NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Balance” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Balance: Gyroscopes and personal flywheels
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
My first therapy supervisor once remarked, with only slight hyperbole, that every psychologist begins as a child psychologist – as a boy or girl who, to survive a less than optimal childhood, develops the requisite skills for psychotherapy.
I have been actively interested in becoming a therapist since I started college. Although I began in engineering, I took psychology classes, focused on psychoanalytic criticism in my English literature classes, and worked for a semester as a volunteer in a state mental hospital. After college I diligently pursued a career in writing and teaching, but something in me continued to respond to the pull of psychotherapy. Each time I returned to grad school in English (first at 30 to get a masters degree and then again when I was 40 to pursue a PhD), I sent for applications to psychology or social work programs first. But I didn’t complete them. “No,” I told myself, “I’m a writer and a teacher. And besides, how could I handle the emotions of 20 or 30 people a week when I have a hard enough time dealing with my own?”
Carrying people’s feelings has always been an issue for me, and only after I’d endured and overcome sufficient difficulties in my own life did I feel that I could handle whatever showed up in my office. Once that happened, I returned to school once more to train as a therapist.
Now, a decade later, I am still, sometimes, emotionally exhausted by the end of the week, and it has been a work in progress to achieve balance and centeredness in the midst of what is sometimes the turmoil of psychotherapy practice.
For the first few years I used the image of rocks by the seashore as a metaphor for how I wanted to be in therapy sessions – feeling the waves wash over me, but undisturbed by their ebb and flow. However, rocks are (as far as I know) inert, and so this metaphor never quite worked for me. In a recent Focusing session, I tried to find a better one.
I wound up thinking about gyroscopes.
As a kid scientist, I was fascinated by these amazing devices which, as long as they are spinning like a top, can be pushed in any direction but always right themselves. In the Focusing session, I imagined a gyroscope made of light, a tiny spiral galaxy spinning inside my own belly, supplying me with both energy and eternal balance. The image of something within that can respond to – but is not uprooted by – external forces seemed to exactly fit how I wanted to be with my clients. Now, each time I think of this gyroscope spinning inside me it becomes more real and more stabilizing. More often than not, I am energized by the end of a work day, and I largely have the gyroscope to thank.
I think we can all use a spiral galaxy gyroscope, or something very much like it, to stabilize us as we navigate life’s ups and downs. We need to move where life takes us, but we need to find our way back to center, too. Often, though, to keep on keeping on, it helps to apply kinetic energy to something that functions like a gyroscope, but that is powered by more than thought. For those times, we need a personal flywheel.
The principle of a heavy spinning disk that maintains an even flow of energy shows up in many places in the physical world. It is what allows potters to translate periodic kicks on the wheel into the steady rotation needed to create the glass-like smoothness of their bowls and platters. In the form of a flywheel, it is what translates the jerky explosions of an internal combustion engine into the vibration-free motion in our cars and trucks.
Most of us would benefit from some form of flywheel for the same reason potters and automobile drivers do – to even out the vibration, to keep the forward motion constant. A lot of what I do as a therapist is to help people to find their personal flywheels.
By “personal flywheel” I mean an interest or passion that we do just for itself, something that is not part of a job, a chore, or that we do for friends or family, and that is independent of time or season. Even when only intermittent energy is applied, a personal flywheel keeps us going in the midst of difficulties. Somewhere inside the wheel is spinning, spinning, and all we have to do to keep it going is give it a little kick. The momentum gets us over the rough spots until we have a chance to catch our breath, and then we can give it a kick again.
For the last ten years, my work in photography, especially the flower mandalas, has been my personal flywheel. But a personal flywheel can be anything you feel passionate about and connected to. For some it is a spiritual connection and the activities associated with it, whether they be participating in a religious community or in their own private rituals and observations. For others, it is a physical activity – working out, doing yoga, playing a sport not for the sake of competing, but for its own sake. Outdoor activities like gardening, hiking, boating, or fishing also may fill that role, as can an almost infinite variety of hobbies and avocations. What is important is that the activity be meaningful to you and that you do it, rain or shine, tired or full of zip, whenever you can, to keep the wheel spinning smoothly and your balance intact.
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Text and images © 2012, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.