Non-striving is one of the seven interdependent fundamental attitudes of mindfulness that are consciously cultivated during practice, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living. Cultivating this attitude involves not trying to get anywhere – letting go of attachment to any outcome – just allowing things to be as they are without agenda and without having to act on our experiences.
Although our culture values doing and we spend most of our waking hours working toward one goal or another, there are actually many real-life examples in which non-striving is the best response. When someone has made a decision that we don’t like and we try to change their minds, sometimes we only entrench them further in their stance. When a child has chickenpox they itch, but scratching makes it worse. When a being is dying of an incurable condition, heroic medical intervention may only serve to reduce quality of life. Some things are better left to unfold in their own time.
Meditation is a practice in which striving is generally unhelpful. When we are strongly attached to a particular outcome, such as relaxing or clearing the mind or becoming a better person, striving toward these goals actually interferes with the ability to accept what is here. On those occasions when relaxation, clear-mindedness, or virtuousness don’t arise, we reject the experience as bad or unwanted and we work harder at achieving our desires or we give up in frustration.
Kabat-Zinn’s example is of an impatient child opening the pupae of a transforming caterpillar in order to see the butterfly. This metamorphosis must happen in its own time and in striving for what she wants, she actually ensures its failure. This is also true of the mindfulness practices. However, when we are able to let go of striving and open to what is, these qualities often arise naturally with no interference from us.
Sit down wherever you are
And listen to the wind singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be,
Not the saint you are striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
All of you is holy.
You are already more and less
Than whatever you can know.
– Forget About Enlightenment by John Welwood