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Mental Effortfulness

Zazen is for allowing a clear mind. – Shunyru Suzuki, quoted in Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick

It’s February, which means that everyone in academe (students and professors) is in the trenches, trying to make it to Spring Break.  It is easy to find oneself overwhelmed – and there are signs that a number of people are struggling a bit.  Sometimes it’s enough to keep one’s nose to the grindstone and power through; at other times some triage is called for.  What I’m currently interested in investigating is the resistance or difficulty we experience around certain tasks or projects we need to do, and the stress this can generate.  These things may even be our top priority to get done – yet they continue to sit at the top of our list unaddressed while we do manage to get to other lower level things that are easier to cross off.

Many people who write about time management (particularly David Allen of Getting Things Done) aptly observe that these top-priority but difficult-to-face things are often not mere tasks, but rather projects comprised of a number of smaller tasks.  The prescribed strategy is to identify a project as something to be broken down into smaller, manageable chunks of task, then start chipping away at the individual tasks.  This does of course work.  However, I’m interested in something more subtle – the notion of resistance or effortfulness we feel around these big and onerous projects.

Effortfulness in the sense that I’m writing about is a form of self-generated mental resistance rather than the objective difficulty or complexity of an external task or project.  This phenomenon in a more physical form was first pointed out to me by Leonid Korchmar during the amazing conducting workshop held here at Hamilton College at the end of January with the International Academy of Advanced Conducting.  Leonid identified a kind of manufactured physical effortfulness in conducting; I currently understand this as a (misdirected) attempt to generate intensity, but which winds up creating energetic blocks to the flow of the music.  Conducting does require great intensity of mental focus combined with the right kind of focused physical engagement.  What’s key is how this intensity is produced and where it is directed.

While the above example is in the physical dimension, the phenomenon of manufactured effortfulness can just as easily be mental.  This is by no means the only explanation for why we feel resistance to doing certain things we need to do.  But I think this phenomenon of unintentionally creating mental effortfulness is real, and that we are usually unaware that we are doing it.  It feels heavy, sluggish and, well – effortful! – and makes those things we really need to do feel harder and more daunting.  When one has gone for days without getting to the most important thing on one’s list, it’s worth considering whether this may be part of the reason why.

It is possible for us to become aware of what kind of mental states we are creating or perpetuating through the practice of meditation – or simply taking time to observe our minds.  If in observing our minds we find something like this feeling of mental effortfulness, by simply turning the spotlight of our attention on it, just through becoming aware of it, we realize that it’s optional and that it’s possible to let it go. Then the feeling of effortfulness can be instantly (and effortlessly) replaced by a feeling of mental lightness, agility, and clarity – we have literally refreshed our minds!  Once we have these moments of insight into manufactured effortfulness, of releasing it, and experiencing an increase in lightness, it’s then ideal to strike while the iron is hot and start right away, or that same day, to work on the very thing we have been procrastinating on or avoiding, in order to reinforce the new state of mind.

I’m still considering how best to understand and express this phenomenon, and how significant a factor it is – but what I’m writing about is a habit of mind.  We all have all kinds of these.  It’s very liberating, and an important part of working on ourselves, to make ourselves more aware of our habits of mind so that we can consciously choose and cultivate those which are helpful and constructive, and to replace those which are not so helpful.  I might also add – when we become aware of and learn to release these mental and emotional blocks, we are also raising the vibrational or energetic level at which we experience our lives.

May we all experience some real progress in this ongoing project, and greater ease and joy in our important work.

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