are striking imbalances within nations. Politically, there are overbearing majorities and tyrannies of minorities. Economically, there are few rich and many poor. Finite resources are abundantly available to some areas of society, and sparsely allocated to others.
Before we can address imbalances on a grander scale – the inequities of society, the inequalities between nations, or the ability of the planet to support us – we need to address our personal imbalances. We cannot effectively attempt to solve the problems of others if we don’t first solve our own problems.
Our personal imbalances can be external or internal. External imbalances are caused by over-indulging in sense pleasures. We eat and drink too much and we sleep too little. We spend too much money and save too little. We work too much and play too little. The Tao te Ching teaches us that balance is harmonious and that anything carried to one extreme will naturally gravitate toward its opposite. In his very first teaching, the Buddha taught the wisdom of the middle way between indulging in sense pleasures and self-mortification. He exhorted us, “Free yourself from pleasure and pain.”
For most of us, freeing ourselves from pleasure and pain is not a practical goal, and arguably would make for a very dull existence. But what we should recognize in the wisdom of the Buddha and Lao Tzu is that sense pleasures in themselves are not to be avoided; it is over-indulgence that is harmful — not only for what may happen to us physically but, more importantly, for what may happen to us within.
We over-indulge in sense pleasures because we focus on the outside and avoid working on the inside. Working within, peeling away the layers of acquired conditioning accumulated both collectively and individually, is where real progress is made. Once inside though, we are prone to creating internal imbalances. Our thoughts are easily imbalanced, and this is not something of which we are usually aware.
Our notions of the world are formed by the thoughts that are placed there by our families, our peers, and all of the other collective identities that we associate with. Our thoughts create imbalances about how we perceive ourselves and our world. Our self-image will be out of balance if we rely too much on the perceptions and opinions of others. Our view of the world will be out of balance if we accept the political, religious, and social tenets of others without question. Internal imbalances are far stronger than external imbalances because we have lived with our thoughts for so long, without critically examining them, that we fail to realize that they can be changed. It is much easier to change one’s diet than to change one’s way of thinking.
How we approach correcting our imbalances determines the rate of our progress, and is subject to our personal preference. By first addressing the externals – for example, by adopting a healthier lifestyle or maintaining a better life-work balance – we put ourselves in a much better psychological position to work on the internal imbalances caused by our way of thinking. By tackling the much tougher goals within us however, all of the externals seemingly fall into place because we realize that the root cause of most of our external imbalances lies within. But it is a rare individual, particularly in a modern life so full of distractions competing for our attention, who can first conquer himself internally. This is because correcting external imbalances is a goal-directed behavior, and progress can be easily measured. Internal progress however, can seldom be measured in terms of milestones. Indeed, correcting internal imbalances is a lifelong process.
Whether we focus first on the internal or the external, or both, is a matter of personal preference and temperament. In some cases, one or the other is so far out of balance as to demand immediate attention. In many instances, small victories in eliminating external imbalances breed the confidence necessary to tackle internal imbalances, and success in changing what is outside gives us the necessary time and “peace of mind” to concentrate on the inside.
On the external level it is necessary, at least at the beginning, to think of the different aspects of our lives as separate compartments, not only because this is how we and our society approach life, but also because it helps to partition our lives on a practical level to effect meaningful and lasting change. So we focus on our health, our relationships, our finances, our careers, and so on. As we address these different aspects however, it is important to keep in mind that all the seemingly separate areas of our life are not really distinct and isolated from each other; a holistic approach is necessary not only to balance each individual area of our lives, but to balance all of the different aspects as well.
Devoting too much attention to one aspect of our lives has important implications for the other areas. Focusing too much on our careers will impact our health and relationships, neglecting our education and personal development may impact our financial well-being, and so on. Our lives consist of many interdependent aspects, all of which need to be balanced and attended to so that one neglected aspect of our lives does not negatively influence the rest.
Whether we are considering our health, our personal finances, or our relationships, we need to remember to act with moderation. Balance is achievable through goal-directed behavior that does not erect artificial barriers between particular aspects of our lives. To accomplish our goals, or to live our lives with a sense of inner peace, we need to maintain an equilibrium between all of the compartments. We need to carefully allocate the time we devote to others with the time we devote to ourselves and our personal development. We need to give sufficient attention to each individual compartment so that we nurture our total being. Most importantly, we need to remember that anything carried to one extreme will necessarily gravitate toward its opposite, and maintain moderation in whatever we do.
Life is an interplay between the dichotomies of opposites: excess and denial, pain and pleasure, inner peace and distress. At times, extremes cannot be avoided, but as we learn to recognize the subtle shifts in the more mundane of life’s vagaries, we also learn how small corrections can bring everything back into balance and keep our lives from becoming “out of control.”