Saturday, 20 March 2010

Giving up trying

I recently returned from an amazing retreat with my teacher Adam in Italy.

I don't plan to write in detail about what we did on the retreat, but I would like to share one or two of my experiences and some of the things that I learned (or at least started to learn).

The most important of these is about the possibility of giving up trying.

As I write this, I realise that I am writing something almost sacrilegious in Western society.

"Give up trying? Are you mad? You have to try. If you don't try you are simply a fatalist, a loser, someone who lets the world dump on them as opposed to going out there and making things happen" is what appears in my head and I imagine what might appear in many of the minds of those reading this.

And up to a point it is true. Trying is different to not trying. The outcome is often different. And yes, if you try, sometimes you will achieve an outcome that would not have been possible if you didn't try.

And yet there is something important to notice about trying and what happens when we don't.

I want to draw a distinction here: not trying is not the same as not acting/not choosing/not doing.  There can still be doing, there can still be action, without trying.

Trying is about making effort. It is about seeing all of the easily possible paths laying in front of you and taking none of them and deciding to go cross-country through the brambles. It's about pushing through your boundaries.

Doing something is different to trying to do something. In the story of our lives, action is necessary - trying is not.  To start talking all Star Wars and quote the great sage Master Yoda: "Do or do not...there is no try".

There is nothing wrong with trying, it's very human. But it's useful to notice that it really has an impact on you and on those you come into contact with.

On retreat I noticed that when I try, I (usually) stop being myself and start being what many people around me would describe as a pain in the arse (that's "ass" for the Americans reading). I start second-guessing myself and trying to think my way through what's happening, instead of feeling my way through the territory. Life starts to feel difficult, hazardous and complicated. All in all its very tiring for me and for those I meet.

It all came to a head when (having had it gently pointed out to me during the day that I was doing quite a lot of trying) I spent that evening at a party we threw noticing how I was behaving. It didn't make comfortable watching. I saw myself spending most of the evening trying. Trying to dance well, trying to connect with people, trying to have a good time. It was absolutely excruciating for me to witness this and to realise that this is how I often show up in social situations. I could also see how people were reacting to me and how the way I was behaving was creating this reaction.

The next day I had the opposite experience and I wrote about it in my diary. It is that entry (slightly expanded to make it readable) that I'd like to share with you. It is one of my first experiences of what life is like when I don't try. (This is not to say that I've not had times of not trying before, but simply I'd not been paying enough attention to notice that this is what was occurring).


I'd all but given up on having a private session with Adam on this retreat. Although he'd told us at the start of the retreat that in addition to the group sessions he would give us all an hour one-to-one during the two week retreat, by the time the second Wednesday came around and I felt ready for the session he informed me that he felt that he'd reached the stage in proceedings where he wasn't going to give any more of them. Bad luck. I'd missed out. I felt a little disappointed, but I figured that I hadn't really needed or wanted a session before then, so that things had simply turned out as they had and that it was all for the best (probably). With only a little bad grace, I let it go.

The next day, Thursday, we had ventured into town from our secluded hilltop hideaway. The little lakeside village of Orta (barely a town) had seemed positively overwhelming and exciting by comparison to the slow, low-stimulation environment that had kept us safe for the past 12 days.

It was a lovely day. I won't share with you what happened during the day, partly because I don't want to spoil the surprise for any future retreat participants and partly because what happened on my return from our day trip was of far more significance to me this time around.

We were returning from Orta to our country hilltop residence, Casa Feliciana, taking the long and windy road up the hill. We were walking slowly. The journey was probably going to take us about 45 mintues to an hour (though someone in a hurry could probably have walked it in 20).

The sun was shining gently on us as we wandered in little groups, arm in arm, some holding hands, back to dinner. People were talking gently about the day as they looked at the beautiful countryside around and traveled along in way which might only be described as sauntering.

Except for our teacher Adam and me. Adam was walking out ahead, leading the group and I was floating around wondering which of the hand-holding, arm-linked groups I might be able to join. To be honest, I was feeling a tiny bit left out.

I caught my standard mental/ego response kicking in. "I want to be part of one of those groups! Which one of them can I join? They all look so happy and settled, I bet they don't want me butting in". I could feel myself becoming dissatisfied.

