the effort we bring to a mindfulness practice

“When we fall in love, we put a lot of energy into bringing our very best to our beloved. If we are told we are gravely ill, we will try hard to find a cure. Our mindfulness practice requires the same degree of commitment and effort.” Joan Halifax

And yet, in Zen Buddhism there exists a concept of ‘wu wei‘, which is translated as ‘no striving, no effort’.  Recently I heard Susan Murphy Roshi talking about the place of effort and no-effort in one’s practice, and it became very clear to me.  There is indeed a place for commitment and gentle yet determined effort in one’s practice until the neural pathways are sufficiently laid down in one’s brain for skilful and mindful behaviour to be effortless.

Most of us have spent our whole lives establishing neural pathways which have us believing in a separate self, and acting on greed, hatred and ignorance. When we learn that there is a more skilful way of relating to one’s self and to life and embark on a mindfulness practice, we  are beginning to train our ‘plastic’ brains in a new way of thinking. This training takes effort, but in time, when the brain has established the required neural connections, it will be effortless.

And, paradoxically, if we push ourselves too hard in this training regime, we will not establish the required connections for this practice to become effortless. It must be done with compassion, love, wisdom, gentleness. Such an approach can seem elusive, living in a culture where one achieves by doing, pushing, striving. In Australian schools and companies, when the efforts of individuals are acknowledged, it is typically an effort of striving, pushing one’s self, working hard. This is not the effort to be used with one’s self in mindfulness; it is an attitude of quiet, unassuming, opening and releasing. Such an attitude does indeed require much mindfulness to realise.

A meditation practice is not a quick fix for long-standing mental habits that are causing suffering. Just as the body needs to slowly be stretched for greater flexibility, so does the mind need time for its training.” Joan Halifax

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