Finding Balance in a World of Extremes: 3 Tips to Help Ground You

balance

When we think about finding balance in life, the concept of work-life balance often comes to mind, but the concept of balance is applicable to every aspect of our lives. It can feel like, though, we are living in a world that forces us to choose extremes: live the fast-paced urban lifestyle or be an anti-tech hermetic living in one of those innovative and super cute micro-houses. Be a minimalist or max out your credit cards. Be obese in a fast food nation or wear size 0 yoga pants on the gluten-free train. Be a stay-at-home mom or be completely devoted to your career.

Where is the middle ground? Where is the option to dabble and enjoy while remaining grounded and centered?

I am writing this while lying in bed with my feet propped on pillows and an ice pack on my lower back because somehow inexplicably I managed to throw my back out again. The last two times I’ve done it (once when I was moving stuff into a new home and the other time at the gym) I immediately felt the deep flash of pain across my lumbar area when I did the tiniest, most (seemingly) inconsequential movement. It stopped me in my tracks.

This time I have no idea how or when the initial injury happened. My back has been irritated but manageable all week but decided this afternoon it was going on strike. It stiffened up to the point that I resigned myself to making a nest of books, snacks, and my laptop in bed. Now I have to roll around like an upended bug to even sit up. On my last round of getting the ice pack from the freezer it was easier (and faster) to crawl on my hands and knees from my kitchen back to my bedroom.

So what is my body trying to tell me? My poor back is the subject of extremes. I’m either jumping, twisting, running, and moving vigorously in both taekwondo and my physical therapy sessions or I’m sitting stock still for hours at my very nice but unfortunately very sedentary day job (or doing my writing and research activities at home). Funny, just yesterday I read an article on the blog Yoga Dork titled “Sitting is the New Smoking.” Maybe I should have taken a walk and smoked a cigarette instead of sitting for most of the day.

I “balance” the extreme activity and the extreme stillness with gentle back-friendly movement like yoga and swimming, but apparently it wasn’t enough for my lower back to say, “Enough with the Jekyll and Hyde crap, lady! I’m calling it quits!” It’s a rare occurrence for me to just take a stroll down the street. I’m always go-go-go or at a compete stop. In a way I knew this was coming, but I’m grateful it didn’t happen the week of my black belt test.

What are some things you can do to find balance in your life?
1. Cut yourself some slack. Slow down. You can’t do it all, and that’s okay. Prioritize, focus on what is really important, and be proud of your accomplishments.

2. Practice gratitude. Sometimes we can be thrown off balance by the constant pursuit of something that we believe will make us “happy”–more money, a more prestigious title, a more attractive partner, a bigger house, a smaller waist size. Instead of drooling over that BMW in the next lane, be grateful for the transportation you do have. Instead of feeling self-conscious when a gazelle in stilettos walks by, appreciate the body you do have: the healthy lungs that breathe air, the able limbs that keep you mobile and independent, the hopefully healthy back that won’t keep you stuck in your bed like I am this Saturday night. When we are constantly in pursuit of the latest and greatest thing we have no time to appreciate what we already do have. Stop. Slow down. Be grateful.

3. Be present. Oh, so bandied about as the key to everything and oh, so hard to do sometimes. But it works! For me, taekwondo keeps me very focused and present. For others it may be knitting, petting a cat, reading a book, or simply looking out the window. Whatever keeps you from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future will keep you grounded and in turn, keep you balanced.

Now what?
Thanks to my brother’s recommendation, I use the meditation website Headspace. Ironically, I’d just started a new 30-day “pack” on finding balance. Apparently my back was in on the cosmic joke. I’ll be doing my little meditation session once I upload this blog post.

Be grounded, be balanced, and be well. I’d offer a virtual hug, but I’m in too much pain right now.

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Didn’t He Say “Ease Off”??

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I should have taken my yoga teacher’s advice. I’m burned out.

I really knew I was burned out when in a matter of days I suddenly felt disgusted by three things I enjoy very much: Greek yogurt, eye makeup, and taekwondo sparring.

