Do you feel like you achieve balance in your life? Perhaps a work/life balance, or poise in your bearing, or equanimity in your attitudes?
Perhaps you feel like your year swings into productivity and then out again. Perhaps you are aware of all the wobbles and adjustments you are constantly having to make. Perhaps sometimes you need to reach out for support. Maybe sometimes you fall off balance and have to quickly get back up again.
These are ways that people talk to me about balance–and they suggest that they are therefore ‘bad at balance’, ‘unbalanced’. But actually, this is exactly how bodies and minds do balance.
Bodies and minds are complex, dynamic things. You aren’t trying to balance like a stack of rocks, you are aiming for balance like a tree, or more like an Alexander Calder mobile, ‘they are turning, they’re behaving, they’re reacting’ as this video from the Met Museum explains.
In movement practices, in meditation practices, or in academic focus practices, teaching balance isn’t about teaching people to be immovable whatever happens around them. Instead, it’s about giving people the skills and confidence and practice to be able to react to wobbly disturbances, without falling over and getting stuck on the floor (physically or metaphorically!)
Because this idea came to me in physical practice, I’m going to use that as a metaphor before rounding back to explain how this works for academic writing. As longtime readers of the blog know, movement isn’t something that comes easily or simply to me, it’s something I had to intentionally learn and have to keep intentionally thinking about. That makes it a helpful place for me to engage with questions like ‘how do you learn to do a really hard, complex thing that doesn’t come naturally, like writing a doctoral thesis?’
Okay, so say you are working on balance, and you are trying to stand on one leg. You are out of practice, or recovering from an injury, or just have never had great balance, so this one is hard for you. You try standing on one leg and you last half a second, you start to wobble, so you quickly put your second leg down and phew! now you are stable again.
This is actually a great start. You successfully got into the balance, actually achieved it for a short time, and then safely came out of the balance! The worst outcome would have been to refuse to put down your leg, fall over the on the floor and injure yourself, which would leave you worse of than you started.
So a smart, sustainable, resilient practice means knowing when to stop, how to stop, and when it’s safe to get back into it.
Because next stage is to have another go, and another. Even if you only manage tiny moments of time in balance, if you keep trying for, say, 60 seconds, then you’ve actually done a lot of balance work.
Oh yeah, balance is super challenging and intense. 10 seconds is something to be proud of, and a minute is pretty impressive. A pile of rocks can sit there for centuries, but a complex moving organism like a human body is doing great if it manages to stand on one leg for even a breath. (Think about all the stuff that moves when you breathe! let alone everything that happens at each joint!)
Another option might be to stand on one leg while holding onto a chair or the wall. We might need to hold on tight, or just have a light touch, or only hold on sometimes. That way we can add support into our balance, and maintain it for a bit longer without having to exit the balance and then get back in. We use this strategy in ballet using the barre, or with walking aids like a bannister, walker or stick.
Indeed, most of the time, when we are balancing on one leg, we are moving our whole body forward. That is, the bit of our walking stride as we rock from heel to toe on one foot, then lift it off and rock heel to toe on the other foot. Walking definitely requires balance, but it’s generally easier to keep your balance while walking, than to stand on one leg for a minute. That’s because balance is easiest for bodies when it’s dynamic.
In fact, as you get more experienced at balance, you’ll be intentionally incorporating dynamic movement into your practice. As you get better at balancing, you may start to notice that you can take your hands off the wall, and move your arms around as a counterbalance instead. At first you might flail quite a bit, but slowly you move your arms with purpose to help your body stay more upright (similar to swinging your arms when you walk). You might notice it helps to put a tiny bend in your knee so you can add in micro-movements to adjust. You might notice your ankle muscles getting in on the act, with small reactions to keep you standing. As you progress, perhaps to your tiptoes, or onto surfaces that aren’t a flat and stable floor, you’ll need even more of these mini-movements.
But you’ll find other kinds of movement make it harder to stay in a balance. Your skull is really heavy, and can easily tip you over, so instead you keep your head stacked on top of your spine, and try to keep your spine straight. You’ll notice that moving your eyes around is also likely to make you fall over, so you learn to find a focus point and keep your eyes on that one place–learning to find that spot again, even if you are spinning around! In ballet this place of focus is called ‘spotting’ and in yoga it is called ‘drishti’ (which can also be used for mental focus).
