Reflections on Life Balance

Reflections on Life Balance

Yes, I tend to explore in these newsletters what I currently need to learn about the most. (Equanimity, presence, compassion, laughter, many good topics over the years.)

Most of us get reminded of the need for life balance when we suddenly discover how out of whack our lives have become. Too much focus on one thing (health issues, work issues, romance issues, financial issues); other matters drop to the bottom of the list. We haven’t hugged the kids in three days, or balanced our checkbook in three months, or read a good novel in three years. Priorities we value disappear from our radar because other priorities, also valued, sometimes tragically compelling, fill our entire bandwidth.

I could feel the balance slowly tipping as I spent recent months finalizing a book proposal on the neuroscience of resilience (the irony was not lost on me and my friends.) The ramp up of those months coincided exactly with the serious diagnosis and aggressive treatment of Crohn’s disease in a dear, dear family member. (I am being protectively private here.) The stretch to meet sudden sorrow and suffering with genuine presence and usefulness, while simultaneously pushing a big creative growth edge, wore the mundane middle (reading the newspaper, updating patient records, weeding the petunias) a little thin.

Only when I pushed “send” on the proposal – ironically only two days after my family member went into a brief remission – life’s unfathomable synchronies! – could I come up for air and look around at the larger world that had gone along well enough without me those many months. Now it’s time to find ways to restore a healthier balance of needs, desires, values, life energies.

May the reflections and tools in this month’s newsletter help you and yours come to a healthy life balance as well.

REFLECTIONS on Life Balance

When I first came across Carl Jung’s model of the integrated Self a decade ago, and the four archetypal energies that comprise it – feminine, masculine, dynamic, stable, thus dynamic feminine, dynamic masculine, stable feminine, stable masculine – I was blown away by its comprehensiveness. We all need to cultivate these energies in a fluid balance to experience a genuine wholeness of Self.

What I’m seeking to re-balance now:

Stable feminine: the nourishing and peaceful safe haven of trust, acceptance, belonging, and rest;
Dynamic feminine: the passionate expansiveness of emotionality, sensuality, generativity, creativity, and art;
Dynamic masculine: the powerful striving for achievement, productivity, knowledge, competence, and mastery;
Stable masculine: the steady attentiveness to order, structure, the culture’s norms, and responsibility.

(Of course, these capacities can run amok within themselves, too:

Stable feminine can de-rail into passivity, inertia, enmeshment;
Dynamic feminine into emotional overwhelm, even chaos or madness;
Dynamic masculine into arrogance, domination, oppression;
Stable masculine into an arid deadening and juicelessness.

Then those de-railments need to be re-balanced into their healthy true nature again, or their healthy true nature even discovered in the first place. See Exercises to Practice and Resources below for more on this model.)

As I dust off Jung’s model, and recover other models of re-creating life balance (examples below) I realize there are some steps common to any attempts at regaining life balance.

A. When we come to the end of a chapter, before a new phase begins, or even a time-out needed in the midst to re-group, the first priority is to re-align with one’s core values or true nature, to consciously recover what wholesomely motivates us from the core. From there, re-viewing and re-choosing one’s priorities has a clear compass to guide the process.

To do that we need a time out to temporarily get off the merry-go-round (the blessings of a summer vacation or silent retreat), or to take advantage of the time-out granted by some task-project-life phase coming to resolution.

The time out allows us to re-expand the space, re-expand the perspective, recover a sense of possibility again, so that former priorities that were abandoned or set aside can be re-considered. (In those first few moments after I pushed “send” on the proposal, and knew I would be seeing my family member a few hours later for Fourth of July fireworks, I found myself a bit at sea without the intense focus of the previous months. Like a mini-retirement: “What do I do now?” I washed the car; tidying up is a very adaptive way for folks to time out and re-group.)

This time out also allows an intuitive re-balancing to begin. Even before using any of the models offered below to consciously create a new life balance, our bodies begin on their own to re-balance movement with quiet or quiet with movement. (Too much frenetic rushing around, we might quietly stare out the window for a few moments; too many hours sitting at the computer, we go for a quick run, swim, bike ride, yoga stretch.) Our bodies intuitively know how to do this; we don’t have to plan it; we simply allow it.

Similarly we find ourselves intuitively re-balancing engagement and dis-engagement. Too many relatives for too many days, we go for a long solitary shop at the grocery store. Too many days alone in bed with the flu or late hours in an office cubicle, we want to re-balance by going out with friends for dinner in a hub-bubby restaurant.

