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.
August 24, 2009
I just re-read a beautiful piece by Adrianne Murchison examining whether there is a difference between prayer and meditation. She questions whether there is a difference because she learned to meditate through prayer. Saying the rosary transformed into silent meditation and the experience of Oneness for her. Here is how she describes her experience:
“I’m Catholic and first learned to meditate years ago by saying the Rosary –a recitation of the “Hail Mary” prayer. I start by whispering the words. After a few minutes I am no longer whispering but, instead, mouthing the words in silence. Soon the words and my thoughts become laboring, because I am with God and they are not necessary. I let my words and thoughts go and simply experience Oneness.”
What I’ve been exploring is at which point did the prayer become meditation? Is prayer the part where she is saying the words, since prayer is usually associated with speech and communication? Does it become meditation at the point when she lets go of the words and thoughts? Is meditation arriving at the point where she feels “with God” and no longer needs words? But then, isn’t that how some people would define meditation, as a means of getting close to God or becoming one with God? Is it the transition from words to Oneness that defines it as meditation? Perhaps it becomes meditation because the experience of Oneness happens and there is no possibility of prayer in Oneness. If prayer is communication between self and “other”, how could there be prayer when self and other have merged into one?
What struck me about her experience is that, although it occurred in the context of prayer and her religious and spiritual practice, it contains elements common to many meditative practices whose goal is to transcend thought and reach a deeper level of the mind where all is one. Many practices provide an object of attention as a means of allowing the mind to relax its focus, expand and move beyond duality to the experience of Oneness. It can happen with the repetition of a mantra, staring at a candle flame or even watching the breath. Letting go of thought is an essential element of this experience, as meaning keeps the mind engaged in distinctions like self and other, past and future, and in Oneness these distinctions dissolve.
The experience of Oneness can also happen spontaneously without prayer or meditation or any other practice. We love to do things that help that to happen — like sitting and watching the fire in the fireplace, looking at the ocean waves come in and go out, and listening to music that takes us out of our heads and into our hearts.
I’d love to know what you think. Perhaps you meditate but don’t pray. Or you might pray but not meditate. Maybe you do both, and maybe you do neither. But chances are you’ve had the feeling of being at one with everything at some point in your life. Have you experienced Oneness and, if so, do you know how it came about? What is prayer? What is meditation? What, if anything, makes them different?
August 3, 2009
Blackberries can be sooooo delicious when they’re soft and sweet, and sooooo disappointing when they’re not. I’ve been picking them on a nearby road where they grow on a fence by a field. It’s a great summer for blackberries. There are tons of them, enough to lure me back into berry picking after having given up on it last summer when I seemed to always come home with a bag of tart berries. But this year I discovered bring sweet, juicy berries home. What’s more, honing my fruit picking skills has given me insights on creativity and life.
It all began with our plum tree in June. The plums are outrageously delicious — incredibly sweet, juicy and perfumed with their own unique fragrance, but only when they’re really ripe. We learned last year that when they fall off the tree, they are just perfect. Only problem is they often split open when they land, and a bagful of split plums soon degenerates into a mess. The trick then is to get the plum when it’s just getting ready to fall, and you can do that by grasping them ever so carefully and giving just the slightest tug. Not a tug even, a faint whisper of a tug… If the plum falls into your hand, it’s ripe. If it resists your tug, it’s not ready. It may still be good, but not incredible, and why settle for good?
Having mastered plum picking, I was ready for the more delicate task of picking blackberries. One has to be ever so careful, not just dodging thorns, but tugging on the berries just right, being careful not to mush the ones that are truly ripe. It’s a delicate operation. It takes patience, sensitivity to the bush’s readiness to let go of its fruit. After all, the bush thrives by having bird’s eat the berries when they are ripe, when the seeds are ready to be dispersed. There’s a reason the fruit gets sweet when it does.
It takes patience to cooperate with the timing of the bush. It takes respect for its natural rhythms to enjoy the treasures it holds. You learn to listen, to cooperate with the life cycle of the bush, and when you do you are rewarded with a berry that drops effortlessly into your hand and tastes incredibly delicious.
Picking berries this way has allowed space for reflection as I pick. Since I am still in the midst of creating a new set of meditations, the parallels in the process of berry picking and giving birth to a new project became obvious. The ideas have to gestate and grow, and when they are ripe, they come easily. Like the berry bush that I return to day after day to cull the berries that are ripe that day, I have to leave the project to mature and ripen at its own pace. I spend time with it and then leave it. It percolates inside me and then when I work on it again, the latest “fruits” are ready for the picking. Inspirations come in their time, and I can’t force them.
