For many in our culture, probably the most challenging attitude to develop in mindfulness is ‘non-striving’. It is certainly counter-intuitive in nearly every context we face. 

In mindfulness meditation, non-striving could be viewed as a skill we develop for simply let one’s body be as it is and simply observe all its feeling, thinking and urges to do, without trying to make any of those be different in this moment. Kabat-Zinn writes, “It has no other goal other than for you to be yourself” (2009, p.37).

It takes real effort of an unusual kind to ‘do nothing’ but pay attention to sensations, feelings, and thoughts in meditation without engaging them. I am not sure if this is harder or easier to do in moving meditation, like some might practice in swimming or running. Sometimes I chuckle inside when outwardly strong athletes complain how they don’t like to slow down or sit still, and just hold attention on something – as if they accept challenge in training only the areas they like! Non-striving is a strength of another kind than most of us are familiar with, and it doesn’t come naturally. It’s worth considering: the more resistant one is to working on this, the more need there may be for it. 

“In the meditative domain, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice movement toward your goals will take place by itself. This movement becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen within you” (Kabat-Zinn, 2009, p.38).

This is a challenging topic to incorporate into our common view of athletic training because the whole point of training is to transform ourselves from what we are to what we want to be. There seems to be a necessary element of discontent with where we are at in order to conjure the motivation to do the necessary work. But if there is any injury occurring, any conflict in body or mind we feel for the work we’re doing, that could be a sign we’re misaligned, or missing something vital. Slowing down, quieting down to observe the sensations and information of the body may allow you to see better what’s going on.

Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash

Non-Striving and Goals

Let me attempt to show how the attitude of non-striving has a place in our goal-directed athletic efforts…

It takes patience to take some of the precious practice time to just move and observe things in the body and mind as they really are right now, in order to chart a wiser path toward the goal today. This ‘observing without trying to make anything happen’ is an excellent mode to be in during the warm up for any practice. We’re never the exact same person in the exact same body day to day, so each new day deserves a check in to find out what we have to work with. By taking time to take inventory of what the body has and listening to where it says it needs to go this day, we have the opportunity to train with much more wisdom than any external source can provide for us alone. 

After the training plan has been followed and the body has received the intended programming, it’s time to quit thinking and let the programs do what they do. Let the body be, let it act, let the person be who he/she is. This came to mind while listening to Andre Agassi’s captivating autobiography, ‘Open’. I didn’t know much about tennis and only that Agassi was famous, but his book was highly recommended by Tim Ferris and Jim Loehr, and I became hooked from the first minutes of the audio – it is an athletic psychological thriller. A theme that came up several times in Agassi’s story of his struggles and growth over a very long professional tennis career was ‘quite thinking and just feel’. One has got to do the years of work to earn this position, but there comes a time when the athlete needs to stop thinking about what is going on and what they need to do, and let the deeper, faster, wiser subconscious parts of their being take over and perform at its very best, by feeling. I think we may call the ‘thinking’ of this hindering type a form of striving that gets in the way of the athlete being what they are already capable of, if only they would trust their body. There are times when the part of us trying to make things happen is actually not the best part for the job and is getting in the way. We’ve got to learn to use other parts of our being when more appropriate for the moment. Non-striving might be viewed as a way of getting out of the way of one’s self, as I felt Agassi describe in several of his experiences. 

Perhaps there is another way to be motivated to pursue greater things than by discontentment with how we are now. Non-striving might be seen an act of passive-resistance against the urge that says, “I must make something happen because I do not accept what I am now.’ Non-striving starves that discontentment of energy to grow, and acceptance (which we’ll talk about in the next essay) charts a new path. This does not mean that change will not end up happening, but that it will come about by a different approach. Sometimes we have to weaken and quit the old approach before we can pick up a new one. 

 

A Contradiction?

There might appear to be a contradiction between the mastery path and the mindfulness one. On one hand we seek continual improvement; we want to be a better swimmer or runner in some way, at the end of every practice. On the other hand we let go of striving in certain ways for results in order to get out of the way of those results emerging by other means. Maybe this is a paradox, not a contradiction. 

 

A Case For Sitting

Though I think there are ways we can get a lot from mindfulness while moving in our athletics, there are unique benefits to the slow down, quiet down type. Mindfulness (sitting) meditation, by design, has us each encounter our own mixtures of distraction and urges to strive because they are a reflection of our own internal condition. Rather than being detriments to growth, those are the heavy weights in our internal gym by which we develop strength of attention and attitude. Just as the one who can’t do a single pushup is in great need of more pushup strength, the more distraction and urge to strive one experiences the more he needs to exercise non-striving.

On a practical, life-skill level, by practicing non-striving in meditation, where we handle more mundane bodily distractions, we gradually develop the ability to more readily notice the trap and let go of ruminations and brooding about big things that previously we would not be able to escape. In the relatively easy setting of sitting meditation, we develop the ability to switch modes in the mind, on demand, which carries over into more challenging settings of everyday life.

By just observing, not striving to change what’s going on inside during meditation, by neither trying to stop it nor process it try to understand better, those distractions actually start to lose their intensity and their power to captivate. Go even farther and their frequency diminishes, maybe even disappear. Or we find there is more space between stimulus and response which gives us a much better chance to intervene and change things by more gentle means.

By observing things and not striving to change them in the typical manner, we see new things about ourselves and open up new understanding and possibly new, wiser ways of approaching change, pursuing goals. One does not give up goals in non-striving – indeed, intention has its vital role – rather, new means of pursuing goals emerge, and perhaps an improved understanding of which goals matter most. 

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Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Rev. and updated edition, Bantam Books trade paperback edition. New York: Bantam Books.

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View the whole series on the Attitudes of Mindfulness for Swimming:

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