The Balanced Life

The Key To Keeping Your Balance Is Knowing When You Lost It

The balanced life is one where you recognise the full spectrum of possible responses and consistently choose the right one.


The Balanced Life - an optical illusion suggesting a man balancing on a pile of stones.

Introducing The Balanced Life

Most articles on how to achieve and maintain the balanced life focus on things like eating properly and exercising regularly, keeping your mind in shape, spending quality time with your family and friends, and taking time out for yourself.

This is all good stuff but rather misses the point in my view.



    The balanced life is one where you recognise the full spectrum of possible responses and choose the right one for the situation you find yourself in.


An example:

Earlier in my career I was involved in trouble-shooting major IT programmes that were not performing, or going "off the rails", and I frequently found myself in positions of leadership in difficult circumstances.

I very quickly discovered the importance of what is referred as the "Leadership Spectrum".

At one of this spectrum is a leadership style that is 100% task oriented - we could call this "Command and Control" - which means I give the orders and say jump - and you say: "Yes Sir, how high?"

The other end of the spectrum is 100% focused on affiliation - we could call this "Consensus"  - which is about inclusion and collaboration and paying attention to the other party's feelings and opinions - which means I ask: "How do you feel about that, what is your view?"

The following video explains and illustrates this point very well in a military context:

Leadership Spectrum

What I also discovered was the need to be able to switch between these opposite positions and to adopt any position along the spectrum that was appropriate to the immediate situation I was dealing with, and to be able to change leadership style within that situation as required, for example, start tough and close with a more consensual style.

The key was flexibility, and this was only possible by mastering the full spectrum of leadership skills that could be required.

Applying this to the balanced life

The balanced toolkit

In The Balanced Toolkit we noted that the core theme of this site is to show you how to cope in tough times, and to provide you with the tools to do this successfully.

We also noted that the balance aspect of this toolkit is achieved by taking a holistic approach.

The balanced life is one where you recognise the full spectrum of possible responses and have develop sufficient experience, insight and self-awareness to navigate yourself to the most appropriate position on that spectrum for the specific circumstances that you are experiencing.

In this article we are going to offer pointers as what this means in practice and how to achieve it.

5 key areas to master for the balanced life

In my experience these are five of the key areas where the balanced life is maintained or lost:

  1. The Outer Life - The Inner Life
  2. Thinking - Not Thinking
  3. Things You Can Control - Things You Can Not Control
  4. Order - Disorder
  5. The Present Moment - The Long Game






The Balanced Life: The Outer Life and The Inner Life

Overview

This is a big one and it is the longest section in this article!

What we are considering here is how we achieve a balance between being stuck in our heads and living in our thoughts, and developing the ability to stop thinking and observe the consciousness that begins to arise - or more accurately that we start to become aware of - in the gaps between our thoughts.

Then we move on to consider how we can access and engage with this consciousness.

I make no apology for the number of internal links in this section. To gain a holistic view, and achieve the balanced life, we need to have as full an awareness as possible of the many component parts that constitute the holistic view, and the balance between the outer life and the inner life is the foundation upon which it all rests.







Seeing is not believing

Let's start with the outer life  - the domain of the conscious thinking mind.

The conscious mind as work station

The conscious mind is important and we can think of it as the work station where we:

Seeing is believing, or is it?

For the conscious mind, seeing is believing where, like the characters in "The Matrix", we are fooled by appearances and buy into the illusion that what we see is reality.

The reason for this is that the automatic default setting of the conscious mind is to see things as separate, "out there", as discrete packages of situations and events defined by time, with a past and a future.

How you filter what you see

The conscious mind can also see the present moment, but it does so through the filtering of its own inner map of reality which automatically and seamlessly places things into the context of a remembered past from which it creates and projects a future.

As a result of this automatic process we are fooled by our thoughts, we are trapped in our thoughts, and we can’t think our way out of them with our conscious mind.

The problem of limited bandwidth

There is also an additional problem, and this is a problem of hard wiring and bandwidth.

The conscious mind has a serious limitation. It is a scanning system that scans in a linear fashion focusing on one thing at a time, sequentially.

Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t happen one thing at a time, one thing after another.

The real world is multidimensional, with a lot happening all at once, and it comes at us so fast and in such a way that we could never scan it in the narrow focused linear way that we are hard wired to think.

This is where the filtering mechanism kicks in, based on our inner map of reality, and further restricts and selectively limits our perception of reality.



