The idea of balance, and mainstream Buddha

(courtesy of


I’m looking forward to seeing people at next week’s dharma talk! If you need directions/want to register just let me know. I thought I’d just do a quick one somewhat on the topic of “balance.” This is probably the number one thing people talk about when I talk to them about Buddhism, thinking it’s a Buddhist idea. It isn’t, exactly. I also wanted to write a bit about how Buddhism shows up in random American places.

So people love to mention “balance” when they talk about Buddhism, assuming they’re interested, and somewhat new to Buddhist practice and so forth. Obviously, it’s wonderful if someone is interested enough to actually take a class, and try to meditate. I don’t want to sound too harsh. The other thing is that finding some sort of balance (say, between work and family time) is natural and healthy. It just isn’t something I think the Buddha, or any important Buddhist thinker ever recommended, particularly.



One interesting thing about this is- the language we use when we discuss spiritual stuff (or anything, for that matter) can be very important. This is partly because a single word carries with it lots of associations, specific to a culture, and a given time. So, balance, as a term, connotes certain things. I don’t think it’s especially deep or helpful, although it’s not terrible.

As Buddhist imagery, Buddhist ideas, even a few Buddhist masters have become mainstream, you get this happening- the stuff is on people’s radar, sort of like the way a subculture becomes infused into popular culture. And like a subculture mixing into pop culture, like rap mixing into pop music, for instance, some stuff gets “filtered out,” some things change, get made more easily understandable, or easily accepted.

I have seen one particular quote from the Buddha so many times, usually in the context of a yoga website or yoga studio. It’s the most famous one at this point, and if you think about it, you can probably come up with it. (It’s the only one most Westerners know.) Not that it’s a bad one, although some translations are dodgy, I think. It has to do with the mind, and how you use the mind, or how you use your thoughts.

“With our thoughts…”

To be pretty general, we’re talking about the idea of balance, in some way, and the power of your thoughts.

The Buddhist tradition is very old. It’s nearing 3000 years at this point. It’s a little more complex than just saying, “Find a balance,” and “Your thoughts are really powerful, you should pay attention to them.”

So, how to deal with this seeming problem, the watering down of Buddhist wisdom in popular culture? I have two ideas. It really is a huge sociological issue, among other things, but here are two ideas.

1. Turn those platitudes into questions.

What is balance? What would this balance feel or seem like? Have you found this before in your life? What conditions supported it? Are there any problems with this kind of approach to life, with finding a balance?


What are thoughts?


How do they work?


How do you know you’re having them?


(By the way, it’s okay to think when you meditate. Common misconception.)


So, if people really really want to stop thinking when they meditate, why is this? What is so terrible about having a thought, or lots of thoughts?


2. Bring it back to some more solid ideas

Here are some more traditional Buddhist takes on those ideas:

There is the idea of a “middle way.” The middle way exists between extremes. Now this is starting to sound like balance, right? However, this idea is traditionally used to describe the way reality exists. That’s one way it is used. So, it’s not quite about finding a stress free life, it’s more about understanding how things are, in reality. The two extremes could be described as “nothing,” and “things.”

Things: the commonplace view- my life is real, my body is real, physical objects are real

Seems okay so far…

Nothing: my life is made of many changing and shifting parts, my body is too, physical objects themselves are changing, shifting, moving



Maybe this makes clear why people prefer to think of balance as not spending too much time at their job. This way of looking at reality, as being somewhere between a dream, and what we normally assume, is not easy at first. The idea of a middle way there, is that somehow it can be helpful to  investigate the possibility that-

people, places, things

are not exactly what we normally assume.

The example I often use is molecules- that chair appears real and solid, but we also accept that, on some level, it’s moving about.


The “middle way” idea manifests in various forms in Buddhist philosophy. A more in depth analysis would take a lot longer. Another time!


Here’s a better one: not too loose, not too tight. This one actually corresponds much more closely to the idea of “balance.”

One of the Buddha’s students was a musician. He played something similar to a guitar. You’ve probably seen someone tuning a guitar before. The student couldn’t understand how to meditate. The Buddha told him to work with his mind just like he tuned his instrument, “not too loose, not too tight.” Importantly, though, this instruction was not about how to schedule your life, but about how to work with your own mind. The question of how busy you should be, or how to order the elements of your life, are something slightly else.

Not that it’s good to spend all day at work, just that this wasn’t exactly a Buddhist idea.


About jakekarlins

Aspiring writer and artist, dharma practitioner, yogi.

Posted on December 7, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You touched on some excellent topics, beyond the depth I can really comment on, or respond to the questions posed.
    I want to make 3 point (the first being what I started with: some excellent point!)
    Secondly is “Semantics” and the issues that arise with language. The “Goal” of Buddhism, or more traditionally, the Buddha-Dharma is Experiential, in nature, it True Insight, and then Nirvana. Once one has arrived at Experiencing “Insight into the Nature of Reality” (The 8th nidana or link, on the Spiral Path, (as opposed to the 8th nidana of the cyclical Samsara) the Path to Nirvana, the point at which one”Enters the Stream” (Vipassana, not the generic style of meditation, but the Experience of Vipassana.) My point is that Words break down at this point, because there is No subject-object dichotomy, one has Experienced Reality, and that Reality is Śunyata, or “Emptiness” or “the Primal Void.” The Realization of Anatman, or No-Self, No independent, separate Self, or Permanent Soul (Atman) is the experience of Stream Entry and Nirvana. No-thing exists, that is meaning of the Statement by the Buddha, when he said ≈ Since the time of Nirvana, all the way through Paranirvana, The Tathagata has not uttered a single word.’
    Words are essentially Dualistic, and Reality is Not.
    Yet, in order to teach, to be that finger pointing at the moon, one must use words, but the words are ONLY Sign Posts, pointing the way for one to Experience Vipassana/Insight themselves.
    So, as it is words are what we have to work with, especially online and in Dharma Talks, so it such a delicate balance in finding the best possible words, because ALL WORDS are ultimately Empty.
    The one thing I don’t agree with is your statement that thinking is part of meditation. First off, Real Meditation is Samadhī, no thoughts whatsoever. What Most people are doing Most of the time, while on the cushion or elsewhere is why we call it Practicing Meditation. Because it’s not technically meditating, in the strict sense of the word, from the Buddha’s own definition, until Samadhi arises. In practicing meditation, there are certainly times for Reflection, several particular Buddhist meditation practices and Sadhanas have a Reflective component (the Six Element practice, the Decomposition of a corpse, Metta Bhavana, etc But that is quite different from just thinking or discursive thinking.
    Anyhow, I speak from my experience alone. Just like Semantics, if one is operating in the world of thoughts, forms and words, the world of subject/object dichotomy, then there’s always going to be as many interpretation as there are egos.
    That why I urge all to Gain Stream Entry, and join the Arya Sangha.
    With Metta and Sati,
    ~Dharmamitra 🙏

  2. Thanks Jeff. Words are essentially dualistic, but they sure are useful, huh?

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