In fact there was an element of truth to what I noticed. The groups were set up in such a way that at that moment it wouldn't have been very easy for me to have joined any of them. To have done so, or tried to have done so would have been a stretch. It would have been a little uncomfortable. Sure, it would have been possible, and one of the groups might have been prepared to re-adjust to accommodate me, but it wouldn't have been easy or straightforward. It would have needed some serious trying.

I found myself half-noticing this and the question arose: "how would it be just to wander along by myself?". I found myself not discussing this, but simply doing it. I wandered happily through the sunshine with the group but not trying to join any particular cluster of people, feeling the sunshine on my face, enjoying the scenery. It was lovely. It was easy.

It was also unfamiliar. The thought crossed my mind that doing what was easy instead of what I thought I wanted/needed was never the option I would usually take. I would usually look at the limit of what was possible instead of looking at the available easy options and deciding which of them I'd take. I didn't dwell on this thought though - I was too busy enjoying the sunshine and the scenery.

I found myself catching up to our teacher, Adam and we walked along in silence for a minute or two before he dropped back in order to do something or other. I briefly considered dropping back to join him, but by then I'd settled into doing what seemed easy or natural and going back to join him didn't seem like either, so I didn't. I continued slowly strolling along in the sunshine ahead of everyone else, enjoying this unfamiliar feeling of (for once) not trying to push the river.

As I continued walking by myself, doing what felt simple and easy, I thought I heard Adam say very quietly "good!", almost as a response - though I wasn't sure I'd heard it and even if I had, I wasn't sure it referred to me.

Within a minute or two I once again found myself walking alongside Adam. I think he'd caught up to me, though it didn't seem like anything that either of us had intended. I found myself falling into conversation with him about nothing in particular. We discussed how the weather was warmer and dryer than yesterday and how that had affected the group. Adam noticed that the school bus that had just passed us usually met the group further up the hill, meaning that we were walking back later this year than previous years. Nothing of any great consequence, just whatever we felt to say in that moment. It struck me that there was no trying going on. I wasn't trying to say anything clever, or deep or meaningful or to try to impress my teacher, as I usually might. We were just sharing in a very simple, easy, human way. It was lovely and touching.

After about 5 minutes of this, Adam turned to me as we walked and said "I remember that you wanted an individual session with me and I said that I wasn't giving any more". I nodded yes. He continued "we have another 20 or 30 minutes as we are walking back to the house, we could have the session now if you like".

I was delighted. I was delighted to be able for us to have the one to one after all. I was delighted that it had come about in such an unplanned way. I was delighted that I was able to go into the session in a comparatively relaxed and unpretentious way.

We had an easy and fruitful conversation. I broached things with him that I might not ordinarily have dared to discuss and received answers which were both touching and supportive. We parted at the door to the house with warm words and open hearts. It felt like something important had happened.

I found myself allowing the rest of the day to unfold in a similar sort of way - choosing what to do from what was easily possible and letting go of trying to make anything happen:

"What do I want to do now?"
"I want to build a fire in the fireplace."
So I did.

As I was building the fire a friend came along and told me that she was about to give one of the other participants a massage. I found myself saying "that makes me want to ask you for a massage, but perhaps you're too busy to do two". What was amazing was I said this with no agenda, with no sense of wanting to pressure her into answering yes. I genuinely asked for what I wanted whilst letting go of needing any particular outcome. There was no trying. Again it felt unfamiliar!

To my delight she didn't say no but instead asked "how long will it take you to finish building the fire?". I replied "10 minutes". "Fine" she said. "I'll give you a massage in 10 minutes". Easy. Delightful!

As I sat by the fire receiving one of the most wonderful foot massages of my life and enjoying feeling my body lapping it it up, I noticed the thought running through my head that the fire might be burning out. My ordinary impulse would have been to break off the massage to check on the fire or to have sat there worrying about it instead of enjoying what was happening. Instead I found myself calling out to the person who was walking past the fire and asking them to check on it and throw on an extra log if it needed it. They happily obliged. Wow! I'd never have asked that ordinarily. How easy was that? Could life really be this easy?

