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We embrace striving as a way of life almost as soon as we’re born. We learn to walk, talk, read, and write. Striving helps us move towards our goals, whether at school, at work, or in relationships. But it can also feel like a constant pressure to be “doing” or to be something different, feel something different, or to do something else. Sometimes it can be challenging to accept who and where we are without trying to change or control it. And while striving may help us achieve our goals, the practice of non-doing is equally important. That’s where non-striving comes in.
What is Non-Striving?
Non-striving is the ability to let go of the constant “doing” and to focus solely on just “being”. The goal of mindfulness meditation is for you to pay attention to the way you are in the moment, focusing on non-doing instead of doing. To just watch, and allow yourself to experience anything and everything from moment to moment without judgment.
Non-striving is about accepting yourself as you are – right here, right now. And that includes the bad with the good. It frees us from living in future goals or past worries, so we can embrace the possibility and calm that accompanies accepting yourself and the moment as it is, without trying to change it.
As put best by the father of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, Jon Kabat-Zinn,
“…[T]o actually be in a place where… we just let things be as they are, is tremendously nurturing and healing… Whatever’s already here is good enough. Even if it’s not pleasant in this moment, it’s good enough. We don’t need to try to escape from it, or fix it, or make anything happen.”
What’s hard for many of us to wrap our minds around, is that even when we’re sitting still and physically doing nothing, we can still be mentally striving.
How Non-Striving Could Help
To understand how practicing the attitude of non-striving could help, let’s first take a look at the impact – both positive and negative – of striving.
Let’s start simple. Merriam Webster defines “to strive” as: “To devote serious effort or energy; to struggle in opposition.”
For many of us nowadays, it feels like daily work towards the goals we’ve set in our career and personal lives. While there are undeniable positives of having goals and knowing where we want to head in life, there’s a difference between that, and pushing ourselves to our limits or over-exerting ourselves.
In fact, one study found that while people with Type-A personalities did “achieve” more than their counterparts, they also experienced significantly more irritation and impatience, which many studies have found correlates to numerous health issues (2).
When we live the latter and spend our days keeping busy – sometimes with purpose and other times so we don’t have to sit with our thoughts – we can often avoid or “unlearn” how to deal with uncomfortable feelings that can impact our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
Listen to Leah Weiss on the Untangle podcast where she shares several practical tools for finding our purpose and aligning our goals and values so that we can live our best life.
If you were, say, staring down a lion on the savannah, your brain would prepare you for fight or flight by activating your sympathetic nervous system and pumping norepinephrine (adrenaline) throughout your body. To help you survive, your body reduces energy to non-vital systems so it can give maximum energy to tensing our muscles, increasing our respiration, and boosting our blood pressure and heart rate. In one-off moments, we readily recover from stress (3). But when we avoid those stressful thoughts, they can take a toll on our body.
Research has found that long-term, chronic stress can:
Decrease immune function
Raise susceptibility to viral infections
Heighten risk of stomach ulcers
Increase buildup of plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis)
Heighten the risk of heart disease, stroke, blood clot, and aneurysm due to plaque buildup (4)
It’s fair to say that when left unchecked, stress can have a very real and very damaging impact on our lives. Your best bet: get ahead of it. Instead of waiting till you reach your limit, and you find yourself needing time to recuperate – refill your tank as you go! One way to do that is to cultivate the attitude of non-striving: mindful meditation.
Mindful Meditation and Non-Striving
Non-striving is a foundation of mindfulness that can be helpful for people dealing with negative thoughts and emotions. One study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that the attitude of non-striving could be prompted by redundant activities without goals, like meditation (5). So, try this now. Take 5 minutes to sit silently, and focus on your breath. When you feel a sense of striving or of trying to change things, notice that without judgment. Allow yourself to truly relax, and allow whatever is happening to happen with compassionate awareness as it happens.
Benefits of Non-Striving Meditation
While the impact of meditation is unique to each person’s practice, research suggests meditation can provide a particularly powerful pathway to dealing with stressful thoughts, mental performance, and overall wellbeing.
For instance, a systematic review of 47 studies found that mindful meditation improved participants’ experiences of anxious thoughts, depression, and pain (6). Another study found that meditation helped lower blood pressure, improve emotional coping skills, and decrease emotional distress for college students at risk for hypertension (7). And according to research by the University of Washington, employees in a high-stress environment who took meditation training were better able to stay focused and work past distractions (8).
While more research is necessary to learn precisely how, why, and for whom meditation can help, what is clear: an ongoing meditation practice can help improve overall well-being, mental performance, and stress management.
Tips to Cultivate an Attitude of Non-Striving
1. Learn to Embrace the Mess
Striving keeps us from being present, and contrary to popular belief: it does not shortchange your goals. In fact, learning to slow down and let go of striving to simply be in the here and now can likely help reduce the monkey brain and help you think more clearly and productively. So instead of trying to bare-knuckle your way through your goals, learn to embrace the mess!
2. Mindful Meditation
The best ways to practice the elusive attitude of non-striving seem to be through activities that don’t have goals or have futility built into them, so our minds don’t attempt to accomplish or strive (5). Mindful meditation can serve as one of these activities, where the goal isn’t to cultivate a new mental state but to embrace what is without attachments and with the flexibility to let thoughts and feelings come and go as they please.
If you find yourself struggling with meditation, in the beginning, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Many find that guided meditations can help by providing a touchpoint for focus when the mind begins wandering without tapping into goal-achievement or striving. Muse’s biofeedback Soundscapes can also help you tune into your body and help you focus on the present moment.
Excited to begin your non-striving meditation practice, but not sure where to start?
Discover Muse’s collection of over 500 Guided Meditations, with meditations led by 20+ experts and meditation teachers designed for stress, performance, sleep, and more.
Learn About: The Mindful Attitude of Non-Striving 5 by Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Training HERE >
Discover: Making it without Losing it: Type A, Achievement Motivation, and Scientific Attainment RevisitedHERE >
Read Harvard Business Review’s Understanding the Stress Response HERE >