High virtue is at rest;
It knows no need to act.
Low virtue is a busyness
Pretending to accomplishment.
– Lao Tzu
by Kenton Whitman
This is the time of year when many of us make resolutions, vowing to lose that extra twenty pounds, stop smoking, or improve our marriage. Many of us create these goals with the best of intentions, and then embark upon the New Year with an action plan in place. And yet more often than not, we find that despite our intentions and plans, we end up failing to meet our resolutions. Is this because we’re weak or lazy? Or could it be that we’re going about things all wrong? An ancient teacher, Lao Tzu, left us with a book called The Way of Life. In it, he speaks of the Tao – a way of realizing our own true nature and learning to live in harmony with it. His message is one that turns our usual way of thinking on its head. He suggests that the best way to accomplish things and be successful in life is not by our usual methods of setting goals and striving to meet them. Instead, he talks about something we might call non-striving.
Here in the United States, the idea of non-striving or non-intention doesn’t make much sense. Here, we take action, working diligently to better our lives. Most of us believe that striving after goals is the only way to accomplish things. We must set our intentions and then direct our energies toward achieving them. How else could we possibly get anything done? If we observe ourselves and others, we’ll see that people are always striving – often putting aside the enjoyment of the moment in the hopes of achieving a future result. Whether it is money, fame, relationships, or reputation, we expend enormous amounts of personal energy striving to get more.
Lao Tzu asks us to examine this way of living and to notice that it leads us in endless circles of apparent success and failure. He wasn’t alone in this realization. St. Paul writes extensively about it in his teachings; Jesus speaks of it when he urges us to consider the lilies of the field; and Zen Masters use poetry and koans to point our minds in this direction. From Vedanta Hinduism to the writings of the modern psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, teachers throughout history have urged us toward this radically simple way of approaching life.
What Is the Secret of Non-Striving?
This way of living is so profoundly simple that it escapes even dedicated seekers. Non-striving springs from an understanding that humans, like all other living things, are natural. This means that we’re capable of natural action. Observe a tree, which grows perfectly without any apparent thought or purposeful action. Observe a fox, who need not plot future goals because her present actions are flawlessly suited to each moment.
Humans, however, seem to have been the brunt of a cosmic joke. While we, too, are capable of natural action in every moment, we often use our over-thinking brains to dwell on every possible outcome of a situation. If we have an important decision to make, we’ll often drive ourselves to distraction trying to figure out the best choice. In reality we’re operating on incomplete knowledge and our choices often turn out to be ‘wrong’ despite spending hours or even days striving to figure things out. This way of thinking might be good for increasing our technological ‘progress’, but it doesn’t necessarily increase our happiness or engagement with living.
In time, our adult lives become dominated by this striving; if we look at both our short-term and long-term actions, it becomes apparent that most of our energies are applied to meeting future goals, and that we miss the real juiciness of life because we’re always planning for the future or dwelling on the past.
The secret of non-striving breaks us free of all these chains. If we could stop striving for even a few heartbeats, we’d not only discover that we can fully appreciate This Moment (the only place we ever actually are), but that a great weight is lifted when we allow life to unfold naturally. Furthermore (and this is the most surprising part), we also find that we’re able to accomplish our former goals more effectively and efficiently when we’re not spending so much energy on striving.
You Perform Better When You Don’t Try
In my Metamorphosis program, I challenge clients to accomplish tasks that they perceive to be beyond their abilities. It might be a certain obstacle on the obstacle course that’s a little too high; or using the martial arts skills they’ve learned to spar against an ‘impossible’ opponent; or running further or faster than they think possible. One client was trying to better his time doing a barefoot 5-mile run over very challenging terrain. Each time he ran, he strained and pushed, using will and discipline to meet the challenge. Although he bettered his time with each run, the experience was invariably painful. One day I suggested that he just ‘give up’ his efforts to beat his time. Instead, we focused on the most distant cloud we could see, and pretended that we were chasing that cloud – running with an endless sense of ease. When he crossed the 5-mile finish line he felt relaxed, like he could have kept on running – and he had beaten his previous record by over 10 minutes.
Discovering Your Own Path to Power
Time and again, in my own life and the lives of people I work with, I’ve observed the power of non-striving at work. Whether the undertaking is an everyday task or a life-altering challenge, striving is replaced by calm poise and assuredness. We can encounter life’s challenges with ease and apply our energies toward the actions that are appropriate in any given moment. But if this is true, how can we claim this power for ourselves?
This is a tricky question. We’re addicted to effort-full actions, and even in trying ‘not to try’, we tend to apply striving. We can easily get into the trap of ‘trying’ to relax our efforts. Experimenting with this can be the start of an exciting and enlightening journey. One good place to begin is to examine the mechanism that encourages us to plot and plan. Most of us assume that we know what is good or bad in life, and this assumption causes us to expend great effort trying to achieve the good things. I’ll leave you with my version of an old story that challenges that assumption, and encourages us to move through life with a calm attitude of non-striving.
An old farmer lived in a village with his son. One day, his horse ran off, and his neighbor came over to offer his consolation. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” his neighbor said. But the farmer only shrugged and said, “Who knows what is good or bad?” The next day, the horse returned, bringing a wild horse with it, which the farmer took in to tame. “What luck!” his neighbor exclaimed. But the old farmer only said, “Who knows what is good or bad?” The next day, the farmer’s son was thrown from the wild horse and broke his leg while trying to tame it. “That’s terrible,” his neighbor exclaimed. But the old farmer only said, “Who knows what is good or bad?” The day after, military officials came through the village, drafting all the young men for the war, but the old farmer’s son was passed by due to his injury. “How fortunate!” his neighbor told him. But the old farmer only replied “Who knows what is good or bad?”
Kenton Whitman guides clients toward re-connecting with nature, discovering their full potential, and living life to the fullest through his Metamorphosis program and workshops. Visit www.kandrcreative.com to learn more.