In our culture, we may grow up believing that working hard with our eyes on the prize is praise-worthy effort. Some go for it with zeal, some rebel against it, some give up along the way and feel bad about it, but most folks acknowledge that ‘getting ahead’ and ‘making it’ equals success.
Now it’s shown that striving — for perfection, accolades, achievement, a house full of fancy things or a lifestyle that others will envy — is a pattern that is detrimental to health, relationships and the ability to be happy. The stress is causing disease and early death. Loved ones feel neglected, and friends and coworkers suggest lightening up and learning how to have fun.
That advice may lead to a tropical vacation, only to get ambitious and competitive about being fit or adventurous. Relaxing can’t be done without a drink or a drug, and the vacation goes by in a blur.
Someone suggests meditation. It sounds like too much sitting around doing nothing, but if attempted, it’s done with a rigor that should put other meditators to shame. The aim becomes to be the best meditator ever and achieve nirvana in no time.
I’m exhausted just writing about this kind of mentality. But it’s important to recognize that it is the model of effort that our culture puts out there. Without it, how would capitalism survive? Many products would never get sold if they didn’t represent success.
Whether this mode of effort describes you or not, it’s worth noticing that it has an impact on us all. We are all surrounded by efforts to lure us into wanting, craving and fearing we won’t be enough if we don’t have it all.
We can apply this kind of effort to other things, too: Taking on more commitments to help than we can handle, for example. Not being able to say no to requests, or thinking we’re the only one who can take care of things.
Believing we should strive may set us up for doing the opposite, out of frustration, exhaustion or just needing a break. We may put off necessary tasks endlessly, succumb to lethargy, and feel bad about our ever-growing to do list.
Not surprisingly, neither extreme is wise effort. Wise effort is healthy effort. It’s natural effort akin to the effort made by all species of animals and plants, each true to their own abilities and needs. It’s effort that is able, agile, ready, playful at times and purposeful as needed. Wise effort is tuned in to the body’s own wisdom and natural rhythms. That means noticing sensation and staying in the present moment to recognize what’s needed right now, instead of going on autopilot and mindlessly doing or ignoring the body’s readiness to rise, to move, to nourish itself, and to engage in the wholesome pursuit of interests, needs and natural inclinations to find joy in the doing.
Joy in the doing. Doesn’t that sound lovely? I’m sure you can think of many things that give you joy in the doing. But no doubt you can make an equal list of chores you avoid or when you’re doing them give you anything but joy. Me too! But I learned something about myself in relationship to effort on one of the weeklong retreats I attended at Spirit Rock many years ago.
On a meditation retreat, most times you are given a yogi job, an assigned daily task that is your small part in helping to take care of the retreat center and the retreatants by cleaning specific areas or preparing food. At your first retreat you might have some resistance to the idea of having a job to do. After all, you probably paid good money to be there. Hey, what are they trying to pull? Why should you have to do any work at all?
But after a few days you may have an aha moment and realize that the little yogi job is yet another opportunity to awaken. Noticing how we are in relationship to our yogi job reveals how we are in relationship to the rest of our lives. And that’s valuable insight!
I’ve had a wide variety of yogi jobs on retreats, but since the retreat was in silence, this time I wanted to stay in that deep relaxing wordless space and not be jolted out of it to ask the cook how small to chop the vegetables or where does this bowl go? So they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls in one of the dormitories. Oh boy, what had I gotten myself into? At home that was one of my least favorite chores.
The next morning I approached my shower-scrubbing yogi job filled with dread and aversion. As I took the provided box of non-toxic cleaner, sponge, rags, gloves and scrub brush into that white tiled enclosure, I felt claustrophobic. My task seemed insurmountably difficult and uncomfortable, all that repetitive arm movement and bending. In that distressed state, I was doing the job only because I would feel terrible if I didn’t fulfill my commitment, even though no one would check up on me to see if I did it. I had an interior drill sergeant who said ‘hup two’, and my miserable platoon of one scrubbed away. I’ve heard tales from past actual army privates admitting they did their assigned tasks in a slapdash way, just good enough to fulfill the order. And that’s probably how I cleaned the shower that first day, just wanting to be done and out of there.
Is there any job you do in your life that is filled with aversion but you do because you would feel terrible, or be fired or shunned, if you didn’t do it? Notice how your self talk in this state is full of words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, etc. See if you notice a harsh internal drill sergeant that gets angry if not obeyed. That voice, instilled in us early on in life, drains us of any possibility of joy in the doing. In fact, we may be filled with anger at the injustice that we have to do this task when it should be someone else’s turn, etc. How does this kind of effort affect relationships at home or work?
We may ignore the inner drill sergeant altogether as a show of resistance against the injustice of it all, and the task doesn’t get done as we stew in in toxic emotions, as that inner voice gets more abusive, and we feel worse and worse. And how does that work out? The chore, already unpleasant, just gets larger and larger, doesn’t it? The dishes in the sink pile up, the carpet gets grungier and harder to clean, and the clutter becomes impenetrable. Beyond housework, planned projects don’t get done, dreams of the great American novel don’t get written, family gatherings don’t happen, friends don’t get called, and we lose touch with people we love and enjoy. What a mess!
Back at the retreat: On the second day, as I took up my scrub brush, I was more accepting of the task at hand. If I was going to do this thing, I was going to make the best of it and do it well. My own sense of self-respect demanded this, but there may also have been a little bit of ambition to be the best shower scrubber ever.
