Beyond static boundaries

little and oftenAs a coach, I used to talk to my athletes about operating a ‘total lifestyle’: rather than thinking 5 days for work, 2 days for the weekend and good training, how might we make a weekly structure be more fluid across 7 days? This could be useful for an athlete, as our traditional 7 day week doesn’t map over our bodies’ physiological rhythm – why should it? There were many instances when an athlete’s training required 3 day blocks – and 3 doesn’t divide in to 7 very easily! And this predicament exists for may situations outside of sport: indeed, my work as a life coach revealed the client’s dilemma around work / life balance: and a ratio of “5 to 2” wasn’t sustainable when working days are long and family / social commitments start to pile up. With these clients, I would help them look at their working week and their “non-negotiables” – those life priorities that often get squeezed out. We discussed how to live a life by the “important” and not respond to other people’s “urgent”; and we looked at how we could throw out the rule book (or re-write it at least) concerning traditional working patterns of “5 days on, 2 days off”. By adopting a ‘total lifestyle’ we might end up doing a little work on every day of the week but we accommodate more down time in the mid-week too.


The idea of a “total lifestyle” goes against the grain. There is a “rule” that we follow as a society – some days are for work, some days are for recreation. I remember when first setting up my private practice and finishing my MSc. Monday was to be a study day – but each week I found myself feeling guilty on a Monday morning that I wasn’t working, the rest of the world was. As I re-write my own work / life rules, I become more comfortable in trusting my intuition – what feels right for me now. Not the Helen of 20 years ago (who could work 12 hour days, 5 days a week). I don’t work 60 hour working weeks and haven’t done so for a long time. I am also more comfortable at working more evenly across the week. 

As always, my blog posts are inspired by a mixture of motivations and often by current situations in my personal, my spiritual and my professional life: and this week is no different. The remembering of the “total lifestyle” came this week as I started settling in to a different working rhythm. The end of the academic year means I currently have no teaching commitments at the University. A friend asked me “what is it like to have all this time off?” and I explained that whilst it wasn’t “time off” (as Course Leader on the MSc psychotherapy there is plenty to do in preparation for the next cohort of students arriving in September) there is opportunity to operate with more space – like with the ‘total lifestyle’, I can be doing University tasks across the week rather than the two days I am normally required on the campus. This spaciousness allows me to prioritise those “non-negotiables” – opportunities for longer sitting practice, reading for professional development and for my Buddhist studies, and time with friends and family that often gets neglected during the busier months. A time of the year when admin gets slotted around life rather than vice versa.

static dynamic polaritiesI’ve also been thinking about ‘total lifestyle’ in the context of my explorations in to the masculine and feminine principle: a theme I have been bringing up in this blog recently. Gareth Hill’s excellent explication of “Masculine and Feminine” has been incredibly useful in taking my understanding of these ideas deeper and applying them to the domains of my life (photo credits: both figures taken from Hill’s text). Hill takes the binary even further, explaining the static and dynamic versions of the masculine and the feminine: so we end up with the static feminine, the static masculine, the dynamic feminine, and the dynamic masculine. As I reinforced last week, these are qualities that exist in all of us, regardless of sex and gender; and, most of us have an imbalance or a tendency toward the masculine or feminine that needs re-dressing. Adding in the static and dynamic poles gives even deeper insight. I’ve been reflecting on how this relates to the ‘total lifestyle’.

figure 8 static dynamic flowHill takes the four-part matrix in to model of development – we are born in the static feminine, we move toward the opposite pole of the dynamic masculine as we seek separation and differentiation; through a “fiery trial” we look to integrate in to society, the static masculine; and finally we work toward the more spacious and creative dynamic feminine. Whilst this happens on the macro level across our lifespan (we could perhaps map these as four stages: childhood in to adolescent to adult through mid-life), in truth there is also a repeat of this figure of 8 on a microlevel; every task or life project has similar stages of unity, differentiation, integration and individuation.

How does this relate to the ‘total lifestyle’ and a more fluid week? For me, I can see some of this figure 8 playing out in a career: how we grow up with fantasies of the perfect life: work, relationships, family, lifestyle. We leave the safety of home to strike out and “become”. Over time, we get coaxed in to the structure of society, rules, career, fitting in; and then we realise the burden of those expectation and we seek change (often in mid-life) – to find something more freeing, something more in line with our authentic-Self (probably the one we set out to find initially but lost our way). Maybe there is something of archetypal hero’s journey toward the total lifestyle: the ability to let go of the safety that structure provides? Rather than the “9-5, 5 days per week”, flexi-time, however that looks for an individual.

Clients often bring this type of issue to therapy. Take Sandra**, she runs her own business and is finding her motivation waning. The excitement of leaving a corporate environment to set up as a consultant 4 years ago has been overtaken my stress and gripping anxiety. The very masculine “drive” has brought Sandra success, but is now putting her relationship at risk. In psychotherapy, we often call the internalisation of structure and rules ‘the tyranny of the shoulds’ – “I should respond to those emails”, “I should finish that report before I call it an end to the day”. The “shoulds” that often have her working until 10pm at night and drag her to her desk at 6am the next day. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. How do we work with this? Well firstly, we can address who the “should” voice is, what does it feel like, when did it start, and how did that voice (in some way) keep her safe? Alongside this understanding, we also work with ways to help her experience the emotions around the “should”. We can use ideas of the ‘total lifestyle’ as a bridge to exploring less rigidity and more flexibility. And how does that loosening of the grip feel? What does it bring up? In this case, the fear of space: the dynamic feminine is not trusted – a fear that without boundaries she will become chaotic, unproductive, unsuccessful, unlovable. As Gareth Hill explains, we often require a ‘dark night of the soul’ to know we can survive the terror of not existing.

I’ve had my own experience of this ‘dark night’. Re-training as a therapist having had a solid career – I “broke” my own rules; I relinquished security in favour of freedom (or, what I sensed would be liberating as I didn’t know at the time). Yet my training turned me inside out – I moved from the static masculine of structure, opening up to the space beyond boundaries of work which was incredibly disconcerting, and finding a re-birth, a new “me”. And perhaps the main learning from this process? At the time if felt like I had to deconstruct the old “false me” to find the “real me”. However, in coming through my “dark night” I realised that self is a verb: I never was a static, fixed entity. I have, and always will have, a fluidity. An propensity for “selfing”, ongoing.

It is less scary now as I’ve been here before, but mid-life is another time around the figure of 8. Whenever I encounter more space (like the summer months) I have to rely on the ground of my meditation practice, a trust that I can hold my seat. And like a child edging in to the shallow end of a swimming pool, I ease myself in to more space.


**Whenever I mention client work, I change names and some of the circumstances of the story to protect privacy

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