01/24/2014 10:53 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

Inner Balance

When we think about life balance, we most often think right away of activities, people, places, and time. We ignore what's most important of all. We start asking questions like: Are we spending too much time at work and not at home, or too much time with others and not enough alone? How's the balance in my life right now between friends and family, sitting and sweating, screen time and face time? How can I better balance the many things I do throughout my day, or my week?

And there are other balance issues regarding external factors that use the measure of time in related ways. Am I eating vegetables often enough, or am I consuming meat or carbs too often? Do I devote enough time to professional development, or to personal growth? Do I hit the right balance between labor and leisure, necessities and luxuries, doing and being? All these issues are important, and such questions of balance are always legitimate. In fact, they're crucial for us to ask and address. But they don't get to the heart of what should be our most fundamental concern about balance.

Throughout your life, everything outer arises from something inner. Then, there comes to be a dynamic interplay between the outer and the inner, each informing and shaping the other. But the inner always, and in some form, comes first. And, from this truth, something surprising follows.

The most important form of balance is inner balance. You can't get the outer things right without first getting the inner things right. Life balance is ultimately about the stuff we almost never think of when balance is our concern. The issue beneath all other issues is whether we're in proper balance in our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, desires, and perceived needs, in matters of focus and aspiration, and with our deepest hopes and dreams. Inner harmony comes from inner balance, and that's ultimately the source of all other harmonies and forms of balance.

Here's a typical scenario that arises from not realizing this important truth: First, you gradually or suddenly become aware that you have some form of imbalance in the external activities or commitments of your life. And it bothers you. You feel bad about it. Maybe you even experience a sense of guilt for what you've lost or are in the process of losing because of that imbalance. And so you take action. You readjust your schedule. You change your hours around, cutting back on some things and spending more time on others. You basically rearrange the furniture of your life. The room that is you has been reorganized. And, initially, it looks better. Perhaps you're even very pleased with the new you. And then, a short time later -- or even an amazingly short time later -- you end up very surprised when the imbalances you corrected have crept back and reappeared in their old form, or in some new and equally troubling manifestation. Outer rearrangement without inner reform never works for very long. Inner imbalances will always have outer manifestations.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times described the pervasiveness of wealth addiction on Wall Street. Could the imbalance in your life be due to the fact that you're excessively concerned with money, or praise, or power, or perhaps with the idea of success itself? If your inner attitudes and aspirations are unbalanced, the externalities of your life will reflect that. To put it in a folksier way, good fruits can't come from bad roots.

Consider, for a moment, a different matter -- the recent psychological study of positive and negative emotions. Many popular books and articles on happiness make it sound like we need to figure out a way to shed all negative emotions and cultivate more and more positive feelings instead. Even beyond that, there are contemporary advisors on health and wellbeing whose advice seems to indicate that, with any particular positive emotion, the more we have of it, and the more intensely we can experience it, the better. A little joy is good. More joy is better. Utterly exuberant joy is best. From the earliest self-help literature, on, a picture has increasingly been drawn for us in such a way as to imply that the ideal for human life, the admirably happy and fulfilled person, is a wildly optimistic, extremely enthusiastic, nearly giddy, blissed-out constant joy machine, gratefully counting her endless blessings and at least inwardly dancing in the spirit every moment of the day, celebrating the wonders of existence, 24/7.

Do you know such a person? And, if not, are you really glad you don't? Wouldn't they just monumentally get on your nerves after about five minutes? And if you feel this way, does that simply show you up as a sad case, awash in regrettable negativity, far from ideal in your own life, a basically miserable wretch of a person who, understandably, couldn't help but react to such an individual with irritation, resentment, and even disgust? Do you seriously need to read a few peppy, corrective books to show you the error of your ways, and maybe take a spa day, or several, and perhaps even practice smiling in the mirror on a regular basis, while repeating dozens of life affirmations every day?

A lot of modern culture is built around the assumption that, in the case of anything good, more is better. But, of course, that's patently false. Positive emotions are very good. But that doesn't mean that we need an unbalanced diet of glee each day.

The holiest spot in ancient Greece, the Oracle at Delphi, greeted visitors with two pieces of advice inscribed in marble. The first, perhaps the single most famous injunctive in human history was the simple imperative, "Know Yourself." The second was the much lesser known, but equally important, prescriptive, "Nothing in Excess." Pilgrims to the Oracle would go away from reading these two inscriptions with the understanding that they should be asking then, and throughout their lives, "What's the right balance point, or proper measure of anything, for me?" They might also be encouraged to ask: "What's important to me?" And: "What's enough for me?"

In our inner lives, excess is seldom helpful and healthy, and especially, over time. Bursts of excitement are wonderful. There's nothing wrong with occasions for indulgent ecstasy. But is more always better? We ought to be asking questions like: What's excessive in my inner life right now? How can I avoid it? What's the proper balance, in my values, attitudes, emotions, aspirations, and thoughts, as well as in my outer actions and activities? The inner should really come first. It's responsible for the outer. When we get that right, we stand a chance of getting other things right. So when you notice something about your outer activities that seems out of balance, look within as the first step toward righting things. Engage in the Socratic act of self-examination. But not, of course, excessively.