Wandering and Wondering

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Philosophy of Balance

For my World Religions class we had to write an essay in which we could pick our favourite elements from each of the various religions that we've studied to effectively create our own personal religion or philosophy of life. I chose to centre my essay around the theme of balance.


Balance: A harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts or elements. [The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language].
The journey of life is like a balancing act. To stay upright, we need to maintain a balance between work and play, richness and poorness, asceticism and indulgence, and so on. When we are off balance, we stumble through the ups and downs in life without direction. With balance comes clarity, so that we can take the ups and downs in our stride.

The philosophy of balance can be found in many of the world’s religions, particularly the eastern religions. In Buddhism, there is the principle of the “Middle Way”. In Confucianism we have the “Doctrine of the Mean”. In Taoism there is the balance between yin and yang, and from Hinduism we have the concept of balancing your chakras.

This essay discusses the philosophy of balance and provides suggestions on how to apply it in everyday life. Starting with how to balance your lifestyle, it then moves on to suggest how to balance your mind, body and spirit and your behaviors and opinions, followed by a discussion of how to balance yourself with nature. It then concludes with some general tips about obtaining and maintaining balance in your life.

Balance your lifestyle

Balance: A state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc. [Dictionary.com Unabridged].
Prior to obtaining enlightenment and becoming known as Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama had the experience of living both an extremely indulgent lifestyle as a prince inside a palace, followed by an extremely ascetic lifestyle when he lived in the forest and emaciated his body by fasting. It is from these extreme experiences that he came to realize the principle of the “Middle Way”. In his first sermon, “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth”, Buddha described this principle as follows:

Monks, these two extremes ought not to be cultivated by one gone-forth from the home-life. What are the two? There is … indulgence … in the objects of sensual desire, which is inferior, low, vulgar, ignoble, and leads to no good; and there is devotion to self-torment, which is painful, ignoble, and leads to no good. The middle way … avoids both these extremes; it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to peace, to direct acquaintance to nibbana. [Novak, pg 66].
In today’s modern lifestyle, there are many areas where this principle can be applied. As an example, consider the daily activity of eating. On the one extreme there is over-eating, which leads to obesity and other health problems associated with being overweight. On the other extreme there is under-eating, which leads to problems such as anorexia and bulimia. The “middle way” between these two extremes is to eat a “balanced diet”.

Another example is the so called “work-life balance”. On the one extreme, over working yourself leads to stress and damaged relationships with family and friends because you don’t spend enough with them. The other extreme is laziness or spending all of your time partying, which could cause you to end up without an income and means of support.

Balance your mind, body and spirit

Balance: A state of bodily equilibrium: He lost his balance and fell down the stairs. [Dictionary.com Unabridged].
In both Hinduism and Taoism, the idea of balancing your mind, body and spirit is very important. In Hinduism it is believed that the body is made up of seven basic “chakras” or energy centers, each of which correlates to different bodily functions, levels of consciousness, emotional states and so on. In order to stay healthy, we need to ensure that these chakras remain balanced.

Similarly in Taoism, there is the concept of “chi”, which is the vital energy that flows through the body. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that illness is caused by imbalances of yin and yang in the body, which blocks the free movement of “chi”. Thus, to stay healthy you need to maintain the balance between yin and yang in your body.

In western culture, a commonly heard phrase is “healthy mind, healthy body”, which encourages balance between mental and physical health. Having a healthy mind and body, however, is only a part of the story. As suggested by the following Taoist quote, we also need to bring our spiritual selves into balance:

Unless the mind, body and spirit are equally developed and fully integrated, no [wisdom] … can be sustained. [Novak, pg 171].
In sport, for instance, we know that a good athlete must be both physically and mentally fit. Without mental strength, the athlete’s physical movements will be uncoordinated. Without physical strength, the body will be ineffective in carrying out the mental commands. Equally important, however, is spiritual balance, which brings clarity to the mind. The completely balanced athlete appears almost magical in their abilities, while the unbalanced athlete appears clumsy.

