Last week I read a couple of articles about balance, the work-life balance, and what was unusual about them was that they were against this concept in principle. That made me pause and think, they weren’t written by some yahoos but by very intelligent people with very penetrating insights into human behavior. Obviously, they weren’t written by devotees but as far as observing this world is concerned some people are just better at it than others, and so their views must be at least acknowledged.
The objections to work-life balance were manifold and each provided food for thought from Kṛṣṇa conscious POV. Ordinarily, balance means maintenance, means mode of goodness, means it is conducive to spiritual realizations for non-devotees and conducive for spiritual practices for devotees. So, what’s wrong with it? How could it be bad?
It appears to me that we are talking about different things here. We, as devotees, see balance as equilibrium, a state of peace of mind which allows us to concentrate on Kṛṣṇa without any distractions. This equilibrium is born of knowledge, strong intelligence, and a mode of goodness. Work-life balance advocated on front pages of popular magazines, OTOH, is about managing strong impulses tearing us apart. It’s not about equilibrium and equipoise but about enthusiastic bobbing up and down but more or less in the same place.
We see balance as stillness, they want to be swept away by waves of emotions, they just don’t want to be swept too far. We, and also Buddhists, avoid any strong currents and any strong impulses, we avoid emotional upheavals, we want the mind to be under control at all times. They want the exact opposite, they want big careers, they want their lives being turned upside down by love, they want highs and thrills, they want mind blowing experiences, they want to live their lives in full. Balance for them is simply limiting their losses – you don’t lose your family over your work, you don’t lose your job over your love, you don’t spend all your money on traveling, you don’t waste you health on doing drugs and so on. In your life you’ve got to try everything, but in moderation, which in practice means don’t let your fleeting interests ruin the rest of your life.
Looking at it this way it’s easy to see why we shouldn’t buy into this work-life balance thing, too. It’s not the balance we want and it’s detrimental to one’s gradual spiritual progress. Does it mean we should agree with critics? Not so fast.
Critics reject this kind of balance as stifling, they don’t want any restrictions placed on their strive to enjoy life in full. We, obviously, can’t agree with them here.
Another way they, the critics, look at balance is if it was a mind numbing drudgery. They look at an ideally balanced life, not necessarily taken from Cosmo’s cover, and they see it as soul sucking life of boredom. This is certainly true for millions if not billions of people. Should we agree on that? Not so fast.
This kind of balance, leading a quiet life dedicated to preserving the routine might sound like a mode of goodness initially but if we look at how people actually live their lives it becomes clear that goodness there exists only in minute quantities. They still eat meat, watch porn, and drink themselves into stupor every time they get a chance. It’s not a path of gradual elevation as mode of goodness is supposed to be, it’s a gradual and irreversible slide to hell.
That’s what critics say, too – to hell with this life, humans are meant for bigger and greater things and no human advancement ever came from living in a cage. That’s how they see balance in this case – a cage to keep people in slavery. We, the Hare Kṛṣṇas, are also meant to rattle these cages. “Wake up, wake up”, calls Lord Caitanya, human life is meant for something far greater, it’s meant for bhakti, it’s meant for love of God. That’s not what critics say, of course, but the impulse is in the right direction.
And yet another way to look at work-life balance is to see it as juggling different sides of our persona. They highlight three main ones – the public side, the one we present when we are at work, the private side – the one we live when we are without families and loved ones, and our own side – who we are on our own, as distinct from all other relationships.
The problem is that they are sides of the same person, it’s still us, every presentation of ourselves, every relationship projects our own nature but in different ways, and then there’s that elusive “real me”.
This puzzles the critics and we know that there’s no solution to it on the material platform, it’s our false ego, we won’t know “real me” unless we become from from the illusion, which we can safely say will never happen to any of the psychologists and philosophers working on this problem. How much should we pay attention to it as devotees, however?
As conditioned living beings we experience all the same problems with our multiple identities plus we add our desired identities as Kṛṣṇa’s servants, so it becomes double difficult. Usually, or at least these days, when devotees go to work and move in public they keep a low profile and look just like ordinary people. We learn how to compartmentalize and how to compromise our identities so that we can express all our material desires and aspirations and still see ourselves as devotees inside. I have no idea if Kṛṣṇa agrees with us and sees us in the same way. Maybe He thinks that we only call ourselves “devotees” to keep our consciousness happy but really we are anything but.
Then we have plenty of devotees who are “out of the closet”, so to speak, in all their identities they see themselves as devotees and everybody else sees them the same way, too. Does it mean they are free from work-life balance problem? Not necessarily. Wearing tilaka does not make one into a devotee, appending Das to your signature does not make one into a devotee, and we’ve seen plenty of examples of people abusing their position as devotees for their own selfish ends. So we still have to constantly examine our motives and check ourselves from wrongly labeling our material desires.
And then there are paramahaṁsas who see the world as it is and don’t suffer from the false ego imposition, they do not have any work-life balance problems whatsoever but we are not there yet so that’s just a hypothetical scenario.
Ultimately, we have to somehow learn to live with our karma and karma imposed identities and still keep our heart and mind in the right place. It’s not easy but I heard chanting the Holy Name helps. When we chant we can safely forget who we are and simply concentrate on Lord’s Name. It won’t stop the world from rolling and from problems coming our way but it should help us not to take any of it seriously.
In that sense we are not seeking balance, we are seeking freedom from both work and life, and then we would naturally let guru manage it for Kṛṣṇa’s satisfaction and our real, spiritual lives will become perfect.