The Way of Non-Efforting, and how to live it
“Without going out his door
he knows the whole world
without looking out his window
he knows the Way of heaven...
the farther people go
the less people know
therefore the sage knows without moving
names without seeing
succeeds without trying.”
- Lao Tse
Non-efforting and surrendered openness on the Path
We often talk of ‘non-efforting’ in walking the spiritual path. The way of no-mind or not-doing. We may speak about being surrendered and Present, being in the Now and at rest within that. But what does it actually mean?! Are these just words or ideas, or is this really a feasible and practical way of living on a daily basis?
How can we realise non-efforting in our lives even as we walk the path?
I felt to share some perspectives and insight into the exploration and the living of 'non-efforting'; Some of what I've realised and experienced, and some of the things I'm working with and still learning.
What non-efforting is not!
In my experience the concept of non-efforting has often been misinterpreted or misconstrued. So it seems fitting to firstly discuss what, in my view, it is not!
For some the idea may be purely associated with the life of a monk or yogi. It might be viewed as a ‘nice idea’ but hardly a practical way of living. For others it might mean doing nothing or very little - perhaps meditating, moving slowly, involved only in pleasurable or ‘spiritual’ things. Yet to me this is not so much walking the path as sitting on it! To me it seems that in walking the path there is movement, there is flow, there is drive and impulse and there is an embracing of all experiences that we encounter.
distortions of non-effort
The concept may also be used as a kind of exemption from taking a course of action we may find difficult. A person may say ‘I shouldn’t do that because it seems like efforting,’ Yet could it be that the mind is labelling as ‘efforting’ something the ego finds challenging or hard work? Perhaps in reality it is an authentic invitation to confront challenges and take creative action.
Non-efforting is not about giving up creative action or relinquishing responsibility for one’s own journey. It is not about dissolving the path that is given us, and it is not about hiding from or ignoring the world.
It is not the same as taking no action.
Non-doing is not ‘doing nothing’
We may hear about teachers and sages talking of ‘non-doing’. I think initially the words can be a little misleading, because they might seem to advocate a kind of dissociation with what’s going on. To some this could translate as ignoring or disregarding the circumstance one finds oneself in.
To be constrained or entangled in the external drama or conditioning of society doesn’t tend to facilitate our authentic Soul expression. Yet at the same time, it is not really authentic to try and ‘pretend’ the world away. Many a tale’s been told of ‘highly realised’ practitioners, having come down from monastery or mountain retreats after many years, to find themselves in everyday interactions that rapidly caused them disturbance or tightness, and realising they weren’t so ‘highly realised’ after all!
In my view non-efforting is not about ignoring what we experience, but about being completely present. Thus we allow what is presented to us, without labelling it, and from this place we can work with it. For the more present one is the more we are able to feel ‘right action’ and flow with that.
Non-doing means not forcing, but allowing.
Breaking down brick walls… through non-efforting
The (distorted) concept of non-efforting may then evolve from the idea of doing nothing into the idea of doing only what is clearly and OBVIOUSLY right action. But I came to realise that this in itself can be a distortion. For there are times when things aren’t so black and white: we may feel as if we’ve run into a metaphorical brick wall and don’t know what to do.
In these situations it may be possible that the principle of non-efforting becomes distorted into indecision, doubting and lack of momentum. We may stumble in those hazy areas where things aren’t so clear: a fear of taking inauthentic action may lead to taking no action at all. So the distorted cycle would lead back to doing nothing, yet through fear or doubt, not authenticity.
In my experience though, that distortion can dissolve as we bring awareness to it, and we may find a deeper truth within it. It became clear to me that there are times when it just is not clear what to do, however in the flow we are – perhaps we’re just not given to know, or else old conditioning or distortions are muddying the waters.
In these situations tightness may arise as the mind engages with the self styled ‘conundrum’. Sometimes however its better to just DO SOMETHING rather than to sit and procrastinate. Sometimes the flow is in not knowing; so we may be invited to just pick an option and go with it! Even if we are not sure what is right action, if our intentions are authentic, how much does it matter if we take the less than optimum choice? Are we attached to the idea of not making mistakes?
For sometimes right action means to take a ‘leap of faith’ and trust, even in the not knowing. This in itself may require a little ‘extra’ energy or impulse to get things going. So we may even need to bring focus to ‘nudging’ things on a little, in order to ‘tip the balance’ and get things moving. Yet if we align as best we can to what we feel is right action, follow that pull and trust, things unfold once more.
“In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.”
- Tao Te Ching
Having no-expectations of what right action might be, and being open and surrendered to the pull of the Soul means to relinquish the illusion of control of your life. How can you predict the outcome of events or actions? How can you control what experiences may come? You cannot control what path the stream takes but you can choose whether you just sit on the bank, whether you swim against the current or if you simply let the flow carry you on. Let go.
