Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.
– Shakespeare, William from King Lear
In developing the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, Jon Kabat-Zinn outlined seven attitudinal qualities that support the cultivation of mindfulness. He describes these as foundations for the development of a sustainable mindfulness practice. I introduce these attitudes in week one of the eight-week course, to equip people with the relational tools needed for navigating the territory of their heart-body-mind, and for reducing stress.
People trip over the attitudinal foundation of non-striving,” I don’t understand. What could this possibly mean? Of course I want to do well.” For me, it is important to acknowledge the fact that people do want something from participating in the course. They have paid money and invested time in their own well-being. Of course they want something!
The challenge is, letting-go of what that ‘something’ might look and feel like. We enter into a path of practice for a whole variety of reasons. For me, it was a consistent feeling of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, for others it might be chronic pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia or a whole host of other challenges. We begin this practice with some kind of desire, even if it is the simple desire of meeting an interest. After some time we realise that the freedom from our challenges, the peace, calm and ease that we had hoped to experience, are fleeting and temporary. We seek a silent mind, and find a mind full of chatter. We want our pain, whether emotional or physical to go away, and it doesn’t. We are not getting what we want and inevitably experience disappointment, frustration and anger. We find ourselves locked in cycles of hope, that it will all turn out the way that we want, and fear, that we it won’t turn out the way that we want.
But what if the problem is not, not getting what we want, but more our expectation about how things ‘should’ be. This is not to say that we don’t need to have aspirations. The aspiration to improve the quality of ones life can be a strong motivation to get out of bed early in the morning and meditate, or to make the often difficult changes in ourselves, our work, relationships or diet that are needed for a fuller quality of life. The problem is when we have a fixed idea, or goal of what the outcome of these changes might look like. For example, I may want greater peace and calm in my meditation practice. If I decide that peace and calm are an absence of thoughts, physical discomfort or any kinds of distraction, then I am going to be continually frustrated. If, however, I recognise that peace doesn’t lie in the way things are, but my relationship to the way things are. I have a chance! If I can open to the thoughts, physical discomfort and distraction and include them, it is more likely that I will experience the peace and calm that I am looking for.
Non-striving isn’t about giving up aspirations and goals, it’s about letting-go of control, of needing things to be a certain way. Recognising this is a process of disillusionment. Disillusionment in a positive sense, the illusion – the bubble of believing that we are in control and can have things our way, is burst. Now we can ‘wake-up’ to reality, to see things as they actually are. We can take response-ability for attending to the ways in which much of our stress and suffering arises from our refusal to accept life as it is in any moment. We let-go of our exhausting insistence that life be on our terms. We surrender. We give up our war with life, the war that can never be won. Reality always wins. We find our way, slowly, gradually cultivating non-striving, acceptance, patience, trust, letting-go/be, beginners mind and non-judgement, into a more mindful, and peaceful life.
The poet Donna Faulds puts it this way in her poem Allow:
There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
Check in with Jon Kabat-Zinn on non-striving: