June 5, 2014

Cycles of Life

One of the most prolific and long-lasting bloggers and web writers is Steve Pavlina. Here is something he wrote over nine years ago that still resonates with me.

"A reader suggested I write about this topic: Explore the tension between being satisfied with what you have and your accomplishments vs. the desire to do better. Being too complacent would yield suboptimal results because you’re drifting and not getting close to your true potential. But push too hard, and you may never enjoy what you have and may burn yourself out. So it would seem the optimal solution lies somewhere in the middle between the extremes.

On the one hand, you have complacency. Think of this in positive terms as enjoying what you have and being at peace with your current situation. And on the other hand, we have ambition and effort, the desire to keep moving and to improve yourself.

The perceived conflict comes about as a choice between here and there. Stay put or move on. Which is better? Is a perpetual balance between these two extremes the right answer? Like 50% complacency and 50% ambition? Let’s try a perspective shift … one that eliminates the problem entirely.

This problem arises from the assumption of a static view of life — that every moment is the same as every other, that if being ambitious is the right choice now, it will still be the right choice tomorrow.

Life isn’t static though. When you take a snapshot “here is where I am now” view of your life, you reinforce a flawed view of reality. Life is always in motion. Look at the cells in your body. If they ever go into a static state and stop moving, you’re dead. They’re doing different things at different times. Sometimes your body must shut down to fight illness; other times it’s happy to move around and get some exercise. There’s no single right thing for your cells to be doing at all times. Movement and change are integral to life itself.

In life there’s no status quo. Think about the momentum of different areas of your life right now. What’s expanding? What’s contracting? Instead of thinking of complacency vs. ambition as some percentage mixture in the present, think of long-term cycles of expansion vs. contraction. Cycles of ebb and flow are a natural part of life.

Notice what type of cycle you’re in right now. If you’re in an expansion cycle, then push your ambition as far as it will take you, and forget about complacency. If you’re in a contraction cycle, then take a break from ambition and spend time on your inward development. Sometimes these cycles last for years. From about mid-2004 onward, I’ve been in a massive expansion phase — trying new things, meeting new people, starting a new business. Before that I was in a contraction phase for many months, thinking and contemplating, doing lots of reading, turning inward, reassessing my priorities.

There are even cycles within cycles, like periods of short-term contraction during a long-term expansion period. It’s like the stock market. You have long-term bull and bear markets and short-term bull and bear days and weeks. At the time of this posting, it appears we’re having some bear days in an otherwise bull market. Cycles within cycles.

So just as a stock investor needs to know when to buy and sell, you must listen to the signals from your own life (both internal and external) to learn when it’s time to expand or contract. Every day is different. Sometimes buying/expansion is right, and other times selling/contraction is right. You don’t balance the two. You cycle between them.

One of my favorite treatments of this subject can be found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. The whole book of Ecclesiastes is an interesting story about a man searching for the ultimate source of joy in life, eventually succeeding by identifying it as the fulfillment that comes from hard work.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace.

Life is constantly cycling through expansion and contraction phases. Sometimes we’re able to go out and do no wrong. Other times we run home licking our wounds. By recognizing what kind of cycle you’re in, you can flow with it instead of fighting it. In a contraction phase, this means spending a lot of time thinking and journaling, reading, working on personal development to build your skills, going to school, spending lots of time with family. In an expansion phase, it means taking on some ambitious projects and stretching yourself, joining new clubs, meeting new people, taking on new responsibilities, enjoying new experiences.

What happens in your life when your decisions are out of phase with your current cycle? What happens to a stock investor whose decisions are out of phase with the market? Problems also occur when we get stuck in one phase for too long. A prolonged contraction phase can lead to depression (both in the stock market and in your personal life). A prolonged expansion phase can build stress and anxiety. Life requires cycles of exertion and rest — that’s what makes us stronger.

What is your life calling for right now? Should you be contracting or expanding? Is this the time to reinvent yourself in private or express yourself in public?"

This is not the type of post you can read quickly and move it. To get the most value from what Steve is saying, you'll need to think through his message and how it applies to your life. The pattern of life to be a series of cycles seems very true to me. How I apply that "truth" is still a work in progress.


