How To Make Less Effort

Apr 03 2023

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Me with my hair down, making very little effort, bathed in the first light of day in my holiday apartment by the sea, getting ready to attend Ulla Koenig's online meditation session

This one goes out to all of us who try too hard, hold on too tight and stretch ourselves too thin. 

In this blog, I’ll be exploring how over-efforting causes suffering and pondering on why so many of us fall into this pattern. I’ll be exploring how over-efforting creates tension in the body, heart and mind and how that can influence our behaviour. I’ll shine a light on the tension that has been taking over my meditation practice and share some tasty theory and exercises for you to try, from a range of practitioners who have been teaching me how to effort less this year.

My Journey With Effort

Last July, I moved to a conscious community in Devon, where I am part of a small team that runs meditation retreats. Part of what drew me here was a desire to find a more sustainable way of working. Even though being a clown performer, director, facilitator, therapist and educator is incredibly fun and fulfilling, I’ve been in a perpetual cycle of over-work and burn-out for most of my life. Last year, whilst training to be a Clinical Supervisor, I realised that I was no longer willing to accept that pattern as the basis of my existance.

It might seem like a drastic move to give up my beloved work for a year, but I had a sense that it might take at least a year to get to the bottom of my tendency to work myself to a pulp and to explore different ways of being and doing. My year at The Barn has, in many ways, felt like convalescing in a hospital for the chronically over-worked. 

Through co-delivering the same 6-day retreat over and over again for the last nine months, I’ve had opportunities galore to see in excruciatingly vivid detail my tendency to make more effort than anyone would ever need to. I over-effort in pretty much every area of my life; in the practical work, the way I relate to others, in my creative process and even in my meditation practice!

“Wherever There Is Tension, It Requires Attention”

At the Trauma Super Conference, Gabor Mate spoke about the “driven state” that many of us spend our lives in. He said, “In the driven state there’s a constant tension.” He went on to suggest: “Wherever there is tension, it requires attention.” 

One of our guest teachers here at The Barn, Ethan Pollock, invited the retreatants to become aware of their patterns of contraction in the body whilst going about their daily tasks in the kitchen or in the garden. He suggested we begin by first noticing how we do things, then start to explore how that makes us feel. He urged us not to “jump too quickly to ease and calm,” but to simply “grow familiarity” with our habitual patterns. 

Watching myself at work, I notice that tension collects inside my body as contracting / tightening in my jaw, brow, shoulders, belly and bum. Where does the tension creep in for you?

An Exercise To Explore Tension In The Body

  • Take a moment to scan your body and notice where there is any tightness.
  • Just for a minute, exaggerate the tension at bit, squeeze those muscles a little tighter.
  • While you’re doing this, notice what’s happening with your breath.
  • As you clench, notice how you feel, emotionally.
  • Are you aware of any thoughts that come with this contracted state?
  • Now let it go, shake your body, extend your out-breath, have a little stretch or a wiggle.
  • How do you feel after letting that tension go?

I notice that when I’m physically tense, I also have a tendency to hold my breath, invariably there will be a feeling of stress and a contraction in my heart and mind, my vision can get narrow and I can lose sight of the bigger picture. 

“Three Popular Habits Of The Mind”

During her ‘Radical Rest’ online day of practice, meditation teacher Deborah Eden Tull introduced three ‘popular habits of the mind’:

1.) There’s something wrong.

2.) There’s not enough…

3.) There’s something I’ve got to do right now!

I don’t know about you, but when I’m at the mercy of these natural, habitual thoughts, tension is never far away. Just reading those words gives me a feeling of contraction in my body, heart and mind. Try reading them a few times and see what happens inside you. Do you have a favourite one? I’m partial to the old, “There’s something I’ve got to do right now!”

I see these “popular” thoughts as the fruits of the negativity bias, an incredible facet of the human mind which has helped us to locate and manage threats, since the very first moments of humankind. The negativity bias is one of the reasons we’re still around as a species, we have a lot to thank it for, but it’s not always useful to believe / act on these thoughts.

Effortful Behaviours

When I allow myself to be driven by my physical tension or these types of tension-inducing thoughts, I tend towards tight, constricted, effortful behaviours, such as:

  • Over-preparation - trying to get ahead of the game when I could be resting or having fun.
  • Perfectionism - pushing towards an impossible ideal and judging myself for not being able to get there.
  • Procrastination - not being able to get started and piling on the guilt / punishment.
  • Restlessness - not being able to complete a task, moving from one thing to another, not thinking things through properly.
  • Completionism - holding on like a bulldog, needing to see something through to the bitter end, even if I am exhausted.
  • Catastrophizing - creating needless drama.

What are your favourite go-to tension-inspired, effortful behaviours?

In my experience, tension begets tension. If I let these effortful behaviours play out without conscious intervention, whatever task I’m trying to do, my level of effort will crank up, bringing more tension into my body, heart and mind until something will inevitably break. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just push a button and be ejected from that whole tension cycle? The infuriating paradox is that we can’t melt away tension with effort, because effort creates tension! Grrrrrrrr!

