By Purnima Coontoor
Finding the right balance between life and work is vital if you aspire to holistic growth. pick up some tips here
A few years ago, a Kannada movie called America America, a huge hit down South, made a compelling point about the work culture in the US. The heroine, married to a software engineer in America, comments on the lifestyle there: “We can’t even have emotions during weekdays here; we have to reserve it all for weekends.”
This is also being felt in India, a land once famed for its family values and laidback lifestyle. Not too long ago, parents had all the time for their children, and vice versa. Eating out was a special occasion, and ice-cream a rare treat. Grandmas turned their noses down at instant coffee, and two-minute noodles. The new India is a country with dollar dreams in its eyes, leading people to move from ‘all work and no play’ to ‘more work and more play’– cramming 48 hours worth of activity into 24. No place for ‘soul time’ in this itinerary, though.
Be it the hordes of 20-somethings in the IT and BPO sectors catering to a world where the sun rises and sets at a different time, the jet-setting corporate executive having each meal in a different time zone, or the working mother shelling peas on the local train back home in the evening, the demands of modern living are taking their toll on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of individuals. 24-hour connectivity through Internet and mobile phones is effectively blurring professional and personal time. The incidence of Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI) has shot up during the past decade, owing to mental conflict arising from a lack of work-life balance.
But another side to this India is also emerging. Slowly but surely, we can see an awakening among people to the demands of body, mind and spirit. For some, the work-hard-party-hard culture seems to be losing its sheen. For instance…
…Rajnikanth, the Tamil superstar whose latest film, Shivaji, is running to packed houses across the world, is understandably a furiously busy man. But at regular intervals, he is known to disappear into the Himalayas, and remain incommunicado for two months.
…healing centres like the Vipassana centre at Igatpuri, which offers ten-day long meditation courses to seekers from all over the world, are booked throughout the year.
… Shubha Patwardhan, a successful HR professional at an MNC, opted out of a corporate career track when she was barely 27. She redefined ‘success’ for herself by choosing a mosaic career that allowed her to express her diverse talents – dancing, researching, and consulting.
A number of highly qualified professionals, irrespective of age, are realising that there’s more to life than working for a livelihood, and acquiring assets. Swami Sukhabodhananda says that material needs are met easily, and rather early in these times, and one is automatically propelled to the next level, to the level of asking ‘Is that it? What next?’
Balance is central to the universe, and man’s spirit too seeks to balance life with the right amounts of everything, in order to feel worthy and fulfilled. Just working is not enough; enjoying the work is far more important. Gone are the days when people joined service at the age of 20, and carried on with the same drudgery until retirement. The younger generation, free of the baggage of caring for large families with limited incomes, is willing to venture into uncharted waters to answer the call of their souls.
So what is this work-life balance? A new age mantra bandied about in corporate workshops, or a measurable achievable goal that leads one to a better lifestyle?
“We can say one has achieved an ideal work-life balance when work and life complement, and not compete, with each other,” says Sudha Pillai, founder of SP Media House, a media solutions company, and also writer, journalist and filmmaker. Sandhya Mendonca, another media professional, agrees. “An ideal balance would be when you don’t have to worry about personal issues at work, and not have to take work home with you.” She adds, “If you can compartmentalise the two so that each gets its due attention, it’s fine. That’s unrealistic, with demanding work schedules, and one has to make up with ‘quality’ time.”
“A profession that nurtures personal identity can avert stress. “
There can be no ideal work-life balance. It’s a dynamic concept, which differs for each individual. Says Shubha,“I am increasingly seeing it as balancing professional identity with personal identity. If the professional identity is perceived as incongruous to personal identity, it could lead to stress. A profession, and equally importantly, a workplace or work-style that nurtures the personal identity could avert stress.”
A Paradigm Shift
After four years of a challenging and satisfying corporate job, Shubha wanted to shake off the golden dust of money, promotion, rewards and thrilling competition, and see life anew. “When the going was great, I had begun to feel like a dog chasing its tail! I felt it was imperative that I stop. I wanted to re-look at my approach to life. Friends suggested that perhaps I should move to a similar but different job, or set up something on my own. I didn’t want to jump from one race to another!” she exclaims.