  1. Thanks for sharing Bob -- some wonderful insights that I just shared with my network

    1. Great! Glad you found some value in Steve's thoughts.

  2. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is displayed prominently in my entryway. I think this retirement phase offers the luxury of going with the flow, although there was also a waxing and waning in the work setting as well. And the seasons offer some of those cycles as well. I feel like I'm in limbo right now, leaning toward the contracting vs expanding. I'm still recovering after the loss of a close family member; spring work is taking time & energy that is physically tiring yet healing. It's a time for reflection and rejuvenation for me. I did make a decision to resign from a committee that I was volunteering with - I will not continue out of this sense of obligation. I felt a weight lift just making that decision. Maybe it is a time of expansion within the contraction phase?

    1. Cycles within cycles, Mona.

      This post has been important to me. I recognize some important changes going on in my mindset and attitude toward various parts of my life. I just finished the book, Living the Quaker Way, which has hit me powerfully. Recommended by reader, RJ Walters, I am finding some important daily activities of mine being re-thought. I may be moving into a season of pruning in various parts of my life.

      Lots going on, that Steve Pavlina helped crystallize for me.

    My weekly "webinar" last night was about RE-FRESH-ing which seems to be a constantly on-going project. I liked to use a compass when I was in scouting and I got quite good at it. Navigating is an amazing subject... but none of those measurements are really worthwhile without some regular "checking" moments along our journey. And a constant willingness to "re-set" your directions isn't easy. Most of us just want a quick fix.

    The big question still seems to me to "find" what you are good "at" and then aggressively play there. I call it the "threads of interest" - those precious little whispers that just keep coming back to each of us. The WHATWEALLNEEDTODO.. list. We do get "signals" but the whole idea of doing sometning worthwhile is to grab and those interests and then do the "work-part" of going after the mastering something unique - before we are gone. That part I trust... Good Stuff - As Always Bob.

    1. Nice overview, Lew. As I begin my 14th year of retirement I am feeling the need to hit my REFRESH button to kick start my creativity and direction. Not sure what that means but I know it is time to make some changes.

  4. Great ideas, definitely something for me to think about at this time.

  5. Thoughtful piece.The comment "there is no status quo" hit home for me.. Ken and I have always had a life of change and "cycles.." things hardly stay the same for a long long time for us. We've had years we have had to pick up and move cross country for our education (with 3 cats and a kid in tow!!) I've gone back to school more than once, we have moved when the time seems right,even when it is a bit disruptive, and like Steve says, there are times of expansion and contraction..

    I think the key is just realizing that CHANGE is inevitable if you want to keep growing and enjoying life.The things I love to do now and different than the things I liked when I was 40. And hey! Friends of mine swore I could "never" live in the mountains full time, but I am taking my coffee on my porch with the elk and the deer and the birdsong this morning, happy as a clam, thank you very much!

    I say growing older and thriving takes COURAGE more than anything else..especially if one has been used to living a "status quo" life.But it is never to late to shake things up!!!!!!

    I can sense a lot of shift in your perspectives this past 6 months.. all the thoughts you're having are going to lead to something exciting!

    1. Very perceptive, Madeline. As I noted in my response to Lew's comment above, I am feeling a strong sense that it is time to reassess parts of my life and make some changes. I start my 14th year of retirement this month so I have been at this long enough to understand cycles and change.

      It seems as though ever 3-5 years I shake things up a bit and strike off in at least one new direction. Now, all I need to do if figure what that that means for me as I enter the second half of 2014.

  6. Since I have known you, you have given up the prison ministry, acquired a dog and joined the RV folks. I really thought you were about to end your blog at one time but now I think you will stick with it and maybe even join the speaker circuit. It will be interesting to see what comes next for you. I need a big shake up too, but right now I am sort of tired of analyzing my life. So I am going with the flow. I have even let go of some of the structure that I had created and thought I needed. Don't know whether this is good or bad but at the moment it is comfortable. My husband says that I laugh more.

    1. Laughing more is a good sign that you are in a good place at the moment...not perfect, but good.

      Both Betty and I have been reading " Living The Quaker Way," a book that seems to have grabbed both of us strongly. The chapters on simplicity, peace, and community have really spoken to us and are stimulating us to discuss some fundamental changes in our lifestyle.

      Yes, JudyC, I see this summer as being one of shifts.

  7. Sounds very exciting Bob ! The in between time when we just "don't know" is called "liminal space.." I am sure you've come across this term in your spiritual studies..google it and read about liminal space.. it helps me to remember that that space is sacred,during times when I can't figure out what the heck is supposed to come next--or what I want..


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