There’s a pervasive myth, here in the West, that expending effort during meditation is bad. It somehow means you’re doing it wrong.
There’s the expectation that meditation is supposed to be relaxing, goal-less and effortless. Non-doing, non-being and all that good stuff.
Well, as with most of these things, the reality is a little more nuanced than that.
I’m going to dig into this one a bit to help you understand when it’s ok to push during your meditation and when you should slow down and back off.
What you want to cultivate in your meditation practice is something called Skillful Effort.
What is skillful effort?
It’s a balance between a proactive, “doing-oriented” stance and a receptive, “allowing-oriented” stance to the practice.
What keeps things interesting, and makes it hard to generalize about the whole “effort vs. effortless” thing is that the proper balance changes from moment to moment.
Hitting the Target
Initially, when beginning a meditation session, you usually need to place more emphasis on proactive effort in order to bring your attention to your meditation object (such as the physical sensations associated with breathing in the abdominal area) and keep it there.
In some meditation traditions, this is referred to as “hitting the target”. The idea being that you want to train your attention to be precise and “hit” your chosen meditation object when you direct your attention to it.
Precision is important because you can’t clearly observe your meditation object unless you can accurately locate it and get your attention on it!
Once you’re consistently placing your attention accurately on your meditation object, you can ease up a bit and go into a more receptive mode.
A receptive stance makes it a lot easier to notice the more subtle features of your meditation object, because you’re not expending as much energy trying to “hit” the object. This is important because, once you’ve got the hang of sticking with your meditation object, it’s time to go deeper by exploring it in some detail.
Just to be clear, although I’m talking about switching into a more receptive mode here, that’s not the same as getting slack and “letting it all go”.
Ease up too much or too fast, and your attention will slip off your meditation object and you’ll have to go looking for it all over again.
Skillful Effort is like Driving
A good analogy for skilful effort is driving a car.
Pressing the gas pedal to get the car moving is like using proactive effort.
Once the car is moving at the speed you want, you ease off the gas pedal to prevent further acceleration. This is similar to receptive effort. You’re allowing the car to coast at the speed you want and preventing the car from going too fast.
If you don’t step on the accelerator hard enough or for long enough as the car starts moving, you won’t reach your desired speed. If you don’t ease up on the accelerator once you hit the right speed, you’ll end up going too fast.
Similarly, while meditating, you need to apply sufficient proactive effort to achieve enough concentration to get your practice going. Once you’re able to stay with your meditation object for a little while, you can then back off to a more receptive mode so the details of your object become clearer.
The Balance is Always Shifting
To continue with the driving analogy, while driving, the road may go uphill, requiring more proactive effort so you can climb the hill without losing speed.
Or the road may go downhill, requiring less proactive effort and more receptive effort to avoid going too fast.
In a similar way, you need to apply the correct balance of proactive and receptive effort on a moment-to-moment basis.
What this means, in practice, is that you’ll use mindfulness to remain aware of what you’re doing in your meditation, and adjust accordingly.
Are you having trouble locating or clearly seeing your meditation object? Then apply more effort.
Was your object clear, in the center of your attentional field, but now you’re starting to have a hard time keeping it there because your attention is starting to feel “choppy” or it seems like you’re in too close? Time to back off a bit, widen your attentional field and pay attention in a more receptive way.
With practice, this process of evaluation and adjustment becomes second nature and happens automatically. This is when meditation starts to feel more effortless and where all that stuff you’ve read, or heard, about non-effort begins to make more sense.
Effort is Not Striving
It’s important to understand that skillful effort is not the same as striving.
Striving is unbalanced effort: too much proactive effort and too little receptive effort for the requirements of the moment.
In daily life, when you’re trying to reach a goal, striving can help improve your chances of achieving your desired goal.
In meditation, however, striving has the seemingly paradoxical result of moving the goal farther away.
This is because striving, and the desire for a particular outcome, are a form of attachment that produce mental conditions that impede the ability of the mind to become concentrated.
It’s like stirring up all the muck at the bottom of a pond, making it hard to see the bottom.
Curiosity and acceptance are lost, and mental tension builds, making it difficult to attain the level of concentration required to be aware of more subtle sensations.
But Striving is Not Usually the Problem
Interestingly, my experience teaching students has been that striving is rarely a problem. Although we live in a highly competitive, goal-oriented society, the majority of the meditation students I’ve seen suffer from a serious lack of proactive effort!
There seems to be a tendency to just “hang out” and chill during meditation.
That’s understandable, if you view meditation as simply a form of relaxation. In that case, just put the headphones on, load up your favourite guided meditation, nature sounds, or ambient music and de-stress.
It’s important to understand, however, that this isn’t what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about using meditation as a way to train mindfulness.
And just like training your body to become faster, or stronger takes effort, so does training the mind to develop mindfulness.
So, my advice to most of my students is to push harder, a lot harder, than they think they should be. Err on the side of too much proactive effort.
If you overshoot, you can always adjust and bring things into balance. And you’ll soon discover the skillful effort sweet spot.
But if you don’t push hard enough in the beginning, you’ll never even get your practice off the ground.
If you like this kind of stuff and want to discover how to develop mindfulness effectively and apply it in a simple, straightforward way, then you may be interested in signing up for my weekly blog updates.
I’ll share with you how to cultivate and apply mindfulness to transform your relationship with things like stress, anxiety, anger and other difficult emotions, based on my 20+ years of meditation experience.
I’ll also share a precise, effective, down to earth method for spiritual development (if that’s your thing), without all the fluff and hazy mystical language you’ll often run into with this kind of stuff.
If this sounds interesting to you, click here to find out more.