A Skeptical Look at ‘Balance’

April 16, 2012

One popular concept in the New Age is balance. It's a buzzword that, like natural, is universally desirable but poorly defined. Pills offer emotional balance, books offer spiritual balance, alternative medical therapies offer chi or vibrational balance. The idea, of course, is that in a perfect world, everything is balanced or in equilibrium. People seek innumerable physical and metaphysical methods to bring "balance" to their lives. Balance suggests an even, equitable, harmonious, or natural division between two substances, states, or conditions.

Humans seem to seek and love simplicity. We like dualism and dichotomies; we like good and bad, ying and yang, male and female, East and West, heaven and earth, reality and fantasy, skeptics and believers, balance and imbalance. These categories are convenient, but they are also profoundly vague, superficial, and misleading. The world simply isn't divided into two polar opposites. Yes, there are men and women; there are also gays, transvestites, transsexuals, transgenders, and children born with both genders (hermaphrodites). What is good or ethical in one situation may be bad or unethical in another. As a society we believe that killing is wrong yet our government executes convicted prisoners and kills both innocent and guilty in wartime on our behalf.

Some traditional polar opposites are not really opposites at all upon further reflection. For example, it's been pointed out that love is not necessarily the opposite of hate. Both can be seen as polar opposite strong emotions, but if loving someone is caring for them deeply, then the opposite would be apathy, not caring for them at all. Love and hate can commingle in emotions toward a person because they share many attributes. But apathy cannot exist with love or hate, making that a suitable candidate for a counterbalance. If you are trying to find a balance between love and hate, for example, you may be wasting your time trying to balance the wrong opposite, if you catch my meaning. Even "black and white" is not so black and white; counterintuitively, black is actually not all colors combined but instead the absence of color, while white is all colors.

It seems very limited and closed-minded to ignore all the wondrous complexity and shades of grey in the world in favor of a binary bias. For me, it's just those borders, those divisions, those seams that make life fascinating. I like the fact that people and things are not pigeonholed into A or B and we can celebrate individuality and diversity.

I remember watching the remarkable 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, in which director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass cinematically meditate on man's influence on nature and modern technology. The film is mesmerizing and essentially plotless photography showing majestic vistas and landscapes contrasted with cities and Los Angeles freeways. I was quite impressed when I first saw it, and it remains a groundbreaking film. For all its intentions, though, the film provides a very narrow (dare I say unbalanced?) view of the world. Film critic Roger Ebert pointed this out in his review, noting that "Although a Hopi word is used to evoke unspoiled nature, no Hopis are seen, and the contrast in the movie doesn't seem to be between American Indian society and Los Angeles expressways, but between expressways and a beautiful world empty of man....If the people in all those cars on all those expressways are indeed living crazy lives, their problem is not the expressway (which is all that makes life in L.A. manageable) but perhaps social facts such as unemployment, crime, racism, drug abuse, and illiteracy-issues so complicated that a return to nature seems like an elitist joke at their expense."

Today many people go to New Age practitioners to get their chakras, chi, feng shui fields, or auras balanced. The idea of health being a state of balance has a long history, much of it mired in antiquated medical practice and belief. Ancient people used to believe that disease was caused by an imbalance of fluids in the body called humors. There were four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. Working under this premise, physicians treated patients by trying to restore harmony and balance among the humors. Bloodletting was a common treatment (veins would be opened with knives and leeches applied to sick patients), along with the use of emetics, laxatives, and purgatives. A minority of patients (those who did not die from severe blood loss or infection) recovered and thanked the doctors. So strong was the faith in the humors and balances that the great loss of life was attributed to the original disease, not the treatments. 

There is an attractive simplicity to the humor model, though it is obviously incorrect and outdated. If you go to a doctor complaining of illness, perhaps not even the worst quack will search for an imbalance of the humors. Yet many alternative medicine practices seek to balance not the humors but other energies or fluids just as unknown to science and medicine. Repeated scientific studies have failed to prove that the human aura, chi, or energy field even exist, much less are subject to diseases-causing imbalances. Alternative medical healers will simply insist that it's true because that's what they have been taught, and they "feel the energies" and don't need the "medical establishment" to validate their approach anyway. If the consequences of their treatment were as severe as their humor-balancing ancestors, they would be sued for malpractice or jailed for gross negligence.

It is medically true that "imbalances" can cause disease in some cases, but not in the way usually assumed. If one wishes to view the correct functioning of an organ as being in "balance" one certainly can, but it is not a medically accurate nor useful label. A kidney or lung that is not working properly or is cancerous is simply that; there is no "imbalance" of substance or energy that need be-or can be-corrected.

Balance also implies a "normal" baseline state of affairs-but how do we know what that state of affairs is? For example, we are currently living between ice ages. Earth has had about ten ice ages in the past 10 million years, ten cycles in the past when much of the flora and fauna died off as Earth got colder. Ice ages come imperceptibly slowly, but imagine if the process was speeded up. What if Earth got dramatically cooler and creatures had to migrate toward the equator or die off? Most people would probably see this as a dangerous and extreme imbalance of nature. Yet the impending ice age would be perfectly natural and in fact correcting the last "imbalance" to begin the cycle anew. Just as night is not an imbalance to day, the next catastrophic ice age will not be an imbalance to Earth's natural cycles. Our human scale of reference is simply too tiny to judge, and our superficial ideas of balance are largely arbitrary.

Of course there's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of balance--when used to simply mean "moderation," for example, it's a useful idea. But it's a deceptively fuzzy concept that has led many people astray.