Effort and Ease

Last month, I wrote about developing a daily practice. This month, I want to address what happens on the journey once we begin.  Whether your goal is to develop a daily practice of some sort, or to finish a project, or to change a habit, I hope this discussion of the paradox of effort and effortlessness will be of support.

Even if you’re on the right track,
you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

Will Rogers

Every vacation or free day, when creative moments seem to stretch into hours, I wonder why it is so hard to maintain the ease of this rhythm throughout the rest of the year.  Can’t we be productive while moving at a pace a little slower and more relaxed?  These are the thoughts that led me to think about effort and ease – the time for climbing the mountain, and the time for stopping along the way to enjoy the view.

We all know that it takes effort to achieve any goal, while too much effort can burn us out or wear away our willingness to persevere. Taking it easy, welcoming ease into the effort, is a way to both protect our bodies and spirits while also maintaining the forward movement of the effort. One important element is to know yourself…what is the balance that works best for you, and how can you support that balance?

My yoga instructor often invites us, at the beginning of class, to check in with our bodies to clarify what we need in the class.  Have we been active and running around all day?  Then we may need to calm the body, relax the muscles.  Have we been sedentary most of the day?  Then we may need to challenge and activate the body, choosing different postures or intensity of effort.  How tired are we?  Does the mind need to be more focused or more at ease to be present in the moment? So it is in yoga class and in life.

Jon Kabat-Zinn writes beautifully about the paradox of effort and effortlessness in the practice of mindfulness meditation. He describes how many people sense that they cannot meditate because what happens when they pay attention to their breath is not what they expect, so they don’t feel like they get to the place they are expecting to go.  But meditation is a practice of non-doing, of not trying to get someplace else, but just being with where you are.  This “non-doing” is not to be confused with “doing nothing.”  Consciousness and intention are required to be present with what is.

“Non-doing simply means letting things be and allowing them to unfold in their own way.  Enormous effort can be involved, but it is a graceful, knowledgeable, effortless effort, a ‘doerless doing,’ cultivated over a lifetime” (Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are).

Meditation is a way to practice the cultivating of effortless effort, teaching us to be aware and accepting of whatever is present in the moment. But the goal of this practice is to be better able to bring mindfulness into each moment, into each activity, into each relationship of our daily lives.  Being with what we are doing right now, without attachment to what will come next or what has happened before, allows us to experience this effortless effort, or what some have termed “flow”.

Here are some reminders I use to help me accomplish my goals with more ease in the EFFORT:

Energize yourself by remembering or revisiting the enthusiasm that got you started. “Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Follow through on your intentions, even if you are way behind the timetable you thought you were on.

Focus on one part at a time, so that you can make forward progress without a sense of great or endless effort.

Organize your project into a sequence or grouping of small parts or tasks. Write the pattern down, or draw a picture, that can remind you of the progress you are making as pieces of the project get accomplished.

Repeat your intention, perhaps in the form of an affirmation, often.  Keep reminding yourself of your purpose: i.e., “I am exercising to improve my overall stamina”; “I am clearing out this closet to make room for a fresh, more stylish wardrobe”.

Take your time.  The operative word here is “your” time.  Do not compare your progress with what others are doing, but with the power of your own intentions and goals.  I have often held an intention for years, while feeling unready to begin acting on it.  Then, one day, I feel a subtle shift into readiness and I begin action with an ease and steadiness that always surprises me.  This is how I understand taking “my” time.  What is your pattern with successful action?

Be not afraid of going slowly;
be afraid only of standing still.

Chinese Proverb


~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

1 –Pick one project or practice that you feel stuck or stalled with.  Write down your intention for this project or practice:  What it is, how you plan to accomplish it, why it is important to you.

2 – Apply the EFFORT scheme above:  Energize, Follow through, Focus, Organize, Repeat, Take Your Time.

3 – Observe what helps you ease into the effort, and what stops you in your tracks. Let go of an attachment to particular results as you ease into working on some aspect of the whole.

4 – Keep breathing and smiling!

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Natalie Eldridge

Natalie Eldridge, a psychologist and life coach, applies her experience with mindfulness practices to help others discover their unique purposes and paths.