On the “Effortless Effort” of Meditation

September 17, 2009

Usually the term “effortless effort” is associated with Taoist philosophy and its concept of “Wu Wei”. It has to do with how we act, or experience action, in daily life. I like the Wikipedia description of Wu Wei as “natural action” giving the example of a tree growing. It is doing growing, and yet it is not doing it.

I like to use “effortless effort” when talking about how to meditate. It’s indicates that the art of meditation is not one of following instructions. It’s the art of allowing the mind to experience a natural state.

I often tell people not to take what I say in my meditations too literally. Sometimes I am asked what I mean by something like “not minding thoughts”. It’s impossible to answer those questions. The words I use aren’t meant to be instructions to follow precisely. The words are more like confirmations of the correct experience. Quite naturally the mind will start relaxing into a state of “not minding thoughts”, and if there is some resistance to that happening, words can give you permission to let go. My words are more like “reminders” to gently prompt the mind to let go of effort. But that letting go is an effortless effort!

How can effort be effortless? It’s a paradox. The paradox happens because in guiding someone in meditation, we pretty much have to use words. You can’t demonstrate meditation like you can dance, because it’s an internal process. Although music alone can sometimes induce a meditative state, more often than not some verbal guidance is necessary. And yet, using words and phrases to guide that process is full of pitfalls. The meditative state is actually something that the mind falls into, not something you can make happen through following instructions. The instructions can only set up a situation where the mind can slip into that state.

Meditation is a state of effortlessness and sometimes a phrase here and there can help us to let go of effort. For example, I might say “let thoughts go”. The idea isn’t to actively let them go, like when you open your hand to drop a ball, but rather hearing the phrase “let thoughts go” may help the mind let go. That’s because the mind is naturally drawn into a meditative state when given the opportunity, and there may be some resistance to that happening. The words can help dissolve the resistance. Letting go is not an active doing. No words or concepts can tell you exactly how to do it.


5 Responses to “On the “Effortless Effort” of Meditation”

  1. Teri Ching on September 19th, 2009 12:58 pm

    And thanks for your good meditations..this phrase you wrote “The words can help dissolve the resistance. Letting go is not an active doing. No words or concepts can tell you exactly how to do it.”

    I have started to sense the aliveness underneath the words and it’s so soothing and loving..Even some of your words have become like living words.. i can flow
    a little easier..Thanks Teri

  2. Mary on September 20th, 2009 1:05 pm

    You are welcome, Teri. What a beautiful experience you are having with the meditations! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. Allison on September 22nd, 2009 3:42 pm

    Hi Mary, greetings from Australia. Thank you so much for the gift of your meditations. Letting Go has been my constant companion these last few weeks as I start my own business and navigate my way through a whole passel of emotions and experiences. You have enabled me to stay grounded and centred amidst this change and upheaval and I sincerely thank you for it. You’ve come down the Great Ocean Road of south west Victoria, to a lovely little seaside village and you’ve been with me as I sat on a cliff looking out over a raging surf coast – you’ve also been along for the ride when I went up to the ‘bush’ or mountains as you would call it .. on retreat – your voice mingled with the sounds of kookaburras, magpies and even a kangaroo or two. (Nature meditate was amazing up there) Oh, and the music you have on the tracks is also pretty awesome…
    Take care now and lots of love to you and Richard
    Allison McEwan
    Melbourne, Australia

  4. Mary on September 22nd, 2009 6:10 pm

    Allison, thank you so much for sharing your (obviously amazing) corner of the world with us. We enjoyed visiting your village, going on the cliff and seeing the animals and birds (in our imaginations). We’re so pleased the meditations have helped you. You are very welcome, and good luck with your business!

  5. Vijay - Meditation Techniques Guide on September 22nd, 2009 9:37 pm

    Excellent post! Meditation is truly an act of fine balance. An effort is also needed, while too much effort would derail the meditativeness. It is an act of fine balance that comes with practice over time just like when we learn any new skill.

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