Balance your behavior and opinion

Balance: Mental steadiness or emotional stability; habit of calm behavior, judgment, etc. [Dictionary.com Unabridged].
According to Aristotle, moral behavior requires finding the right balance between the extremes of doing or feeling too much or too little [Ziniewicz]. Courage, for instance, is a balance between cowardice (too much fear) and foolhardiness (too little fear). This is often referred to as “Aristotle’s Golden Mean”. Similarly in Confucianism, there is the “Doctrine of the Mean”. Rather than extreme behavior, this doctrine encourages compromise:

The superior man cultivates a friendly atmosphere, without being weak. He stands erect in the middle, without inclining to either side. [The Doctrine of the Mean, Wing-Tsit Chan translation].
In practice, this means that when you find yourself in an argument with someone, you should try to look at the problem from their point of view as well as your own. It doesn’t mean that you should weakly submit to their argument, but neither does it mean that you should try to force your argument upon them. The principle also applies in relation to your emotional reactions to events or situations. Celebration of joyous occasions is fine, but “not to the point of being lewd or indolent” [Novak, pg 124]. Weeping and sorrow are ok on sad occasions, but not to the point of becoming depressed.

Unfortunately in today’s society, taking a stand or going to extremes is often glorified, while “sitting on the fence” or making compromises often have negative connotations attached to them, as if they somehow imply a weakness in character. From our leaders we hear statements such as “you’re either with us or against us”. The problem with this sort of extreme statement is that rather than bringing people closer together, it pushes them further apart. One wonders how many of the conflicts in the world today could have been averted if our leaders better understood the art of compromise.

Balance yourself with nature

In all perfectly beautiful objects there is found the opposition of one part to another and a reciprocal balance - John Ruskin [WordNet].
In Taoism it is believed that the entire universe is a balance of opposites, symbolized by yin and yang (day and night, winter and summer, male and female, life and death, etc):

The Tao is the One. From the One come yin and yang; from these two, creative energy (chi); from energy, ten thousand things, the forms of all creation. All life embodies yin and embraces yang, through their union achieving harmony. [Tao Te Ching, Dreher translation].
In addition to balancing each other, yin and yang also complement each other in cycles [Mason]. Day is replaced by night, which is then replaced again by day. Similarly, seemingly opposite behaviors such as fighting and withdrawing also work together in cycles, meaning that you can produce one from the other. This idea is embodied in the Taoist principle of “wu wei”, which can be translated as “harmonious action” or “creative quietude”. Basically what this means is that instead of trying to act in opposition with events and forces, you should try to act in harmony with them:

[Harmonious action] can be observed in a bamboo stick. Watch it bend with the wind: it overcomes the wind by yielding to it. If it were stiff, it would break because it's so brittle, but because it yields, it overcomes. Thus, weakness produces strength, and strength produces weakness. [Mason]
In life there will always be ups and downs. When something negative happens, instead of agonizing over it or trying to oppose it, you should accept it and try to turn it into a positive. Similarly, when positive things happen in your life you need to be prepared for the fact that good times can’t last forever. Instead of wishing for a life of complete happiness where nothing bad ever happens, these ups and downs should be embraced, because they are what gives life its color and meaning. Without winter, you wouldn’t appreciate summer. Similarly, without sadness you couldn’t appreciate happiness.

Finding your balance

Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish. [The Doctrine of the Mean, James Legge translation].
So, given the importance of balance in our lives, how do you go about obtaining and maintaining your balance? The first thing you need to do is be able to recognize when you are off balance. To do this, listen to what your body and feelings are telling you. A hangover, for instance, is your body telling you that you’ve drunk too much.

