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How to Reset and Find Balance

Insight from the Holy Mountain

The trouble with being in the rat race is that even when you win, you’re still a rat.

-- Lily Tomlin

Climbing up the craggy mountainside, immersed in the pristine atmosphere of the sacred monasteries of Mount Athos, my college friend and I hurried, jumping over huge rocks. We knew that the sounding of the semantron meant that the main gates to the monasteries would soon be bolted shut for the night. The semantron is a wooden block instrument struck with a hollow wooden drumstick sounding out to the beat of the Greek word talanta, meaning “talents.” As monks are called into the monastery at the end of the day, the continuous rhythm of the instrument asks them: “Your talents; your talents; what have you done this day with your talents?”

At first glance, it may seem a bit silly for a monk--always so deep in the solitude of spiritual devotion ¾ to contemplate how he had spent his day. Had the monk not already committed to a vocation? Wasn’t his routine already established? Weren’t his talents, and his use of them obvious? Of course, the questions probe much deeper: it asks, “How have your unique abilities, taken hold today? Have you planted seeds according to your calling and nurtured them well?”

Often we lose sight and perspective of our self, life, and purpose. Our work--especially when we consider it an art--is a beloved, if not sacred, aspect of our lives. Our talents are our unique gifts that achieve their fullest expression when manifested in balancing commitments of our personal life and professional life. The solution for finding this balance confronts us with our commitments to our self, others, and God in the quest for realizing our potential.

In our highly competitive society, the demands of pursuing our talents often clash with the responsibilities of family life. As two income homes are the norm and women and men increasingly share family responsibilities, we all have to look within and assess the value and meaning of our choices and our commitments to work and to our personal life. This search calls us to look at the use of our talents in a deeper, more heartfelt way.

Of course, there are only so many hours in a day. For most people the majority of those hours are dedicated to work. Finding an ideal work-life balance is usually not about reducing the number of hours spent at work but rather managing personal time. Do you feel like you are recovering from the demands of your job when you come home? Are you able to come through and enjoy your family obligations without feeling preoccupied with work? There is no single work-balance equation that works for everyone, but if you sense that your work obligations take priority over your personal life and that you are losing yourself, you may need to stop and consider your answer to the semantron.

Our choices for personal and professional life are not inherently right or wrong. They are often guided, however, by unconscious motivations, in addition to the more obvious forces of the physical and social pressures under which we find ourselves. In the pursuit of our goals, our decisions cannot be solely based on what appears attractive, the approval of confidantes, or even our own certain knowledge and needs—much less left to routine.

Our best guide comes from checking in to examine with we are true to our self True Self and our connections to others and God. By considering our decisions against these criteria, we can confirm that we are making the right choices for our life and the use of our talents. Like those monks in Mount Athos, we would do well to check in regularly and answer to the beating semantron, recounting if we have used our God-given talents in a manner that best responds to our gifts and the opportunities they invite for our life.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit, and

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