the paradox of striving

One of the biggest pains-in-the-ass about mindfulness training – ie, meditation – is the problem of striving. People are told, as they first begin a mindfulness practice, that there is no goal in the practice. Nothing is being sought; you are not trying to do any specific thing other than sit and observe your breath.

In other words, don’t do what you are trying to do.

As I said: a pain in the ass. But things that are a pain can also be an opportunity.

The small group of us that meet online each Tuesday afternoon to do a formal mindfulness practice were chatting after a recent session, and the woman who had led the practice used this phrase: non-striving for. She meant it tongue-in-cheek for exactly the reason stated at the top: Striving for anything specific when meditating is counter-productive.

Yet nonetheless, we meditate for reasons. Some are just trying to calm their minds a bit. Others are looking to sort out confusion, end anxiety. Mindfulness can be impactful treating trauma. A practice can underpin other efforts in life. There’s a lot of reasons to practice mindfulness, and they are valid reasons, but it does mean we have to deal with the paradox of striving.

The word “strive” has to be understood in its original Buddhist context (not to imply a need to be a Buddhist, of course.) To strive, in Buddhist terms, is to struggle for that which you cannot attain. This is particularly true in terms of mental health because of something the Buddha taught long ago and modern science is finding to be true: Nothing is real.

Well, to be more precise, everything we see, hear, feel, touch, smell; all of that happens in the brain. We transfer sense data – light, aroma, food particles – to our brain, and it says “bright” or “sour” or “are you really playing Nickelback?” Real things exist outside our body, but our body only has second-hand knowledge of that stuff.

Emotions and thoughts are even more ephemeral. The extreme happiness you feel right now in reading this post will soon fade; there is no way possible to make any emotion last. Thoughts come and go even more quickly. And over the course of your life, the nature of your thoughts and emotions change. Do you still feel as giddy about Saturday morning cartoons as you did when you were in grade school?

This is what I mean by “nothing is real”. Nothing is permanent, nothing lasts, and most physical sensations are mere interpretations based on partial sense data. Demanding more of life than is possible, whether it’s unending happiness or enough toys to keep you distracted from the emptiness of your life, is a hopeless cause.

Striving for the unattainable will only lead to distress. Yet it’s how most of us live our lives. The state of human beings and the planet show the awful results.

So to be able to break free from that pattern of hopeless, helpless striving for just a few minutes can be like a cool drink of water when parched and thirsty. And while the drink of water won’t fix everything in your life, the refreshment can help you take the next steps needed. So, too, mindfulness practice: twenty minutes of non-striving, just sitting and observing the breath (or your thoughts or an idea), just sitting and not making an effort to accomplish something, is that drink of cool water.

This is the first lesson of mindfulness, the first step towards peace of mind and better mental health. Rather than doing and struggling – rather than striving – to learn how to not-strive for just a few minutes. The thoughts come; you acknowledge them and let them go. An emotion rises; you perhaps label it – anger – and then let it go. Stuff will pass through your mind relentlessly, but you are free to not engage with any of it.

Non-striving is the act of not engaging with the stuff that passes by. You don’t fight with it, you don’t judge yourself for any of it, and you damn sure don’t tell yourself you’re doing a bad job of meditating. You just return to the intended site of your focus, breath being the simplest and most easily accessed. 

Over time, this doesn’t get easier; stuff will never stop arising from your mind and body. What you will learn is the freedom to not engage and the ability to choose what you want to focus on. As you learn this from your practice, you’ll come to see how you can apply it in the rest of your life. Instead of fighting with yourself to not eat half-a-dozen cookies or yell at your bratty kids or avoid an unpleasant task, you’ll recognize the emptiness of the thoughts and emotions and realize that you are free to not engage with the troubling ones and you are free to make the choice most in-line with your intentions and values.

Striving is being the prisoner of a life lived by reacting helplessly to thoughts, emotions, and bodily urges. Non-striving that is learned through mindfulness lets you recognize what you are experiencing in the moment and then to make a choice, freely.

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