There’s a story told of a new student asking a venerable Tai Chi master ‘if I work really hard and diligently for the next 10 years will I become fully accomplished and a master like you?’ To which the master replies ‘if you try really hard it will take 20 years!’. I find this very encouraging. Most of us are used to succeeding through effort, and the virtue of striving and trying hard is one we all buy into. A friend recently said that a task she had completed had been so easy and effortless it couldn’t possibly be good. It’s like we don’t trust our natural capacity, the accumulation of skill, talent, knowledge and wisdom that comes to the fore when we get out of our own way. Mindfulness is about this very movement, allowing the wisdom or to pinch from Star Wars ‘the force’ that’s already within us to emerge. The capacity to be present, open heartedly sensitive to ourselves and others is really our true nature.
Maybe you think we would we all become a bit ‘blobby’, passive, inactive, or spaced out if we stopped trying so hard. On the contrary this way of being which mindfulness meditation invites us to explore releases the wellspring of aliveness that gets buried under all the ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ and pressure we put on ourselves to be better in some way. It’s a constant subtle (or not so subtle!) aggression against our bodies and minds. We ignore our need for rest, quiet, slowing down and keep pushing our bodies to their limits. Not that this is a choice for many of us – we work in companies where the expectation is 24hr 7 days a week accessibility, shorter breaks, zero hour contracts. We are all surviving in a system, the ‘Frantic world’ of Williams and Penman’s popular eponymous book.
But we also live within another system – our own bodies, hearts and minds. Mindfulness is an invitation to listen to this psycho-physical organism that we are. This natural system that generally responds much better to gentleness than force. I recently expressed to a massage therapist my amazement at how she sustained giving such strong treatments all day long. She explained you have to wait until the body yields otherwise its exhausting. We know that don’t we, that we thrive when someone encourages us rather than barks orders or micro-manages us. Try it in your meditation, inviting practice with with your kind, patient and encouraging inner voice. Like you would support and encourage someone you really cared about.
It’s the kind of effort that’s more like turning towards the direction you want to go in, and then allowing your natural interest, alertness and vitality to guide your movement. So that meditation and then all your living becomes less of a forcing and more of an unfolding. Could we wait patiently alongside our resistance, our frustration, our confusion, our disappointment? Instead of always ‘trying’ to move it along, get through it, push it away. The first brief but spot on advice I got from a meditation teacher 20 years ago was ‘you don’t need to try so hard’. What she could see was me sweating away on my cushion (it was North India in July, monsoon season!) vivid tension across my face as I strained to ‘get it’. To find that elusive inner peace and calm. Trying hard to let it be, ha! Her directness has stayed with me like a mantra. Whenever I recognise that strain creeping in I release a little and the relief is palpable. It means softening my hands, allowing the shoulders to drop, stretching my jaw a few times…and giving myself an inner smile. And then the mental noise gets a little more peaceful, and I hear myself saying ‘it’s ok, you can let go’. It’s like water, slowly working its way around and through rock. It takes time, constancy and patience. So as you continue your mindful journey, moment by moment, day by day, make your effort gentle – because as Jack Kornfield says:
“We do not have to improve ourselves; we just have to let go of what blocks our heart.”