The most important shift in this intuitive re-balancing is that our perspective begins to shift from linear – steps toward a goal – to spherical – centering inside, dropping into the beingness that is deeper, larger, than any agenda. It’s this re-centering into simply being, this dropping into a genuine presence with our true nature, that informs the next emergent goals and priorities and the linear steps to those new (or recovered) priorities as well.

If we don’t take the time to create the spaciousness to shift from linear tasking to re-centered pondering (even less active than that, to an open receptivity) we run the risk of working harder and harder at the same ole same ole. (Even if it’s a wholesome same ole!) If we don’t take the time to re-balance at all, we run a serious risk of burn-out, because we’re missing out on the life energies that would heal and awaken us into a full aliveness and wholeness.

B. Now we can begin to use the models below as well to access what has gotten unbalanced, what has gotten dropped or disapparated from neglect, what needs to be cultivated more diligently, brought back to the top of our conscious intention.

While Jung’s model focuses on balancing life energies, the models below focus more on realms of life to be balanced, transitioning from the spherical centeredeness back out to linear goals and steps. (The natural outgrowth of dynamic masculine from the stable feminine, in fact.) Balancing both the energies and the manifestations of those energies are necessary to achieve a true and sustainable life balance.

1. Wheel of Awareness

Dan Siegel, M.D., offers this tool of mindfulness in his recent book Mindsight. From the quiet spacious hub in the center, simply being in presence and in awareness, from that clarity and receptivity, let your attention focus on various objects on the rim of the wheel – traditionally your own breathing (or the breathing of people sitting near you); your own body sensations and impulses – tingles, contractions, itches and aches; your own emotions arising in just this very moment – a flicker of irritation, a twinge of sadness, a wisp of longing; always returning to the quiet spaciousness of the hub to re-center and then to explore again. Mind states of longing or boredom or overwhelm. Desires for a full night’s sleep or deeper intimacy with your partner. Ambitions for your daughter’s high MCAT scores or your own financial safety net. Entire stories and belief systems about who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going; always returning to the quiet hub in the center for a conscious re-centering, re-balancing.

I use this wheel of awareness exercise to become more cognizant of what’s missing on the rim. (Most important is to make sure the clear awareness in the center, in the hub, isn’t missing.) A conversation with a sibling about a mis-understanding at Thanksgiving, long postponed because we’re both too busy. The growing dissatisfaction about our job since the latest downsizing, shunted to the background because the implications are truly scary. The occasional twinge in our knee that we tell ourselves doesn’t mean anything too serious and we get by well enough any way.

The Wheel of Awareness hasn’t solved any problems yet, simply brought them to consciousness where we can use the models below to re-balance. The Wheel of Awareness creates a receptivity to allow what’s been missing to return to our consciousness where our own deeper intuitive wisdom can surface a clear wise action.

2. Wheel of Life

A coaching tool to help folks regain a vision of their life as a whole, and identify areas where they would like more fulfillment, what needs to come into better balance.

On a blank sheet of paper, draw a circle and then draw lines to divide the circle in half, then quarters, then eighths. You now have eight sections of a pie chart. Identify eight areas of your life that are important to you (including any that surfaced in the Wheel of Awareness exercise). Common categories are: work-career, family-intimate relationships, lifestyle-recreation-culture, finances, health-self-care, friendships-community, creativity, spirituality, but you certainly can create any categories most relevant to you.

On the rim, label each 8th of the circle with a category. At the center of the circle is your Self (your awareness, your centered openness). Indicate with a dot somewhere in each slice, your level of fulfillment for each category. Close to the center being a zero, no satisfaction or fulfillment; out on the rim a 10, the most satisfaction or fulfillment you can imagine. You’ll notice you’ve ranked some categories a 2 or 3, probably some improvement needed here; others a 5 or 6; probably good enough, still others an 8 or 9, already very fulfilling indeed. You create the wheel by connecting the dots in a circle within the circle, now you have a visual representation of how balanced your life satisfaction is, or where there are areas of great imbalance.

You may not yet have the bandwidth to address all or even any of these imbalances, but even identifying them brings them to consciousness and begins to shift the energy toward a pro-active re-balancing.

3 Creative visualization

I heard Abraham Verghese, author of the best-selling novel Cutting for Stone, be interviewed by Michael Krasny at Dominican University last spring. (A re-vitalizing time out!)

Verghese spent eight years writing his truly amazing novel. He told us he had spent every morning of those eight years visualizing a cover of a finished book, with “New York Times best-seller” emblazoned across the top. Indeed, his novel (deservedly) made it to the New York Times list of bestsellers and stayed there for many months.

