The Myth Of Work-Life Balance

There is a famous Zen dialogue from ancient China about a monk and a teacher.  The monk arrives at the monastery and says to the teacher, “I’ve arrived.  Please give me your teaching.”

The teacher says, “Have you eaten your breakfast?”
The monk responds, “Yes, I have.”
The teacher says, “Wash your bowl.”
The monk understood.  What could be more obvious?

If you were to ask, “How can I find work-life balance?”, I might be inclined to ask if you have eaten your breakfast… And, assuming you have, suggest you wash your bowl.

This dialogue and this terse instruction are meant to shift your attention from looking for answers outside yourself to looking more directly within yourself beginning with your experience – directly and simply.  Noticing, appreciating, and learning from the mundane activities of your everyday life.

Even the act of “bowl washing” washing dishes, can be turned into an incredible, even sensuous event; an act of discovery, a blossoming of the senses.  What is the sensation of the water touching your hands; is the water hot or cold?  Or washing dishes can be simply a chore to get done as quickly as possible to get to the next event, where the real action is – like sending emails or watching television.  The same activity can be completely different, depending on where you put your attention.

Context matters.  The story we tell ourselves is vitally important, not only to our state of mind, but also to our physical relationship and response to the events of our daily life.

Attempting to achieve work-life balance, as though something is missing or something is wrong, (either with you or with your situation) is a set-up for failure, for stress, and for anything but balance.  Instead, experiment by bringing your attention to the activities that make up your work.  Notice the activities and notice your inner dialogue, the stories you weave, as well as your feelings.  Just this act of paying attention can produce positive change – a bit of slowing down, a little more space – opening up the possibility of change, of more calm, even of more appreciation.

So often, all the attention goes to the “what” – the content or story line – too much to do and not enough time.  Try shifting the focus to the “how” – what is the quality of your activity, as well as the quality of your state of mind.

All of these suggested activities are simple and complicated, easy and sometimes impossibly difficult.  Paradoxical?  Yes!  Much of being a human being requires that in order to get more done, try slowing down.  To become more confident, try more questioning.  To achieve more, explore beginning by accepting what is.  To know yourself, try forgetting yourself.  How – pay attention and appreciate what is right in front of you.  Please, wash your bowl.

How To Decide

When deciding about the work I do, I envision three circles: Impact, Joy, and Financial Sustainability. Does my work have positive impact, does it bring joy to me and to others, and is it financially sustainable for my life?

First, just applying these criteria shifts my focus from fear, worry and survival; shifts my attention from my day-to-day concerns to something larger, to how I want to show up, to how I want to live. There is certainly a lot to be afraid of and to worry about. There is so much instability in many parts of our economy, in our relationships, and our lives. And yet, where do we choose to put our attention?

When it comes to work, I choose to put my attention on doing what has impact, what brings joy, and moves me toward financial sustainability.

Impact
Impact may mean helping one person, a team, or a company. I remember once when I was about to lead a workshop in which there were six people registered, being upset at the low registration. I was hoping for at least ten people. When I mentioned this to my son, his response was, “Dad, even if you can positively impact the life of one person, isn’t that enough?” The workshop, with six people turned out to be wonderful. A small community formed and went on to meet several additional times over the course of the year.

There are many ways, small and large, to positively impact others in our work – those we work with and those we serve. Sometimes just listening, paying attention to another person can make a large difference. From another perspective, a great question to ask is – How does my work serve others? How could I have more impact?

Joy
We usually don’t think of joy as being important in our work. Buy why is that? Most of us spend more time at work than any other place in our lives. Why not look for ways to bring a sense of lightness and enjoyment to what we do.

This criteria of joy also raises the question – what do you really like doing; what is nourishing, challenging, interesting to you. Is what you are doing aligned with the answers to these questions? What steps might you take to bring your work more in line with a sense of joy.

Financial Sustainability
Money and issues of financial stability are complex and personal. Of course we all need to pay the bills, to earn enough income to meet our basic needs. With the current state of our economy this may be no small matter. People sometimes make work decision based solely on money, sometimes with the belief that money brings more joy and impact. Other times, people seek money as a response to fear or a desire for power. The point of having this criteria is to bring more awareness to the question – What is financial sustainability for me? How can I do work that is financially sustainable.

Does my work have impact? Does it bring me joy? Does it bring me financial sustainability?