The Paradox of Effort

Once there was a man who hated his own shadow.
When he walked and found that his shadow was close behind him,
he began to walk faster and faster.
But the faster he moved, the closer his shadow came.
So he ran like a madman.. and in the end, he dropped dead.
Those who do not understand the Dao are just like the man
who hated his shadow. It is actually very easy to be rid
of one’s shadow — just rest under a tree. Just rest.”
-Zhuang Zhou

There’s a Zen story about an eager young monk who checks into a monastery and is rearing to go get this thing called enlightenment. “How long will it take?” he asks the abbot.

“Ten years,” replies the abbot.

“That long! Why so long?” exclaims the horrified young monk.

“Did I say ten? I meant twenty.”

“Twenty?”

“So sorry, I think it will take you thirty years.”

paradox effort Buddha
photo credit: frostnova

Asking “How long?” will get you ten. Three strikes will get you thirty.

As soon as the expectation or imagery of awakening pops up, you get thirty years.

You may have heard that you have to want Awakening as much as a drowning person wants air. And you may have heard you are already enlightened, it takes no effort. Or perhaps, that effort itself is an obstacle.

Which is it? Effort? No Effort?

Here’s a small taste of no-effort. Close your eyes. Listen to the sounds around you. Hear a sound without labeling or interpreting. All you are doing is sensing the sound. Meet the perception half-way. See that there is no time-delay between hearing and sensing the sound. There is only a time-delay if there is interpreting or labeling or figuring out the sound. When sensing and hearing are one, there no delay and no effort.

The mind knows effort. The mind knows struggle. The mind knows how set a goal and take steps with effort and discipline to get what it wants. Awakening, however, is a very different process.

To live a flowing life, there is nothing to get and nowhere to go and nothing to learn. The mind in fact has nothing to do with this process. We want a realization of what is obvious, right in front of us, here and now, and something we have always known. Effort takes us further away from this realization.

The mind of course rebels at this. The mind will create all sorts of images and models of what flow is, and it will struggle towards that. The mind will think that to even have a small chance at success, we must struggle and understand and strive. This is why religions and spiritual traditions are full of effort-ful knowledge-seeking and rituals and methods. The mind loves methods and practices and knowledge—even spiritual knowledge.

No-effort is an utter relaxation of the mind so that the natural functions of Awareness can do the job. No-effort is not the same as laziness or giving up. Giving up, in fact, is a lot of effort. It is the effort of pitting beliefs against beliefs until the whole thing collapses.

The mind will not understand what no-effort is. If we could surrender the craving for happiness, surrender the constant need for change, surrender the struggle, surrender the moment-to-moment fleeing, and surrender to Awareness, we would awaken instantly. Awakening does not take time or space. It isn’t an accomplishment or an achievement; it’s just very natural, simple and ordinary.

The simplicity of this dazzles the mind.

So what can we do? We can practice until, through direct experience, we know what it means to give up effort and struggle. It is important the practice be very simple. It is important the practice is effort-less. The practice of Release and the practice of Awareness both go in the same direction. Release removes painful resistance and the painful past. Awareness accesses our innate non-thinking intelligence.

As we release and access awareness, we understand the nature of struggle and effort, and at some point, with huge relief, we are comfortable giving up the need to understand and the need for accumulating more knowledge. We began to trust our innate intelligence. Some very basic assumptions that we have always taken for granted begin to unravel. This does not take effort or thinking. Assumptions that we have made about the nature of time, the nature of craving-struggles, the nature of intelligence, the function of emotions and thought, and the nature of beliefs and desires begin to dissolve. We see that awakening is the most relaxing thing we can do. If we meditate or do yoga, we begin to see that meditation and yoga are not a means to some goal, instead they simply are about being utterly present and effortless. We see that living is simply being utterly present to experience. When we are relaxed into presence, we free up a great deal of energy that previously went to craving and grasping, and paradoxically, we find that life flows.

In its rise effort is inspiring, in its release, gloriously freeing!

It’s just Awareness and Release. Is that effort?

4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Effort

  1. Nadia - Happy Lotus

    Hi Kaushik!

    Excellent post. I was recently having a discussion with some friends on this topic. Sometimes people feel a great need to make things happen and they end up getting in their own way. I learned a long time ago about the importance of learning to let things go. Thank you for sharing this important lesson with the rest of us. 🙂

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Thanks Nadia! The mind rebels like the idea of no-effort and letting go, and so it seemed, at least in my experience, effort was necessary to see that it is not. Please come see us again!

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