I've been thinking a lot about balance lately. I keep catching myself treating it like a state, a way that things can be: "Everything is in balance." It's an alluring fantasy, especially when I'm stressed because I can look forward to some future where I've done all the work and things are in balance and the stress is all gone.
Except in the real, dynamic world, balance doesn't work that way. Balance is not a state of being. Balance is an activity. When you walk on a tightrope, you are never balanced; you are always balancing.
Maybe this seems obvious to you, intellectually, like saying "life's a journey, not a destination." But I always catch myself treating balance like it's a state, and I bet you do, too.
What motivates your actions? When something seems out of balance, and you are working to change it, is your motivation the underlying itch of "Just this last thing..."? I do this all the time. At work I'll see a situation that is on fire and I'll start working to put that fire out. Nothing wrong with that. But if I meditate a little bit to really see my underlying feelings, I see impatience, aggravation, and a sense of reaching, stretching out and grasping at some imaginary future where this fire is out and I can finally rest. Deep down there's a part of me that is looking forward to everything being balanced so I can take a deep breath and exhale and all the tension will leave my body and I'll finally be at peace.
As long as I'm alive, that moment will never come. I will always be balancing, and it will always be work, and that is the work of life.
When I lived in San Francisco I practiced Iyengar yoga with Manouso Manos, one of the most senior Iyengar instructors in the world. We were working on a pose one day and he said,
"Think about antilock brakes, how they work. They're sensing wheel lockup and pulsing the brakes on and off very quickly. That's how you should practice. As you hold the pose you should be constantly searching the body with your awareness and making these adjustments, hundreds of them every minute, always, and never stop."
You're never "done" with a yoga pose in the sense that you've "mastered" it. That doesn't even make sense to say. It's like claiming you're "done" with biking because you've "mastered" it. It's not about getting somewhere so you can stop. It's about the activity itself.
That antilock brake metaphor is a good one because it describes the closed loop of balance. Evaluation, exertion, evaluation, exertion. You must evaluate where you are to determine what adjustments need to be made, and then you make those adjustments with effort, and then evaluate anew.
The evaluation process means that balance is a fundamental process of dissatisfaction. Balancing is all about looking for all the ways you're out of balance so you can fix them! If you're happy to just shrug that stuff off, then you aren't balancing. If you practice yoga and you aren't interested in looking for the increasingly subtle adjustments you need to make - that shoulder blade is riding up, that arch is collapsing - then you are not practicing the pose, you're just making a shape with your body.
But that doesn't mean you have to be a constantly dissatisfied person to be working for balance. It's a little bit of a paradox. You have to care, not be checked out, but you can't get so attached that it really starts to get to you.
This is equanimity, which just so happens to be one of the Buddhist brahmaviharas, the four divine abodes or sublime states. And indeed, the far-enemy of equanimity is craving and its near-enemy is indifference. Equanimity is the state of caring deeply - working hard at that balance - but transcending the stress and pull of each turn of the wheel.
How do you do that?
Well, as equanimity itself is a balance, it is also not a state but a process (whoa, dude, meta!) Here's the evaluate/exert loop I've found helpful in working towards equanimity:
Evaluate: learn to recognize when you are subconsciously treating balance as a state, when you are acting from the expectation that if you just fix this one last thing then everything will be "balanced." I do this a lot, and when I do not see it, it means I'm living with the pervasive sense that things are not OK. Buddhist teachers describe this as "leaning forward" in life, always living for the next moment, not the present one. Learn to spot the signs: tension, frustration, anger, dejection, despair are all good signs to me that I need to stop and sit for a moment.
Exert: marinate in the truth that balance is a neverending activity, the evaluate/exert loop that goes on and on. Every time you go to solve a problem, say to yourself: When I solve this problem there will still be countless more. I will never be "done." I am solving this problem because that is my work, and I accept it.
Don't stress about that marination. The work is not to know the truth; it's to realize the truth, and realization comes from soaking in it, not furiously thinking about it. All you have to do is keep your attention turned towards the truth, not reason about it logically.
There's a transcendence that happens sometimes, as you soak it in: you can be satisfied with dissatisfaction. You can show up to work every day - you can show up to life every day - to evaluate, to critically judge the state of everything around you, but with a mind that is neither critical nor judging, but peacefully accepting things as they are. And then to work cheerfully with every fiber of your being to do what must be done.