From our earliest days, right back to our childhood, we are encouraged to achieve. Our parents compare us to the developmental milestones, sitting, crawling, walking. These are necessary for our growth, but the arbitrary comparison with averages means that from our cradles we are programmed to achieve. As we grow and go to school, we are herded into classes where the expectation is that we will strive to achieve the highest grade, the perception of success in academic standards.
So, what does non-striving actually mean for us in our competitive world? Much of the discipline of awareness and mindfulness is the patient engagement with ourselves, which is non-doing, simply to be yourself. Some refer to this as meditation, but that may conjure up images of sitting in the lotus position, chanting and ringing bells. As you will know if you have read any other of my articles, I consider any experience of peaceful contemplation of one’s surroundings to be meditation. However, with practice we can cultivate the attitude of non-striving, starting with short meditations and contemplations, which can be extended over time.
Meditation is achieved by non-doing, no other goal than being yourself. A time that we set aside for ourselves, to focus solely on ourselves. A recent conversation with a client brought home to me how little time we are encouraged to spend on ourselves. They said, “I’ve reached the age of 45 and this is the first time someone has told me to spend time on just me.” In the act of meditation, we have no agenda, no specific purpose, other than to be in the moment. We are ceasing to strive (‘to try very hard to do something or to make something happen, especially for a long time or against difficulties’ – Cambridge Dictionary), simply reflecting on the moment and allowing ourselves to just ‘be’.
We feel what we feel; we hear what we hear; we smell what we smell. Our awareness might identify small sensations of tension or even pain in our bodies. We may be able to hear the sounds of nature around us, birds singing, bees humming. There may be scents of flowers, or plants. We acknowledge these sensations, but do not let them draw our focus. Similarly, we acknowledge and recognise thoughts as they occur, but do not let them carry us away from being. We listen to and observe our breath.
Non-striving is trying less and being more.
Jon Kabat-Zinn says:
“Mindfulness is never about doing something perfectly, because it is not about doing or accomplishing at all. It is about allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for. Silence, deep listening, and non-doing are often very appropriate responses in particularly trying moments – not a turning away at all, but an opening toward things with clarity and good will, even toward ourselves. Out of that awareness, trustworthy skilful responses and actions can arise naturally, and surprise us with their creativity and clarity.”
Now imagine yourself in a difficult situation, where you are feeling out of control or anxious, but imagine the strength you will gain from not reacting, but simply accepting, what is happening.
In my years working in the IT industry, I spent a lot of time teaching people specific subjects in order to gain qualifications. This meant examinations and for me, as for so many others, the experience of taking an exam is not a comfortable or happy one. I suffer with ‘exam nerves’, which, if allowed to run amok, can cause me a sleepless night or even nausea the night before! There are so many elements to this anxiety. I am concerned about letting myself down, not performing to my best (striving, if you will). The worry of what others will think if I do not perform well, embarrassment, shame, feelings of inadequacy and lack of self-worth. The potential lost time or cost relating to the experience, often based on a period of intense study, culminating in a single moment of success or failure. The pressure of judgement in a single moment, all my endeavours summed up in one single event, the exam. The feelings of unpreparedness, even if I have studied hard, in the uncertainty of the content of the exam itself. By the time I sit to take the exam itself, I am struggling with thoughts and feelings based on the fear of the future, none of which are important, relevant or indeed likely to happen. But I recognise that this is my current state and rather than tell myself to “calm down” (when has that advice ever worked for anyone, I wonder?), I observe myself, accept the feelings and thoughts as transient and choose to let them be. Notice I do not say let them go, for me this is an unrealistic goal. If I have built up the exam to be a thing of fear, that is not going to simply vanish if I focus on my breathing. Instead, I concentrate on not striving, but on just being, tackling the questions to the best of my ability, facing the challenge without dwelling on the feelings and thoughts that have been consuming me. It is by no means a perfect solution, but it does allow me to complete the task making me anxious, by acceptance of my state of being.
Non-striving, then, takes an extraordinary effort, in the true sense of the word. (Extraordinary: very unusual and special; different in type or greater in degree than the usual or ordinary – Cambridge Dictionary.) It is to allow oneself to behave differently, unusually, in response to an ordinary event. Not to try to do something, but to allow oneself to simply be.