Keeping Your Balance with a Wellness Wheel

 I love the word balance. It conjures up images of living well – with strength and resilience, enjoying the best times and transcending the tough times. For most of us, balance isn’t spontaneously achieved. It takes awareness, sustained effort, and continual adjustment over time. One tool I have used and taught to others in my work is the use of the “Wellness Wheel.”

Wellness Wheel

The Wellness Wheel incorporates a holistic notion of health, recognizing that people are multi-dimensional, with a variety of needs. It suggests that being healthy involves an integrated combination of different domains. Individuals may have varying words to label these, but they typically include: social, physical, emotional, intellectual, environmental, and spiritual. It is important to work within each domain to optimize overall health. Impairment in any area has the potential to impact all the other areas. When that happens, a person may eventually feel like they are falling apart.

Think of a time in your life when one of these areas was even temporarily compromised. Then try to identify how this impacted the other areas.  Neglecting even one dimension will often contribute to problems in the others. It is important to intervene in this process of deterioration before our problems become so big and pervasive that they feel insurmountable.

For example, I have a friend I’ll call “Jennifer” who is smart, hard working, and quite capable. However, she is struggling to perform well in her work and feels unhappy in her personal life. It seems to me that the source may be her tendency to neglect the intellectual dimension of the wellness wheel. Jennifer doesn’t readily seek growth – rarely reading or taking on new ventures, risks, trainings, or challenges.  Watching TV is her only hobby. Maintaining her routine is paramount to her. Due to her tendency to resist new ideas and change, she doesn’t explore new relationships (social realm), challenge herself to a higher fitness level (physical), or seek more stimulating surroundings (environmental). She also acts overly sensitive to criticism (emotional). It is sad to observe that Jennifer’s life is not what it could be. She trudges through each day feeling dissatisfied with every area of her life.

What if Jennifer sought out some intellectual challenges? It could start with simply taking a class or reading a new book. Any positive results would likely spill over into the other life areas, and start producing changes in those as well.  With a few small steps, there is potential for her to be much happier and more fulfilled.

When I experienced depression 10 years ago I went through an even more extreme version of this phenomena. For me, one of the earliest signs of trouble was in the physical realm: I developed severe insomnia. This was combined with another physical ingredient: my genetic vulnerability toward mental illness. Another factor was the emotional/psychological realm; I wasn’t effectively managing stress. This played out in the context of a cascade of life changes that left me bewildered – without any stability. By the time the depression was full blown, every area of my life was profoundly and horribly impacted.

Getting educated about wellness and being proactive and self-aware can help you avoid the trouble I had. You may want to start with assessing your life by examining each area of the wellness wheel.

To start with, identify what you currently do to support wellness in each domain.  You may even want to rate your level of satisfaction on a 1 – 10 scale. Then identify the things that undermine your wellness pertaining to that area. Finally, brainstorm the things you can begin doing (or stop doing) that will contribute to a greater fullness and improved functioning in that area.

If looking at all dimensions is overwhelming, just start with one. As I described above, making a change in one can start a domino effect and lead to enhancements in other dimensions. This can be the beginning of a powerful process of change for you.

In addition to working holistically within each life domain, two additional variables are critical to wellness: stability and change. They sound like opposites but they are actually dialectical. By that I mean, that for one to be fully expressed, the other is equally essential. Neither can be optimized without the other.

Stability provides a strong foundation to grow from – a base of continuity. It enhances a sense of the core self. Change enables growth and development – the part of you that is evolving and becoming. Consider my friend Jennifer, clinging too tightly to stability, and not open enough to change. How stifling! On the other hand, consider me at the onset of my depression, facing so much change I lost my footing. Both Jennifer and I need balance. When you can strike a nice balance between stability and change, you will likely enjoy a quality of life that has a necessary level of safety but is also vibrant and rich with vitality.

I chose the seashore image at the top of this blog because it represents this crucial dynamic. The rocks signify stability and the waves signify change. The interaction of the two forces creates something beautiful – simultaneously calming and energizing. It suggests the value of embracing what is ancient and eternal as well as what is new and emerging. An exciting synergy of the two is how I want to live my life. Working holistically on wellness and striving for both stability and change are powerful ways that you and I can be well and stay well.


