At first glance, my fellow yoga student looked like the living, breathing embodiment of mind, body, and spirit balance – my goal for my time in Bali. Thin and slow moving, she walked across the room with a relaxed swagger. Her yoga mat unfurled like a prayer rug and she sat down as if being in the present moment was just what she did. Meanwhile, I struggled to keep my mind off my to do list. I needed to plot that next article, follow up with that editor, call that student, and write that blog post…
Wait, I chastised myself. I came to class to spend time with my center. Try harder. Learn something.
I put my mat down besides hers, hoping to benefit from her expertise. We sat parallel for a few awkward moments. I noticed her silky loose-fitting clothes. She took in my tight urban outfit. I suddenly felt dressed in too much black and effort. She glanced my way as if in agreement. A bubble of insecurity popped into an awkward attempt to start a hey-let’s-relate conversation.
“I overheard you say earlier you just went traveling?” I said, silently hoping it was to somewhere I’d been.
“Oh I did.” She looked irritated at being asked.
My first reaction was okay, followed by a slightly incredulous “Excuse me?”
“You know, society,” she repeated. Her hand moved in a bit of a flourish. “The place where people have busy stressed out lives and rush about all the time totally imbalanced.”
Yes, of course I knew. I’d just moved from Shanghai to clean my lungs and mind. I was eager to tell her too, to show her we were sort of the same. But she didn’t ask so I kept talking. “Was society in any particular place?”
She answered with a hand flourish. “Sydney. I couldn’t wait to leave.”
“Because the toxicity is catching. It literally makes you feel ill.”
“How long have you been in Bali?”
Wow. This made me pause. Up until that point, I’d assumed my experience in Bali would work like a mental vaccination. Through a six-month break, I would be inoculated against anxiety with just the need for a few future boosters. She was making it sound like years later one could still get re-infected at the airport.
“But people need to live you know,” I said. “Make money. Get their kids through school. No one can stay in Bali forever,” I said (both literally and metaphorically).
“Why not?” she said. “You just have to manage your resources correctly. ”
I suddenly noticed the diamonds in her ears, the manicured fingernails. Well, I wanted to say, my resources were already committed to a big upcoming school tuition bill. And whatever else we had to manage, I’d invested in being here.
Instead I shot back, “That’s a bit of a privileged viewpoint, don’t you think?” I half-wished she’d explain how it wasn’t.
"Excuse me. I’m going to meditate," she replied.
I took the pessimism to heart and spent the rest of the class distracted by my own questions. Was feeling balanced the Birkin Bag of emotions, a luxury for the rich and time-soaked only? Was being in Bali really just a wasteful splurge that would have no lasting effect?
What is Balance?
“The equilibrium between productivity and presence is one of the hardest things to master in life, and one of the most important. We, both as a culture and as individuals, often conflate it with the deceptively similar-sounding yet profoundly different notion of “work/life balance” — a concept rather disheartening upon closer inspection. It implies, after all, that we must counter the downside — that which we must endure in order to make a living — with the upside — that which we long to do in order to feel alive. It implies allocating half of our waking hours to something we begrudge while anxiously awaiting the other half to arrive so we can live already.” – Maria Popova, blogger at brainpickings.org.
As an aspiring writer, I’ve struggled with my work-life balance all of my earning life. On the work (down) side, I’ve held a number of corporate roles that gave me skills and a wonderful group of friends and colleagues but never ultimately inspired me. On the life side, I’ve written as much as my fingers can type. Back and forth, up and down, the levers have gone across my days. In fact, it was this momentum that I came to Bali to change. I wanted to find my way to the fulcrum where the two sides balanced.
At first, I let the environment do its magic. Bali is a simple place with little hustle and bustle. For the locals, life revolves a lot around religious and family communities. Work effort is in proportion to need. On the surface, this seemed like the magic balancing equation for me: Need less = work less for money = nurture my spiritual side = write more and better.
But need is a very subjective term. Take out one and you'll soon find another. My children need to keep up their Mandarin to join Singapore's school system in September and the Green School doesn't have a program. So I bought workbooks and started a little Mandarin conversational group. This led to a few parents expressing an interest in a formal Chinese class. I planned a few casual sessions that soon expanded into a ten-week series.
One afternoon, I sat down dizzy with the all-too-familiar feeling of a racing stressed-out mind. I could’ve been anywhere at that moment - it didn’t matter. Even in paradise, I’d recreated the mental state the yoga lady described as “society.” I was so surprised and disappointed in myself that I dropped the whole extracurricular effort. I told myself that the “need” I’d created was artificial. My kids would make the Mandarin loss up later. I should just relax.
I felt at peace again for a few weeks. But then I tried to chat with the kids in Chinese and we all felt clumsy. We sat next to a Chinese couple at a restaurant and were too self-conscious to say ni-hao. When I tried to force my children, they whined. This past December, we were all fluent.
So how to meet the “need” for them to keep up their Chinese while staying “balanced?" At a philosophical level, the question and its answer seemed to embody everything I felt I needed to learn in Bali.
Given the emphasis on community here, it was fitting then that the resolution came from someone else. My Singaporean friend Jenny decided to partner up with me. We dedicated Tuesdays to a Chinese-language-only play date and invited anyone who wanted to come along. This had three profound results. One, the scope of our efforts scaled down to a manageable level - we weren't teachers anymore, just play date organizers. Two, I no longer felt I was carrying the burden alone. Three, the class shifted from the “work” to the “life” side of the equation as it became an event for everyone to get together, express themselves and have fun.
I reflected on other times in my life I’d felt lopsided. The occasions in which needs had piled up were largely times I decided to tackle everything all at once and on my own. The times I didn’t feel that way were when I moved through problems in partnership with others at a slower rate.
In other words, environment didn’t have so much to do with how balanced I felt as did my mental velocity and willingness to enlist the help of people around me.
Now, admittedly some environments force us to move faster and alone more than others. But I believe that overall, we have more control over this than we think.
You can live on an island, just don’t be an island
I saw the anti-society yogi again at the Green School about a month later. She was at the parent’s café drinking a coffee. It was pick-up time and dozens of little clusters of people were chatting around her. She was standing alone, shifting her gaze from this distant point to the other, acting as if she didn’t need to converse with anyone. I noticed a tiny hole in the sleeve of her tunic and a sad tinge to her eye. I contemplated going up to her until Jenny grabbed my arm. We had planning to do.
So I left the yogi on her own. Did she really feel balanced being so removed and judgmental of everyone else, or did she feel isolated? I will never know. But she did inadvertently teach me what I needed.
Giving help to others in the form of meeting responsibilities and working hard speeds me up. Receiving help from others slows and calms me down. I will probably never stop moving so I'm better off learning what speed works best for me.
For just as I’ll never “arrive” at healthy eating but will practice it all my life, I will never arrive at being balanced. I can only do my best to travel at a "balanced" pace that keeps me calm. Sure in the future I may sometimes anxiety binge and, as the yogi put it, make myself ill. However, this will only be because I’ve made myself an island at that moment, not because I no longer live on one.