Our lives are full of stress: we have 24 hours each day and more activities than we feel we have time for. In this age of multi-tasking and instantaneous communication through cell phones, e-mail, and BlackBerrys that do both and more, the demands on our time are relentless. These demands have increased our levels of stress-related health problems, and as an antidote, the quest for “balance” has become a popular fixation. In our search for balance, we re-prioritize our to-do lists and think about ways to shift our schedules around. But what is balance? How do we live a balanced life?
In an article exploring the concept of balance from a Buddhist perspective, Greg Martin states, “A stagnant puddle or a still pond is in a kind of static balance. Such puddles or ponds are home to insects, disease and decay—obviously not appropriate symbolism for the dynamic balance that Buddhism seeks.”Alternatively, we can think of balance as the powerful flow of a river, whose constant flow creates enormous energy. This energy can be harnessed; for example, the turbines of the Hoover Dam control the flow of the Colorado River, to meet the energy needs of millions.
If we look at Lake Mead, which is formed by the Hoover Dam, it appears to be in a state of balance, with its surface resembling a still pond. Yet the lake is anything but stagnant, as it is constantly purifying itself. Martin states, “The immense volume of the water in the lake—its capacity—maintains a steady, constant flow regardless of temporary seasonal conditions. Thinking in terms of flow, capacity, and generating power is a good way to understand the balance we seek to establish in our own lives.”
If we think of Lake Mead as a balanced and rejuvenated life, and the Colorado River as unlimited energy, then Positive Psychology is a tool to help us create the Hoover Dam, which harnesses the energy and turns it into available power. In The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz demonstrate that managing energy, not time, is the key to enduring high performance.
Unlimited Power of a River
Returning to the concept of balance, we often think of it as the end product of a perfectly aligned schedule, with the “right” amount of time dedicated to each sector of our lives, and our to-do lists neatly checked off in prioritized order. When we can’t live up to this concept of balanced time, we feel stressed and overwhelmed, and feelings of complaint arise from a lack of confidence to be successful in all areas. We doubt our confidence to do it all. In terms of the Lake Mead metaphor, our lives become stagnant because we fail to see the unlimited power of the Colorado River and use the Hoover Dam to harness the energy available to us to continually refresh our lives.
Through over twenty-five years of working with great athletes, Loehr and Schwartz developed the Full Engagement® Training System (the Hoover Dam) designed to optimize physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy. Full engagement requires drawing on each source of energy, but the most significant source is spiritual, “defined by the force of energy” (p. 198). According to Martin, the benefit of a spiritual practice, like Buddhism, is to refresh our confidence that our lives inherently have the power and unlimited capacity of a mighty river. When we feel unbalanced and bitter about the challenges in life, we can take these feelings as “an indicator of the need to focus our faith and actions on awakening to and expanding our true capacity.”
The spiritual struggle to awaken to our true capacity is a form of training as necessary to our well being as exercise is to maintaining a health body. Loehr and Schwartz state that “to build capacity, we must push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic way that elite athletes do. Positive energy rituals—highly specific routines for managing energy—are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance” (p. 198).
This emphasis upon continual effort is consistent with the research of Carol Dweck, who found that those who maintain a learning or process approach to intelligence as opposed to an intrinsic or fixed view, are better able to withstand the storms of life. For example, to improve academic achievement, you can motivate your child by focusing on his or her effort, pointing out specific examples to increase their sense of control, e.g. “Wow honey, you really studied hard for that exam, I saw you skip watching American Idol to study an extra hour last night!” Conversely, Dweck found that ability-focused praise, e.g. “Wow honey, you’re really smart! That’s why you got a good grade on your exam!” may eventually lead to under-performance. While the second approach is well meaning, it leads to an under-appreciation of the continual effort it takes to maintain high performance.
This learning approach is fundamental in the effort to improve our spiritual capacity: “it is thus imperative that we maintain clear focus as we continue the inner spiritual struggle to awaken the forces of good within. This ceaseless effort to polish our lives empowers us to avoid stagnation, the tendency to view present conditions as fixed and immutable. We can then exercise the self-mastery required to respond creatively to the unique problems and possibilities of each moment. It is through sustaining and ingraining this habit of struggle that the most positive and creative energy becomes established as the fundamental tenor of our lives and the basis for our life-activity.” (May 2002, Living Buddhism, p. 19)
To live a balanced life, we must have faith that the unlimited power of a river is available to us. Then, through positive energy rituals to train our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities, we will create a dam to harness the power of the river and continually refresh the lake that is our life. Loehr and Schwartz define “‘spiritual’ not in the religious sense, but rather in more simple and elemental terms: the connection to a deeply held set of values and to a purpose that it beyond our self-interest” (p. 110). And though it may appear stable and calm on the surface, you will know that this balance is not stagnant, and not a result of shifting around your schedule and to-do list. True balance—dynamic, powerful balance—is sustained by determined and diligent effort to elevate the quality of our lives no matter where our time is being spent.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Fisher, S. (2007). Multiple Intelligences and Mindsets: Positive Approaches to Education. Positive Psychology News.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.
Park, G. (2007). Praise and Performance. Positive Psychology News.