I could barely swallow the last few bites of the yogurt I was eating for my snack yesterday. Everything about Greek yogurt made me sick–the gloppy texture filling my mouth, the icky sweetness, how I had to kind of half-chew and half-swallow at the same time because that’s how you have to eat yogurt. I was completely grossed out.

As for eye makeup–I didn’t wear any last Tuesday for personal reasons and amazingly made it through the day without hearing “You look tired.” Everything about eye makeup made me sick–the way my eyes water and burn by the end of the work day, the dry mascara flecks on my cheeks, the infuriating way it seems to take days to wash off the last vestiges of it before I have to start all over again. When the shock of seeing my two bare blue eyes squinting back at me wore off I thought I might try it again. I worked my way down from eye shadow and liquid liner to just eyeliner pencil and by the end of today I was so annoyed at how sloppy the half-melted eyeliner looked that I rubbed that off my otherwise bare lids.

Sparring was something I learned to love as an adult. Just as I challenged myself to enjoy “The Scarlet Letter” in college after hating it in high school (try reading it again; it is a delightful, twisted, voyeuristic melodrama) I decided to embrace sparring after hating and dreading it so much as a child. Sparring brings out the best and the worst in the taekwondo practitioner. It is a true test of skills and literally thinking on your feet. Everything we learn is applicable to sparring and by extension, ‘real life.” Sparring is as authentic and raw as you can get in the dojang.

Just as I seemed to get worse with my side kicks on Monday, my sparring was abysmal tonight. I just couldn’t move. I was so unmotivated. My brain understood everything I was supposed to be doing, but my body shut down. It just wouldn’t do it. Whenever I’ve learned something very physically demanding (dance, classical guitar,  &$%# spin kick) there’s always about a 6 month delay between what I’m being directed to do and what my body actually does. I was so frustrated with myself that I froze completely.

When my sparring deteriorates (it’s not great to begin with), the healthy aggression I feel towards my opponent turns inward to a more sinister, poisonous self-directed aggression. I become very frustrated with myself and spend the rest of the match just defending myself as best I can (which isn’t much) and praying for it to be over. Here’s a rough transcript of the ticker tape that started flowing across my brain: “Failure. Fraud. Liar. Why did I tell my family and friends and coworkers that I’m training for my black belt? I fight like a white belt. I’m embarrassing myself. I look so clumsy and stupid. All I’m doing is scooting around taking on kicks full-force. I keep making the same mistakes! I don’t even deserve the rank I have–why did they give it to me?? Now I’m going to look like a huge idiot who was all talk and no action. You should walk out of the class and never come back.”

Here’s what I can do well: I can kick the air, perform a memorized set of pre-determined moves, and break stuff. I can think of no better response than this:
Matt-Foley-Motivational-SpeakerThat’s like bragging about having an advanced vocabulary of Spanish words but when put to the test you can’t carry on the simplest of conversations or even halfway keep up with any telenovelas, which aren’t known for their rich and eloquent dialogue. Yeah, I really deserve a black belt. Ha.

I considered going home and skipping the second class. Why let my negativity spoil everyone else’s evening? If I couldn’t give my all could I give anything? I didn’t want to do that to my instructors or classmates. They have no idea what taekwondo and by extension they have done for me. I owe them my life. I was falling apart at the seams two years ago, and if you’ve read other blog posts (and you HAVE, RIGHT??) you know the amazing life lessons I’ve gleaned from taekwondo. It was a group effort. There is so much love and support in that dojang it seems a little ironic that we willingly (and for the most part joyfully) beat the crap out of each other on a regular basis.

On the other hand, the second class is always small. What if only one or two students decided to stay? It wasn’t fair to ditch them like that. I’m glad I stayed. I ended up having a very pleasant evening working with a new red belt on his form and one steps although I don’t think he was having as good a time as I was. Learning how to teach is a part of black belt training, so my instructor would give me some guidance and then walk away, leaving me to try it out on a live victim. I work with adult learners, so I forget that giving feedback like, “I’m not really seeing the transition between your stances” to a blinking, frowning ten-year-old doesn’t do much good.

