learn about the mindfulness attitude of non striving, flow, wu wei

Sometimes the harder we strive to achieve something, the further we push it away

Do you ever feel like you are getting in your own way? For example, when you really need to get some sleep; does it help to try harder? Or when a name slipps your mind… the more you struggle, the further you seem to push it away. When you are desperate to make a first good impression, and the desperation gets you all tense and nervous. When you get impatient and force things – like trying to make a plant grow faster by overwatering it, or pulling on its stem.

Sometimes we need to relax our striving – get out of our own way – in order for life to unfold naturally. This is what the attitude of non striving is about.

The plant will grow optimally if we provide the right conditions and give it time and space to take care of itself. When we relax and allow the body and nervous system to find its natural balance, sleep comes effortlessly to us. When we relax our mind we can act with more flexibility and spontaneity.

But letting go of striving does not come naturally to most of us because we have deeply ingrained habits to constantly be doing. We push and control in order to achieve. We don’t trust that we can get what we want unless there is striving. And while this type of effort has its merit, it is only half of the equation. If we get overly focused on striving, it becomes a habit that often works against us. We forget how to relax and allow things to unfold naturally.

We often approach meditation in the same way; we strive for non-striving, we make an effort to relax, we even try to “achieve” insights or enlightenment.

Modal confusion and being human

These are signs that we are caught in what psychologist Erich Fromm calls the “having mode”. We look for things, possessions, activities, achievements and other people to meet our needs. And while we have legitimate “having needs” (like having access to food, water, shelter), possession of objects will never satisfy what he calls our “being needs” (like being free and having a sense of belonging). These are two different sets of human needs that are addressed through different operating modes. When we try to meet our being needs from a having mode, we are stuck in what John Vervaeke calls a “modal confusion”. It’s simply the wrong strategy.

Mindfulness – and the attitude of non striving – reminds us of the possibility to operate from the being mode. It points to a place from which we experience the aliveness and authentic relatedness that we long for. The Sanskrit word for mindfulness (sati) literally means to remember. It is about remembering what it is like to inhabit the being mode. We know what it feels like to be in touch with our true nature nature beyond appearances. After all, we are human beings, not human doings or human havings.

無為 Wú wéi

Not only is this state of non striving deeply healing and satisfying – it is also a way to access creative action. In fact, letting go of striving can actually help us become more effective. This is what the paradoxical Daoist phrase “wú wéi” (無為) points to. It is often translated as “non doing”, but perhaps a better translation would be “non striving”, or “effortless action”. It does not refer to a ceasing of all activity. Rather, it points to state of being from which action flows effortlessly. Edward Slingerland describes this state:

“For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective behaviour flows automatically and spontaneously from the self, without the need for thought or exertion.”

This spontaneous action closely resembles what in psychology is referred to as “flow”, or “being in the zone”. These states are crucial for any type of creative expression or performance and have been shown to increase the sense of meaning in our lives.

Non striving has similarities to flow, but it is not limited to occasional peak states in domains in which we are experts. Rather, it is a continuous practice and way of life that can be applied in all areas of life. Rather than using our intellect to force things based on a self-centered perspective, we act in accordance with the way things naturally tend to unfold, creating as little resistance as possible.

Wú wéi is exemplified in the parable of the butcher, told by the Daoist sage Chuang Tzu. One day, the emperor hears of this legendary butcher and decides to travel to the village to visit the butcher. Once the emperor arrives, he asks: “tell me, how does a butcher take care of his knife?”. The butcher replies: “a bad butcher cuts right through the bone and has to get a new knife every year. A good butcher cuts along the bone, and only need to sharpen the knife once per year.” And then he goes on: “But I never have to sharpen my knife. I find the space between the bone and the meat, so my knife never touches anything. Every now and then, I get to a particularly difficult joint. In these situations, I simply wait until I find the space. Then I flick my knife and the muscle falls of the bones”.

This is effortlessness – action without resistance. And these situations are what Lane Arye calls “Daoist butcher moments”. Often when we meet a challenging situation and we don’t see the solution right in front of us, we get restless and spring to action. We try to get rid of uncertainty and to try to “cut right through the bones”. By contrast, if we can relax into patience and spontaneity, we allow the solution to reveal itself.

ShuHaRi: Practice makes perfect

This type of non striving may sound unrealistic or impractical. We feat that if we stop striving, we will fall into laziness, hedonism and inactivity. We don’t dare to let go. But as with anything, we get good at what we practice. Most of us are well-trained in the having mode and incessant doing. Few have been taught to cultivate non striving. That is why the traditions like Zen and various forms of martial arts emphasise practices that cultivate spontaneity. Let us explore a model that may help make more sense of this:

This is the Japanese art of mastery; ShuHaRi. It is applied in domains ranging from martial arts, to tea drinking to software development. Basically, it outlines three phases of mastery:

  • Shu 守 (protect/obey) – in this phase, we are learning the traditional technique by obeying elders and mimicking the master.
  • Ha (break/detach) – in this phase, the technique has become natural to us and we can start finding improvements (“kaizen”). We master the tradition and we can begin to find our individual style.
  • Ri 離 (leave/transcend) – in this phase, we transcend tradition altogether. At this point, our actions flow effortlessly without clinging to any form or technique.

Once we have transcended the technique, we come back to the first phase (Shu) in order to cultivate humility and protect the tradition. So ShuHaRi is not a linear process with a definite goal. It is more like moving through the phases in a cycle.

In other words

Another way to make sense of this attitude is to use the language of neuropsychology, where they differentiate between 2 types of cognition:

  • System 1: Fast, spontaneous, subconscious, “hot” cognition
  • System 2: Slow, deliberate, conscious, “cold” cognition

To quote Slingerland again:

Western thought has strongly emphasised System 2 (or ‘cold’ cognition), and based their models of ethics on the exertion of cognitive control.

This might help explain why we’re so focused on doing, having and using our intellect to control and grasp. Both systems are valid, and the we should aim to return to a balance between the two.

What the attitude of non striving suggests is that by studying and mastering the principles and techniques of any domain, we can embody and integrate them into our nervous system. This means we can increasingly get out of our own way and start relying on the intuitive, subconscious intelligence of the body. We can relax and let the activity flow through us effortlessly.

But again, we first have to practice. We can’t expect to be jamming away on the guitar, expressing our creativity without first going through the discipline of mastering the technique. It is like riding bicycle; once you have embodied the skill, thinking about it will just get in the way.

A time not to strive

On an individual level, the attitude of non-striving can help us live a more effortless life. It can remind us of the natural “being mode”, which is inherently peaceful and brings a sense of belonging and meaning.

This a reminder that I think we can all use in these times when many are experiencing what has been termed a “meaning crisis”. If we look around, at corporate cultures, levels of stress and anxiety, unrealistic personal expectations, strive for material possessions, resource depletion, you name it… I believe we could use some non striving on a collective level as well.

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