I first heard that phrase when I was a teenager and was friends with an elderly mystic. I remember thinking at the time that it must be some weird, complicated spiritual thing of unknown origins. Being a teenager, I promptly forgot about it.
The next time I remember thinking about it was one day when I was doing yoga. I’d had been practicing yoga consistently and strenuously for years, but during this one class I felt it, the Effortless Effort! It felt as though I was so strong and confident that I could just relax into a pose and hold it and enjoy it—no shaking, no quaking, no strenuous effort. It was an effortless effort!
And then I went to Sydney, Australia. Here was a whole city that seemed to be living the Effortless Effort. People appeared to be doing work and enjoying it, not struggling or walking around with intense looks of frustration on their faces. There seemed to be a peacefulness about the life there, a sense of living in the present and enjoying each moment—that elusive thing we all long for. It struck me especially when a brief rain shower came on suddenly. Instead of rushing through it and getting wet, people stopped and stood under big trees and waited it out, listening to the squawk of cockatoos.
America is so much about The Struggle. That was highlighted when I went to see Bruce Springsteen in Sydney. Our whole mindset is about fighting and working hard and trying to reach something that is always just out of reach. Hearing him sing his songs in Sydney made me even more certain that this city is on to something.
So I googled the Effortless Effort on my phone. It turns out it’s a Taoist concept known as wu wei. The basic concept is that if we align ourselves with our true nature, we live the way nature does. For example, a tree does not struggle and fight to grow. It just grows. When we fight against our true nature—if your true nature is an artist, say, but you are trying to be something else—you will struggle and fight and it will feel very hard. That may not be a good thing. If you follow your nature, surrendering to it, the idea is that you will succeed with much less effort. It’s not about not doing any work, it’s about doing the work you were meant to do and that you truly enjoy doing.
For me, writing this blog is a bit like an effortless effort. I still have to do it, but because it is so much in my nature to do it, writing these blogs comes easily. Only occasionally does it feel like an effortful effort! And it’s a good thing, too, because I don’t make any money doing it! It’s just a labor of love.
Think about it. Are you struggling more than you need to? Is what you are doing for a living aligned with your true nature? What would happen if you relaxed into what you are doing and stopped struggling so hard? If Sydney is any example, the world won’t end; it will just be a lot more relaxed!