The Wisdom of Non-Effort – zen habits zen habits
By Leo Babauta
For those of us who find ourselves constantly busy and doing, it’s often hard to imagine a more effortless life.
Life is striving, pushing to make things happen, trying to catch up, overcoming inertia, trying to stay on top of things. An approach called “non-effort” might seem a bit nonsensical.
But if this is you, notice how tense you are most of the day. Your jaw might be sore from clenching, your torso is tight, you are tired from so many activities, everything might seem like a struggle or marathon.
What would it be like if life were more effortless, more relaxed, more trusting, more surrendered?
Let’s explore this, and see what might be possible.
To start with, let me tell you who this article is not for … it’s not meant for people who could use a little extra effort. If you find yourself relaxed and feeling spaciousness in your life but feeling that you can’t be arsed to take on hard things … this isn’t what you need. You could likely use a little more effort into things, which would require a different approach. Finding the approach that’s right for you is about putting in “right effort” — not too much, not too little.
What Non-Effort Looks Like
It’s hard to describe what non-effort is, because it’s an absence. That’s like trying to describe emptiness — its definition is about what’s not there.
So let’s take a couple examples of what non-effort might look like …
- Meditation: Effortful meditation is putting a lot of energy into keeping your focus on one spot, getting frustrated with yourself when you wander from that, sweating bullets as you try to do it right. Non-effort meditation is sitting in a relaxed way, paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, noticing when your attention wanders to thoughts, noticing the thoughts for a moment with the curiosity of watching a cloud float by, but then returning easily to the present moment. It’s not zero effort, but it’s much more effortless.
- Writing: Non-effort is letting yourself take a walk and notice what comes up for you as something to write about, and trusting that. Then sitting in a quiet space without distractions, and letting your words bubble up on that topic. Sometimes nothing comes, so you sit still for a moment and breath, until something comes. Then you let it flow from your fingertips. It’s not zero effort, but it’s not super tensed with effort.
- Projects: You invite others to work on the project, set up the structure, and then show up together. It can be like play. Then you set up something to do between meetings, and another meeting in the near future. Each step along the way, you can bring play and creativity. You make effortless decisions by choosing from the heart and trusting yourself. The project starts to grow like a joyfully tended garden.
These are not how non-effort has to look. They’re examples of how it could look. In truth, it looks however it looks when you practice, even including some effort.
Seeing the Wisdom in Non-Effort
Non-effort isn’t just about making things easier for yourself — though that is a huge benefit. Things become more relaxed, more effortless, less of a struggle. But it’s about more than that.
Something different emerges when you relax into non-effort. Not only a different kind of result, but a different kind of wisdom.
In the meditation example above … in the first, effortful model, you might actually get much better at single-pointed focus, with a lot of effort. But in the second, non-effort model, you gain access to a trustful part of yourself that relates to the world in a different way. It sees the beauty in the world just as it is, and understands itself as a part of that living, breathing wonder.
What if we began to cultivate that kind of relationship with life, by relaxing a bit, pushing less, and reclaiming our spot in the flow of life?
How to Practice Non-Effort
If you’re curious about this approach, or see potential for yourself … you might wonder how to practice this. Great! I got you. 🙂
The first step is to notice when you’re efforting. This isn’t necessarily bad or wrong, but you might just notice how much effort, tenseness, pushing you’re experiencing. What fear is driving this? Could you just be with the experience of the fear?
Next, pause, breathe for a moment, and relax your body. Let yourself open in the moment, to whatever is there: your emotions, your fears that you’re behind, your thoughts, your wanting to get this done and over with, the birds chirping in the distance.
Then see what might emerge from the place of non-effort. When you’re relaxed, breathing deeper, still … trust that something will emerge. An idea, some clarity, a choosing from the heart, something you’re being called towards.
Then trust that. Let it emerge and unfold. You might take action from there, but let it be action from a relaxed but devoted place.
It will take practice. And let that practice be non-effortful — simply relax and let yourself flow into it again, and again.