    In my experience, the balanced life way of working with the conscious mind is to use it as a work-station and as a portal to the subconscious mind, the super conscious mind and the heart.







Duality in a universe of vibration.

Now we consider the inner life.

Here's where it all gets interesting and impossible for the workstation [conscious mind] to fully comprehend.

Duality in a universe of vibration

We live, quite literally, in a universe of vibration. Whether we think of vibration in terms of waves or particles, no crest of a wave can occur without a trough, and no particle can occur without a space or interval between itself and other particles.

Think of it this way, there can be:

  • No on without off
  • No up without down
  • No hot without cold
  • No white without black
  • No good without bad
  • No life with out death

The 50% of everything - the background - that we don't see

The physical world that we see - and call reality - is the world of the mind and is experienced through our senses. Let's call this the foreground.

But this foreground is only 50% of the equation.

The other 50% is the background – also referred to as emptiness, the void, the field of possibilities, the "ground of all being", God, Allah etc.

Our senses are constructed in such a way that we notice and respond to the foreground but miss, or overlook, the background . 

The background is the realm of energy [or consciousness] from which everything emerges and into which it eventually dissolves.

This is the realm of consciousness; in a neutral and non-religious sense this is the realm of the spiritual, or another way of looking at it is as the realm of energy.

It is from this background that all form emerges into the foreground, and into which it eventually dissolves.

The physical world of form  - that we see as "reality" - could not exist without this background.

To be philosophical for a moment, this is summed up in the Buddhist saying:

"Form is nothingness, and nothingness is form."

And also in the saying of Christian theologians (Tillich et al)

"The ground of all being."

So if we cannot see this background with our conscious mind how do we access it?

Meditation practice

The answer is that we use our conscious mind to engage in a meditation practice, or any other reflective practice, that quietens the thinking mind.

This enables us to go through a "mental gear change" so that we become entirely focused on the present moment and observe our thoughts  - rather like watching clouds move across the sky - but without engaging with them.

This is often referred to as a mindfulness practice  or the practice of present moment awareness.



    The key to the balanced life of the inner world of consciousness and the outer world of duality is to stop thinking via the practice of mindfulness.

    The key to engaging with consciousness is your heart. Consciousness is felt not thought.

    You need your head for one and your heart for the other.



As we become more mindful,  we experience - in the gaps between our thoughts - that we are far more than our limited conscious sense of  our self.  Put simply, our consciousness expands.

Aside from the conscious decision to practice mindfulness the key to engaging with consciousness is not through the conscious mind, it does not involve our ego.

It all starts with some form of inner prompting. This is felt in your heart not your head.

My personal experience of getting started

The red pill

I have written in some detail about my personal entry point to all this, when I really started to take consciousness seriously in:

What Does It Mean To Take The Red Pill?

"The journey of personal development and spiritual growth starts by developing a good working relationship with your mind. The initial stages of this process focus on the conscious mind and working on all the things you can do to develop a more resourceful mind.

As you engage with this process you soon realise that your mind has many unconscious aspects that you need to make conscious and work on. Then, at some point, you become aware of your spiritual or higher self.

The best way to think of this is as your personal portal to the universe and "everything out there".

Taking the red pill describes the point at which you seriously start to engage with your higher self..."

Further Reading:

How Can I Change My Mind?

Going With Flow

Change Comes From Within

Deus Ex Machina

The Red Pill







The Balanced Life: Thinking and Not Thinking

Overview

This is closely allied with the point above about balancing the outer and inner life.

The focus here is how we do all that we can to improve our thinking mind and up-skill our mental processes, and yet balance that with a consistent and disciplined practice of the disciplines of mindfulness to ensure that our mind is functioning at optimal level.

The objective is to ensure that we respond in the best way possible to the events that we experience in daily life and thus - over time - generate the best outcomes.



    The state and quality of your mind has a very large bearing on the quality of your response to the events that occur in your life, and this in turn leads to better outcomes.







How to think

How to think. There is a considerable volume of material on this site on thinking skills.

The balanced life is achieved by mastering both ends of the spectrum of thinking and not thinking.

The focus on this site is on HOW to think and not what to think.

In this article I want to highlight a number of ways of improving your cognitive capabilities and  provide you with a range of practical tools and resources to do this successfully - which can be accessed in "How To Think".

Learning and applying these critical thinking skills falls within the domain of the conscious mind and the outer life.

