Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters


Wisdom Wednesday :: Dismantling the Work-Life Balance Myth

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

In an age when the work week enroaches more and more into the hours of each day and even reaches its hand into weekends, holidays, and vacations the notion arises that we need to have good work-life “balance.” I would like to suggest, however, that work-life balance is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. 

flowers.jpg

The term work-life implies a duality. Work is set against the rest of life. These are now in competition for our precious time and energy. If one wins, the other loses. 
However, life is a unity. Any separations we make are constructions, arbitrary boundaries drawn on the seamless fabric of life. 
An article from the New York Times from last October on integrating Mindfulness in Medicine (How Mindfulness Can Make for Better Doctors) provides this example:

One night during my training, long after all the other doctors had fled the hospital, I found a senior surgeon still on the wards working on a patient note. He was a surgeon with extraordinary skill, a doctor of few words whose folksy quips had become the stuff of department legend. “I’m sorry you’re still stuck here,” I said, walking up to him.

He looked up from the chart. “I’m not working tomorrow, so I’m just fine.”

I had just reviewed the next day’s operating room schedule and knew he had a full day of cases. I began to contradict him, but he held his hand up to stop me.

“Time in the O.R.,” he said with a broad grin, “is not work; it’s play.”

There is no duality for this surgeon, no opposition of forces. Work is play, and thereby presumably joyful.


We spend approximately half of our waking life in the service of work and as suggested above that percentage continues to grow. 

David Whyte in his elegiac volume, The Three Marriages: Reimagining, Work, Self, and Relationship, says

“We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold
competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden
human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis
and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for
meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment. “

In his first book on working life, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, he offered this bit of wisdom: 
“Human beings must, in a
sense, always, in order to create meaning, in order to create an ecology of belonging
around them, must bring the central questions of their life into whatever they
are doing most of the time.” 

 Well, that would be work.  


The Buddha threw down the gauntlet challenging us to awaken. To be awake is not part-time or divided. It is always now and in every thing. No separation, no division, no preference. Instead, a stark, beautiful, and breath-taking (and breath-giving) engagement with being alive. 

Our challenge is to be awake on our way to work, while at work, and on our way home from work. Our challenge is strive towards being open, receptive, and truthful with each moment. 

Work is our life in this moment and we’d be best served not to squander it with wanting to be somewhere else. 

This is not to say that work can’t be difficult, miserable, or the wrong-fit for us. Obviously, we need to pay attention to this and make changes if necessary and possible. 

However, these difficulties can be calls to awakening. “How can I transcend myself in this moment?” “How can I get beyond my story of how awful things are?” “How can I find meaning and grace in what is happening now?”




  • hotcocoa

    Arnie,
    Thank you for this reminder that the way we talk about, and thereby imagine our work can serve our awakening–not to mention that the quality of our presence can serve our patients (clients, customers, coworkers) in profound ways. I look forward to your daily posts as a little time in the evening to find myself more present. JJ

  • Breathing Deeply

    I work in a place that begins each day with a “Battle Meeting”, out of which springs a “Battle Plan”. People spend the day in fight mode and approach one another that way – management to workers, workers to management, workers to workers, workers to clients. It’s a little difficult to transcend that kind of teeth-gnashing, which is apparently designed to make us “the employer of choice” in our industry. HA!

  • http://www.theleadershipdoc.net Dr Howard Fero

    Very well said…finding work that we enjoy is key to our happiness both in the workplace and in our personal life. In order to perform optimally in any situation we need to be fully engaged in the task we are completing. That engagement comes as a consequence of our following our passion and having an organization which creates a culture where we can explore it. This can be anything…surgery, working on an assembly line, teaching others, etc. We all have those things we ‘like’ to do…the difficulty is identifying ways to do them!
    I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading more…

  • Chris

    Great article and one that is most appreciated from a corporate America rat such as myself. I have been thinking about the concept of ‘lifestyle design’ and this idea of ‘unity’ is giving me another opportunity to explore my life flow.
    All too often, we create these contructs but imagine this is because of the unfulfilling nature (or at least we believe this) of our jobs and what they represent. Is it the job or is it us? This is a question I have not resolved yet.
    Thanks for the good read.

  • steve talbert

    In response to Breathing Deeply.. Some people relish a good fight.. so battle mode might be their dream job.

  • http://exquisitemind.com Dr. Arnie Kozak

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. I appreciate your thoughtful reading. Indeed, one person’s passion is another’s poison. We can be mindfully engaged with battle as well as anything else. However, I do think that such a relentless pace would eventually wear us down. Mindful attention can be fierce as well as peaceful.
    Finding the right fit between our interests and strengths is key. If we are stuck in a situation that is not suited to our strengths and interests and we cannot leave for practical reasons, the challenge is to change our perceptions. The challenge is to find new metaphors to frame our experience and to change the way we engage with what is happening.
    Metaphors for work life will often be presented on Metaphor Monday. See you then.

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