“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” Antoine de Saint Exupéry

“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry

When he wrote these words the legendary aviator and author of the children’s classic, The Little Prince, was talking about the evolution of flying machines, but they apply equally to meditation.

One of the traditional terms for meditation is “bhāvanā” which means “cultivation,” “producing,” or “developing.” We use that term when we talk about lovingkindness meditation, for example: mettā bhāvanā. And this can give us the impression that meditation is something we do. But essentially meditation is about not doing. It’s about letting go of all effort that interferes with our well-being and that hinders our being in harmony with ourselves and others.

Where we’re headed in meditation — our “goal” if you want to use that language — is a state of natural ease and awareness. Resting in natural ease and awareness is not something you can “do.” It’s something that emerges as we let go of unnecessary effort. By way of an everyday analogy, sometimes when we’re tense we unconsciously make a fist. The muscles in our hands tighten, and so our hands ball up. Tightening your muscles is doing something. It’s an example of unnecessary effort. What we call “relaxing” isn’t doing something. It happens when we cease to do something that isn’t necessary and isn’t helpful. When our hand is not doing anything it is naturally open and relaxed.

Meditation involves ceasing to do things that aren’t necessary or helpful. It’s about becoming naturally open and relaxed.

Every time we let go of distracted thinking and let our awareness settle down into the body, we’re letting go of unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy. That’s what distracted thinking is: unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy.

When we let go of unnecessary thinking, we start to become happier. Happiness isn’t something we do. It’s something that starts to happen naturally when we stop pummeling the nervous system with thoughts of worrying, wanting, disliking, and doubting. When the nervous system is at rest — when we’re at peace with ourselves — we feel happy and balanced.

We often talk in terms of “bringing our awareness back” to the breathing or to the body, but actually our awareness has never left the breathing or the body. Our nervous system doesn’t stop functioning when we’re not paying attention to something. So even if we aren’t consciously aware of the body or the breathing, nerves are still carrying sensations up to the brain. This is happening in every moment. We’re never really bringing our attention back anywhere: we’re simply letting go of focusing unnecessarily on something else. As soon as you start to let go of unnecessarily and unhelpfully focusing on your thinking, sensations from the body (which are always there) are noticed. Your attention brings itself back to the body, by no longer excluding it from conscious awareness.

As we spend more time in the body, pleasant feelings of relaxation and aliveness begin to emerge. Again, this isn’t something that we do. It’s something that simply arises as the body responds to being noticed, and as we stop flooding it with stress hormones.

I’m not making the argument that we shouldn’t ever do anything in meditation. For a long time it’s inevitable that we’re going to have a feeling we’re doing something. There are times we might want to direct our thoughts — for example when we’re cultivating compassion and we direct the mind toward suffering, or when we’re cultivating appreciation and turn the mind toward things that are good.

But the more there’s a quality of allowing, the more alive and vital our meditation practice is likely to be. Allowing brings with it openness and receptivity, and those things enrich our experience; sensations and connections we hadn’t noticed before become evident, and there’s a sense of joyful discovery. The more we think in terms of “doing,” the narrower our focus becomes. And this kills joy.

So I suggest that you think less in terms of doing and more in terms of letting go and allowing. Think less in terms of “meditating” and more in terms of simply sitting and allowing what is unnecessary and unhelpful to fall away, revealing joy, beauty, and presence. And as we allow this to continue, day after day, moment after moment, we let go of everything that diminishes our wellbeing, until there is nothing more to remove.

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How we use effort to get to a state of effortless meditation

A person's lower legs and feet mid-jump, appearing to hover over grass.

From time to time I’ll hear people saying that meditation shouldn’t involve effort. For example, Krishnamurti said, “All effort to meditate is the denial of meditation.” And I just stumbled upon a website that decried the “arrogance” and “ignorance” of those who say that meditation involves effort, because “Effort is the antithesis of meditation.”

It’s clear, though, when you look at the Buddha’s teachings, that he encouraged us to make effort in meditation, and in our lives generally. His last words, in fact, were “With diligence, strive on.”

