We all have bodies. And we need our bodies to carry us through our lives. We need these physical instruments to move us from place to place, to allow us to sit attentively and listen or work, to interact with the world and people around us. Without our bodies we couldn’t walk, or run, or dance; we couldn’t cook a brilliant meal, or read a life-changing story; we couldn’t hug a hurting child or high-five a teammate after a victory. We take in information through our bodily senses––sight, smell, taste, touch, sound all come in through our bodies. We experience the world through our bodies and express what is happening internally through our bodies. In essence, our bodies are lenses through which we take in everything, and a medium through which we relay information about our current state.
If you see someone sitting, eyes half-open, slouched in their chair in a waiting room, you can make some guesses about what they are experiencing: they may have been waiting a long time, they are probably tired, and they are not especially engaged with their surroundings. If you are having a difficult conversation with your boss, and you see the muscles in her jaw tighten as she clenches her teeth, you might imagine she is not especially relaxed or thrilled about what is being presented to her. And in the same way, our physical state will influence how we interpret and act in response to these situations. If you sit down next to that exhausted, possibly frustrated, person in the waiting room and you are feeling rested, calm, and patient, you might attempt to strike up a conversation, to elevate that individual from their current slump. If you yourself are feeling dejected or tired or ill, you may sit next to them and commiserate––or slouch into your chair and say nothing at all. If the night before that big conversation with your boss you hardly got any sleep, seeing that clench in her jaw might be just the trigger it takes to get you flying off the handle. On the other hand, if instead you had just eaten a nourishing lunch while listening to a new album on your iPod in your favorite spot in the office, you may feel grounded, relaxed and be able to react in a thoughtful way to her obvious tension.
There is a tendency in western culture to think about health as another item on the to-do list, as if it is one of the dozens of things taking up our time and energy. It’s broken down into a number of small tasks that get added to our schedules, so cooking healthy meals and going to the gym get squeezed between going to the post office and dropping off the kids at baseball practice. And sleep––who has time for that?! The concept of “health” or “wellness” quickly becomes a list of things we know we should do because they’re good for us.
Recent concepts of holistic wellness offer a more valuable and accurate way of thinking about health and the actions we take to maintain our whole person, mind, body and spirit. Health is a vehicle. It is the means through which we are able to be present in our lives in the fullest capacity available to us. When we are well, we are able to show up for the activities, people, and causes that matter to us. If your car had a flat tire, it would not take you where you need to go very well. In this same way, chronic tension headaches might be keeping someone from playing with their kids, performing well on the job, or any number of important life activities. Maintaining one’s body, mind, and spirit, and exploring the connectedness of these aspects, allows us to live up to our highest potential.
Health is not the absence of illness, but the presence of vitality. And this vitality channeled into our own individual actions, creations, and relationships is precisely more of what the world needs.
When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and hotter fires, and the like. When he has obtained things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain superfluities; and this is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.
I’m conducting a kind of experiment to see if I can run a 5k by the end of summer. That’s it. Not to run it in under 20 minutes, or beat my own record by 30 seconds. Just actually finish a race of 5 kilometers. I have never been a runner, and have always given up about 3 minutes in whenever I’ve tried, swearing that I “just wasn’t built for it”. I tend to have an all-or-nothing approach to doing most anything, so the idea of slowly building up to an accomplishment is, well, tough for me. I am using the Couch to 5k running plan, and have just finished the 5th of 9 weeks. So far, so good.
The thing is, I absolutely would not be able to do this if it weren’t for my running partner: my very-in-shape-and-naturally-gifted-athlete of a husband. He is right there by my side, every step. Again, he is in much better shape than I; he could run 5k any day of the week without breaking a sweat, and yet he stays shoulder to shoulder with me each and every stride, saying things like, “7 minutes in. You’ve got this.” or “18 minutes! That’s the longest you’ve ever run. Keep it up.” And never once does he push me to go faster or tell me how easy it is for him. He’s just there, encouraging me the whole way while I do the thing that I’ve set my mind to do.
And this is just his way. All day, every day. No pressure to be something or someone else, just unbridled support for me and what I want out of life.
So, I keep on running. In part, because I want to show myself I can do it. And in part because it’s pretty surreal to experience this palpable metaphor of marriage in the beautiful dusk of summer.
I dream of a day when, in response to the question “What do you do?”, people have such replies as:
I build model airplanes, study ancient civilizations, and take long walks every day with my partner. Oh, you mean how do I make money? I’m an accountant.
I tend to my huge backyard vegetable garden and write novellas. And to pay the bills I am also an x-ray technician.
I salsa dance, run marathons, and am learning to cook Indian food. I also work as a public defender.
In the west, we’ve become so obsessed with figuring out how to categorize and classify people, that we need to know RIGHT AWAY what someone does for work. So, this is often one of the first questions out of our mouths when meeting someone for the first time. The answer will help us to know how much money they make, how educated they are, and how we are “supposed” to interact with them (i.e. how they are expecting to be treated). Informative? Perhaps. Helpful? Not as much.
Responding in the ways offered above, by describing the things we do that we enjoy, that bring us pleasure and challenge, that we have chosen to commit time to regularly, we are presenting a much fuller picture of our lives and our selves. And this would lead to much deeper conversation about the things that matter.
Of course, there are people who do work that actually encompasses the activities and interests about which they are most passionate. And this is really the dream, isn’t it? But even in these cases, I do not think that telling someone one’s job title alone provides a sufficient picture of who they are. You’re a financial planner and you absolutely love going to work every single day? Terrific. But this is still just one component of how you spend your time. How different our interactions with one another would be if we didn’t stop at finding out how someone earns a paycheck, and quit assuming that we know who someone is based on their job title. Perhaps a better question might be:
These are a few of my favorite phrases to hear in career counseling work:
“Oh wow, I’d never thought about that before.”