Mother Theresa








People are often unreasonable, illogical,

And self-centered

Forgive them anyway

If you are kind people may accuse you of

Selfish, ulterior motives

Be kind anyway

If you are successful, you will win some false

friends and some true enemies

Succeed anyway

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you

Be honest and frank anyway

What you spend years building, someone

could destroy overnight

Build anyway

If you find serenity and happiness, they may

be jealous

Be happy anyway

The good you do today, people will often

forget tomorrow

Do good anyway

Give the world the best you have, it may

Never be enough

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway

You see, in the final analysis, it is between

you and God

It was never between you and them anyway

-Frank M. Keith


This song had a profound impact on me as I re-invested in life and re-created myself following my year of depression. After a year lost in despair, I discovered a new sense of vitality. In the dawn of my recovery, I had the unbridled enthusiasm of the delivered – determined to live my life with spirit and passion. Having come out of a pit of darkness and into the light, I felt an urgency to live life to its fullest, invest thoroughly in my relationships, and to apply myself wholeheartedly to my work.

I was thrilled to be back in my professional field as a social worker. But it seemed my vibrancy was an affront to a couple burned-out and disillusioned people in my new workplace. It somehow made them want to become my detractors. They distrusted my positive spirit and questioned my intentions. They even did things that directly undermined my work. This is when the song Anyway took on a very personal meaning. It spoke a healing truth to me – helping me stay on track – despite the forces working against me.

I imagine many of you have been in situations in which, despite your best efforts, you were not embraced or accepted. Occasionally, life is like this. During these times we need to discover our strongest selves, and not just resort to what comes most easily – shrinking back.

Anyway is performed as a song by Suzzy and Maggie Roche on their CD Zero Church. There is a fascinating story behind it. Anyway was found posted on the wall next to Mother Teresa’s bed at her Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Calcutta after her death.

Mother Teresa was a humble nun whose vision was to extend dignity to the poorest of the poor in India. As her missions became successful and world famous, she faced many critics who questioned her goals and her motives.

I imagine the Anyway poem resonated with her, given what she faced and what she accomplished. Anyway has not only been an important credo for me since I came upon it years ago, I have played the song many times for others who were similarly touched. I have listened to it when I felt mistreated, misunderstood, or blocked in carrying out what I knew were good purposes. The message of the poem always renews a right spirit within me. At times, we all need regeneration. Even Mother Teresa needed that.

The song speaks about the power of forgiveness, kindness, and pursuing one’s purpose, despite the barriers the world throws in one’s way. It is easier and more natural to get even – to stick it to a person who has hurt you, when you have the chance to do so.

But there is a spiritual depth in rising above it, and not returning evil for evil. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals his head.” (Rom 12:20). I believe Forgiveness is the highest expression of a spiritual life. This song is about forgiveness. It also is clear about whom we answer to: God, not man.

Mother Teresa is known worldwide as an icon of compassion and tireless advocate for the poor, yet she secretly battled for years through a terrible dark night of the soul. She deeply questioned her faith, her value, and her purpose. Her letters to her superiors, which she never wanted published, reveal her interior life and painful spiritual journey, and the torment and disillusionment she endured. It was decided that her writings were too important to go unpublished, due to their capacity to reach people who struggle; and to provide them consolation and encouragement by revealing her internal struggles, even amidst a great and noble mission. They did that for me.

The book Mother Teresa; Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta was published on the tenth anniversary of her death. I read it and was deeply moved.

Consider this passage in which she asks of God, “What are you doing, my God, to one so small?” In a letter to her superior, Father Picachy she writes, “Thank God all went well yesterday, Sisters, children, the lepers and sick and our poor families have all been so happy and contented this year. A real Christmas.  Yet within me – nothing but darkness, conflict, loneliness so terrible …”

In another letter she writes to Father, “It has been so very hard. That terrible longing keeps growing – and I feel as if something will break in me one day – and then that darkness, that loneliness, that feeling of terrible aloneness. Heaven from every side is closed … gone is the love for anything and anybody. – and yet – I long for God.”