Does that sound familiar? Are there efforts you make that bring up a sense of competitiveness or a focus on a potential reward? Perhaps there actually are rewards for some of the efforts you make: Awards, trophies, bonuses, raises, advancement, praise or fame. Spirit Rock offers none of that. At the end of the retreat there was no hope that the teachers would pass out ribbons, including one to little Steffie Noble for her excellent efforts at shower scrubbing. So it was easy not to get caught up in chasing such goals as key to my efforts. But many of us spend a lifetime in such a state. And if the rewards and praise are not forthcoming and are doled out instead to others, we may become bitter, forlorn and full of self-doubt.
On the third day I realized that these showers I was scrubbing were used by the retreat teachers, so I shifted from proving my worth to expressing my gratitude for their teachings. May you be well. May you have a nice shower.
Are there any efforts you make in your life that are done for the benefit of others because you feel grateful? Often explorations of effort come back to asking ourselves ‘Who am I doing this for? What is my intention here?’
On the fourth day of the retreat I experienced a shift into a deeper, more connected state. When it came to my yogi job, I was able to let go of all the mental reasoning, trying so hard to make my experience okay. Instead I sensed into the movement of my arms and body wielding the scrub brush, sponge and spray bottle. The pleasure of being alive whatever I was doing filled me.
Have you ever had that sensation? You are using the same muscles but now there is pleasure in it. It’s interesting to notice that the body is not averse to movement at all. It is our mindset that creates any aversion. We might object to strenuous movement in some situations, but then dance all night if the music moves us. Explain that! Yoga often provides that profound sense of pleasure in awareness of the body being alive, moving through space, stretching and resting. A yogi job is another form of yoga, once the mind lets go of all that confusion of purpose.
On the fifth day of scrubbing I had the same sensory awareness, but I also became aware of being part of a continuum of shower scrubbing yogis — all who had been here in this sweet little white-tiled stall before me, and all those who would be here day after day, retreat after retreat, scrubbing earnestly, dealing with their own vast range of thoughts and emotions. I sent them all metta — lovingkindness — and opened to the possibility that past yogis had sent metta forward to me. In that isolated space there was a joyful sense of community, camaraderie and a relief that it wasn’t all up to me to keep this tile shining. If I missed a spot, it wasn’t the end of the world. There were others who would follow up, just as I had done for ones before me. Although we each did the best we could, it wasn’t about perfection! It wasn’t really even about the tile! I woke up to what it is to be alive and to participate fully in life, whatever I am doing.
As you go about your day, doing or not doing whatever is on your plate, can you be fully present with the effort itself? Can we all awaken to the joy in the doing? Can we feel loved and loving as we fully participate in the ongoing cycles of life?
Can we notice the thoughts that arise in relationship to tasks we do, plan to do or avoid doing? See if you can pause, relax, ground yourself in being alive in the moment, and do the task as a meditation.
There’s a Zen expression ‘chop wood, carry water’ that came up several times in teaching Wise Effort to three different classes this past week. Can we let go of all sense of accomplishment, reward, praise, aversion and avoidance, and just do what needs to be done with as much awareness and compassion as possible? Several students talked about how good it felt to accomplish a task they had been putting off. Yes, it does. But can it feel good to be doing the task itself? One student said she planned to vacuum the house tomorrow to get that wonderful sense of having accomplished something. I encouraged her to really come into her body and the movement of pushing the vacuum cleaner around, not to accomplish something but as the experience itself. She got it. ‘Oh yes, I’ll pretend I’m chopping wood and carrying water!’ I laughed and encouraged her just to vacuum and see if that could be enough.
There are so many reasons why we don’t make effort. Perhaps the task just looks too daunting. My six year old granddaughter took one look at all the jigsaw puzzle pieces laid out on the table and said, ‘This is too much, we can’t do it, its 500 pieces.’ But as the adults went about assembling the puzzle over the coming days, she began to see it differently. She noticed where a piece might fit. She got excited when she was able to put pieces together, and she discovered joy in doing it.
If you have a big project to tackle, think of that puzzle. It looks daunting at first, but just setting about to do it, in incremental work periods over a series of days or weeks or however long it takes, really makes a difference in how you relate to the project at hand.
The retreat yogi job is a good model for getting things done. Choosing 30-45 minutes a day to work on a particular task does get it done, and done in a wise effort way. Then you don’t have to think about it for the rest of the day!
Out of fear there are tasks that we need to do that we avoid. For example, estate planning and emergency preparedness both bring up things we may not want to think about: The inevitability of our own demise, and the possibility of natural disaster. Facing our fears frees us to prepare without despair.
In our meditation practice we learn how to cultivate wise effort by actively bringing our attention to the breath and other sensations, noting how they arise and fall away. We notice any thoughts or emotions, including those self-condemning voices that tell us we can’t do this, we’re no good at it, we’re hopeless. We practice compassion, and return to the breath. As we go about living our lives, we can keep that sense of being fully present, anchored in physical sensation, aware of thoughts and emotions that pass through, but not sabotaged by them. We can attune to our natural rhythm and discover the joy in the doing.
This essay is one I would like to read every single week! There is much wisdom there that speaks directly to me. I think Wise Effort should be–okay, CAN be–my focus for the rest of the year.
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I am going to apply this now as I go clean up the yard of my doggie’s “presents.“ I will try to think them as her wonderful presence! 😊
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