Letting the new project grow requires the same respect and trust that I’m learning in berry picking. I can’t make the berries ripen faster. It’s always tempting to try to pull off a berry that isn’t really ready. It just doesn’t work. It’s not fun, actually. It feels as if the bush is resisting. If I do manage to get one off, it doesn’t taste good. Creativity can’t be forced. It comes in its time fueled by the same vital force that ripens the fruit. Sure, you can make sure a fruit tree is planted in the sun and gets enough water and fertilizer, but then you just have to wait. You can nourish yourself with adequate rest, exercise, meditation — but you still have to wait.
My fruit picking is teaching me that patience, respect, and trust. The blackberry bush is teaching me its lesson as I learn to listen. The new project will be finished on its schedule, in its time. I can try to push it, but it will only result in frustration and will get me nowhere. Or I can surrender to the process. I don’t have any more ability to hasten the creation of my new meditations than I have the ability to make the fruit ripen. This realization is humbling, and it’s also a relief. If I don’t seem to be making progress on a project, I can just let it go, knowing it will come in its time.
June 22, 2009
I’m working on a special series of meditations, “exercises” really, for anxiety. I’m editing one right now using deep breathing. In it, the first thing I suggest is bringing attention to the anxiety. This is quite the opposite of the usual tendency to want to run away from it. Anxiety builds in a kind of vicious cycle. Anxiety is an expression of fear, and part of what creates it is the fear of the anxiety itself. We resist the anxiety, try to run away from it, and that resistance does indeed cause it to persist.
Anxiety, like any other feeling state, comes and goes. Feelings come and go like the weather, but when we get involved in them either through resisting them or ruminating about them, they tend to be prolonged. Let go of the resistance, and the feelings can “pass through”.
This is only one small piece of the approach I am using for anxiety, but it is an important one. I’ll write more when I’ve finished my Anxiety Solutions project.
June 2010 Update — It’s almost exactly a year since I wrote this post and we’ve just finished our anxiety program. What was going to be a series of meditations evolved into a program with meditations, suggested daily exercises and journaling. You can read about it here.
December 15, 2008
When I first read the book title “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”, I found myself laughing. It created a delightful, meditative moment. I was driving and saw it on a bumper sticker. Probably I was caught up in some story about this or that going on in my mind, and seeing the bumper sticker brought a sudden, refreshing perspective.
Given the shift those words created, I wondered how they applied to meditation. With a change in just one word, I realized they apply perfectly to meditation, at least the style of meditation you’ll hear on our podcast. When it comes what we think in meditation, don’t believe anything! The way I’ve always put it is “let thoughts be a meaningless activity in the mind”. “Don’t believe anything you think” works just as well!
Meditation gives the mind the opportunity to disengage, like shifting gears into neutral. Meaning keeps the mind engaged. Believing what we are thinking and that it is important keeps us involved in thoughts. Of course that’s going to happen in meditation. It’s the habit of the mind. But in meditation we have the opportunity to let that go. Learning to let go of thoughts — to not resist them and to not purposefully follow them — is the art of meditation.
Years ago I did the Course in Miracles (the year of daily exercises in the Workbook). Although it doesn’t say it’s a course in meditation, doing the workbook exercises is a way to learn to meditate. What’s interesting is that the very first lesson has to do with letting go of meaning. “Nothing I see means anything” is the title of Lesson One. At the time I did the lesson, it made absolutely no sense to me. I couldn’t imagine what the exercise would achieve. Only recently did it occur to me that it related to the ability to allow the mind to disengage from its usual habits and surface appearances. And only now as I am writing this do I see how it was the first step in what amounted to a course in meditation.
So if you find yourself struggling with thoughts in meditation, just remember — don’t believe anything you think!
May 28, 2008
Our latest podcast episode is about trust in life and trust in oneself. It’s about a very fundamental kind of trust. It doesn’t have to do with trusting people or things, but with a basic sense that everything is all right just as it is in each moment. Most importantly, it has to do with the sense that we are alright, just as we are. This trust allows us to relax into the flow of life and living, rather than resisting what is happening.
We can learn this kind of trust in meditation as we learn to relax into whatever comes up in our experience. You may notice that at times you resist what is happening. You may feel your mind shouldn’t be filled with thoughts, and a resistance comes up. Or you might try to push out a particular emotion. You may also find there are times when you try to be a certain way. Often people feel that since they are meditating, they should feel peaceful. There can be an attempt to try to feel peaceful. A kind of struggle comes up, a struggle with ourselves and with life. This struggle comes from a lack of trust.
