One of my favourite books in my early 20s was called ‘The Sacred Tree’, and it described the American Indian philosophy of finding balance in our lives. The book was written as part of a collaborative project involving representatives of forty American Indian tribes. A part of their world view which really spoke to me was the concept of the four directions – East, South, West, North – which represented different aspects of our lives. The key to a happy and harmonious life was to find a balance between all four directions, rather than favouring one over the others. For example, the fiery passion of the South can be balanced by the intellectual strength of the North. Likewise, intellectualism on its own can become cold and uncaring, drawing up pedantic rules for others to follow rather than looking at what is actually happening on the ground, and this cold intellectualism in turn can benefit from the warmth and passion of the more emotional South.
Many people who learn and practise mindfulness report it helps them find greater balance in their lives. It’s easy to read books on how to improve your life, and many of these have good ideas and strategies. However, we are still 7 billion individual human beings, with very different lives, and what might be good advice for one person might be inappropriate or even harmful for someone else. In addition, our lives are constantly changing, and what was helpful in our teenage years might not work so well when we are forty. This is expressed very beautifully in the Bible:
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.’ (Ecclesiastes 3, 1 – 3)
As human beings, we are creatures of habit, and it’s not always easy for us to be responsive to the changing circumstances of our lives. How do we know when the time is right to ‘break down’ or ‘build up’? We might be tired and impatient, but may choose to ignore those signals and push ourselves onwards, until we are burnt out or become ill. We might be friends with someone we don’t actually feel very comfortable with, or over-react when someone is pushing our buttons, but have little self-awareness of these issues. I find it very helpful to have a regular time each day for tuning in to what’s happening for me, getting a sense of where my life might be out of balance. Once you notice the early signs of unbalance in your life, it’s sometimes only a matter of a simple re-calibration, such as taking half an hour on the weekend to do something you really enjoy, for life to feel more at ease again. Even if the issue is more serious, it is still helpful to be aware of how you’re travelling with it.
There is a simple Tai Chi exercise about finding your balance. You stand with your feet about two shoulder-widths apart, with the knees bent, as if you’re sitting on a horse – this posture is called the ‘horse-riding stance’. Now just rock back and forwards very gently, with the movements becoming smaller and smaller, until you come to rest in the centre. It’s surprising that very few people, even those who’ve done Tai Chi for years, start off by standing naturally in the centre. We tend to either lean forward slightly or ease backwards. In mindfulness, we become more aware of our tendencies to be either straining too hard (leaning forward) or ignoring a problem (backing away). Like the American Indians, we can explore and work with different aspects of our lives to help us find a better balance.
Weekly practice idea:
Try the Tai Chi exercise, and see what happens. With a problem which is currently occupying your mind, do you think you might be either straining too hard to solve it, or wanting to ignore it, or does it feel balanced for you at the moment?