Okay, so dynamic balance in bodies is:
- something you need to get into, stay in, and exit
- something you need to do safely
- easier on a stable surface
- probably going to happen for a short, intense period of time
- probably needs to happen more than once
- part of moving forward
- involves lots of parts of the body
- requires mobility, strength and adaptability
- also requires stillness, stability and persistence…
No wonder it’s hard!
Academic writing is similarly complex, especially if you are trying to do a challenging kind of writing like a doctoral thesis.
Rather than do a point-by-point explanation of the metaphor, I’m going to jump into some practical things we can draw from the idea since we are already over a thousand words into this post.
First of all, have a time-box strategy, whether that’s 25 minutes, a few hours, or a few days, like the Pomodoro technique, Shut Up and Write, a Thesis Boot Camp, or your own writing snack or feast. Plan to move into writing, hold it for a short but intense time, then move out of it. Take a break before heading back in. Don’t try to stay in the writing for so long you fall over and hurt yourself, just move in and out of the focus and forward progress.
Also, academic writing is asynchronous and idiosyncratic. Reading something someone has written is not like experiencing a performance of a classical ballet, where the dancers all try to hold a balance for the same amount of time and in the same way. No-one can tell if your final draft was constructed in two-minute, two-hour, or two-day writing blocks. Find the time-box that works best for your life and energy and brain.
Second, work out what supports will help you, and use them. Maybe they are physical supports (I just got reading glasses, a game changer!) Maybe they are social and emotional supports, like having a writing buddy. Maybe they are habits that make your writing feel stable and predictable. Maybe they are techniques that you can finesse or strengthen. Maybe they are technical supports, like getting your computer to check your spelling or read your text aloud to you.
Your university likely has supports here too, which we expect you to be using. It’s common to have specialist teams of librarians, academic skills advisors, funding teams, data analysts, counsellors, lab technicians, archivists and more.
And finally, dynamic balance in writing is not about turning into a pile of rocks that can immovably stay in one place forever. Instead, we are looking for forward movement, reaction, pivots (a loaded word in these pandemic times), responsive actions. Dynamic balance is what enables you to fall out of focus, and get right back in. It’s what enables to you to climb stairs or turn corners in movement or writing; it’s what gives you the ability to revise, review, or rewrite, to change your mind, to process new information, to learn new stuff. It’s also what gives you the ability to deal with significant interruptions or roadblocks to your research.
You are not a robot! And you are certainly not a robot on a production line, standing in one place doing the same thing over and over again. Even if you watch the really advanced (scary) robots that need to be able to balance like humans do, as they run across rocky terrain or walk up stairs on two legs, you’ll notice they fall over a lot too. (And none of those robots are then going home, sitting down at their desks and trying to write a book-length reflection on why robots exist, how robots can heal, or what robot art means).
In 2022, I’m going to be a body and a brain, a person in community and in the world. I’m going to move in an out of focus, in and out of spaces, in and out of projects. I’m going to move forward, I’m going to step aside, I’m going to loop back and revise. I’ll bounce between work and rest, between sociality and introspection, between energy and tiredness. I’m going to keep my knees soft and my gaze steady. I’m going to return to the breath, to the story. I’ll take critical distance breaks, and I’ll take rest, I’ll go steeplechasing, and I’ll probably try to write too many books again.
In other words, I’m not making a new plan for the new year, I’m just giving the strategies that kept me going across the last two years a catchy name. I’m going to call it ‘dynamic balance’ and feel good that it works for me.
In 2020, I got myself through our long lockdown trying, unsuccessfully, to learn to handstand. In 2021, the thing that kept me going between endless Zoom teaching was a few minutes balancing upside down on my Feetup trainer. Balancing physically helped more than anything else to remind me how to balance mentally: not with static poise like a porcelain ballerina, but by moving into red-faced, wobbly, topsy-turvy movement, and then rolling out of it, and rolling back to the desk for another go.
Yes, this blog likes to talk about metaphors, why it’s okay to find hard things hard, finding focus, keeping your body well while you write, mixing up hard work and taking breaks, and not giving you black-and-white answers to the complex task of creating unique, new knowledge as a doctoral candidate, whether that’s by encouraging you to avoid perfectionism, create new habits by turning the dial, or explaining how to turn your rough first draft, through multiple revisions, into highly polished and scholarly texts. Sometimes, all the threads come together in a single, start-of-the-year blog post. Let’s call this a manifesto for 2022.