Another passage reads, “… Aloneness is so great – from within and from without I find no one to turn to. He has taken not only spiritual – but even the human help. I can speak to no one and even if I do – nothing enters my soul.– If there is hell – this must be one. How terrible it is to be without God – no prayer – no faith – no love.  The only thing that still remains – is the conviction that the work is His – that the Sisters and the Brothers are His. And I cling to this as the person having nothing clings to the straw – before drowning …”

Much of what she described in her letters sounds like a form of depression, but rather than impacting her like major depression, it was expressed in the spiritual realm.

I respect Mother Teresa’s humanitarianism even more, knowing the extent to which she suffered for years from utter desolation and self-doubt. She quietly carried a cross of interior darkness, yet never stopped doing her good work. Her goal was to bring light to those living in darkness, but when all seemed to be in place, she was faced with an internal darkness that became the greatest trial of her life. That trial ultimately fueled a fundamental aspect of her mission.

In the end, she understands that without her interior darkness, without knowing such a longing for love and the pain of being unloved, and without this radical identification with the poor, she would not have won over their trust and their hearts to the extent that she did.

Her darkness became her greatest blessing; her “deepest secret” was indeed her greatest gift. The depth and meaning of her mystical experience is portrayed in this book, and I recommend it.

I hope that, like Mother Teresa, despite how you feel at any given time, and despite what surrounds you …  you find the ability to forgive, be kind, succeed, be honest, build, be happy, do good, and give your best. Anyway.


Let Your Heart Be Broken

Nobody wants a broken heart – this is an organ we safeguard protectively. But as I sat in the pew recently at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, listening to a powerful challenge by Marilee Pierce Dunker, daughter of World Vision founder, Bob Pierce … I decided I was hearing the best advice I had heard in a long time. She urged us, “Let your heart be broken – by the things that break the heart of God.

As she spoke, I felt a stirring inside me, and thought, “What breaks both my heart and God’s? And what might this require of me?”

Marilee described growing up in the 1950’s, with a father who was heartbroken by the suffering of children in impoverished countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Somalia. He didn’t simply indulge a mournful compassion for them or feel satisfied after fervently praying for them. No … he put hands and feet on his prayers.

He made it his life work to create and administer a humanitarian organization dedicated to fighting poverty and injustice – one that would eventually support the transformation of the lives of millions of children and communities in underdeveloped countries.

In the 60 years since its inception, World Vision’s work has prevented countless deaths from preventable causes such as hunger and treatable illnesses. In 2010, sponsors around the world cared for over 4 million children by providing sponsorships of children. These sponsorships provide basic necessities that help children achieve their potential by offering access to clean water, better nutrition and agricultural assistance, basic health care and immunization, school fees and materials, and economic development opportunities.

Not everyone can take on such an ambitious vision. But everyone has a heart, one that can be broken for the benefit of others. What cause, problem, or purpose is your heart breaking for? And what are you willing to do about it? As the famous African American preacher T. Garrot Benjamin is fond of saying, “Find out what makes you cry, and pursue it. This will be your life’s work.”

What makes you cry? What inspires your passion to get involved and engage in change to improve the lives of others? This is precisely the issue that will compel you to do whatever it takes to succeed and to overcome every barrier in your path. The world will then be a better place because you lived.

When you let your heart be broken … you care so deeply, commit so passionately, sacrifice so freely, and give so generously that anything is possible. Eventually, you improve the world around you, and equally important, you improve yourself.

You might be arguing, “But, I’m not that talented; I have real flaws.” When you allow yourself to be fueled with what I call “pit bull determination,” your inadequacies and weaknesses become irrelevant. You simply transcend them.

Consider Moses. An awkward man with a speech impediment, he asked of God, “Who am I . . . ?” Despite his exile and refugee status, Moses had something important to do, he accepted the challenge, and God equipped him.

It took me only a moment to answer Ms. Dunker’s question: What breaks my heart? My heart is broken by the suffering of people living with mental illness … especially when it results in suicide. Suicide surely breaks the heart of God. Depression is a treatable illness, and suicide can be prevented. Thousands of lives are cut short every year by suicide. More people die by suicide in the world every year (883,715) than by war, murder, and forces of nature combined (669,956). [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease 2010].

