Mindfulness teachers the world over are instructing their students to stop trying and just BE. But how in the world could sitting meditation, or just sitting there doing (almost) nothing be of any benefit? If I don’t like my situation, shouldn’t I DO something to change my situation?
How can it be that one attains virtuous qualities by letting go of expectations, by letting go of trying? How does trying get in the way of achievement?
On a Zoom call with one of my mentors recently, he reminded me very directly, “We are not trying to do anything or make anything happen,” this is in regard to my current mindfulness teacher training, “Though, we are offering something. And students will get from the class what they need at that time. How could they not?”
In conventional school systems, teachers teach to clear objectives that students are expected to show competency of by a certain age or grade. I see this conditioning clearly carried over into the mindfulness classes I teach where participants ask repeatedly - from all different angles - "Am I doing the meditation right?" While the underlying question there could very well be, “Am I fulfilling the requirements of the course syllabus?”
Reassuringly, mindfulness meditation is a practice that is almost impossible to do wrong. Unless one is deliberately fantasizing and avoiding the meditation instructions, it can’t be done wrong! You can very well be sitting there and not meditating at all. But that is not doing the meditation incorrectly; that’s just not even putting forth the effort (more on effort in bit).
My mentor easily sniffed out that I was carrying over my school-teacher-ways into a mindfulness class for adults. I was wanting them to have particular insights about their own mind; I was wanting to hear them talk about the ephemerality of moment-to-moment experience.
Though, I was only fishing, striving for a specific outcome. And it is this very expectation for an outcome I’ve learned - and am continuing to learn - that gets in the way of our own development as wise, understanding, Homo Sapien Sapiens.
...if you want to be present later, practice being present now.
Which brings me back to my original claim: trying to make something happen serves as an impediment to our development toward sustainable well-being.
Trying to relax, for instance, is contradictory. How can trying/striving/doing live simultaneously with relaxing?
We do not fall asleep at night by trying to fall asleep. We create the conditions - a cool room, relative quiet, screens put away, a comfortable bed - for sleep to arrive naturally.
Trying takes energy. When energy is used in this way, at least some of our vision/perception is blocked or distorted. Having an agenda is akin to wearing blinders. A mental shift into acceptance creates space for learning and insight to take root and grow.
As soon as we are stuck in a belief that communicates something like, “I will not be able to relax until I finish _______.” or “Once __________ happens THEN I’ll be okay. (This may very well make sense and be unavoidable, particularly in life’s more extreme events where, say, there is some kind of harm being done, or one is working through the stages of grief.)
This kind of thinking reinforces a positionality that we are unable to be okay right now. Balance action with embodied presence (rather than constantly leaning forward toward an unknown outcome), and we waste less energy, feel less anxious, and well-being increases.
Peace can be found in washing the dishes, for example. Though, I know I have been guilty many a-time of rushing through the dishes with frenetic energy just so I can plop on the couch and scroll through my phone. But once I do plop down on the couch, I’m less able to relax, because the moments leading up to the couch-sitting was filled with that frenetic dish-washing energy. In other words, if you want to be present later, practice being present now.
Not trying doesn’t mean we don’t put forth effort right here and now. In fact, meditation practice - particularly in the beginning - takes a great deal of effort.
When we try to force something, we are at least a little off balance and ungrounded. When we are constantly leaning forward, even the slightest stumble can knock us over.
Trying (or striving), on the other hand, implies an expectation of arriving at a particular outcome. A kind of "wise effort" cares more about moving in the appropriate direction rather than arriving at a specific destination. I’m not trying to get to Vancouver, I just want to make sure I’m heading north. I don’t want to be more patient in just a few areas of my life, I want to continually be more patient in any situation I’m not feeling so.
In the early 2010s when my one concern in life was to be happy, guess what, I wasn’t happy. Then soon after I began meditating, I made the decision to stop using the word, happy, altogether. And guess what? I became much happier because I stopped trying so hard to be happy. That very effort to expect to be happy at a later time only reinforced the belief I wasn’t - and couldn’t be - happy right here, right now!
In my experience, developing psychologically (and spiritually, for that matter) takes a great deal of precision, balance, and wise effort. Again, effort in this case is different than trying. Which I associate more with striving, grasping, or forcing. When we try to force something, we are at least a little off balance and ungrounded. When we are constantly leaning forward, even the slightest stumble can knock us over.
Even as I write this, I notice waves of forcing and trying, hoping that these words land for readers in a meaningful way. But taking a pause to allow that feeling to pass reminds me that this is an offering. It reminds me that I have no control over how any one person receives these words. And that is a much better feeling, like opening the front door and the back door, an openness arises for the arrival of more possibilities, as well as the exit of unhelpful beliefs!
All these words I'm using - trying, striving, doing - are not inherently bad, of course. But with enough awareness we can learn when trying, striving, doing, has become more of a hindrance than a support. When we see this activity clearly, with mindfulness, frenetic doing transforms into wise effort.