On the "Effortless Effort" of Meditation

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.

You already know how to meditate!

I just received an email from a woman who said:  "Most importantly, your guidance also helped me recognize that I already knew how to meditate, but that I just thought of it as 'being still' or 'paying attention.' "  Eureka -- that's it!  When we experience a meditative state during meditation, we tend to think it's something special that happens only in meditation.  In fact, it's something we all experience from time to time outside of meditation, but don't notice.  We could actually think of it as the mind's "natural state".  It's a very simple form of awareness, uncomplicated by the mind's habits of judging and comparing.  It's a state that's there when we are neither resisting or trying to change what is naturally coming up in our experience.  It's a state of "simply being".

Much of the time, we are "simply being" but don't make note of that, because the mind isn't in the mode of standing apart and observing our experience at that time.  Sometimes, however, we'll notice a dramatic shift into the simply-being-mode.  As I mentioned in the previous post, meditation often happens spontaneously when something we see or hear or touch jars us out of the preoccupation with the past and future.  The sight of a hummingbird at my feeder always does it for me.  What does it for you?

Meditation as the "Natural State"

I was listening to a CD of Adyashanti and he talked about meditation as our "natural state". He defined it as a state in which we are not involved in manipulating our experience in any way. I love that description. My sense is that suffering and lack of ease with living comes from resistance to what is happening, whether it is resistance to events or to our own internal process. That resistance leads to constant attempts to try to change what's happening -- trying to change the way are or the way we feel or even what is taking place. In meditation, we run away from some experiences and try to create or hold onto other experiences. It is such a relief when we can let that all go and be in the "natural state"!

From another angle, though, absolutely everything is our natural state. Whatever happens is happening naturally, spontaneously, even the resistance to what is happening. We really can't be out of our natural state. That's the trouble with trying to talk about what meditation is! There may be a word or phrase that for a moment captures something and causes an inner "aha", but it slips away when we start to pursue it with our minds.

When I lead a guided meditation, I don't really have an idea in mind about what meditation is or what people should or shouldn't experience. I do encourage freedom and much of what I say has to do with letting go of resistance to the natural flow of experience. But the experience that someone has when listening to my meditations has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. If someone becomes very relaxed with my meditations or goes very deep, it is because that was ready to happen for them.

For me it's all a mystery. How did it come about that I lead guided meditations and now have CDs and podcasts and people listen and meditate with me? It's all about the Life that holds us all in its embrace and brings us together in the most interesting of ways! When I lead a guided meditation, it is as much for me as for those who listen. Even though I "teach" meditation, I've come to know that I don't teach anyone anything. We're all in a process of learning together.

Again and again as I write this blog, I realize how impossible it is to talk about meditation and say what it is. It's at once a state of being and a process. It's a word that means many different things to different people. For me, it has many meanings and meanings that change over time. Defining it as the "natural state" feels good today and certainly started off an interesting stream of thoughts for me. What does the "natural state" mean to you?