Vijay Cavale, a successful software professional, faced a similar dilemma at the peak of his career. Once, lunching with his boss and a Chinese client at a restaurant in Bangalore, the conversation veered towards money and motivation. The Chinese contended that man would go to any lengths for money, and Vijay laughed. But the former threw a challenge at Vijay. “The man offered 10 dollars for me to stand at the door of the restaurant, and salute every person who walked through. I laughed at him, but he kept increasing the stake, and when it came to 1000 dollars, I actually started considering the possibility,” says Vijay. “That made me think – I was willing drop my shame for money. At 1000 dollars per salute, how far would I be willing to go? Would I stop at 10 salutes, or 100, or 1000? That is when I realised that greed had no limits, and the time to stop was now.” A deep internal inquiry followed, and Vijay decided that he no longer needed to punch in and punch out at eight every morning and evening. He invested his wealth prudently, left his job, and took up his favourite hobby of wildlife photography. Now he’s happy travelling all over India with his family and creating awareness about nature through a website called indiabirds.com.
A Tough Call
But irrespective of what reason people shift jobs for, it always requires a lot of courage – not from the person shifting jobs, but from others in their life! Says Shubha, “When people make a decision to go against the tide, it is always preceded by dissatisfaction with status quo, and intense introspection that almost always goes deep into questions of identity – Who am I? What is my purpose? Once they arrive at a decision that is rooted in a deeper understanding of the self, it needs no vouching or seconding from anybody outside of them. An outsider can only support you in your quest, but can never make a judgement, because it is deeply individual and personal.”
Vijay agrees. He found it difficult at first, but over time, he stopped bothering about what people thought of him. For Shubha too, the switch has been fulfilling: “It’s been three years, and I feel totally accomplished in life! Well-meaning friends have tried to tell me I should have a purpose to my life. I think to myself ‘I do, just that you can’t see it’”.
Vijay and Shubha had the courage to go in for the kill, but for most of us, a paradigm shift is simply not as easy to make. It’s far easier to stick to the familiar, and more often than not, it’s an external locus of control that keeps us from breaking away from the beaten path. People are constantly tempted to measure themselves, and define who they are through other’s eyes, preventing them from being adventurous, and discovering new things about themselves.
For some balance involves more work, but in areas they are interested in. Mid-day cartoonist Hemant Morparia is actually a radiologist by profession. His afternoons and evenings are reserved for his medical practice. He consults at Breach Candy Hospital, and at another diagnostic centre in Mumbai. It is in the mornings that he spends time on his cartoons. It is a challenge to balance both, and Morparia works to make it happen. He says, “These two things are so different that they cannot overlap at all. Because of this, there is no day when I don’t work. If there is a cartoon for Monday, I have to work on Sunday.”
“I realised that greed had no limits, and the time to stop was now”
This tight-rope walking does not deter him, for the dividends are important. He adds, “Professions are, in some way, compromises. They don’t take the best out of you. We do them for the money. But there are some things you do because you really enjoy yourself while doing them, because they harness your true potential and natural ability. Cartooning is like that for me. It is self-created and self-developed, so certainly more enriching.”
Morparia believes that striking a work-life balance is crucial since “it is a way of keeping body and soul together.” According to him, pursuing only secondary gains like money, fame and power will leave you with a very boring life.
Downshift, Adapt, Meditate
Apart from switching gears on the job front, people often move to quieter areas, put their children in schools in the vicinity of home, and seek jobs that don’t require negotiating traffic jams day in and day out. This allows them free time in which to relax. Nicola Jenkins, in her book, Learn to relax: How to feel calmer and more in control of your life, calls this phenomenon ‘downshifting’. For Sandhya, regular vacations, both alone and with family, do the trick. “I think it’s important that we spend time together as a family, just hanging out sometimes, and doing things that are fun for all of us,” she says. “We don’t push this; sometimes we are together in the same room or house, and each is doing the thing that they like – reading, or playing music. Just knowing that there are no deadlines adds to the leisurely enjoyment of bonding. And when you are relaxed, you can get to know each other as regular people instead of playing roles as father, mother, child.”