Effortful Meditation

I have been exploring my relationship with effort and tension through meditation and movement practices for the last 18 years. Regularly coming into stillness on a meditation cushion has been a great way to get intimate with the tension that shows up in my body, heart and mind. Through getting to know the tension with curiosity and without judgement, I’ve been able to discover vital messages contained within it. Gently inquiring into what my clamped jaw, defended heart or tight mind are trying to protect me from, I can offer kindness and soothing to those parts that work so hard to try to keep me safe. Through this process, my defensive parts may soften and allow me access to the soft squidgy bits beneath, but only when they’ve been met with respect and care, they won’t be tricked into letting go until they are ready!

In February this year, after 7 months of sitting in meditation, three times a day, with our ever-changing community, I realised that my meditation practice had become riddled with effort and tension. Dropping into the physical tension in my belly and jaw with an open curious mind, I discovered that being in the role of coordinator at a meditation retreat centre had been putting pressure on my practice; through wanting to model “good” meditation for the retreatants, my practice had become a joyless drudgery. D’oh!

Ethan explained that the way in which we pay attention in meditation is the important bit, as our quality of attention can “perpetuate tension and distress.” Yep! He went on to say, “How we use our attention creates our experience.” Yep! 

Another of our visiting meditation teachers, Will Evans, described a common pitfall in meditation as trying to constantly “nail the attention back to the breath.” This grimly describes what was happening in my practice; by applying too much effort to stay present to my breath, my meditation practice had become a horrible, laborious endurance test. Yuck.

“This Is Here, No Big Deal”

Will talked about another way we can bring tension into our meditation, by striving towards a calm mind. He said when we put pressure on our minds to be in a certain state, “…it’s like squeezing a bar of soap … the more you squeeze it, the more it pops out of your hands.”  Will explained, “If we judge our meditation by the calmness of our mind, we’ve confused the helpful side effect of meditation with the method.” In Will’s view, the method of meditation is “to find a different relationship to what’s happening, a softening, a feeling of not being pushed around by our thoughts.” This may or may not lead to a calm mind, but if we come to meditation expecting a calm mind, we are putting unnecessary pressure on our practice.

So how do we find that sense of kindly open perspective? Ethan shared with us a mantra he’s borrowed from Pema Chodron: “This is here, no big deal.” This mantra gives Ethan a quality of spaciousness that allows things to be, on and off the cushion. He said, “We don’t want to change the content of our experience, we want to change how we relate to it.” He suggested that we notice where we’re getting stuck, tightening, or not wanting whatever is happening, then to ask ourselves; “Can I be with this without adding extra layers?” In Ethan’s view, the ultimate is not to find freedom from certain things, but to find “freedom with any aspect of our experience.” 

Aligning Practice With Wellbeing

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Babbacombe beach, Devon

Ethan and Will’s wise words felt like they could be my tension release valves, but by the end of February, I’d become so bound up in a bundle of effort and tension, it seemed like the best thing to do was to step away from The Barn for a bit. Searching for ease, spaciousness and freedom, I took myself away to an Air B&B by the sea for a week, to walk the South West Coast Path and breathe. 

It was pure serendipity that one of my favourite meditation teachers, Ulla Koenig was offering an hour of meditation instruction every morning that week via Sangha Live, online. Ulla’s method is based on “aligning your practice with wellbeing, not pressure, harsh concentration or willpower….” She explained that when we try to use the “usual hungry, agitated mind” in meditation, our perspective can get distorted and we are likely to view our experience critically, which as we’ve discussed in this blog, leads to tension. She offered a meditation approach which was designed to, “first take care of soothing, calming, nourishing, collecting, harmonising the mind.”

Aha! This is the bit I’d forgotten! In my attempt to model perfect meditation for our retreatants, I’d been sitting up very straight and very still, with a laser-beam focus on every part of every breath, totally forgetting to actively focus on relaxing, softening and soothing. Whoopsie.

Treat The Heart-Mind (Chitta) Like A Fragile Bird

During the week, Ulla referred to ‘Chitta’ which is a Pali word that translates as ‘heart-mind.’ Back in the time of the Buddha, there was no separation between the heart and the mind, so Chitta includes both our emotional and cognitive responses to any stimulus. 

Ulla compared the heart-mind to a fragile bird. She explained that birds have a lot to do; they need to find food, build a nest, find a mate and protect themselves and their young from predators. Our minds can be like this too - busily assessing risks and making plans and preparations. Ulla reminded us to not judge our minds for this and not to expect them to settle straight away when we come to our meditation cushions. She said that we can often find ourselves impatiently telling the bird to “sit down and relax,” but that may be working against the bird’s conditioning. The bird might be too frightened or agitated, it would be an act of force to say, “settle down!”

Ahem, as a big fan of consent and freedom of choice, I feel a bit embarrassed to realise I’d been oppressing my own mind during my meditation in this way!