Everything that we experience is an expression of the natural flow of life. The energy of life flows as thoughts, emotions, sensations in the body, sounds around us. As we meditate, we can learn to let that flow happen without interference. We can develop a basic sense of trust in life as we learn to trust what happens within ourselves.
March 25, 2008
I’m calling our latest podcast episode “advanced” because to experience the love that the meditation points to requires that your mind be settled enough to notice some subtle experiences. The meditation prompts you to become aware of tendencies to resist what is happening in your thoughts and emotions, and even further to the feeling that underlies those tendencies — a sense of things being not quite right. It’s a sense of not being alright as you are. It’s a sense of life not being alright. It’s at the core of the suffering which is part of the human condition.
Of course, we all like some feelings and experiences more than others. That’s natural. But suffering results when we feel that things should be different, that we should be different — that we should feel differently than we do. When we are able to let go of the resistance to how we feel and stop trying to make ourselves be or feel something else, then what is left is love.
I’m not talking about love in the way we usually think of it. When we say love, we are usually referring to a sentiment or feeling. The feeling of love can be mixed with affection, respect, gratitude, infatuation, passion, all sorts of things. What we usually identify as love is something we feel in response to someone or some thing. The love I am talking about is not an emotion, and it is not dependent on anything. It is the very essence of our existence and reveals itself when we let go of resistance and attempts to manipulate our experience. It is the natural state of our own awareness, of our “beingness”, which is always there in the background but is largely ignored. My hope is that with this meditation, you will be able to recognize and enjoy it.
You may need to use this meditation a number of times before this love is clearly experienced. If you are new to meditation, it might help to try the podcast episode one (Relaxation Break) or the Breath Awareness Meditation until you are able to settle down enough for this meditation.
I’d love to hear your experiences with this meditation. The feedback we’ve received here and at the meditationoasis.com website has been really helpful. And, as always, we welcome your questions.
March 10, 2008
We named our podcast Meditation Oasis. The name came to Richard early on. Then we spent a lot of time brainstorming to find the “best” name, but Meditation Oasis stuck. We didn’t realized that the name would have a life of its own. I recently did a search on iLike.com in order to “claim” our artist pages. Not only were we listed as Mary and Richard Maddux and Mary Maddux, but Meditation Oasis was there as well. When we started a page on MySpace a couple weeks ago, the only kind of page we could fit into was a “band” page and now we’re a band called Meditation Oasis on MySpace!
Instead of just “going with the flow”, I found myself saying hey, whoa, is this really the name we want? Let’s sit back and think this thing over. Maybe there’s a better name. It’s something about how I was raised. It’s always been a challenge for me to buy the first thing I see. I can find the perfect pair of jeans right off, but end up having to try on all the rest “just in case”. I measure my progress sometimes by my ability to go with the first thing that comes along when it feels just right. But this one really challenged me — the name our work is coming to be known by. Life once again is challenging me to walk my talk (or I should say follow my own meditations!)
As Lennon and McCartney once sang it, “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream…”.
September 11, 2007
True meditation is by its nature effortless. A meditative state is a state without effort. The basic nature of life itself, actually, is effortless. So what is trying in meditation all about? That’s something worth investigating!
Of course, we can’t become effortless by trying. Hopefully our latest Effortless Meditation podcast will support you in being effortless.
Much of what I wrote about the Letting Go meditation applies here. This is simply another angle on the same theme that runs through all of my meditations and blog posts, and yet I truly feel the less said on this the better!
August 21, 2007
I just finished watching a mini-series on DVD. It was one of those that has a cliff-hanger at the end of almost every episode. I couldn’t wait to to find out what happened next and, of course, I wanted to know what would happen in the end. But this series didn’t really end the story. There was no knowing “how it all turned out”. Obviously the last episode was made without the producers realizing it would be the last. Otherwise, the loose ends would have been tied up and the characters would have lived happily, or not so happily, ever after.
At first this really bothered me. I didn’t like the feeling of everything being up in the air. But when I thought about it, I realized that this is how life actually is — a series of events, some favorable, some unfavorable, with no end. Something about that feeling of being left up in the air felt so unsettling, and yet so alive. The end of anything is a stopping point — the end of movement. Everything must end for something new to emerge, but when we hold on to endings from the past or are fixed on how things will end in the future, we stop the natural flow of life. We stop the aliveness.
Meditation can help us give up our attachment to endings. Letting go of outcomes, letting go of having certain experiences and not having others, letting go of the attempt to make it “turn out right”, allows us to experience the aliveness that is present moment to moment.