Regular physical exercise, and training in yoga or a sport is a great way to de-stress, and the benefits of pranayama and meditation cannot be emphasised enough. “I have found meditation to be a sustainable method of being aligned to one’s personal identity. It helps you distil who you are, and you interact with the world from that understanding and strength,” says Shubha.
To illustrate a state of balance and adaptability, Sudha uses the analogy of the river that flows into the sea – during its course, sometimes the river flows over the rocks on its path, and sometimes, it moulds itself and flows around the rock, but it always knows where it is going, and its final destination. And it is smart enough to make its journey comfortable by adapting the principle of going with the flow; not in a mindless manner, but in a purposeful way. “I guess if we have an approach like that, it becomes easier to achieve a work-life balance. There might be some days when work needs to take a backseat, and life needs to be in the driver’s seat. And there might be days when work needs to be in the forefront. Only the individual will know what works best for them,” she says.
Counsellor Manisha Gokhale says that it is impossible to perceive a life that is completely stress-free. However, one can learn to manage it. Her suggestions to achieve work-life balance are:
• Set priorities of your life in the order of preference, and distribute your energies accordingly. While doing it, pay attention to all the aspects of your life such as career, relationships, health, spiritual growth, and recreation.
• Develop a hobby or an interest that will give you joy and achievement.
• Pay attention to your body. Be aware of its needs. Respect your body.
• Listen to your feelings. Understand your emotions. Take care, and nurture yourself. Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, urges us to “…live a balanced life – learn some and think some, and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” But to achieve a state of inner balance must be the goal of every individual. As Confucius remarks, “Balance is the perfect state of still water. Let that be our model. It remains quiet within, and is not disturbed on the surface.”
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After Linesh Sheth shifted from Latur to Mumbai to eke out a livelihood, he realised that the routine of commuting from home to work and back was ‘a prison – a place where you couldn’t do anything with freedom.’ Frustrated with the dull monotony, he wondered if he was born to do this. ‘I had to go to work for survival, but it did not give meaning to my life.’ This feeling resonated deeply in the lecture given by the Argentinian founder of the Humanist Movement, Silo, that he attended. Sheth then realised that only when you break your personal boundaries, and get interested in other people, do you find meaning. He joined the Humanist movement, and moved away from the paradigm of doing only those things that brought returns. There was opposition from his wife and children, but he wanted release from the idea of ‘have-to’, of working in duty-bound and compulsion-bound roles.
“Since I was a householder, I could not neglect home, and plunge myself into the Humanist work alone. So the question of prioritising came up as an inner revelation – priorities have to be numbered in order of importance, and they have to be few. If there were only one priority, it would be a mission. And a householder cannot be on a mission. He has to be practical.’
Sheth worked out three priorities, and ordered them in an ‘irreversible’ manner. These priorities comprise things that matter most. If there’s something that does not fit into these three, he considers it unnecessary. This framework determines clearly what and whom to say No to. He says, ‘If you concentrate on what matters most, you don’t do anything unnecessary, and so you don’t keep busy all the time. The first priority is what gives meaning to your life. The second is what gives you your livelihood. The third consists of your interests, the things that make life joyful – be it listening to music or meditation.’
According to him, what matters most about work is not what you can do best, but what can set you free. This involves giving the best of what you have to others – distributing functions, responsibilities and power. Today, Sheth is 68 years of age. He is the chairman and managing director of three companies – Total Tools, Wud Tools, and Industrial Product Company. All of these are family-run businesses, along with sons and brothers. Sheth also helps run a hospital in Latur. He manages fundraising and buying of equipment. Despite this, work takes up only about five to six hours of his day. The rest of his time is spent carefully and well, in keeping with the priorities he has set for himself. He meditates for two hours in the morning – by himself, and with his wife. One hour is kept for exercising. He also spends an hour teaching meditation to interested people at home. During the day, he devotes time to reading ‘relevant things’. Most of these are books he reads for repeated study. Sheth has written a book called The Friend You Will Never See. He also writes articles for the Speaking Tree column in The Times of India.
He says, ‘The most important thing in my life is the relationship I share with myself. Activities keep you away from yourself. What you will miss is the contact with the friend that lives within. You must let yourself feel the touch of it.’
- Chintan Girish Modi