In my years of practicing therapy, the one observation I have made over and over again is how difficult it is to maintain balance in one’s life. So many of us hear that endless refrain – both from within ourselves and outside of ourselves – telling us that we should work harder, be richer, smarter, better, thinner, prettier, more popular, more enlightened. And so we try to measure up – by working harder, volunteering more, running five miles instead of two, driving our kids to three after-school activities instead of just the one, saying yes when we mean no. And it is exhausting. It is depleting. It leaches our ability to be present, to breathe in the grace of living.
And yet. One of the underpinnings of that struggle is this: the beautiful and uniquely human drive to create, to build, to connect to something greater than ourselves, to find meaning and make purpose of our lives.
And so one of the big questions becomes: how do we honor our need to create structure and significance in our lives while also leaving space to honor our lives themselves?
A very wise and kind supervisor that I had in graduate school likened this balancing act to the medieval farming practice of three-crop rotation.
Three-crop rotation was a practice in which farmers would sow a winter crop. Once the winter crop was harvested, a spring crop would be sown. After the spring harvest, the field would lie fallow until it was time to sow the winter crop again. Rotating the crops in this way ensured that the nutrients that each crop leached from the soil had ample time to replenish between harvests. In addition, the diversity of the crops would leave the fields more resilient to pathogens.
Similarly, our soul has a winter crop. What exactly this crop comprises will differ from person to person, but for all of us, this is the hardy, strong crop, the rye and wheat that we sow to feed our families and to position ourselves in the world – to leave our mark, to create our meaning. This might be working at a job, or it might be volunteering, or it might be raising children or it might be creating art or training for a marathon – in short, it is what people mean when they ask: “and what do you do?”
Our soul also has a spring crop. Again, what this crop is will be different for each individual. But these are the oats, the barley – the delicious fruit that we sow to nourish our soul, to fill up the life we’ve created through the winter crop. This might be spending time with a significant other. Or reading a poem. Or taking a yoga class. Snuggling a child, or a pet. Belly laughing with a friend. Going to the movies. Hiking in the woods.
Finally, our soul needs to lie fallow. We all need moments of slackening, of sagging, of numbing, of hitting the pause button in our brains. This might be watching a mindless television show. Or eating a second bowl of ice cream. Or doodling around online, or playing Candy Crush. It is this last piece of the crop rotation that we often either don’t do at all, or we do too much of and then feel guilty. But this fallowness is necessary. It is important. And it is healthy, as long as we are able to find a balance among our three crops.
I often ask the people that I work with to take a piece of paper, divide it into three columns, and make a list of what things in their lives are winter crop, spring crop, and a fallow field. And then I ask them to take that list home and put it somewhere where they will see it every day. That’s all. There’s no need to embark on a big self-improvement project (that would be too much winter crop!). The list’s only job is to serve as a reminder of the things we need in order to cultivate a nourished, balanced soul, and thus to sow the seeds of a more mindful living, a living that honors our lives themselves.