A Helpful Headscratcher: Effortless Effort

effortless effort

Just about every weekend, I take a yoga class at the Iyengar Yoga Source studio here in Providence with Linda DiCarlo, whom I consider a national treasure. (Seriously! She’s great and I feel so lucky to study with her.) She says things that lodge in my brain and give me new ways to think about things. And one of the things she talks about regularly in class—often when we are holding a challenging pose, like any of the revolved standing poses that I find particularly difficult—is finding effortless effort.

Kind of a headscratcher right? Or, in more technical terms, kind of a koan, which is an unanswerable question used in Zen Buddhism, a la “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A koan gives your mind enough paradox to chew on that your thoughts quiet down and deeper insight can arise.

I’ve been brewing on the idea of effortless effort for quite some time now and at times I have glimpses of inhabiting it.

In my experience, you can’t just decide to have something feel effortless, but you can set the stage for it. In yoga, that means you align your body and turn on the muscles you need to maintain that alignment and then you stop trying and simply inhabit the pose.

At work, I can sit down and write a long, complex piece, but only after I’ve made the tea, tidied up my work space, checked my bank accounts online, and peeked in at social media. I have to set the stage, and then I can—sometimes—find a place of relative ease even though I’m technically “working.”

In other words, it takes some effort to the get to the place where you can do things effortlessly. Hey, there’s another paradox for you!

Here’s why I think it’s worth your time and energy to pursue finding effortless effort in your own life:

  • Most of us have a pretty strong link in our minds that things that are valuable are the result of hard work—as if anything that’s easy is somehow cheating or not worthy
  • A lot of us also have an association between things being easy and doing nothing. Which, hey, I love doing nothing as much as the next person but it’s not really the pinnacle of what we should aspire to, am I right?
  • Effortless effort is the middle ground between doing nothing and working hard. It’s doing important stuff but doing it with ease.
  • And if the important things felt easier, wouldn’t you do more of them? And doesn’t the world need more people who aren’t afraid to do important things?

If you’ve been hesitant to do something that’s calling you that seems like it might be too hard or require too much work, I’ll leave you with two questions:

How could you go about your important work with more effortlessness?

What seemingly difficult thing would you start doing more of if you knew it wouldn’t take a lot of hard work?


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2 thoughts on “A Helpful Headscratcher: Effortless Effort

  1. A couple of years ago my favorite Yogi, David Silverman at Dou Yoga in Brooklyn, was talking about the same thing and it occurred to me that this is exactly the Buddhists 6th fold of the 8th fold Path: Right Effort. Its not to say that things worth doing aren’t worth putting any effort into, but if it feels too much like work, as you say, its not really going to get you to the place you want to be. It’s that metaphor of swimming against the tide or upstream. Better to find your flow and put in just enough effort to keep yourself from crashing into the shore in order to keep going as far as you can.

  2. I love this. I believe that as a world class “do-er” , I find myself complicating things often, instead of looking for the right effort to get the work done, or asking what is it that is mine to do? In a world that seems to be driven by likes, followers, emojis and shares, it sometimes feels that we must exert great effort to be valuable in a noisy world, but that could also be an illusion.

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