This is the fourth of a series reflecting on what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. As we cultivate our capacity for mindfulness it can be very supportive to develop these attitudes as a way of staying active in the process. The seven interconnected foundations are patience, trust, beginner's mind, non-judging, acceptance, non-striving, and letting go. Dr. Kabat-Zinn also plans to add two additional attitudes, gratitude and generosity, which we will explore later in this series. Cultivating our capacity for mindfulness is not limited to following a prescription and waiting for something to happen. The fruits are largely dependent on the attitude we bring to the practice and our experiences, moment to moment. When we begin to consciously cultivate these attitudes, together with engaging in the meditation practices, we are creating a receptive, rich, foundation for the healing power of mindfulness to emerge. In this piece we will explore the attitude of non-striving.
Cultivating the attitudinal foundation of non-striving is challenging for many of us, yet essential to the development of mindfulness practice. In our culture, the possibility of non-striving is radical, given much of our lives are spent trying to achieve something. The word (v.) strive comes from the old French word estrife and means to “quarrel, dispute, resist, struggle, put up a fight, compete.” Contrary to this, in mindfulness practice the invitation is to sit and do nothing. The very thought of this notion of non-doing turns people’s noses up in disgust, conjuring up feelings of anxiety, and making even the most open-minded folks wonder how anything will get accomplished.
One accessible way to frame this discussion is simply to consider the words product and process. When we are striving, our primary concern is product, whereas when non-striving is present, our focus is process. When you apply this to your life, you can easily begin to see where striving takes hold. When is the last time you did something just to be there doing it, fully immersed in the moment to moment experience? Close your eyes and see if you can recall the frame of mind that was present while engaged in a recent activity. Gardening, watching a movie, cooking a meal, making love. You may likely find that you were heavily invested in the outcome of the event and paid little or no attention to the process as it was unfolding.
So why is non-striving important to develop on your journey to living more mindfully? You may recall the teaching about attachment from the post on the attitudinal foundation of letting go. When we focus on product, we are attaching to an outcome, therefore creating the conditions for suffering to arise. For example, we may sit down for practice and decide we are going to get calm, focusing our energy on this goal. The moment we begin to feel anything other than calm, judgments arise and as a result of the attachment, we begin to experience suffering. In mindfulness meditation we cultivate our capacity to pay attention to process, witnessing the unfolding of our lives and ourselves, moment to moment. This should not be confused with indolence or lack of motivation, rather can be seen as a shift in our focus of attention. We may have an objective to reduce stress, sleep better, or improve our concentration, which are all noble goals. When we shine the light of mindfulness on achieving these goals, we are cultivating our capacity to become present to the ever-changing process of our experience, with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgement.
How do we begin to develop non-striving? Notice when we are focused on product and begin to pay attention to process! This simple shift in the way we approach the events that make up our lives can be transformational. The now famous quote “Just do it!”, coined by Nike, gives us great insight in to this possibility. The essence of this tagline implies that we should let go of any outcome and just enjoy what we are doing, in the moment. When we practice this we move in to a state named by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, known as flow. Also known as the zone, flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” 1 Set the conditions and let go!
Another supportive practice to cultivate the attitude of non-striving is to partner goals with intentions. Intentions focus on “how” we are showing up in the here and now, and allow us to align our worldly actions with our inner values, independent of outcome. For example, you may have a goal to complete a PhD program in an area of interest. Partnering this goal with the intention to be kind to yourself and others in the process, keeps you in the present moment and guides you in a way that is aligned with your heart. You may have goal specific intentions or general intentions, both of which you can come back to, again and again, while moving towards your goals.
Non-striving is a radical practice that takes patience and non-judging to cultivate. Begin by becoming familiar with the way striving feels in the body and seeing how what you feel changes when you practice non-doing. This clear seeing will begin to loosen the grip of attachment to outcome and allow you to have more moments of flow. You may consider choosing one activity a day where you focus on process, with no concern for outcome. Stay curious and be creative! Reflect on your universal intentions as well as any intentions for specific goals and begin to integrate them in to your daily life. Finally, remember what Laozi said, “Do non-doing, strive for non-stiving, savor the flavourless, make much of little, repay enmity with virture; plan for difficulty when it is still easy, do the great while it is still small.”