The Tao Te Ching tells us to forgo effort:
“The Master's power is like this.
He lets all things come and go
effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
thus he is never disappointed.”(verse 55)
“Act without doing;
work without effort.”(verse 63)
Now, I understand the idea of no effort to an extent. I can grok the whole “if you hold water in your hand and squeeze, the water runs out.” Years ago, one of our sons had a friend who was being pressured by his parents, especially his father, in what I thought was too strong a way. Ease off, I said to him in my mind. Let the kid be himself. (The kid turned out fine, in the end.)
But no effort, ever? That, for me, takes effort.
I was brought up on the idea of effort. You try. You apply yourself. You work hard. I’m not much of an athlete, but whatever good performances I ever had when playing a sport was due to effort—to hustle. (My model was Pete Rose—called “Charlie Hustle” back in the days before we realized he was “Charlie the Hustler.”) At work, I was never the most innovative or clever guy, but I was never outworked by anybody. When we had project launch meetings, it was my notes that became the source of the meeting summary and action plan to follow, first because I took more notes than anybody and second because everyone knew I would generate the summary document sooner and more thoroughly than anyone else would.
I’ve always believed that effort is a value—something to be honored, and something that anyone, even those without natural ability, can show. That, in fact, lack of effort was a flaw. Lack of effort is not taking a task seriously, and that may mean not taking yourself seriously.
Part of me understands that too much focus on a goal poses dangers. It can get in the way of judgment and turn the goal into an obsession. You can lose balance and be unable to adapt to circumstances. You can allow your emotions to knock you off kilter. You press, and in trying too hard, you doom yourself to failure. You do what athletes call “getting outside yourself,” or “trying to do too much.”
I understand the idea of effortless action, where what you’re doing flows from you easily and smoothly, rather than being a struggle. This happens sometimes when I’m writing, and everything clicks, and the words seem to just flow onto the page, or sometimes when I’m inventing a dinner dish, and ingredient combinations just come to me.
But, then, isn’t effort also a sign that you’re in the moment? After all, if you’re making an effort, you’re concentrating, and if you’re concentrating, you’re in the present rather than living in the past or future. Isn’t that focus precisely what it means to live in the Now? What’s the fine line, the subtle difference, between effort, which is an aspect of mindfulness, and too much effort, which strays from the Tao.
How do you achieve effortless effort?
Is it a matter of emotional commitment? Is the answer that hard work is OK, but effort, when it means you’ve invested too much in the task, is not OK? (Sort of like the Buddhist idea that all suffering comes from wanting.) Apply yourself: yes. Get too caught up in what you’re doing: no.
That might make sense. But applying yourself still seems to violate Lao Tzu’s advice to “act without doing.” You can't apply yourself by doing nothing.
One last question nags at me. Gnaws away, you might even say.
How the hell do you diet without effort?