tree in handsI think the idea of Work-Life Balance is off-base. It seems everyone is feeling busier than ever. There’s never enough time. Not even for “life” things — like family time and vacations. It seems harder than ever to maintain this alleged balance. So that got me thinking.

I, too, often get caught in busyness traps. I was fortunate to be able to disconnect and go on a long retreat to chill and regain some perspective. And I’m thinking about how to avoid falling into those traps again. Here’s some of my thinking at the moment.

Problem #1: Scheduling “life” activities around everything else

People with busy schedules (that’s probably most of us) often put their leisure activities into their calendar along with tasks and appointments. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I do it all the time.

But there’s an insidious mindset that can creep in when we do that. When we feel overly busy, leisure activities can become like checklist items. Things we squeeze in between the cracks of all the other bigger things going on in our lives. And so we feel we have to manage the time we spent on them, too. In my case, I knew I was in trouble when my daily walks got reduced to walking instead of driving to do my errands. Is that “life”?

Problem #2: Doing more things I’m passionate about

I’m very fortunate. I love coaching and teaching meditation. It doesn’t really feel like “work” to me. And that’s all intertwined with my Buddhist practice, which among other things includes teaching, volunteering, and being active at my local center. I’m also involved with music– a passion of mine since childhood. Music is also my spiritual practice, and informs my work. You could say I have an ideal life. There’s no distinction between work and life for me.

The thing is, even if you’re doing stuff you love, you can still feel busier than ever. I often do. And I’ve seen people burn out over their volunteer work. Or come back from their jam-packed vacations just as tired as when they left.

So what’s wrong here?

Much of the conversation around work-life balance revolves around what to DO to relax. Or how to be more productive at work so you have more precious time to play. I think both strategies miss the point. They reinforce the ideas that a) work is draining, and b) time is scarce. And that perpetuates our sense of scarcity — not enough energy, time, and so forth.

When we’re overly busy, no matter what it’s about, we get disconnected from our own integrity. That’s where the problem lies. We’re no longer paying attention to ourselves. We’ve lost our anchor with reality. And that leaves us open to getting swept away by the whirlwind of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s about work or play.

I don’t think the point of doing fun things is just to relax and blow off steam. It’s not just a counterweight to work. It’s to remind us what it feels like to be alive and fully present to life, so we can remember to be that way even when times are tough.

I have everything I need

I’m not saying that being in our integrity makes our problems go away. What I’m talking about is a depth of mindful presence. If I stay grounded and not get pulled into my anxious energy, I can come back to my faith that this situation is workable. Every situation is workable. And that I have everything I need, right now. What I have now is entirely enough to deal with what’s in front of me.

Here are a few things I started doing that keep me in touch with that sense of presence.
Whether I’m at work or otherwise.

Where’s my body?

I’m both blessed and cursed with a strong ability to concentrate. That means sometimes I get so involved in what I’m doing that I develop tunnel vision. So I don’t notice that my neck and shoulders are getting tight from all the sitting. I don’t notice that I’m getting hungry. That sort of thing. Whatever I’m working on occupies 100% of my awareness and I’m completely lost in my head.

I’ve developed a habit of asking myself “where’s my body?” every few minutes. One of my meditation teachers says that the body is always at home in the world. Even if it’s sick or dying, it’s fundamentally at home and participating in life. To the extent that we’ re in our bodies — i.e. mindfully present with our direct sensory experience of being alive — the more we’ re at home in the world.

What am I trying to prove?

I’ve realized that when I take on more and more things, it’s because deep down inside I’m trying to prove something. I seem to think that I have to earn my right to be here. To prove my worth. To make sure I’m liked. It’s more of that not-enough mentality.

How silly is that? Of course I have the right to be here. I don’t need to prove anything. So every time I take on something new, I put it to the “what am I trying to prove?” test.

How’s my canary?

You know what a “canary in a coal mine” is, right? In the days before high tech devices, coal miners kept canaries with them as early detection systems for lethal underground gases. A dead canary meant they should evacuate immediately.

I’ve come up with a few canaries of my own that tell me when I’m heading into danger zone. Like when listening to music no longer gives me that sparkly feeling of enjoyment. When cooking good food becomes a chore. When I feel a compulsion to work through lunch, at my desk. To me, these are indicators of a longer-term downward slide coming on. They’re warning signs that I need to do something. The longer I put it off, the harder it is to reverse. So I better do it now.

So do YOU have strategies to stay connected with feeling alive? I’d love to hear your thoughts.