Here are 5 key reference points:

[1] Focusing On How To Think Not What To Think

People who are more creative can simultaneously engage brain networks that don’t typically work together.”

  • They have patience and persistence and allow the time
  • They are largely self-taught
  • They are good at making juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects
  • They are open-minded
  • They are so good, we can’t ignore them

[2] Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is just deliberately and systematically processing information so that you can make better decisions and generally understand things better.

[3] The Strategic Mindset

The strategic mindset is focused on the most efficient thinking process to achieve a result.

While others diligently follow the same convoluted path, people with the strategic mindset are constantly looking for a more efficient route forwards.

[4] Metacognition

Thinking about thinking: knowing how to apply the most appropriate cognitive processes to the task in hand.

Effective thinkers have good metacognition, they know how to access these different modes of thinking deliberately and apply them to different kinds of tasks.

[5] Mental Models

A mental model is a high level representation, or overview, of how something works.

Two broad categories of mental models that are particularly useful are those that help us understand how:

[1] The world works and thus to predict the future.

[2] To see connections and opportunities

This site has a wealth of material available on Mental Models.




    However well developed your thinking skills are, they are incomplete if you can't stop thinking - and do so on demand.

    Quite simply the goal of mastering the art of not thinking is to give you a degree of control over your mind and to give you a large degree of freedom from the incessant flow of thoughts and internal chatter - your "monkey mind" as it is called  and to help you relax and relieve stress.



Further Reading:

How To Think

Charlie Munger

Heuristics

Mental Models

Cognitive Distortions









How to not think.

Mindfulness is a natural state

The balanced life is a life that can stop thinking on demand.

The most effective route to not thinking is the practice of mindfulness.

There is nothing mysterious or esoteric about this practice. Mindfulness is a natural state that occurs spontaneously when we are unaffected by our thoughts and where we are totally present.



    The practice of mindfulness is simply a series of structured mental disciplines and habits that take those natural and spontaneous occurrences of present moment awareness and brings them under conscious control and in so doing it makes that freedom more possible, more frequent and eventually available whenever we need it.






Recommended Reading

"Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffuse. Both are equally valuable but serve very different purposes. To do your best work, you need to master both."  [Shane Parrish]

Focused and Diffuse: Two Modes of Thinking


Further Reading:

How to practise mindfulness







The Balanced Life: Things You Can Control and Things You Can Not Control

Overview

This point is probably one of the most important.

We waste so much time and energy in life obsessing over things we have done in the past, or that others have done to us, and worrying about what might happen in the future.

Our stress related thoughts are largely about how to cope with what HAS happened and how to deal with what MIGHT happen as a consequence of what has happened.

In Techniques For Stress Management this is discussed in depth and a range of mindfulness and other resources are provided.

Here the balanced life is achieved by being very clear about what we can control as opposed to what we can't control, and where that control is exercised.

The real control lies in understanding that it is the quality of our response to whatever happens that ultimately, over time, shapes the outcomes that we experience.







Focus on things you can control

Focus on things you can control, ignore the rest.

The Stoics referred to this as "the dichotomy of control".

Modern psychologists refer to an “internal locus of control” and an “external locus of control.”

This means that if you have an internal locus of control you believe that you are responsible for most of what happens in your life.

Whereas if you have an external locus of control you believe that life happens to you and to some extent this can manifest as a victim mentality.

The key to this is understanding the one area that you DO have control over which is your response to what happens to you.

This has been nicely put in Reinhold Neibuhr’s famous  “Prayer of Serenity”:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."




    “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions.

    Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” Epictetus










    The law of response and outcome

    The Law Of Response And Outcome

    The outcomes that you experience are determined by your responses to the events in your life.

    This can be expressed as: 

    Outcome = Event x Response

    The strength and quality of your response is determined by the skills and the experience you bring to it.

    The stronger your response - the better the outcome.




Further Reading:

The Stoics

Epictetus

The Law Of Response and Outcome







The Balanced Life: Order and Disorder

Overview

This point is challenging, because for many of us we coast along largely living from day-to-day and functioning on autopilot and we cocoon ourselves into thinking that everything is fine and dandy until suddenly it isn't.

I am not talking here about the personal tragedies that affect all of us from time to time, I am talking about the global level, systemic events that can, do and will occur and catch us totally unprepared.

The balance here is between on the one hand thinking and living an efficient life to maximise our efforts to live our best possible life and on the other hand adopting a range of simple practical strategies and tactics that enable us to be far better prepared to cope with the chaos and disorder that arises from these catastrophic events.