Once you’ve recognized that you are off balance, you then need to take the appropriate steps to correct the imbalance. In the case of a hangover, the obvious correction would be to drink less. In many situations, however, finding the right balance between what may at first seem to be conflicting life goals may not be so easy. Like most things in life, it takes practice and experimentation. The process can be likened to making a recipe. You need to make adjustments as you go along (add a bit more salt, a pinch of nutmeg). Similarly in life, you need to take the time to stop and reflect, to see which parts of your life are out of balance, and take the appropriate steps to put them back in balance. Like when you were learning to ride a bicycle, you may stumble at first, but with practice you will learn how to maintain your balance, and eventually it will become second nature.

The easiest way to lose you balance is to cling to fixed beliefs or notions of how things should be. The only constant in this world is change, so the more things you cling to, the more you will be thrown off balance when they disappear. It is like trying to ride a bike while balancing an enormous weight on your shoulders. It is much easier to maintain your balance if you lighten your load.

  1. Philip Novak, “The World’s Wisdom”. Harper Collins, 1994.
  2. Huston Smith, “The Illustrated World’s Religions”. Harper Collins, 1994.
  3. “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language”, Fourth Edition. Definition of “balance” retrieved on 28th April 2007 from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/balance.
  4. “Dictionary.com Unabridged”, version 1.1. Definition of “balance” retrieved on 28th April 2007 from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/balance.
  5. “WordNet”, version 3.0. Princeton University. Definition of “balance” retrieved on 28th April 2007 from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/balance.
  6. Confucious, “The Doctrine of the Mean” (Wing-Tsit Chan translation). Quotes retrieved on 30th April 2007 from http://oaks.nvg.org/sa3ra6.html.
  7. Confucious, “The Doctrine of the Mean” (James Legge translation). Quotes retrieved on 30th April 2007 from http://www.ishwar.com/confucianism/doctrine_of_mean/.
  8. Bill Mason, “Taoist Principles”. Retrieved on 30th April 2007 from http://www.taoism.net/articles/mason/principl.htm.
  9. Lao Tzu ,“Tao Te Ching” (Dreher translation). Quotes retrieved on 30th April 2007 from http://www.taoism.net/articles/mason/principl.htm.
  10. Gordon Ziniewicz, “Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics”. Retrieved on 25th April from http://www.fred.net/tzaka/arismean.html.


Khalid said...

And to round out your interesting compilation... Islam defines itself as the "Middle Way" as well, in fact seeing itself as returning earlier religions to this middle path practiced by all the great prophets (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and 124,000 others probably including Krishna, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and so on). In some of the most beautiful Chinese mosque, it is written:

"Sages have one mind and the same truth. In all parts of the world, sages arise who possess this uniformity of mind and truth. Muhammad, the Great Sage of the West, lived in Arabia long after Confucius, the Sage of China. Though separated by ages and countries, they had the same mind and Truth."

See, for example this paper by British Muslim Charles Le Gai Eaton on (appropriately enough) the "Radical Middle Way" web site.

Even more interesting is the paper "Seeing with Both Eyes" by Cambridge Prof/Muslim scholar/Sufi Tim Winter. In this paper he talks about the balance between the outward (say, the Shari'a) and the inward (the sufi path), or more crudely put, a balance beween Law and Spirit.

Sachiko Murata, a Japanese-American Muslim scholar, has written an important book called "The Tao of Islam" (excerpt here) that's also worth checking out.

Anyhow, looks like you're treading an interesting path... I think I'll follow your blog for a bit. :-) Take care.

Anonymous said...

I have been very interested lately in the idea on balance, and how important it is to almost everything out there in this existance of ours. I believe in the idea of the Soul (Chi, Chakra, etc.) being a piece of God himself. Each of us has a piece of God, and maybe we are here because we are all collectivly God, and this existance is actually God's action of acheiving a balance within himself. It's just a thought, but a very interesting thought that I have never heard mentioned by any philosaphers before.

Caute said...

hi anonymous, I don't know how exact you are in your mind, actually pantheism is pretty close to your thoughts. I am sure you will find a balance reading them.