And in my own meditation I find I have to make effort all the time. I have to let go of compulsive thinking, steer my awareness back to the body and the breathing, correct my posture, adjust my attitudes.

One section of the Eightfold Path — one of the Buddha’s key teachings — is “Right Effort.” Right effort is counted as being part of the meditation (samadhi) section of the path.

Right Effort, in the context of the eightfold path, is seen as one of three pivotal aspects of practice, along with Right View and Right Mindfulness. Every aspect of practice depends upon effort, mindfulness, and view.

Effort, mindfulness, and view are described as three states that “run around and circle” all other practices. For example, if you want to practice Right Speech, you first have to be mindful of your speech. Without mindfulness, there is no possibility of any practice. You also have to have a discriminating awareness (or view) of which speech activities are unskillful and cause suffering, and which are skillful and lead us away from suffering. And then you actually need to make effort to abandon unskillful speech and to cultivate skillful speech. So on every step of the path, effort is involved, along with mindfulness and view.

Right Effort is usually defined in terms of the Four Right Efforts, or Exertions. These are:

  1. The effort to prevent the arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
  2. The effort to abandon unskillful qualities that have already arisen.
  3. The effort to cultivate skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
  4. The effort to maintain and increase to fruition skillful qualities that have arisen

Of course we can make either too much or too little effort. There once was a monk called Sona, who was considering giving up monastic life because his efforts weren’t paying off. Just as he was wondering whether he should return to his family, the Buddha appeared to Sona. (This was described as the Buddha “magically” appearing, but I think we could take this as the image of the Buddha appearing in Sona’s mind as he debated with himself.) The (imagined) Buddha asked Sona:

“Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the lute?”

Sona of course replied that he had.

The (imagined) Buddha went on:

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too taut, was your lute in tune and playable?”

“No, lord,” replied Sona.

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too loose, was your lute in tune and playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your lute in tune and playable? … In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should find the right pitch for your energy, attune the pitch of your faculties, and thus begin your reflections.”

How do we know when, like Sona, we’re making too much or too little effort? The thing is that for our effort to be “right” effort it needs to be combined with mindfulness and right view. Mindfulness allows us to notice what the results of our efforts are, which right view lets us know whether those efforts are helpful or unhelpful, and whether we’re making the right kind of effort.

For example, if your mind lacks mindfulness, and you’re simply drifting, lost in thought, then you’re not exerting enough effort. If you’re feeling a sense of despair about your practice, then you also probably don’t have enough effort. If you’re getting tense and uptight, then you’re making too much effort. If you’re in a state of elation and aren’t very sensitive and kind to others, then you’re probably making too much effort. If you’re giving yourself a hard time, you’re trying too hard. It’s our mindfulness and our “view” that let us know what’s going on and whether it’s helpful.

You need to keep noticing what’s happening around your effort; what’s happening as a result of your effort. When we do that, our effort is more likely to be balanced.

The word “effort” and the related word “work” sometimes give the wrong idea. We can think of work and effort as being joyless activities. So when I talk about working in meditation, and putting effort into our practice, I like to flank the words “work” or “effort” with the terms “rest” and “play.” There needs to be a relaxation of any unnecessary effort — the effort that goes into making the body tense, or that goes into endless thinking, for example. So around our effort there needs to be an attitude of restful, mindful, expansive awareness. And the effort we make should ideally not be forced or unnatural, but light and playful. Meditation can become a joyful exploration: “Where can I go today?”

Yes, there may be times when we have to struggle (to stay awake for example) or have to forcefully restrain ourselves from doing something that we think is grossly unhelpful (for example when we repress the urge to say something unkind) but these should increasingly be unnecessary as we retrain the mind.

Now, it is possible to get to a point in our meditation practice where we don’t need to make any effort. The mind clears and becomes still, joy arises, and we’re simply present to our experience as it unfolds. The positive factors we’ve been developing in the mind reach a kind of critical mass and establish themselves stably. It seems that you’re not meditating — that your meditation is simply doing itself. It doesn’t seem that “you” are doing anything. But to get to that point we need to first put in some effort — usually a lot of effort. On the way to effortlessness in meditation, we find that we generally have to use a subtler and subtler kind of effort. We start to realize that any effort we make creates a kind of disturbance in the mind, and so we refine our effort. One image I love is of catching a feather on a fan; we have to make effort to catch the feather, but if you move too quickly you’ll blow the feather away. But we still have to make an effort — at least for a while.

