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  • Writer's pictureHannah Marsh

Wise Effort

What do you notice about your efforts - in your mindfulness practice? In your creative endeavours?

Guitar strings

One tendency I notice: when I lean close to the computer to write, my attention narrows. I get absorbed in fine-tuning details, which eventually leads me to overwork something small, driven by dissatisfaction, unable to let it be; I've overworked for hours, putting off a break, hoping all my narrow efforts will soon pay off (if they do, it's pennies on the dollar). Conversely, when I sit back, I tend to have access to a broader view. There's less urgency or need to get things "right"; it's easier to pause and consider options, including the possibility to move on to another section or tend to my needs (movement, water, lunch). That small amount of distance seems to help me recognize if my efforts are helpful or unhelpful, and what I might do next. Lately, I've been playing with sitting back whenever I notice I've been pulled forward; what I've discovered is how often it happens. The urge to move in close is persistent. My efforts have a tendency to tighten, constrict.

Buddhists speak of "wise effort" - noticing where you place your energy, and the quality of that effort. It might be overly tight or loose - like the string of a lute - and the idea is to find a pitch of effort that supports us. A harmonious balance between work and ease.

Finding balance will look different, depending on the needs of what we're doing and our mind-body state. When effort grows tired or unmotivated, we might sit up, revive a tired mind with fresh air or movement, or get some needed rest. When effort is over-striving, we might see if it's possible to do less - release tension from the forehead and jaw, soften the eyes, sit back, breathe.

For many of us, well-practiced at working hard at school and in our careers, tight effort can be difficult to release. You might find yourself straining to fall asleep or striving to meditate. Hosting a beloved friend, you might spend the whole time fretting about the state of the house. You might power through a creative endeavour, leaving little space for creative play and possibility.

Whenever there's a lot of effort, alongside a feeling of being anxious or stuck, we might notice this.* We might ask ourselves, is it possible to soften the effort? To step back, invite ease into the body, widen the focus, offer yourself kindness, patience. It might mean setting a task aside for now, and shifting to something playful or joyful or restorative, somewhere you can reconnect to "wholehearted practice."

In our July Mindfulness & Creativity drop-in, we'll explore how effort shows up in our mindfulness practice, and how we might invite a balance of work and ease into our mindfulness practice and everyday lives.

* The simple act of noticing may shift the effort in some way. We can notice this, too, then decide how to proceed. It's possible nothing more needs to be "done."


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