When Life tips out of Balance
In the rush of modern day life it is easy to push aside small concerns and fail to notice that you are actually no longer your old happy self (assuming of course you can remember such a happy self!). But it's important to pay attention to the light gradual changes so we can keep our minds well and stop our lives from spinning out of control.
Don't we all love that effortless feeling of flow? The times when life unfolds with ease, and we experience the clarity of mind and levels of energy that view us with what seems to be a permanent sense of optimism and inspiration.
I often wish I could bottle that feeling and pull it off-the-shelf for when life seems more of an uphill struggle.
For example, right now I am in Northern Ireland having travelled from Bahrain in the Middle East and Brunei in the Far East over the past 3 weeks. I am here in Ireland watching my daughter playing professional sport in a World Cup Rugby competition. All of this within 18 days of which at least 5 of those days are travelling. It's a busy, busy life!
It's curious though how difficult we find it to notice ourselves drifting away from that ‘happy home’ or happy state of energetic optimistic flow. Equally curious is, how long it can take to realise that our life is out of balance, and in fact that were not very well at all.
In some ways it's like the process of ageing. Day-to-day glances in the mirror tend not to reveal the continual but subtle transformations that come with growing older. Then, one day, we are suddenly shocked by our reflection and need to look at a photo from our youth to become aware of the change. Luckily, however, mental rejuvenation and re-inspiration happen all the time.
So, is there a way to recognise before we actually hit crisis point that our life is tipping out of balance? And what can we do to realign ourselves?
These questions often come from highly committed people who give life their all, but can feel an underlying sense of inadequacy because they perceive themselves as not been the ideal partner, parent or professional. They see, inadequacy, missed opportunities and at worse - failure. By the way, I really do not like that word – we have all grown up with it, and it has a deep seated space in our conscious and sub conscious minds – ready to pop up frequently to bring us down. I try not to use it or think about it and have reframed the word as ‘development’ – in other words this ‘episode’ or event that did not go the way I thought it might has now become a learning and development piece for me. Much better all round!
I will share ideas and strategies that have worked for me, but there are some important principles to absorb first. Then you can take my suggestions and make them your own.
First of all - Zoom out, Zoom In
We are told that humans are the only species capable of placing ideas and events in a larger context (well that's what a lot of people believe, but I think we do a disservice to the animal kingdom when we make that assumption!).
Humans have a skill that is like zooming out of the camera lens. It enables us to devote ourselves fully to parenting, postpone gratification and reinterpret elements of hardship or suffering as opportunities to learn or as part of a bigger, more worthwhile picture. Changing nappies, for example, is no big deal when we know and appreciate the importance of parenting.
We are capable of feeling joy and finding meaning in the smallest moments, but were equally capable of elevating the meaningless or error of the moment, into a larger more significant frame. If we allow them, mistakes for example to happen, they can offer huge opportunities for new insights.
Intriguingly we find it difficult to use this mechanism to prosper our own thoughts, through which we perceive what is going on for ourselves and the world around us, on a very regular basis. This is especially so when we are feeling anxious or stressed. We incline towards seeing only one thing or the other.
We would help ourselves enormously if we made a habit of stepping back and seeing the bigger picture; reminding ourselves of what's really important to us.
Someone I was working with recently had become too focused on a person he disliked. Once he chose to see this colleague as an irritating ‘mistake’ but then, on a much bigger canvas everything started to change. He gained a sense of perspective and was able to refocus on what really mattered in his life. He was also able to see the issues that presented themselves to him through the actions and behaviour of his colleague as an opportunity for both of them to grow together – rather than dwell on anger, upset and dissatisfaction.
We are all busy, busy, busy.
Our modern, often urbanised environment has a lot to answer for in masking our ability to notice when things are starting to tip the balance and notice that we are beginning to become unwell.
The constant appeal to our senses and the shared mental overload it brings has become a fact of life. It's a situation that exists and, is accelerating. It's up to us therefore, to learn to disconnect, to rest from the indigestible volume of information and stimuli that comes our way, if we are to lead the gracious and more balanced lives of which we are all capable of. I guess that is why, for me, I choose to take time out on solitude experiences, which you can read more about if you wish on my website: mikenoelsmith.com.
