A few weeks ago in my yoga class, as we were moving into savasana, or final relaxation, my instructor asked us to release any remaining tension we might be feeling. Then he said, “Tension is unconscious effort. Relaxation is conscious effortlessness.”
“Wow,” I thought. “That’s an insight I need to take with me when I leave class.”
I’ve practiced yoga and meditation on and off for years, and I’ve read plenty about Buddhist thinking on “doing without doing” and “effortless effort.” I had never really understood those terms. But my yoga instructor’s words made sense to me.
We all carry so much tension: in tight necks and shoulders, clenched jaws, knotted foreheads. Most often we are completely unaware of it. We tense those muscles for action—frequently for fight or flight—but we don’t know that we’re doing so. In general, tight shoulders, clenched jaws, and knotted foreheads don’t help us get our work done, but we expend unconscious effort activating those muscles. Our tension, for the most part, stems from things of which we are unconscious.
When we become conscious of them, when we realize we are tensing our shoulders or clenching our jaws for no reason, we can consciously release that tension. Generally, just by releasing our shoulders or our jaws, a sense of ease and relaxation flows through our whole body. And the work that had felt so difficult and so stress-inducing doesn’t seem nearly so bad.
I don’t mean to suggest that all we have to do to reduce stress is to relax our shoulders—though I’m surprised by how much of an effect that has. I think the statement applies to more than our tightened muscles. Sometimes what we have to release is the unconscious effort we might be holding in our thoughts and emotions, in our expectations of how a day or a project should go. Those thoughts, emotions, or expectations—again often unconscious—expend a lot of energy pushing us toward that desired outcome, even though they don’t actually participate in the work of getting us there. If we can channel the energy from those unconscious thoughts into the real work of our projects, we are already ahead of the game. Because then we are in the work and not in our expectations about the work. We are doing, but not efforting. We are doing without doing, working with effortless effort.
Most of us have experienced moments of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, when we are so immersed in an activity (usually something at which we are very skilled) that we lose all sense of time, even of our selves. Csikszentmihalyi says this is the state where we are happiest. I think that experience could also be described as “doing without doing” or “effortless effort.” In moments of flow, we are completely absorbed in what we are doing. We do not have to exert effort, because we have become one with the doing itself. I don’t know that flow could be called “conscious effortlessness,” because I don’t know that we slip into it consciously. But it does seem to me to be the absence of unconscious effort. I would guess then that the practice of conscious relaxation of tension, of converting unconscious effort to conscious effortlessness, might allow us to experience flow more easily.
Click the video below to see Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on flow.
Try adding some conscious effortlessness to your day—at least relax your shoulders 😉 —and let me know how your work flows.
Shoulders image from http://www.fitsugar.com.
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Stephanie Stamm is the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy A Gift of Wings. (She is working on the sequel.)
She has also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes: