A Comment on “Balance” and “Flow”

In a recent essay for the New York Times, performance coach Brad Stulberg advocates for the “unbalanced” life.  He explains that “the times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.” These were times when he was fully consumed by a particular activity, whether trekking in the Himalayas, training to set a personal record in the triathlon, or writing a book.  Sticking with a more balanced lifestyle might have precluded these “formative experiences.”

Brad goes on to quote elite athletes who also urge people to “give it your all.”  The idea is enticing:  who wouldn’t want to clear away distractions and throw themselves passionately into a single special activity?

But whether unbalance is the best strategy is debatable.  There’s a simple approach to allocating time among activities, and that’s to spend the incremental hour where you get the highest pay-off.  Because talents and aspirations differ, what seems balanced for one person might be unbalanced for another.  The more important question is how to achieve a state of inner balance.

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A Comment on “Balance” and “Flow”

Tree Pose

The Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote,

It is in your power, whenever you choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This advice reminds me of one of the messages in the Bhagavad Gita, a two-thousand year-old Hindu text:

Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within, train it to rest in the Self.  Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.

— Vishnu, Bhagavad Gita

I’ve been trying to put this advice into practice.  Walking down the street in the face of an icy winter wind, I make an effort to relax.  Instead of fretting at subway delays, I imagine shifting my brain into neutral gear.

The other day, arriving at a restaurant a few minutes before my wife, I took a deep breath and put away my phone…

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Tree Pose

A Fresh Look at the Bhagavad Gita

What use would a 21st century runner find in a 2,000-year old Hindu text?

In search of inspiration, I was recently reading the 19th century American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, interested in their ideas about nature and self-reliance.  To my surprise, I discovered they were both fans of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture which I had read in college but largely forgotten.

After reading the Bhagavad Gita once again, I found its ideas intriguing, consistent with some of my ideas about training, and quite powerful:  learn to still your mind, it advises, and you will discover that misery is unnecessary and action is effortless.

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A Fresh Look at the Bhagavad Gita