After I got home and closed my front door I rested my head against it for a moment and sighed. While my terrible performance really did upset me I felt a nagging unease about the underlying cause. This was just a symptom. There is still a tiny burrowing part of me who is a self-loathing perfectionist who doesn’t believe I’m “worth it,” whatever that means. That was tough to swallow after all the hard work I’ve done and exponential growth I’ve experienced over the past few years.

I don’t know if I can handle going to sparring class next week. I feel like I’m getting worse and worse. I think I need to follow my own advice and listen to my body and mind’s needs. They are saying, “CHILL! REST! Listen to us or you will burn out for good! Didn’t you read your own last damn blog post??” I am so sick of my one-steps and hand-to-hand techniques. Instead of going to bed early I am spending my evening nursing surprisingly painful welts on my elbow that will likely get a few snotty side-eyes at a black tie event I’m attending next week (but I’ll look smoking in my dress so who cares). I want a quiet evening to myself again.  I had to cut a big chunk out of the ball of my foot thanks to a ripped callus that is growing deeper and bloodier. I’m sad that something I love has become more trying that it is enjoyable.

There’s hope though. Whenever I take a break from swimming I come back stronger, more vigorous, smoother, and more powerful. Maybe the same will happen with taekwondo. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do next week. Whether I show up or not my love and dedication to taekwondo remains the same. If I’m absent it doesn’t mean I’m not coming back or that I don’t care. It means I need to do right by it and by me by giving us both a rest.

Chop Wood, Carry Water (Even better if you chop with a knife-hand strike)

Axe on chopping block

Today my life changed in a significant way and leaves me to make significant choices. I have cried, fretted, raged, and analyzed more in the past two months than I have in the past year, and I am mentally exhausted. About a week ago I finally relaxed, stopped resisting, and felt amazingly light and “at rest” in my emotions. For those of you playing the Law of Attraction home game, I significantly (dare I say quantum leaped) up the emotional/vibrational ladder.

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Oh YEAH? Here’s to the jerks who told us “You can’t”

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PPPHHHTTTT!!!! Mess with me again and I SWEAR I will eat you.


 A few weeks ago a friend posted on Facebook how grateful she was for a mentor that believed in her and gave her encouraging words. I’d like to remember someone who didn’t believe in me, because he set the trajectory for other major events in my life over the past 10+ years.

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Back in the Groove…Kinda

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Last night I went to class after being absent for a week. I had spent the past several days focusing on another important aspect of my life that needed attention. It was exhausting and anxiety-ridden and ultimately very beneficial. Focusing so much attention on that aspect of my life, however, made me wonder what the point was of the other areas on my life wheel. Ever since I had too much thinking time on my hands at the last belt test I’ve been in a mini existential crisis. I’ve probably also been under the influence of a bonus mini depression, but that’s just par for the course. Needless to say the last several days I’ve been under a lot of emotional and physical stress.

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How to Prepare for a Taekwondo Belt Test When You Are as Old as Your Classmates’ Parents

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Belt tests make me more nervous than any of the presentations I do for work or any of the hoops I had to leap through in graduate school. Here are some tricks I’ve gathered along the way that help me relax, do my best, and have fun.

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Pain and Gain

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“JEEEEZZUZ CHRIIIIIIST!” I screamed as I was thrown with the force and speed of a freight train (and yet somehow also in slow motion) to the ground by Jack*, a teenage black belt who is normally self-deprecating and gentle but surprised me with his sudden brutality. Immediately I felt remorse for taking the Lord’s name in vain and being disrespectful to the others so I quickly apologized to my partners and my instructor after I had recovered.

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Sparring with Demons – a Response to the Death of Robin Williams and the Societal Stigma of Mental Illness

demons

Amidst the outpouring of sadness and sympathy over the death of Robin Williams come the inevitable accusations of selfishness and cowardice. Early this morning I heard a woman at work snidely remark that she was surprised it had taken him this long. I had to walk away.

Mental illness is real and it is crippling. Suicide is not a decision that’s taken lightly. It is sought after as a (misguided) way to escape crushing pain and despair. The demon of depression and its many friends are very crafty and very powerful.

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