I remember I was so delighted to learn Melissa and I were expecting our first son – that was 10 years ago already! Naturally, when the time was right we told everyone. Eventually I got around to my friend and colleague (I was lecturing in Psychology at a NSW University back then), Darryl. He’s an effusive type so telling him was always going to be a gratifying event. Pretty soon, as with most people, congratulations gave way to the usual predictions about what to expect from parenting and family life…
“Congratulations old trout. Best off you settle in for 25 years of constantly saying to yourself “SHIT! I THOUGHT WE HAD ALL THIS FIGURED OUT” (Darryl was always pretty liberal with the colorful language).
I asked a question. “What figured out Darryl?“. He looked at me like I was a bit simple … “Everything! EVERY-BLOODY-THING”.
Well, he was right enough. With growing boys it seems routines, needs, and plans change by the minute. Just when you have it figured out, how to balance parenting, work and relationships, the posts move! Recently I was in a bicycle shop (with my son, getting his bike fixed), and there was a sign on the wall which read “Life is like riding a bike, if you want to stay balanced you need to keep moving”.
….and predictably that got me thinking about life, and karate.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘balance’ these days. Everyone wants to have ‘work/life balance’, ‘kids/me time balance’, ‘health/indulgence balance’, ‘balanced diet’, ‘balanced bank accounts’! In karate, everyone wants to achieve balance too – it’s fundamental to technique, power and speed right? But it seems to me balance isn’t something you can arrive at, and say you ‘have’ it. Rather than a ‘noun’, I think balance is a verb; something you do. And if it is something you do (like cooking, public speaking or driving), you can practice and improve. In the vernacular we tend to discuss balance as a destination – but could that be missing the point? A destination is static, but balancing is anything but.
As for balance in karate and life, I don’t always get it right – but I try to ‘do’ balancing a little better all the time. Here’s some of what I am learning along the way…
As a young man, the unexpected would throw me into a spin on a regular basis. As I grew older, I was able to manage many problems just fine if I had foreknowledge such a situation was likely. However, if caught by surprise I would often respond too meekly, only to be filled with resentment or regret later, or I would over-react, only to be plagued with remorse or facing troublesome consequences. Quite simply I was easily knocked off balance by unexpected situations, and rehearsal (‘knowing’ what you will do) can only help you so much – and not at all when it really counts. What was needed for balance was not a ‘plan’ but a posture. Action guided by values more than goals or ‘wants’ doesn’t need rehearsing.
The study of karate has (more so than the study of psychology if I am honest), begun to encourage in me the development of a particular ‘posture’ towards life and the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (to quote the immortal bard). When I keep my attitude, and my values straight in my mind, it is like a straight back and well grounded feet. I’m not easily knocked off balance and seem to be able to move with the ebb and flow of events I could not have possibly predicted.
More about moving.
It is easy enough to be balanced while stationary right? I find that’s true provided nothing is happening. Nobody is pulling at my arm or punching me, I don’t have an unexpected illness or job change – so I can stay in one place. This is a welcome rest, the space between events. Over two summers spent in Chilean Patagonia I lived among a very pragmatic, hospitable and tough people whose attitude was summed up nicely by the saying ‘Happiness, that space between crises!’. Comfort is all well and good, but it was never meant to last long and shouldn’t be mistaken for the natural order of things. In fact, Buddhist philosophy argues that the desire that to remain where we are (when we like where we are) is the very thing that will knock us off balance. The desire to be stationary in a world that keeps moving whether we like it or not. In a world that moves, the only way to remain balanced is to move with the ebb and flow. Karate training ebbs and flows, in great waves one year, trickles the next. Fitness, relationships and growth are likewise not only changing, but moving back and forth like the tides and seasons. To fight it is to be ‘off balance’ most of the time (after all, even a broken clock is right twice a day…). Sorry Darryl old trout, but balance isn’t having things figured out after all, it’s figuring things out, according to your values, on the trot. If you get a pause, well and good. I got one once, between Tuesday and Thursday, first week of June, 2015. It was very pleasant.
Then there’s the over-limit problem. I think the ubiquitous ‘Fear Of Missing Out’ tempts us to take on more and more. More work, more projects, more social engagements. For balance, this can be a problem I think.
I remember watching my son when we was just starting to walk. He had a loved toy in each hand, and a third one he wanted to pick up. Out of hands, he became so upset he fell over and didn’t have a hand free to catch himself!! With toddlers that’s expected I suppose, but adults (including me) do it too. Balance is of course about what you do, but it is also about what you let go of.
How often do we think of ourselves as overloaded, overburdened, and kid ourselves that we don’t have any choices in the matter? We take on more and more, but what do we ‘put down’? In order to maintain balance we need to accept opportunity costs. If I study Japanese, I don’t study Spanish. If I go to Okinawa, I don’t go to Rome. If I study one art deeply, I don’t study others. And that is OK.
It seems there was a young karateka who went to his Sensei and mentioned to him that he would like to study with another school who taught a different martial art. His instructor replied ‘Well, that is up to you. But the fox that chases two rabbits will in the end, go hungry’. How many rabbits are you chasing?
I think a balanced life and a balanced mind require us to choose – and accept that we cannot have or do everything. In this age of Instagram and Facebook it is easy to get the impression people are out there ‘having it all’ and that we’re missing out. But I’m not sure that’s true. Watching the Instagrammers at some of my favourite places around here, they seem to pay a heavy price for presenting that face to the world. They’re so bent on proving they were having the perfect life they may as well not have been there.
So as ever, in karate training, as in life. If you want to remain balanced it seems there are a few things in common.
- Be clear about your values – they determine your ‘posture’ in the world and help you stay grounded. This will influence what you do about the next two points.
- Embrace change – when conditions are changing, you must be able to move to remain balanced. What is unbending will break. You might get things all figured out sometimes. Enjoy it, by all means gather your strength. It’ll probably last a day or two – until someone moves the things. This will keep happening. ‘Figured out’ is not a destination – it’s a brief rest stop. There is no reassuring ‘playbook’, only your values to guide you.
- Simplicity. Set firm boundaries around goals, relationships, activities and what you’re involved in. Exercising restraint in your choices. Accepting that a consequence of our choice include (among other things) not choosing other paths is key to balance. You’re going to miss out, on something, sometime. That’s OK. It might even be a good thing – you’ll never know.