Whenever I discuss the topic of non-striving in an MBSR class, I often get strange looks from people. After all, isn't that what we are supposed to do....strive to accomplish things, gain more, and get to our goals on time? The question comes up, that if we are not striving to get something done, then what are we doing? Of course we should strive to make our lives and the lives around us better, more meaningful, healthy, and peaceful. But in meditation in particular and mindfulness in general, a striving attitude can get in the way. This is where we realize that meditation is different from most everything we do in our lives. Indeed, the practice of meditation takes effort and energy, but when we really see it for what it is, meditation is the wisdom of doing nothing. There is no goal in meditation, other than to accept the invitation to be fully our selves in each moment. The "wisdom of doing nothing?" Isn't that a little crazy? Well, sometimes doing less is being more of who we really are. The wisdom of doing nothing is allowing us to view our life from a different vantage point and recognizing that what is here in this moment is enough. This striving behavior does not even need to happen with some grand self-improvement project, but could happen from moment to moment when we are busy trying to create another experience other than the one we are already having. In this mode of thought, we perceive that somehow this current experience is not good enough, so we are busy trying to get to the next experience that promises to be more fulfilling. The only problem with that is that we miss our lives trying to be somewhere else other than in this present moment experience.
Having non-striving as a foundation to follow in meditation practice is important because when we can get caught up in gaining ideals in meditation, we may start to think that meditation is going to solve our problems, take away our pain, or we will better than we already are in this moment. When this happens, we are caught up in striving for something. Striving can get us trapped by the many "if only" conversations we have in our head that promise fulfillment at some other time than the present moment. Mindfulness is based on paying attention in the present moment. If we are uncomfortable because of pain, tension, unmet expectations, or self-criticism, we do our best to notice that this is happening in the present moment. We can notice the body sensations and the activity of the mind that criticizes and be with everything as it is in this moment. This is different than thinking that we must do something about it or fix it right away. The paradoxical and ironic thing that happens in meditation practice is that when we start to back off from striving, we are able to relax more and are able to see things more clearly. When practicing patience in the present moment we begin to find that our goals are being met by themselves. When by doing less, and becoming more of who we really are, we find that we have less stress and more satisfaction in carrying ourselves forward in our lives.
The Taoists have this term called wei wu wei which means to do without doing and is translated as non-striving. Another way of looking at this is to get out of our own way and do what needs to be done without getting caught up in the worry and the anticipation. The sage by doing nothing leaves nothing undone. Sounds kind of like some pithy statement that is easier said than done, but all this is pointing to the fact that we can get to where we are going without all of the internal dialogue. As Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say (before the Nike commercial) "Just Do It." He also used to say, "that bus has already left for downtown," meaning not to be worrying about something that is too late to do anything about, just do what is in front of you now. He also used to say, "Only go straight." This is also pointing to non-striving. Unfortunately, we often do not go straight. When we are striving toward something, we may find ourselves taking many off ramps of worry, fear, apprehension, blame, doubt rather than just doing what needs to be done. When we take less off ramps, we get to our destination with our sanity in tact. That is the important thing. Many of us achieve all kinds of things and we worried ourselves sick in the process. When we practice non-striving we can still achieve all kinds of things and be grateful and happy when we get there.
Meditation practice therefore can be a very welcoming invitation to just do nothing, just be. We are human beings after all.