The power of visualization to help people focus on and achieve their goals has been long known and increasingly validated. (Part of the law of attraction mentioned in The Secret.) A time-tested and fun way to create a visual image of your own life dreams in an intuitively integrated way is to create a collage of pictures from old magazines. (National Geographics are great – readily accessible, full of archetypal images from cultures and habitats all over the world.)

Because creating a collage of visual images is essentially a right brain activity, you can take a break from all the left brain figuring out and analyzing, drop into a sense of simple presence and openness, set an intention to open to the wisdom of your own inner knowing, and let your truest longings reveal themselves to you.

Begin with leafing through the magazines, letting various images catch your eye. After 10-15 minutes of leafing, begin to cut out images and set them aside. No evaluating or second guessing; these images are resonating with a deeper part of your psyche; trust that for now. I usually spend 45-50 minutes collecting the images. Then spread the collected images out in front of you on a table or floor. Certain images call to you, and begin to group themselves with other images. Place your groups of images on a large posterboard. (18” x 24” or 24” x 36” is usually large enough.) The re-arranging, itself the exploration and re-balancing, takes about 20-30 minutes. When the images have settled themselves into place, glue them onto the posterboard. Spend ten minutes or so contemplating, registering the deeper meanings of the images. Then hang the posterboard on a wall where you can see it every day. (Even a closet door or hallway will work fine.)

In the time it takes to watch a movie, you’ve created a visual representation of the desired unfolding of the movie of your own life.

4. Mind Mapping

Developed by Tony Buzan over 20 years ago, I find mind mapping useful in moving toward actually creating a map of priorities, even creating the concrete steps to express or achieve some of those priorities.

You’ll need a large blank sheet of paper, colored pencils or Sharpie pens. (Lots of colors makes mind mapping a lot more fun.)

You may use the same categories of life realms you identified in the Wheel of Life exercise, or simply come up with a new list of priorities you would like to work with. Write the name of one of the most important priorities in the center of the page and draw a circle or bubble around it, the size and shape of the bubble indicating somewhat how important this priority is, at least for now. Begin to draw different sizes and shapes of bubbles for other priorities, noting their proximity to the central bubble, above or below, overlapping or off in a corner, smaller or even larger bubbles.

Drawing the bubbles is the right brain part of a mind map. I last did a mind map almost a full year ago, before the ramping up of the book proposal, and then again two weeks ago before writing this newsletter. I was astonished at what had stayed stable (spiritual practice, relationships, creativity, clinical practice) and what had shifted drastically (health, finances, yikes!)

Writing in specific examples for each bubble, and then steps to manifest those examples, is the left brain part of the mind map. (Now that I’ve learned an hour of cardiovascular exercise a day, five days a week, pushes back the onset of Alzheimer’s by 10-15 years, (!) I have new priorities around health-self-care and have created new action steps to walk or bike or swim every single day.) You’ve created both a visual expression of how realms of your life are balanced (or imbalanced) and identified steps you want to take to manifest the various realms more. Mind maps help evoke the re-visioning and re-balancing of our lives by giving us a momentary snapshot of a very fluid process.

These models can be used solo; they can be amazingly fun and productive to do in a group. The safety and trust generated in a good group generates more permission of possibilities, like brainstorming generates ideas beyond any one individual’s categories. Allow yourself one morning in the coming month to use one or more of these models to experiment with intentionally and creatively re-balancing yourself; may you truly rejoice in the results.

C. While using any of these models to re-balance our lives (journaling, good talks with close friends or mentors, good sessions with therapists or coaches can work, too) it’s natural and helpful to come up with a few choice words that remind us of the essence of our practices to stay in balance. For three years now, my reminder words have been consciousness, compassion, connection. One of the wisest people I know on the planet, Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, has taught life balance skills to fellow physicians for 25 years. Now facing his own battle with metastatic cancer, Lee’s reminder words, distilled out of years of practice, are: gratitude, meaning, play.

Take a moment to identify three words that help you remember, moment to moment, what most helps you keep your life in a good balance. Practice keeping them at the forefront of your awareness every day for two weeks, and notice the impact on your experience of life balance.


Last week’s quotes on Awe and Wonder were sparked by a morning’s restoratiave hike in a nearby wilderness, opening out once again to a spacious, timeless beingness after months of either nose to the grindstone or heart in my throat. Nature is restorative.

I’m blessed to live in an area just north of San Francisco where, decades ago, local citizens fought hard to protect both agricultural land and natural wilderness from being exploited by developers. 44% of the county is now protected open space or held in land trusts. But even when I visit friends in New York City or Los Angeles, the geraniums in the window box, or the clouds scudding across the sky, still evoke the larger wonder of life and restore my sense of place in it.