In the fragmentation of our attention, as we get bombarded by the current external world, we are less and less present and, also less attentive to the communication and language of our own bodies and in our exchanges with the people around us. Think about how this might apply to you and what you might do about it.
Change is the only constant
Although the Greek philosopher Heraclitus gave us the wise words “change is the only constant” over 2 thousand years ago, it still takes us a lifetime to come to terms with this fact. Life, and consequently our individual lives, can be described as a constant evolving process that takes place both in our bodies and in our relationships.
We need to find individual ways to wake up to and noticed this process of change as it takes place and not to buy into the sometimes bullying cult of permanent happiness. Truly recognise that change will happen to us and be aware of the emotional journey that accompanies change. Joy is a fabulous feeling, but we are blessed with the ability to feel so much more. Anger, revulsion, fear, grief and denial are some of the emotions that we try to hide from or at least avoid, but then these feelings help us become wise and compassionate and ultimately to experience life as meaningful. Denying their presence by sweeping them under the carpet becomes counter-productive, which, in turn, leads to insincerity and brittleness.
Being committed to raising our own self-awareness of how we are doing in our lives requires courage. The courage to acknowledge the less comfortable feelings as they arise and the awareness not to turn a blind eye to them are as important for us to assess the feelings of happiness.
By allowing all those different ‘guests’, as the mystic poet Rumi called them, to enter our ‘house’ our true self, we are able to develop compassion and tolerance of inevitable discomfort and ultimately resilience stops or at least slows right down and in doing so, hopefully, keep our lives in balance.
So what can we do about it? Here are some practical ways to recognise yourself slipping out of balance:
1. Make commitments
Perhaps the place to start is to make a commitment to yourself: that you make time and practice listening to your inner process as well as how you relate to others. Cultivate a way of listening and hearing that is kind and generous to yourself as well as curious and open. Stay present, however painful, and try to suspend judgement.
Paradoxically by accepting our vulnerability as a permanent fixture rather than something we need to work through at top speed, we become stronger and life become more deeply satisfying. So, by just knowing what state you are in, will strengthen you.
2. Learn to direct your attention
The quality of your life is directly connected to your ability to pay attention. For all the good that is it has brought, the mobile revolution that we currently live in has severely eroded many people's attention span.
There are things we can do to change this:
3. Connect with your body
Our bodies are very accurately keeping the score of how we are. This is a fact. You can learn to read and hear what the subtle stirrings are, without having to wait for its cries of despair to stop. Little things are warning signs: poor sleep, aches and pains generally in the body, stiffness in movement etc; So -
Connect with your mind
Conservative estimates tell us we have 20,000 thoughts a day with 75% of those being somewhat negative. We are predisposed to seek out the bad – it's a survival technique that we as a species have always had. By focusing effectively on danger we have managed to stay safe and evolve as humans for millennia.
The thing is that our environment is not as dangerous as it was but our brains have not quite got out of that habit, and what you focus on is what you get. To seek out good news, dismiss futile negative thoughts and make firm decisions about the quality of thought your commit to, because it will keep you buoyant and aware of times when it is more difficult to ignore negative ruminations. And this might just be telling you something.
Connect with other people
Even the most introverted of us need to interact with other people. We are inter-dependent as a species. Each exchange with another, even the person behind the till at the supermarket, will change us and we them.
Notice the quality of your interactions with others. Irritability, poor listening and a lack of generosity, can tell me when I'm slipping.
Investing in this form of self exploration is liberating. The lesser mercy of our unbridled feelings we are, the better. Remain ever curious and accept what you see: whether the quality of your sleep or your physical agility is affected or that your thoughts and interactions are less positive.
Slipping out of balance might even seem attractive at first glance because you may be able to feel getting our with less sleep, become overly optimistic, and even hyperactive, as good things. In the end though, you will only recognise your language of distress and these can be very telling.