I have been trapped in that dark and desolate place, believing there was no way out. Yet, by some miracle, I was blessed with recovery. In a chapter of my memoir on my experience with depression, I write about how in the short period since writing the book, my life has been touched by 3 suicides. Tragically, each time I go back to edit the manuscript, I have had to increase that number. After a mother of a 16-year old who hung himself on Thanksgiving presented at my office and shared her anguish with me, I had to change that number to 6. God’s heart is breaking. What am I willing to do?

Having gone through severe depression myself, I have found that this is an area that my own testimonial can be used to help others. Public speaking does not come easily for me; in fact I have struggled with public speaking anxiety for decades. But, despite that, and because I care about this issue so profoundly, I have found the courage to speak out on this subject.

I have a wonderful quote hanging in my office, “Speak your mind, even when your voice shakes.” I enlist this sound advice when I share my depression story to educate the public about mental illness and to help overcome the stigma associated with it. So what if my voice shakes? I have an important message, and though my struggle to speak eloquently humbles me, it won’t stop me. Is it difficult? Yes. Am I tempted to say, “Let someone else do it, someone who is more polished and poised?” Absolutely. But, when you feel a calling about something, you just do it. And somehow, every speech I have given  has gone surprisingly well.

This week was intense for me, and I am bone tired. But mine is the satisfying kind of tiredness – the result of worthwhile toil. I had two occasions to “speak my mind” and share my story of depression to reach out to people living with mental illness and the professionals who treat them. It was exhilarating to feel such an intimate connection with members of the audiences, and discover how deeply I was able to help them. Our shared stories, our united quest for dignity, and my  own triumph over depression provided hope and encouragement. It made me feel that my devastating illness had some redeeming value for others. In this, my long held prayer was answered, “Lord, let my life be a reflection of your power to restore the broken.”

Paradoxically, when I let my heart be broken, it is healed in the most powerful way.

Create for Life

We were born to create. The creative drive – to make something out of nothing from our own sustained effort and imagination – is woven into the fiber of our being. If we accept the axiom of God as creator, and that we are made in His image, then we too are creators!

This goes beyond our most fundamental instinct: to perpetuate our species through procreation. We create because it nourishes us, sustains us, motivates us, heals us, defines us, and connects us to each other and to God.  Through creative expression we begin to understand both our selves and our world.

How is this done? I prefer a broad definition of creativity: any form of self-expression. While for many people avenues such as music, art, or writing are the most satisfying, there are countless other methods of creating that are readily available and deeply satisfying. And they are all fueled by artistic vision.

Think about what gives you joy, wonder, and a sense of accomplishment. You undoubtedly apply creative energy in these activities.

My father loves anything with an engine, and he has always used his creativity to build motorized contraptions beyond the wide-eyed comprehension of people around him. My mother created through gardening, fashioning the most beautiful rock garden in our neighborhood – the envy of the neighbor ladies and her fellow rock garden club members. My son writes poetry – deep and enigmatic, the kind his parents struggle to understand. His professors applaud and say “he has an old soul.” My daughter can write with humor, whimsy, and originality. Her unique way of seeing is evident in her insightful stories. My husband can craft a sermon with theology, language, illustrations, and oratorical flourish that make craggy old men cry. What an inventive preacher!

Despite my conventional appearance I am a “right brain” person who approaches my work with a distinct “differentness.” My leadership style has been described as “thinking outside the box.” What strengthens this method is my proclivity to embrace my creative flow. I am in love with my work  when I am so engaged that I forget about time. It is exciting and energizing to create something new. This makes every day unique, and fuels me through the unavoidable minutiae of community mental health services.

But matters as simple as playing with a child, telling a joke, cooking a meal, or decorating a room can invite creative expression. How about choosing one’s clothes in the morning? Artistic considerations are made with each decision about color, design, shape, form, and texture. Every mood can inspire a new pairing of clothes and accessories. The possibilities are endless … especially if you have a closet as jam-packed as mine!