Climb up on some hill at sunrise. Everybody needs perspective once in a while, and you’ll find it there.
– Robb Sagendorph

* * * * *

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
– John Muir

* * * * *

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
– John Burroughs

* * * * *

That was the most peaceful half hour…I have ever spent…in my entire life. – overheard from a man hiking down from Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park.

* * * * *

As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.
– Stephen Graham

* * * * *

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
– Albert Einstein

* * * * *

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
– Williams Wordsworth

* * * * *

Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another,
– Juvenal

* * * * *

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.
– Henry David Thoreau

* * * * *

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.
– Rachel Carson

* * * * *

In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia.
– Charles A. Lindbergh

* * * * *

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.
This is not done by jostling in the street.
– William Blake

* * * * *

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
– Lao Tzu

* * * * *

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
– John Muir

* * * * *

To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.
– Jane Austen

* * * * *

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice – for your soul is alive.
– Eleanora Duse

* * * * *

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,
I keep it staying at Home –
With a bobolink for a Chorister,
And an orchard for a Dome.
– Emily Dickinson

* * * * *

I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.
– Frank Lloyd Wright

* * * * *

I thank you god for this most amazing day,
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,
and for the blue dream of sky
and for everything which is natural,
which is infinite,
which is yes.
– e.e. cummings


There came a time when I was burning out raising $4 million/year for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund’s public interest lawsuits to protect the environment. Stimulating work, good cause, dedicated co-workers, results to be proud of, but I was losing my life balance from the relentless deadlines. I felt the horizons of my life shrinking inward, too many of the plates in the air started crashing to the ground, and my enthusiasm was disappearing into irascibility.

I took a huge time out – two weeks of whitewater rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. And on the rafting trip took another time out from paddling 6-8 hours a day by gliding along one afternoon on an oar boat handled by one of the guides.

In the spaciousness of that “lazy” afternoon, I fell into a serious conversation with the guide, who providentially, was a licensed psychotherapist when not guiding folks down the river. I casually floated the idea that if I had another life, I would be a psychologist or a marine biologist. Sheldon looked me squarely in the eyes and asked, “How old are you?” I told him (early 40’s) and without skipping a beat he said, “You have this life.” I was in graduate school in clinical psychology in less than a year.

I did a lot of talking with folks and exploring programs between that moment on the river and diving into theories of personality. But something resonated so deeply that afternoon. That’s what slowing down and opening up to our own inner wisdom can do; we know, we re-balance, and we grow. (It helped that the weekend offsite for my first class in graduate school, group therapy, turned out to be a backpacking trip in the Sierra!)

May your taking the time and creating the space help you re-vision and re-balance your life as well.


Carl Jung knew we all have the yin-yang of masculine and feminine in our psyches, regardless of gender. And that we all have the yin-yang of stable and dynamic in our psyches, regardless of our temperament. There are many life energies that can become polarized in the psyche (within couples, too): autonomy-affiliation, engagement-solitude, duty-play.

The practice is to remain conscious of these forces, conscious of any polarization, and to pro-actively being these energies back into an integrated balance. (When I was in graduate school in clinical psychology, reading heavy textbooks about heavy topics, I would read children’s books on the weekends to bring some balance to my reading life.)

Identify one or more tendencies toward polarization in your own life (friends can help): too dour, not enough laughter, or too oblivious, not enough awareness of responsibilities. Using the models in Reflections, begin to identify concrete behavior changes that would help bring the energies you’ve identified back into a better balance. Notice when your efforts do, in fact, create more life balance, and celebrate.


Masculine and Feminine: The Natural Flow of Opposites in the Psyche by Gareth Hill, PhD. Shambala, 2001.

The maturation of the self from a Jungian point of view, tracing the development of dynamic masculine, dynamic feminine, static masculine, and static feminine archetypes (both positive and negative). While written primarily for clinicians, the book has great value for the general reader in portraying powerful energies in the human psyche in a way that makes a great deal of common sense.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel, M.D. Bantam Books, 2010.

The Wheel of Awareness is one tool of many offered in this accessible exploration of how we can train our mind to better observe its own functioning and become more empathic with the moment to moment processes of other people’s minds as well.

Co-Active Coaching, 2nd Edition: New Skills for Coaching People toward Success in Work and Life by Laura Whitworth, Karen Kimsey-House, Henry Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl. Jaiaco Publishing, 2007

Many good exercises, including the Wheel for Life, for re-visioning and re-balancing.

How To Mind Map by Tony Buzan, Thorsons Publishers, 2006.

An effective system of planning and note taking that improves memory, enhances organization, and boosts creativity.