As Shunryu Suzuki said, “Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in our mind. It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of our mind without any effort.”

It’s not really possible to short-cut this process, and jump straight to effortless meditation. Eventually we get to the point in meditation where effort is in fact unnecessary, but to get there we need to use an effort that is balanced, mindful, and, where possible, playful.

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How “letting go” helps us get things done

Woman in a colorful dress, caught in mid-jump, looking like she's hovering restfully over the ocean

Joe, a student in my online class, was worried that meditation would hurt his career. He works in a very competitive business where everyone is single-mindedly pushing and driving hard all the time. The whole idea of “letting go” seemed absurd in that context. But at the same time his stress and anxiety levels were sky high. He knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to live.

Yes it’s true that in meditation, we’re told to drop everything and let go. But that doesn’t mean becoming passive and ineffectual. There’s more to this instruction than meets the eye.

There’s an image that comes to mind for me to illustrate what letting go is like. Imagine we’re kayaking down a river. One way we could do it is to paddle like hell, trying to force our way around, fighting the currents, insisting that the kayak go exactly where I want it to go. And doing it how I want to do it.

Or, we could survey the terrain and current before jumping in. Then we ride the current and let it take us most of the way to where we want to go. We steer to make sure we don’t get dashed against rocks or end up heading down the wrong side of the river. We could also use a calmer bend in the river to stop and look ahead to plan our next stretch. We can steer our course without using nearly as much effort this way, adjusting our path as we go along.

Life can be the same way. We don’t have make all the effort ourselves to make things happen from beginning to end. If we expand our view beyond our self-absorbed need to reach our goal, there’s a whole universe of structures and currents out there that can help us.

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At work for example, if we find people who have common goals and interests as we do, our combined energies can often accomplish more than the sum of us individually could. Involving our boss in our plans sometimes results in him clearing a path in front of us, getting us resources, additional help, budgets, etc. Tagging onto existing workflows and procedures means we don’t have to create everything ourselves.

Letting go can help us in our inner world, too. Have you noticed how creative ideas often pop up when you’re taking a shower or walking the dog? In other words, when you’re not really trying? Recent neuroscientific research suggests that making less effort is what helps. When we become effortful in problem solving, it generally means we’re pushing our way through our old, familiar ways of doing things. And often, those are exactly the ways that haven’t worked, but we keep pounding at them anyway. When we keep repeating the same thing over and over, we become blind to other possibilities. So to be “not effortful” means to inhibit the thoughts that don’t work in order to leave room for something else to emerge.

Not being effortful also means your mind is quieter and more conducive to new ideas. A creative thought is one that brings up a long-forgotten memory or combines some of them in a new way. Neurologically speaking, they involve connections between far fewer neurons than your front-of-mind thoughts. So the signals they emit are much weaker, and generally get drowned out by your much louder, effortful thoughts. To give those quieter thoughts a fighting chance to be noticed, it helps to have a quiet mind. One that has “let go” of jangly discursive thinking.

So letting go doesn’t mean letting go of everything — just the stuff that gets in our way. In this context, it means letting go of our obsessive focus on results, and our inflexible views of how to get there. It doesn’t mean dropping all thoughts about the future, but finding a more open and flexible relationship with them.

The larger perspective of the teaching on “letting go” is an acknowledgment that I am a part of a highly interconnected world. Every time I get hyper-focused on my own little view of the world, I am being blind to the way things really are. To think that I can do things exclusively my way is to be foolish and ignorant. And it’s bound to get me into trouble, or at least cause me a lot of stress.

But at the same time, I’m not a helpless victim either. I am the agent of my own free will, and can use it to steer my path through life. With mindfulness, we can skillfully navigate our way through all these forces to get to a better outcome. And it’s not just me that benefits — because everything I do ultimately benefits everyone.

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