Recently, my friend was excited because she was driving by herself to the airport to pick up a friend. I remember this feeling when my children were toddlers and I had a dentist appointment. I looked forward to the drive there, sitting in the dentist chair, listening to mindless music and then driving home. An hour to myself! Most of the articles and blogs I've read about balance focus on revising time spent in different activities. I propose that balance starts with "being with" yourself so you can pay attention to what your needs are.
First take a little assessment to see if you would agree with any of the following statements:
• I don't have a minute to myself all day.
• I get up before dawn to have time alone.
• I stay up past midnight even though I have to wake up at 6 a.m.
• I take work home with me (or never close my home-office door).
• I multitask in order to free up time for a mini-vacation, and then feel like I need a vacation when I return.
If you agreed with any of the above, you may want to consider the following steps to bring balance into your life.
Step 1: You are doing it right now: pursuing an idea to bring more satisfaction to your life. By reading this you are making yourself a priority.
Step 2: Stop reading and take a deep breath. Simply focus on the in breath, don't try to control the exhalation.
Step 3: Allow your mind to float over your day, remembering all the distractions, all the deadlines.
Step 4: Take another deep breath. (Step 3 can be exhausting!)
Step 5: With your focus on all the day's activities, imagine the moments between distractions, between deadlines. Perhaps on your drive to work you always have to stop for a particular red light. Or while your children watch a TV show, you have half an hour to yourself.
Step 6: During these "free" moments, imagine not doing, not thinking about what you could be doing, simply be aware of yourself -- how you're feeling emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. This gives us the information we need to proceed to get our needs met. Simply notice your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Step 7: Practice finding the "free" moments during the day.
Even during my busiest days as a mom working two jobs with teenagers getting ready to head off for college, I had the "in-between" or free moments I'm referring to. Now I find them while I'm waiting in line at the grocery store or in traffic. Being around my active 5-year-old grandson is the most challenging. He doesn't tire of my attention. With him, I've learned to say, "I need to take a break." He doesn't like this, of course, but he's learned that I'm a better playmate if there's some give and take.
The 7-step strategy is based on my assumption that we know what we need when we stop and listen. Of course, that isn't always true, but at least we can be aware that we don't know. That awareness is important in itself. In my psychotherapy practice most of my clients have not been raised to pay attention to their own needs, but rather the needs of others. As opera singer Jessye Norman said, "Problems arise in that one has to find a balance between what people need from you and what you need for yourself."
How often do you eat because you're tired? Or stimulate yourself with coffee instead of taking a quick nap or doing a short meditation? And what about personal connection? When you're lonely, do you turn on the TV or get on the computer, instead of reaching out to a friend? When we are clear about what we need and what we want, we have a better chance of satisfying those needs. Then we are on course to balancing our lives.
One last point. I read a comment on a blog about finding balance in which the writer exclaimed that he wanted to put all his energy into one area. My take on this is as follows: Putting all of one's energy into a passion might be a perfect balance for right now. If your life feels in balance by doing the one thing you love, then there's not much impetus to change. However, circumstances do change (we get older if nothing else!) and the more one is self-aware, the easier it can be to transition to a new balance.
For more than 20 years, Susan Morales, M.S.W. has explored human behavior through her work as a psychotherapist, and as a student/practitioner of meditation. In addition to using meditation as a device to help clients with issues of anxiety and depression, she offers classes and retreats to women in substance abuse recovery. She developed Be Who You Love Meditation as a method to teach people how to find greater depth of satisfaction in their lives. She blogs on meditation for annarbor.com and Red Room, and was on the editorial board for "The Voice of Social Workers: Poets and Writers," a journal recently published by the Michigan chapter of NASW.