Align with the Flow
What I feel is that the Universe is infused with connection or ‘flow ‘of energy on every level, and this flow is the movement of energy towards a Higher Harmony. It is a natural wave of Divinity.
For me true non-efforting means being present with what’s going on for you, being open to how you feel within and what’s being invited, and letting go of any preconceived goals or outcomes. It is when you realise you don’t have control over the course of life’s unfolding, only of your responses to it – how you are being within it. Through being present with what is unfolding in the moment non-efforting is an aligning with the Divine Flow of the Universe, allowing it to sweep you up, and carry you onwards. It is about true surrender.
Surrender not surrender!
The concept of ‘surrender’ can sometimes appear ambiguous. To me, there are different types of surrender. That which we might term ‘inauthentic surrender’ could be called ‘giving up’, playing victim, resignation. It implies defeat.
Yet, as Eckhart Tolle mentions, there is also a true, authentic surrender, simply
“yielding to, rather that opposing the flow of life.”
It means to accept what is going on RIGHT NOW and letting go into that. We relinquish the idea of control, and TRUST!
It is in that complete vulnerability to the moment that we let go and move into non-efforting and a Presence that is simply open to what’s given.
Within this place of Surrendered Openness then, identities, tightness, and illusory realities of control can fall away because we can see that really we are not them anyway. They do not serve our authentic Truth. We can feel the effortlessness within the surrender, the ease within the non-efforting. With no expectations what have we left to prove? and to whom? We realise that we cannot control the Universal Flow, but we can Trust in it.
By creating a space of Presence, a surrender to the moment, a letting go of effort, we create something else – the Potential for something new to arise!
It is as if we have had the courage to paint over a canvas that held the painting of how our life ‘appeared’ to be, and who we thought we were. A painting that held ideas of past and future but really was all just an image.
Now we are open to something new.
Nature as teacher
lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they
spin. And yet I say to you, that even Solomon in all his glory
is not arrayed like one of these.”
- Matthew 6:28-29
We see clear examples of the efficacy of non-efforting played out around us, especially in the natural world.
Out walking the other day I closed my eyes for a moment and suddenly the world was lit up by birdsong. As I listened I noticed when the birds were silent it seemed the world was silent, the world disappeared. Even when singing there was a silence; a stillness into which they sang. With eyes closed there was nothing but song and silence. I could feel their cries dance across the void as they sang, and it was beautiful.
I realised the bird song as a natural, spontaneous arising of Beingness from out of Beingness. There was no effort, no expectation, no bird even in that moment – only song and flow and nothingness.
The natural world does not effort yet things still get done. We can observe energy arise from stillness. Animals find food and shelter, seasons change, trees grow, a flower opens to the sun, yielding completely to the elements and forces around it. A mountain provides inspiration by its very Beingness.
As Nature shows us, non-efforting does not mean nothing happens, rather things simply flow. It invites us to allow space for things to arise and then flow with them as they do.
From stillness action arises
There is a naturally creative energy flowing through the Universe. It was perhaps an expression of this energy that catalysed the ‘Big Bang’, the beginning of the world of form. Yet this energy needs a field to play out upon, or a canvas on which to appear: so the Divine Masculine arises from out of the Divine Feminine, and is enfolded within Her again.
It feels to me that it is the Divine Feminine, as Presence or Void that plays Host to the unfolding of the Universe. It is the natural formless state which underlies all, holds all, and to which all returns. This may play out for us on an individual level too, where again we can see how non-effort, present awareness and surrender are a natural state of being. We can see how right action can spontaneously arise from non-efforting, in fact it is a part of it. By being present with what is occurring and surrendered to the Flow we can allow space for authentic action to arise. This is authentic Non-effort.
Ideas on how to live non-efforting (from my perspective)
• Be the observer of ourselves, our motivations, our thoughts and feelings, in every moment
• Surrender the illusion of control. Let go of attachments to outcomes.
• Be present with what IS, not what might be or has been. Be in the moment
• Watch what is being invited of us through feelings and synchronisities
• Be open to Divine Potential
• Feel and align with the natural Flow of the Universe
• Take authentic action, as and when it feels natural and appropriate
• If we genuinely feel to take action but don’t know which course to take, try to bring absolute self honesty to the situation, and be open to take a ‘leap of faith’ if it feels right.
• Centre in the place of Being, rather than Doing, let action flow from this place of openness, and allow life to naturally unfold.
In the Flow
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
- Anais Nin
So we can truly realise non-efforting or surrendered openness in our lives, not just as a nice idea or an occasional reality but as a way of living. By being surrendered, by not expecting a certain outcome, not striving for a goal, just being aware and present as much as we’re able, we’re almost there. To combine this surrender with an openness to what’s given, a willingness to align with and follow what feels right, to align and become the Flow, that in my view is the essence of living non-efforting.
If we have the courage to be vulnerable to the moment; to be Present, surrendered and aligned in truth, then what is authentic will arise naturally within that. Presence and stillness birth authentic creativity. We become the flow.