Ulla suggested that instead of forcing our heart-minds to settle, we can put our focus into preparing the nest for the bird to rest in, by intentionally relaxing and soothing the body and the nervous system, making the body a more hospitable space for the bird to rest. Perhaps the bird may then be able to rest for a breath or two and then it might fly away. What if this isn’t a problem? What is this is just what birds do? Ulla offered the provocation: what if we expect the mind to be like this at the start of our meditation? Rather than rile against a disobedient mind, why don’t we just meet it as it is, with kindness and compassion?

Meditation - Preparing A Nest For The Bird Of Chitta To Settle Into

This is my version of one of Ulla’s meditations for you to try. It will take somewhere between 5 and 20 mins, depending on how much time you’ve got. I hope you enjoy it.

To Begin

  • Choose a posture for this exploration - you can sit, stand, lie down or even walk.
  • Respectfully meet your heart-mind just how it is right now, even if it is all over the place.

Say “Hello Dear Body”

  • No need to yank your attention to one particular object, just gently notice what you can feel in your body.
  • How would you describe your body’s sensations?
  • Would you say your body is a good nest for your heart-mind to settle into right now?
  • Would it be difficult to settle into this nest?

Say “Hello Dear Heart.”

  • Notice how your heart feels right now.
  • Does your heart feel like it could offer a safe harbour to a fragile bird?

Say “Hello Dear Mind.”

  • What is the quality of your mind right now?
  • If it is possible, take a moment to notice the sensations in your hands.
  • Perhaps you can feel your hands in contact with your lap or with each other?
  • Perhaps you can feel inside your hands?
  • As you invite your attention to settle in your hands, notice what happens.
  • Perhaps your awareness flies away from time to time, perhaps it settles in your hands for one breath only, no need to judge, just notice how it is today.

What Feels Good?

  • With your body, heart and mind just as they are, explore what they might need to feel good.
  • Throughout the following three explorations, allow your heart-mind to drift off and come back when it wants to, no need for pressure or force.

Exploration One 

  • Try swaying slowly and gently from side to side or front to back.
  • Notice your connection with the ground as you gently sway.
  • Are you enjoying this movement? Does it soothe you? If so, carry on for a while.
  • If the swaying is not for you today, find stillness instead.

Exploration Two 

  • Try taking in a full nourishing breath and letting something go on the out-breath.
  • Are you enjoying taking fuller breaths in this way? If so, carry on for a while.

Exploration Three 

  •  Let all that go and allow yourself to do nothing for a while.
  • Ulla says: “There is neither a medal to win nor is there anyone behind your back observing whether you’re doing it correctly, enjoy your practice.”
  • Just allow yourself to sit or lie down or stand or walk for a while - no need to do anything with your mind.

To Finish

  • Before you finish this meditation, take a moment to notice what felt good for you.
  • Come back to your body, heart and mind - how are you feeling now?
  • Come back to the sensations in your hands - how is the quality of your attention now?
  • Have a little stretch and come back to the space you’re in.

“Joyful Effort”

How was that meditation for you? Were you able to meet your experience with spaciousness and curiosity or did the tension and effort creep in? How did it show up and how did it make you feel?

Ulla’s meditations had a profound impact on my practice. Supported by miles and miles of gorgeous coastal walking, clutching smooth pink pebbles, gazing at the ever-changing sea, breathing big lungfuls of sea air and being buffeted around by salty winds, I felt reconnected with my body, heart and soul. Over the course of the week, I felt myself soften and relax and space began to open up inside and around me. Life was no longer one emergency after another, underscored by the familiar refrain of, “There’s something I’ve got to do right now!” 

Ever since that week, I’ve been tasting a sense of “joyful effort” in my meditation, which, according to Ethan, is what happens when you give yourself “wholeheartedly to the practice with joy.” I’ve also been noticing my attention settling much more easily and naturally, which could be explained by Will’s theory; “When we find softening and spaciousness, there is less conflict in the mind-body system and focus happens naturally.”

I’m so grateful to Ulla, Ethan, Will, The Barn and The Sea for helping me to make a radical shift towards kindness, softening and acceptance as legitimate and appropriate forms of effort. I doubt that I’ll be able to remember this all the time, as my old habits are deeply ingrained, but tasting a tension-free quality of effort has opened up a pathway which can be deepened with joyful practice.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: View from the South West Coast Path

References / Links

Gabor Mate was speaking at Trauma Super Conference via Conscious Life, February 13-19 2023

Deborah Eden Tull’s Afternoon of Radical Rest took place online via Sangha Live, 5th November 2022

Ethan Pollock and Will Evans are both meditation teachers and retreat leaders, who used to be coordinators at The Barn. The content I’ve shared in this blog comes from my notes which I took during their various Dharma talks at The Barn this year.

Ulla Koenig’s week of meditations was themed “Samadhi - Doors of Harmony,” February 27 to March 3 2023, and can be found here on Sangha Live. She is a regular teacher on that platform and you can sit with her live in the mornings or revisit her sessions via the Sangha Live archive.

If you’re interested in coming to one of our retreats, check out The Barn Retreat Centre

If you'd like to follow my journey at The Barn, check out The Barn Diaries or sign up to my mailing list at the bottom of this page.

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