The massage over, I thanked my friend and I wondered what I wanted to do. The answer came readily. "Sit here and relax". Again, the usual impulse would have been to do something. But no, it was clear that of all the easily available options, the one I wanted to take was of staying put. It is hard for me to express in words how radical this is/was for me in terms of my usual behaviour, but it didn't feel very radical just then. It felt easy. It felt right.

There came a time when it was enough. I don't know how I knew. I just knew. I knew that what I wanted to do was take a shower, so I did.

It was such a great shower. I luxuriated in the warmth and the feeling of the water on my skin. I sang and danced, because I wanted to and because I could. I felt such joy! After 10 minutes or so I found myself asking "am I done?". The answer was clear: "no!". So I stayed! For another 10 minutes. I noticed my mind judging that this was outrageous to spend so long in the shower, but I was long past caring and completely immersed in what was easy, what was possible and what was delightful!

The afternoon was almost done. There was an hour remaining before dinner and I found myself wondering how I should spend the remaining time. I caught myself imagining that there was a large group of people hanging out in the group room, probably having a group cuddle and momentarily found myself getting jealous and wanting to be part of it.

Then I remembered to check in with myself. "What do I actually want right now?" I realised that whatever might or might not be happening in the group room, what I wanted right now was to be by myself and to rest in my bed. I noticed that my reflex response was to try join the group even before I'd checked whether it was right for me. What a relief to be able to know what I needed and to be able to give it to myself.

With a quiet elation I took myself off to bed, without giving a second thought to what everyone else might be up to. With relief I laid down on my bed and found myself almost weeping for joy.

I found myself realising, crying and then (unable to contain my amazement) writing:

"This is what it feels like to look after myself and to hang out with myself. This is what life feels like when I don't try.

I realised that my tendency in life has almost always been to get ambitious. To go for whatever I want regardless of whether it was easily possible. This leads to strain and trying.

I twist myself, get bent out of shape, exhaust myself, become a pain the arse and (often) don't get what I want. (Or I do get what I want but there are often consequences later).

How much easier to feel my way in to what reality suggests and awareness knows is the easy next step.

How much truer, more respectful and sweeter?

As I lay in bed, I felt like I was lying in the revelation. I felt blessed.

The realisation felt like such a gift! A pointer of how to live life in co-operation with reality instead of constantly picking fights and picking up the pieces.

I felt so grateful!

I felt like the universe was looking after me.

It felt like proof that the universe was a kind place.

It felt like proof that I really am loved by god.

I felt washed through, clear and simple.

It felt like a watershed and one of the most important lessons I'll ever learn.

It felt like there was and is always the possibility to be simple,

to give up trying

and just be."


Coda: What I've just described is an example of what Adam refers to as being "internally lazy". I was presented with another example that same evening.

I was sitting at supper and was feeling happy but very tired. I realised to my dismay that I'd taken a full plate of food but had not got any cutlery. Damn! I really didn't want to get up - it felt like so much effort. The cutlery felt so far away! I then noticed one of the teaching assistants over the other side of the room by the cutlery drawer...

My mind said "You can't ask her to get cutlery for you! That's outrageously lazy. And she's one of Adam's assistants".

My heart asked "what's simple?". "Ask simply. Allow her to help you if she's willing. Allow her to say 'yes' or 'no'..."

I found myself asking: "Amanda, could you bring me a knife and fork please?", simply and with love. A clear request, not a demand. A genuine, simple possibility.

There was a short pause. She smiled and said:



To paraphrase my teacher's teacher: The universe says: "Relax!".


If we are prepared to let go of needing the outcome to be anything in particular, to still have a direction or even destination, but not be determined that we must get there at all costs, the possibility opens up for life to be easy. When we realise this we realise:

There is no need to try. Ever.


I know that I haven't stopped trying and that I'll probably continue trying from time to time, but I feel that I've tasted the possibility of something different. Frankly it's delicious, though it often feels a little scary.

I know that I'm not done with trying (I can even feel some happening as I type this and know that this piece of writing is not free of it), but I'm hoping that from here on in I'll be doing it less of it.

Something inside me knows that's true.

And that's enough for right now.