Sunday, May 1, 2011

Work-life balance

Tim woke up to a gentle morning breeze. The weather was perfect and the early morning air drafting in through the large bay windows facing the Pacific Ocean felt like a cool mist in his face. As he moved towards the curtains flapping in the breeze, the first hint of the rising sun just over the eastern horizon glinted off the azure blue waters given it an ethereal golden sheen. The only sign of a restless wind was a couple of whitecaps out in the distance. As he watched sailboats slowly move across the waters, Tim’s work life was a distant memory although he had just arrived on this Pacific island paradise. Watching the waves gently lap the picturesque and nearly deserted sandy beach, his mind was similarly tranquil. The only sounds were those of seagulls and other avian life that made this particular beach home. He was snapped out of his early morning reverie by the humming sound of a motor in the distance. A tractor with a large net was clearing the beach sand of sea weed that was brought in by the ocean current overnight. As the sound got louder and louder, Tim was startled to find himself in his cubicle, one among several hundred similarly sized cubicles spread across an endless expanse of floor space. The only hint of the sun in his windowless cubicle was an old frayed piece of paper with a rough rendering of the sun above a couple of mountain peaks drawn by his young daughter in her art class a couple of years ago. The janitor slowly sweeping across the aisle with his industrial vacuum cleaner just before the 8 AM influx of hundreds of office staff, reminded Tim that was already three hours into his 16 hour work day. One would think that as he was taking a long anticipated and much needed vacation two weeks hence, he was at his desk very early to get all his work done. However, with the ever increasing demands of his high pressured job, not the least of which was his boss snapping at his heels and barking orders every time he passed through Tim’s section of the office floor made Tim an office rat glued to his seat. A relaxing vacation was a distant dream. Needless to say, Tim had no work-life balance.

In order to fully appreciate and enjoy whatever we may do in our lives, one needs to balance work and life. At some level, everyone should work in whatever capacity that suits the circumstances of the individual. Everything we see in nature is working constantly. The trees work all night converting carbon dioxide to oxygen. Ocean currents are at work constantly, churning the salty waters that surround us and, as a result, regulate weather patterns. For the most part, most of the forces of nature are working all the time to keep the planet inhabitable for humans. In exchange, depending on individual ability, everyone should seek and perform work. Some people work excessively, either through compulsion or as a habit. Others, despite having abilities, choose not to work to their full potential. We get an education in order to find work and we work for money that we use to enjoy life outside of work. From college graduation to retirement, many years are spent in this manner. For the most part, time away from work consists of doing what relaxes you and, for a lot of us, it may mean taking a vacation and going somewhere to get away from the daily grind. One is an active process and the other passive. You actively engage in work to earn a living so that you can passively enjoy your “earned” time off.

When you join negative and positive currents, electricity is generated. When there is an imbalance is this positivity or negativity, there is no electricity. Similarly, when there is a balance in work and life, a peaceful mind is the result. When there is an imbalance, this peace of mind is lost. If there is too much work relative to relaxation, mental tensions and anxieties may set in. If you have too much time off and less work, initially this may seem very appealing, but over time an idle mind will start to turn on you. The active mental processes that govern the work aspect can be compared to daytime and the passive mental processes that go on when we “have a life outside of work” can be compared to nighttime. Obviously day and night are opposites, but there is an overlap during sunrise and sunset. These two times of the day, sunrise and daybreak and sunset and dusk are the best parts of the day. People like to watch sunrises and sunsets. You don’t find a lot of people marveling at the beauty of the midday sun. At the time of dawn and dusk there is a seamless transition from night to day and from day into night. The brevity of the sun either rising up or setting on the distant horizon makes this possible. How confusing it would be if the sun sets and rises again in an hour. One of the secrets of achieving mental peace is finding the ability to transition from work to life and from life to work keeping the transition zone brief just like sunrise and sunsets. In many situations, work spills over into our personal lives. Work and life preferably should not mix just as night and day cannot coexist, unless you want to make work your life.

The mental processes involved in work and life are similarly different. The human brain has two halves, the right and left hemispheres. The left half of the brain is involved in logic and analytical processes and the right half is associated with feeling, intuitive and non-linear functioning. The left hemisphere can be thought of as the active component being involved in the external aspect of our existence. On the contrary, the right hemisphere can be thought of as the passive component being involved in the internal aspect of out existence. When we talk of work, we generally speak of the external expressive aspect of ourselves. Most work requires verbal, intellectual and thinking aspects to come to the fore in order for the job at hand to be successful. When we enjoy the “life” aspect, it is the softer, internal, emotional, spatial and feeling aspect that is at play.

Understanding and balancing these two seemingly opposing left and right brain faculties enables us to be far more efficient at playing the parts that constitute our unique and individual work and life constituencies. Just like the brief interval between day and night at dawn and dusk, you can then easily switch from work to life and life to work. Just as you need to filter out some light during the daytime and add in some light during nighttime, it it hard to be all work or all relaxation. During work, if you sprinkle in some of the intuitive, feeling aspects of the right brain, your work output will be that much enhanced. Similarly, if you incorporate healthy eating and activities such as exercise into your free personal time, rather than sedentary habits and unhealthy diet that sometimes accompanies vacations and “enjoying life”, the benefits of this respite from work are much more enhanced.

We try to achieve this work-life balance on a physical level by working or resting our physical bodies, but it is far more important to attain this balance on a mental level. The result of balanced living is mental peace and stability. Consider left and right brain hemispheres as surrogates for work and life respectively. There is a cyclical variation in the the firing of the neurons of the right and left hemispheres of the brain during the course of the day. This is similar to the breath alternating through the right and left nostrils every 90-120 minutes. If your breath is flowing predominantly through the right nostril, you will observe that it feels warmer and conversely, breath flowing predominantly through the left nostril is noticeably cooler. As the breath cyclically changes from the right to the left nostril, the transition zone as the breath changes from one nostril to another creates yet another pattern of breath. It is neither hot or cold. It is more balanced and uniformly streaming out of both nostrils. The left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere the left side of the body, Breathing through the right nostril is akin to the left brain being more active and the right brain is similarly more active when breathing through the left nostril. Disordered left brain activity results in us feeling stressed out, overworked and anxious leaving us unable to enjoy work. Disordered right brain activity leaves us sad and dejected and we are unable to enjoy life.

By balancing the two hemispheres of the brain using your breath, you can start to improve your outlook on work and life. A simple exercise done for a few minutes in the morning and at nighttime can get you started on this process of achieving a balanced mind. With a balanced mind, you get the most out of work and life. Using the thumb of your right hand, close the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Then close the left nostril with the ring finger of the right hand and exhale through the right nostril. With the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril, close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril. This constitutes one round. You may start by doing ten rounds in the morning and evening, gradually adding in more rounds as you get comfortable. You will notice a peaceful state of mind after just a few days of practice. By practising this, the right and left brain hemispheres get balanced, resulting is a calm and steady mind, making it easy for you to transition from working to living and vice versa.