The Cessation of Efforting: Meditation is NOT Self-Improvement

Welcome to the tenth post in the year-long series of Walking the Path of Heartfulness, a monthly meditation gathering. This month’s theme is The Cessation of Efforting: Meditation is NOT Self-Improvement. The intention is to bring curiosity into our formal practice and notice how we are experiencing meditation so that we can relax into stillness and release the urge to strive as much as possible. We tend to bring our social conditioning of striving and productivity into our practice, so it is a topic worth revisiting again and again.

Before moving into exploring the topic, I invite you to take 8 minutes to listen to this grounding meditation which began this month’s gathering.

Let us move into exploring what brought you to meditation AND what brings you to meditation now. Take a couple of minutes and consider these two intentions. Now, keep these in mind as you listen to the next meditation to see how these intentions may be impacting the meditation, specifically your attention (where it goes, how long it stays) and your response to this experience.

The second inquiry is about wise effort or balanced effort. What does wise effort mean to you or look like to you? Take a moment to consider your definition. I will share some highlights of what participants shared so that you feel a part of the gathering. Feel free to add your experience and thoughts in the comment section below.

One participant shared an example of wise effort as resting as a form of nourishment even when the inner critic was shaming her with statements like, “You’re lazy. You’re so unproductive. You’re such a disappointment.” In an effort to give herself compassion and forgiveness, she knew it was necessary to rest. Since she had a clear schedule, she used it wisely.

This is a beautiful example of how our formal practice influences our daily life. In her discernment of how best to care for herself on a particular day, she uncovered the compassionate nature of wise effort. In a society that tells us how we should spend our time, it takes wise effort to prioritize our well-being.

Another participant shared that she came to meditation out of the effort or constant need for self-improvement. She says that this is not what keeps her in meditation today because she has seen the benefits of practice, which far exceed any need for improvement. And for her, wise effort in daily life is about less effort, “doing something that is more restorative and taking care of yourself as opposed to pushing onward for whatever societal reason.”

Wise effort in daily life is in other words wise resistanceA paradox arises here because in meditation we tend to prioritize non-resistance, allowing the experience to be just as it is without pushing it away or trying to change it. And yet, these are examples in resisting the social and cultural conditioning of productivity as a symbol of our worthiness in order to listen to and care for our well-being.

And another participant shared how he was chasing the person he thought he should be and meditation became another means to self-improvement. It caused his meditation practice to be inconsistent as it became a task, another way to reject himself in hopes of becoming someone different and better (aka happier). He describes a misunderstanding of what meditation could be. He eventually realized that meditation cannot be used as a tactic for improvement. Once he came to this acceptance, meditation became less effort and it changed from being a tactic into a way of being. This has led to a consistent meditation practice.

There is so much wisdom in these shares. It is interesting to notice the impact of dropping expectations (cessation of efforting) of what meditation is supposed to do for us; we begin to be meditation, to be in meditation, to just be. This dropping of expectation shifts how, when and why we practice. 

It is when we shift from this intention of self-improvement to the true purpose which is to recognize our already awakened state, our true nature, our inherent goodness that we begin experiencing the healing nature of meditation. This in turn encourages the consistency of practice. It no longer takes effort or a lot of effort to get onto the cushion.

This is a radical shift from the way we are used to moving through life as doers. Meditation reminds us that we can flourish in non-doing, that aimlessness is not a negative state. This is not about passivity or giving up on life. That would be unwise. Wise effort is about how we relate to practice and how we engage with life. There is a balance between doing and non-doing. We can release the striving to be worthy because we are already worthy. We do not need to try to be that which we already are. Meditation helps us to see this clearly.

The cessation of efforting is a letting go of struggle, which is often magnified in our practice. We do not have to achieve. We do not have to have the answers. We do not have to change anything. The paradox is that when we clearly see our habitual patterns, we can disrupt them with compassion and wisdom and this wise effort changes everything!

Metta Poems-5

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