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Finding Balance

Life is about balance. We all know that. But it is too hard to find balance in today’s life. We are juggling too many things – work, family, friends, home, food, health, exercise, consumption, pleasure, leisure, and beliefs.

Often we are overwhelmed and constantly complain that there’s just not enough time in the day to do everything we need to do.

Often balance is perceived as mental and emotional stability, a calm state where equal time and attention can be given to every important aspect of our lives. But then for some people, a balanced life is a virtuous life, a life led in accordance with one’s values. Even over time, society’s perception of balance has changed. Before embarking into what the perfect state of balance I would like to be in, I decided to have a look at what the great philosophers of our times have said about a balanced life.

Gautama Buddha (563-483 BCE) was perhaps the first to make ‘balanced life’ desirable by introducing the middle path. On one occasion the Blessed One addressed the group of monks:

“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasure, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy and unprofitable. Avoiding both these extremes, the Perfect One has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, insights, enlightenment and Nirvana. And what is that Middle Path…It is the Noble Eightfold path namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Confucius (551-479 BCE) who was around the same time as Buddha suggested the doctrine of mean:

What Heaven has conferred is called The Nature; an accordance with this nature is called The Path of duty; the regulation of this path is called Instruction. The path may not be left for an instant. If it could be left, it would not be the path. On this account, the superior man does not wait till he sees things to be cautious, nor till he hears things to be apprehensive. There is nothing more visible than what is secret and nothing more manifest than what is minute. Therefore a superior man is watchful over himself when he is alone. While there are no strings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy the mind may be said to be in the state of Equilibrium. When those feelings have been stirred, and they act in their due degree, there ensues what may be called the state of Harmony. This Equilibrium is the great root from which grows all the human actings in the world, and this Harmony is the universal path which they should all pursue.

In western philosophy, the principle of balanced living was first introduced by Aristotle (384-322 BCE). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the metaphor of a craftsman creating an excellent work to illustrate his ideal of the golden mean. He explains excellence in art and craft, describes a point where nothing remains either to be added or taken away – because to do either would diminish the result. The achievement is an equipoise that’s the opposite of average. He argues:

First, then we must consider this fact: that it is in the nature of moral qualities that they are destroyed by deficiency and excess, just as we can see (since we have to use the evidence of visible facts to throw light on those that are invisible) in case of health and strength. For both excessive insufficient exercise destroy one’s strength, and both eating and drinking too much or too little destroy health, whereas the right quantity produces, increases and preserves it. So it is the same with temperance, courage and the other virtues. The man who shuns and fears everything and stands up to nothing becomes a coward; the man who is afraid of nothing at all, but marches up to every danger, becomes foolhardy. Similarly, the man who indulges in every pleasure and refrains from none becomes licentious; but if a man behaves like a boor and turns his back to every pleasure, he is a case of insensibility. Thus temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency and preserved by the mean.

Denis Diderot (1809-1882) a French philosopher, writer, and a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment presents the case for living in a moment.

What is this world? A complex whole, subject to endless revolutions. All these revolutions show a continual tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings who follow one another, press forward and vanish; a fleeting symmetry; the order of a moment. I reproached you just now with estimating the perfection of things by you own capacity; and I might accuse you here of measuring its duration by the length of your own days. You judge of the continuous existence of the world, as an ephemeral insect might judge of yours. The world is eternal for you, as you are eternal to the being that lives but for an instance. Yet the insect is more reasonable of the two. For what a prodigious succession of ephemeral generations attests your eternity! What an immeasurable tradition! Yet shell we all pass away, without the possibility of assigning either the real extension that we filled in space, or the precise time that we shall have endured. Time, matter, space – all, it may be, are no more than a point.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) a German-American philosopher and political theorist describes balance as a framework of stability:

Man’s urge for change and his need for stability have always balanced and checked each other, and our current vocabulary, which distinguishes between two factions, the progressives and the conservatives, indicates a state of affairs in which this balance has been thrown out of order. No civilization – the man-made artefact to house successive generations – would ever have been possible without a framework of stability, to provide the wherein for the flux of change. Foremost among the stabilizing factors, more enduring than customs, manners and traditions, are the legal systems that regulate our life in the world and our daily affairs with each other.

All these philosophers have looked at ‘balanced life’ with different lenses. But their philosophies can be difficult to apply to modern situations without lapsing into lifestyle banishment.

There’s no such problem with a more recent thinker, writes Tom Chatfield in an article in New Philosopher, whose work engaged ferociously with the limitations of all systems – and in particular the inadequacy of science and technology when it came to filling the void once occupied by gods.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a sick man for most of his life, plagued by near blindness, paralyzing migraines, and collapses that kept him bed-bound for weeks. As a result, much of his philosophy was written in terse, exalted bursts, inspired by days spent walking in the Alps.

In a recent biography of Nietzsche, I am Dynamite!the writer Sue Prideaux describes these oscillations as a form of destruction and renewal.

Every illness was a death, a dip down not Hades. Every recuperation was a joyful rebirth, a regeneration. This mode of existence refreshed him. Neuschmecken (‘new-tasting) was his word for it. During each fleeting recuperation the world gleamed anew. And so each recuperation became not only his own rebirth, but also the birth of a whole new world, a new set of problems that demanded new answers.”

Nietzsche’s was a philosophy neither of balance nor harmony, but of creative destruction. He refused answers and resolutions, ending his greatest works with an ellipsis rather than a conclusion. “Philosophy as I have understood and live it,” he wrote in the Foreword to Ecce Homo, “is voluntary living in ice and high mountains – a seeking after everything strange and questionable in existence, all that has hitherto been excommunicated by morality.”

What is wrong with wishing to live a balanced life? Nothing so long as you accept that balance implies measures, priorities, and values all of which can and must be contested if they are not to be hollowed out.

Then F. Diane Barth writes in Psychology Today:

Balance is not a final goal, but an ongoing process. Being balanced does not mean being calm, relaxed, and content all of the time. Balance often occurs only for a fleeting moment, but it can reappear over and over again. Rather than trying to stay balanced, think of yourself as practicing balancing, over and over again. I love that many yoga teachers talk about yoga as a “practice” – the goal is not to become great at it, but to keep practicing it. You often hear the comment that it’s good to fall – it means you were trying. The same is true in life. As long as we keep practicing finding balance, we will find one. Of course, we will lose it. But we will find it again.

She illustrates it with an example:

In an interview on NPR, the actor Ki Hong Lee, who appears in the film, The Maze Runner, makes this point beautifully. He says a friend once asked what his goal was in life and he answered, “to win the Academy Award for my acting.” When asked the same question, his friend said,  “to be a working actor everyday for the rest of my life.” Ki Hong Lee was blown away by the realization that his friend’s goal was about the process of living. It was about balance.

So where does it leave me?

I came up with ten commitments to bring balance in my life.

What do you do to bring balance in your life? Do you have any personal philosophy you want to share with me? Have you got any quotes from great philosophers? Share them with us from the comments section below.

Top photo by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplash

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