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What is Non-Striving?

Non-striving is one of the fundamental principles of mindfulness. It is a conscious decision to allow things in your life or in the world to be as they are, rather than always reacting to try to change things in the moment. In our current corporate culture, life is so much about doing. Non-striving creates space to simply be.

Coming into meditation with a goal is sort of contrary to the point. Sure, you may have an overarching reason to be meditating, a larger goal that you hope to work towards, but if you start a sit with a plan like today, I am going to fully clear my mind for twenty minutes and then do every yoga pose perfectly later, it’s likely you’ll be laughing at yourself and your lofty goals later. Even striving towards a larger goal can be unhelpful for a practice, but since humans are goal-oriented, the motivation is probably worth it. 

What is so detrimental is getting attached to a specific outcome. Part of the beauty of a meditation practice is that it is impossible to predict what will come of it. Much of the joy is in the discovery. Having a goal or focusing on something specific also makes it much harder to focus on what is here. When you’re aiming for a “perfect” experience, if reality doesn’t live up to it, it is far too easy to become disillusioned or frustrated. And often, there is still beauty and progress in those non-“perfect” meditation sessions—but by focusing on what we want to happen, we miss the good things that are actually happening.

This idea of non-striving can lead to anxiety or confusion. Usually, our days are about how to get things done and maximize productivity. But that is not the point here. The point is to exist in the world. It’s simple, but sometimes the things that seem simple are deceptively complicated.

As another way to consider this idea, think about the phrase, “life is a journey, not a destination.” It’s possible to live your life always hustling to end-points, always thinking that happiness is at the summit of the next mountain, but it may not be fulfilling. And it’s not a particularly successful way to have a mindfulness practice, either. This quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson illustrates the point of non-striving much better, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

What non-striving is not

Practicing non-striving should not be the same thing as practicing passivity. Accepting the world as it is does not preclude deciding to take action to change something. That may sound like a contradiction. This Mindful Leader article, How to Practice Acceptance Without Being Complacent, by Dave Potter explains the concept in more detail, but, in short, it is not useful to look at the situation and say to yourself this is hopeless, I can’t change anything. It is also not useful to be inflexible and constantly try to make the world conform to your wishes. There is a sweet spot where non-striving lives, where you can acknowledge the world as it is, accept it, and respond with the tools you have.

The world is always going to be what it is going to be. If we can look at it and say, okay, that is a much healthier starting point for anyone seeking change. Being attached to a goal can lead to additional suffering, but accepting the situation and making changes without a particular goal in mind can be far more productive than working rigidly towards an imagined ideal. You may also find better solutions or ideas along the way, if you are paying attention rather than rigidly striving for a particular outcome.

How can I start?

Non-striving is a bit of a paradox in that if your goal is to become a non-striver you’ve sort of missed the point. To work towards this fundamental mindfulness pillar, try to practice it in the moment. If you find yourself beginning a sit, redirect your focus and tell yourself that anything you get out of this meditation session will be worthwhile.

You can also try it out in the world. Here is a practice. When you find a situation you’re having trouble accepting and want to try to fix it, use this practice. It may be helpful to write down your thoughts and impressions as you go.

  1. Walk through the entire situation. Explore it and its ramifications, as well as your emotions and reactions to it. Try to be as thorough as possible in this stage.
  2. If you’ve already set goals, think through them or write them down and then let them go. You’re welcome to do a visualization exercise of releasing them here if that is helpful for you. Or you can physically tear or burn the paper. Either way, accept that those goals are not the answer.
  3. Sit with the situation. This may be uncomfortable. That is okay. You do not have to do it all at once. But spend time acknowledging that the situation exists, that it may not have a solution or an answer, and that you are indeed going through something. If it is helpful for you, give yourself space for frustration or other negative emotions.
  4. Take a break. Often, we humans can tear at worries like a dog with a bone. It may seem odd in a mindfulness practice to distract yourself, but staying mired in your negative feelings as you adjust to non-striving in a situation probably isn’t helpful. You can take a break from your practice entirely or try another mindfulness exercise, such as a body scan or yoga practice.
  5. Come back to it if you would like. This may be to repeat steps one through four. That is okay and often necessary, especially in an ongoing or stressful situation.
  6. And lastly, you may act if you would like. To reiterate, non-striving is not the same thing as passivity. If you’ve reached a place where you are no longer focused on what “should have been” and are ready to act knowing what is, in an appropriate, resilient, and flexible way, then do it.