I recently spent a year writing my memoir about my experience with major depression. This was the most sustained creative process I have ever engaged in. Now finished, I miss the discovery and delight that come from taking facts and turning them into beauty. The creative challenge of selecting a structure, images, symbols, metaphors, syntax, and meaning behind my story was like formulating my own universe. I can imagine the otherworldly transcendence that fiction writers must feel. Writing this blog provides some of that same satisfaction.

Creativity is a natural way of life and it can be a spiritual practice. I learned about this in the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Her work involves a self-discovery and renewal process to recover one’s creative vision. Ms. Cameron works with people interested in practicing the art of creative living. She teaches tools that dissolve blocks to creative capacities. She helps people develop and maintain their creativity regardless of their vocation: artists, painters, filmmakers, homemakers, lawyers, social workers … anyone.

One of her key disciplines is the practice of the “morning pages.” This involves starting the day writing three longhand pages, strictly stream-of-consciousness. It is designed to be a form of “brain drain;” there is no wrong way to do morning pages. They are not meant to be art, or even writing. Morning pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, silly, stupid, or weird to be included. The goal is to evade the censor; there are no mistakes in writing morning pages. The logic brain must stand aside and let the artist brain play. It is the triumph of the right-brain over the left-brain.

Several years ago something powerful happened while I was doing my morning pages. I became aware of an area of my life that needed to change, and I suddenly had the clarity and imagination to envision it. A creative and emotional block was powerfully removed. And then it was inevitable; I just did it. Consequently, my life has been much richer. (The specific tale is one for another blog post). I am so glad that I opened myself up to the creative process of the morning pages.

In support of being well and staying well, I urge you: explore many avenues for creativity. Embrace them vigorously and consistently. You will find your life enriched, and you will arrive in places you would have never imagined. Create for life.

“I want to live like a river flows … carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”

 -John O-Donahue, Irish poet and priest






I learned a number of lessons after recovering from depression 11 years ago. When I came out of that devastating illness, I vowed to do everything in my power to never allow depression to take hold of me again. I committed myself to embracing life and health with every cell of my being. It was then that certain wellness principles took on a life and death importance to me.

Surprisingly enigmatic; they are simple yet profound, commonplace yet difficult to master.  They incorporate the whole self: the mind, body, and spirit. In short, they are principles and practices that help me stay balanced. Making them a part of my everyday life not only keeps me “on top of my game”, it helps me be who God intended me to be. I plan to write about a number of these lessons in this blog. But if I had to pick my most central recovery lesson it would be this: the pathway to joy is gratitude.

Joy emerges when gratitude is practiced. Gratitude is not something I simply have or don’t have – it is a mindset I cultivate. When thoughts of entitlement or resentment creep in, I chase them away with gratitude. “I deserve greater success, or more money, or more acceptance by others” is replaced with “I am grateful for a meaningful job, my physical needs being met, and the connections of friends and family.”

Gratitude (mind) can be approached with the discipline similar to that of exercise (body) or prayer (spirit). With consistent vigorous exercise, you become physically strong and the results are broadly experienced in all aspects of your body. A new lifestyle takes shape; a healthier, more balanced and integrated you emerges.

Or, consider prayer. Through the discipline of praying frequently and in all circumstances, eventually a transformation happens: one’s life becomes a prayer. Prayer is no longer a garment to be put on when the weather requires it. Somehow it morphs into a second skin – inseparable from the self, providing a layer of being that brings acceptance and meaning to all of life’s experiences.

In a similar way, maintaining a grateful heart and honoring oneself can be transformational. How can gratitude be practiced? Here is a simple daily meditation to get you started:

Each day, complete this gratitude / honor exercise: write down three things you are grateful for, and three things you honor yourself for:

I am grateful for …

I am grateful for …

I am grateful for …


I honor myself for  …

I honor myself for …

I honor myself for …

Through this simple practice, you are training your mind to appreciate, and to recognize the things that you deserve to honor yourself for. It doesn’t matter how great or small the items are, simply that you consistently and genuinely strive for gratitude and honoring of yourself in all circumstances.

Eventually, you may find, as I have, that you will not limit yourself to this short list of things to be grateful for, or to honor yourself for.  A mindset of gratitude and honoring will take over, and joy will be the result. And this, I know to be true: the pathway to joy, is gratitude.