“I really don’t know. That’s a great question.”
“I’ve got some work to do to figure some of this stuff out.”
Why are these some of my favorite things to hear? Because it can be wonderful not to know all the answers! Only when we come up against what we don’t know—and get clear about what information exactly is missing from the equation—can we move forward in a different, improved way. Trying the same tactics, with the same mindset and the same set of assumptions will (not surprisingly!) bring you to the same places you’ve been before.
We must reorient ourselves in order to tread new ground. We must find our blindspots, fill in the gaps, and feel a little uncertain, a little unsettled, but hopefully… a little excited by the possibilities.
Sometimes all it takes is one good question to make a huge shift. The next time you have a big decision to make, ask yourself: What am I overlooking? What is another piece of information that would be nice to have as I make this decision? Is my assumption about __________ really correct? How can I test that out?
It’s easy to focus on the pieces of information we have in front of us, sometimes to the extent that we overlook the pieces we don’t yet have. Slowing down and asking just a few simple questions can lead down a path of important insight.
Don’t set goals for 2013. Just don’t do it. At best, you’ll achieve them. At worst, you’ll fail miserably. But you’ll likely land somewhere in between… and feel a middling sense of accomplishment, mixed with a touch of regret at what was left undone. Even if you do succeed at shedding some extra weight or getting a promotion at work, what happens once you’re done? Once that hurdle is cleared, what propels you forward? An emphasis on the outcome, on attaining a concrete objective, can certainly be useful in some instances—but it’s no way to build a life.
We live life one moment at a time and in each moment have the opportunity to be present to ourselves and those around us in whatever way we choose. Intentionally and purposefully.
The practice of setting an intention may be familiar to the yogis in the house. In many classes, instructors will offer an opportunity for students to set an intention for their time on the mat. Setting an intention involves remaining focused on in-the-moment ways of being, rather than future-oriented outcomes. If you can objectively succeed or fail, you have set a goal. Instead of focusing on the “what?” or “how many?”, an intention focuses on the “how?” and “with what kind of energy?” am I going to show up for certain people, activities, or responsibilities.
It’s the difference between the statements:
“I will lose 20 lbs by March 15th” and “I will choose healthful foods that nourish my body and make me feel alive”.
Sure, there may be times we choose to eat a plate of fries that are neither “healthful” nor do they make us “feel good”, and this may sound (and feel) a lot like a mini failure. But if the sense of failure is a here-and-now experience, chances are there’s a here-and-now alternative to feeling disappointed in yourself. It’s likely that it is not so much a failure as it is an intuitive sense that there was a better choice and we didn’t make it. And that’s okay! If an intention is a way to be present to our lives and choices with a certain awareness, there’s always an opportunity around the corner to be in our lives differently.
Set an intention to be in your life in the ways you want to be. No numbers, no hours per week, no goals at all. Choose how you want to show up—each and every moment of 2013.
A recent post on the Harvard Business Review Blog described the benefits of reading poetry for individuals working in business and management. (Article can be found here.) A compelling argument for poetry’s usefulness for professional development pertains to the concision and efficiency of the poetic form. In other words, “poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity…improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.”
One of the most interesting ideas around this topic came from the comment section. Here, a reader suggests that it isn’t the reading of poetry itself that leads to the numerous positive effects on the brain research has attributed to poetry. Rather, this individual posits, it’s that the types of people who read poems for pleasure are the types of people who have the ability to reduce a complicated, layered idea down to its essence—and who enjoy this kind of intellectual exercise and implement this kind of thinking in other areas of their lives.
The article is a great read, and it’s always encouraging to see research supporting the notion that a well-rounded, balanced life contributes to satisfaction and success across the board.
*Bonus: this is also a great reminder that correlation does not equal causation! :)
What is often referred to as a “balanced life” by mass media is something of a misnomer. The idea we have in mind when we say “balanced” is not that all parts are given equal time: spending 8 hours at work, 8 hours asleep, and the other 8 hours evenly distributed between our familial, household, and personal demands. Not only is this not realistic, but it also does not allow for the flexibility required to attend to what is happening in our lives in a moment-to-moment or season-by-season way.
A better way of conceptualizing a healthy, functional life might be one in which the right parts are given appropriate priority considering one’s own values and circumstances. This means that sometimes we work 60-hour weeks and others we work half days from home. Or sometimes we need to attend to a family emergency instead of keeping up on the housework. There might be a season of life in which a romantic relationship is given more hours, more energy, more attention than anything else––and it might be that this is precisely what is needed for this relationship to thrive. A few years later, this same relationship might be stable and strong enough to support one party’s need to spend more time, energy, and attention on a budding career or an ailing parent.
And these examples are by definition imbalanced. But this imbalance is exactly what is called for in the face of these circumstances. So, instead of juggling all of the balls of our lives all the time, giving equal attention to each, we can swap one out for another. We sometimes even set down two or three for a period of time. There may even be moments when all of the balls crash to the floor, and we have the opportunity to search for the ones we can’t live without and leave another we didn’t really need to collect dust behind the couch.
Life is not a fixed, quantifiable entity. It is ever-changing and subjective, and to try and measure it out into even categories misses the point. What’s better than a perfectly balanced life? Deciding what we value and making conscious efforts to ration our time and energy in ways that prioritize these values.