5 Ways Ignatian Wisdom Can Help You Cultivate Work/Life Balance
“My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms” (Servant of God Dorothy Day).
I stumbled over the toys strewn across the living room floor before sneaking into my daughter’s dark room to kiss her goodnight. I had looked forward to this night “off” all week, but now that it was over, I found myself coveting missed bedtime cuddles.
I crept back out to the living room and collapsed on the couch next to a pile of wrinkling laundry. While I relished the challenge of my evening graduate classes, I was exhausted. The house was a wreck, and our family was surviving on takeout and Amazon Prime. I couldn’t keep up with the demands of my many roles — teacher, student, wife, mother — and none of them was a responsibility I could sideline. I was tired of giving less than my full effort in every facet of my life. “I can’t do this anymore,” I thought. “There has to be another way.”
There was a better way. Over the course of the next year, I sought to shift my perspective by reprioritizing my life. None of the externals changed. Instead, I changed the way I approached them. It wasn’t about doing more; adding to the “to do” list would only have exacerbated my feelings of anxiety and insufficiency. Instead, I learned to draw on the richness of my formation in Catholic spirituality to imbue my tasks with deeper meaning. The juggling of these many roles, once so overwhelmingly burdensome to me, became my path to peace and joy.
Do you find yourself facing a similar struggle to find work/life balance? Are you always playing catch up? Do you thrive on the challenges of a demanding career but wish the grueling pace didn’t leave you so drained? Do you daydream about living a simpler life at a slower pace? Here are five practices to cultivate balance in the midst of a demanding season of life.
1. Embracing a Spirituality of Self-care
St. Ignatius of Loyola offers us the concept of cura personalis, care of the whole person. He recognized an important truth: We cannot serve from an empty vessel. If we find ourselves depleted, then we cannot give of ourselves at home or at work. Caring for our whole person means cultivating attentiveness to the needs of our body, mind and spirit. Different temperaments may manifest these needs differently, but they are needs we all share. If we are feeling anxious, overwhelmed or pulled in too many different directions, it is a good idea to stop and take inventory of how we are caring for ourselves.
Are we eating nourishing foods, drinking enough water, and reaping the mental and physical benefits of regular exercise? Our bodily needs are the most basic, but they are too easily neglected.
Are we feeding our intellect, igniting curiosity and challenging ourselves mentally? When we do have free time, do we allow ourselves real rest by engaging in recreation that lifts us up and energizes, or do we try to “power down” or numb ourselves?
Are we feeding ourselves spiritually by drinking the living water of prayer and refreshing ourselves at the table of the Eucharist?
All of these activities are essential components of self-care. Ignatius imagines self-care not as “me time” but as something that truly rejuvenates us. Remembering the concept of cura personalis helps us to take inventory of our needs so that, in meeting them, we are empowered for the greater service of others.
2. Adopting a Sabbath Mindset
Our work is a participation in God’s ongoing creation, and it includes joining him in rest. God commands rest on the Sabbath not for his sake but for ours.
We should not think of rest as selfish but as an essential response of obedience to God. We might also expand our notion of what counts as rest by intentionally making space for the things that renew us. For example, rest might mean taking a hike to reconnect with nature or relaxing with a great novel.
Not sure where you find rest? Start taking note of how you feel after various activities. Are you relaxed and peaceful, or listless and agitated? All of us can benefit from adopting practices that create mental distance from work in our off time, such as turning off email notifications on our phones or taking a social media hiatus.
3. Learning to Say No
Learning to say no is an important skill but a difficult one to learn. Saying no can sting our pride or make us worry that we will face rejection. But the reality is that we only have so much to give. Every “yes” we offer is an allocation of our limited time and energy. Saying no is a recognition of our limited human nature. It allows us to give more fully and joyfully to the things that really matter to us.In deciding which requests to honor and where to pull back, it helps to ask ourselves where we are feeling driven versus where we are feeling drawn. The image of drivenness evokes external pressure — what one professor of mine called “should-ing” all over oneself. These compulsions are often driven by “unfreedoms” or lies we believe about ourselves. When we root out the impetus behind the “should” we feel, we can more clearly see that whether is a task or position we truly desire to take. Embracing this “no” gives us the freedom to use our gifts for the things to which we are being drawn.
4. Chasing Joy
“The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Without joy, we are weak and vulnerable. When we seek out the things that bring us true joy, not passing pleasure, we find the strength to carry out our work as God intends.
Of course, there will always be aspects of our work and responsibilities of our vocation that are less exciting than others. Learning to dispense of these tasks with joy is part of the path of Christian virtue. We can cultivate joy both by being intentional about how we spend our time and by finding joy in the tasks required by our vocation. St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” of holiness is an example of this practice; she offered her small tasks to God by doing each of them with great love. Frederick Buechner conceives of vocation as the place where our “deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.”
5. Practicing Mindfulness
The key to all of these practices is mindfulness. Cultivating self-awareness allows us to understand our limitations, sense our needs and follow our joy. One practice that attunes us to our inner movements is the Ignatian examine, a prayerful review of the events of each day and our interior responses to them. To get started using the examine, try it as a guided meditation by listening to a recorded version like this podcast.
Balance Requires Stillness
Imagine yourself trying to balance on a balance beam or tree pose. It helps to close your eyes and slow your breath. It takes a dozen tiny adjustments to stay upright. Drastic or swift movement in any direction causes you to come toppling down.
Creating balance is about developing awareness to the subtle shifts inside our souls. To do so, we need stillness, we need prayer, and we need to trust our own sense of our needs and desires. Like the hunger for food and thirst for water, God has placed a desire for rest and an ache for joy in our hearts. Attending to these needs daily is not selfish; it is essential. To honor our desire for balance is to respond to the truth of who we are — who we were created to be.
Samantha Stephenson has master’s degrees in theology and bioethics. After eight years in the field of education, she shifted her career path to be more available to her husband and their two children. Currently, she works from home as an online course facilitator for the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame and a freelance writer on themes of prayer, vocation and the Church. You can find her at SpiritualityoftheOrdinary.com.