But actually it goes further than that, and as will you read below, there is a perspective that says we can actually thrive and prosper from disorder.

How much efficiency are you prepared to sacrifice in order to have a level of antifragility built into your life?







However organised and efficient your personal life may be we live in a world of chaos and disorder.

We also live in a world that works in cycles. Some cycles are very obvious and observable, such as the changing seasons throughout the year, the cycles of birth, growth and decay that we can see in the natural world and also in human existence.

But other cycles are less observable because they take place over longer periods of time measurable in decades, centuries or millenniums.

Beyond the predictable cycles are events that occur infrequently, and whilst possible they are highly improbable and difficult to predict but these events can have devastating consequences.

These events are known as Black Swans, a phrase that was brought to popular attention by Nassim Nicholas Taleb the mathematical statistician, former option trader, risk analyst, and writer, in his book, "The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable".



    It is extremely foolish to just ignore the potential for black swans to occur.

    To take the view that because we cannot predict them we will pretend they don't occur is setting yourself up for trouble  - which of course is exactly how most individuals, companies and governments operate. Nassim Taleb







Black swans and a world of disorder

Welcome to the world of disorder!

Some would say that the recent coronavirus pandemic is a black swan event, certainly the 2008 banking crisis caused by the US originated sub-prime mortgage fraud/scandal was a black swan event, the 2001 dot.com bubble was another such event.

So how to prepare for black swan events?

The short answer is by adopting the Boy Scout mentality and "Be Prepared".

Nassim Taleb coined another phrase Antifragile [and wrote another book] to represent things that benefit from disorder and set out a road map living a life of antifragility.



    The best way to be prepared for Black Swans is to understand and develop the qualities of antifragility.

    Antifragility is the quality of something that gets better, or thrives, in the presence of disorder.


So what makes something antifragile?

Here are a few of this quality’s key characteristics together with specific guidelines for living antifragile.







    Stop optimizing for today or tomorrow and start playing the long game. That means being less efficient in the short term but more effective in the long term. [Shane Parrish]



Further Reading

Nassim Taleb

Black Swans

Antifragile

Skin In The Game






The Balanced Life: The Present Moment and The Long Game


Overview

The key issue here is how we reconcile the practice of living with a present moment focus with the pursuit of long term goals aka "The Long Game" and the continual focus on some point in the distant future, because every time we engage in visualizing the end goal we cease to be present.

This point is very personal to me. I spent great chunks of my earlier adult life looking backwards to the past and dealing with the effects of my upbringing. Then  in mid-life I found myself continually focused on the future and the realization of a number of personal and business goals.

So how does the balanced life reconcile the focused pursuit of long term goals with a daily present moment awareness?







The long game

We have already covered mindfulness in some depth above so I am not going to repeat all that here.

The pursuit of a long term goal requires a clear and deeply felt point of focus and a clear understanding of what is involved in pursuing the long game.

One of the key points you will see in "The Long Game" article is the importance and power of habits in the sustained effort that is required over long periods of time, this theme is developed in  The Power of Habits and Atomic Habits.

The long game is about sacrificing short-term wins for long-term gains.

It describes how you have a significant long term goal and how you repeatedly and  consistently take the necessary steps to ensure that you reach your goal.

The balanced life solution takes advantage of the brain's hard-wiring.

The human brain is hardwired for an "immediate return environment" but in pursuit of a long term goal we are operating in a "delayed return environment".

There are 2 keys to the balanced life approach to pursuing long term goals whilst maintaining a present moment focus:

[1] Focus On The Process Not The Goal

Shift your focus from the long-term goal to a daily routine of simple steps that will take you to your goal.

[2] Measure The Daily Small Steps In The Process

Rapid daily feed-back will provide you with important feedback on your progress in an immediate return environment. This will reward you with a "feel-good" when you get it right, and allow you to take immediate corrective action when you don't.








    The key to the balanced life position, on playing the long game with a present moment focus, is to focus your immediate attention on the daily process - the steps that will get you there and to measure your progress with these small steps in real time.





Further Reading

Your Point of Focus

The Long Game

Delayed Gratification

The Power Of Habits

Atomic Habits

The Road Less Traveled







    The Key To Keeping Your Balance Is Knowing When You Lost It







The balanced toolkit

Return to: The Balanced Toolkit

The toolkit is the resources, the information, the tools and techniques contained within this site.

The balance is achieved by adopting a holistic approach.








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