Unconscious Effort or Conscious Effortlessness by Stephanie Stamm

Steph_2 copy (2)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.shoulders

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.

Connect with Stephanie Stamm:





Stephanie Stamm is the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy A Gift of Wings(She is working on the sequel.)

A Gift of Wings Cover







She has also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes:

Undead of Winter Front Only Into the Storm Cover


22 thoughts on “Unconscious Effort or Conscious Effortlessness by Stephanie Stamm

  1. I try to do a 7 minute Yoga routine every day. I know that’s not much, but it gets me going. I haven’t done much meditation, but I try to increase the actual physical Yoga and breathing as often as I can. I also belly dance and I love to swim. I think you’re right on the fight and flight response, but often we don’t release it in any way and then it causes the stiff shoulders and other parts. Yoga is the best for these problems I have been trying to increase my activity, thanks for sharing your experiences. Cher’ley


    1. Good for you, Cher’ley! Sounds like you are doing a lot of good wellness things. After some time of not being so good at my yoga practice, I’ve gotten back into in the last year. It’s good to be practicing again. 🙂


  2. You have lots of good points. The lecture was very interesting. Negativity so easily takes over in our lives, even in the form of tension, we make ourselves sick with it. So I believe if we learn to relax and release that tension, and then look for the ecstasy in our lives, we can make ourselves well sometimes too. Maybe we should put signs around our house to remind us to “let go.” Good post. Neva


  3. Ah Stephanie, great post. One of the ‘treatments’ that also coincides with what you say, and was popular in the early days of my counseling was Morita Therapy. A contemporary of Freud, his focus was on movement.

    I also have meditated and used focused movement for years. It must work for I’m still here and kicking…grin. Doris


  4. Wonderful post, Stephanie. While reading it I kept relaxing my shoulders, only to realize a few moments later that they were tense again. Like you said – the action was completely unconscious but felt great when I consciously relaxed them. Love the post. Lots to ponder over the next few days. 🙂


    1. Yeah, I do it all the time, Erin. I’m getting better at realizing I’m doing it and then being able to relax. But sometimes it takes a while for the realization to kick in. Thanks for the comments and happy pondering and relaxing. 🙂


  5. Great post Stephanie. Since i’ve started doing meditation morning and night is has made all the difference in the world in how I handle my day and how relaxed I am in general. Liked the link too!


  6. What an eloquent reflection on how we unconsciously welcome stress into our bodies and lives when we can, instead, decide to release it (even if that’s a decision we have to make again and again!). As a runner, I sometimes use the mantra “effortless” to remind myself that I can easily relax my body and use just the energy I need to move forward. Looking forward to watching the TED talk–I loved the book Flow.


    1. Thanks, Jil! And apologies for the late response. I just found your comment awaiting approval. That’s a great mantra for running. When I was running, I would ask myself if my legs hurt (no), if I could still breath (yes), then I’d tell myself to get out of my own way. 🙂


  7. Hey, Stephanie, your post made me think back to July 4 when I was sitting in the neighbor’s driveway watching him and his teenage boy shoot skyrockets up. I didn’t think about it much at the time but my neck and shoulder muscles were all tense from the quite-loud explosions overhead. The next day and Sunday I felt painful knots in my chest and back and then my right arm had weird spasms. Took me a while to figure out what was happening … and then presto — the fireworks!


  8. I’ve never done any yoga – leaving it for another time – which means I’m probably far too tense! Great post, Stephanie, and so true about the getting so immersed that the unconscious takes over. Unfortunately, I don’t think my typing this reply does anything good for my neck muscles- that’s definitely down to bad posture. Stiiting at a keyboard isn’t stress relief… 😉


    1. Ain’t that the truth. I sit at a computer all day at my day job, and it’s definitely not good for my posture. Then, of course, I’m writing at home too. I spend far too much time sitting and typing.


  9. Good post. I love when I’m so focused on my writing I lose all track of time. May not exactly be the flow, but similar. I used to have the same thing happen when working with my horse. It would all come together for the perfect side pass or counter canter or whatever and I’d be amazed at the time. (Never what to work on something new with a horse for too long.)


    1. I love the horse example, Kate. It is pretty wonderful to get in the zone and just feel things flowing along. Sometimes with writing, it’s like dropping into a space where all the filters are gone and the words just flow through to the page, and my mind only kicks in when I read them–leaving me stunned and surprised.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.