Trying Too Hard

I think most people would agree that good things typically happen to those who work hard for something. Of course, we know that sometimes people get lucky. But we also know that countless folks play the lottery, but usually only one person is the winner. The rest of the people made a contribution! Hard work is usually the recipe for success. And even when it does not look like some people have worked hard to be successful, often it simply means they have worked so hard, it now looks easy.

One of the easiest examples I can think of for myself is public speaking. I have spoken in so many venues over the years that I have a great deal of experience. When I was younger, I needed notes or even a full manuscript. I was too nervous to go without these aids. And I did not trust what I knew. Experience speaking began to take care of this.

At some point I realized I actually would be a better speaker if I were not tied to the manuscript or even to my notes. It took some practice to speak and minimize my use of the notes. Most audiences did not know nearly as much about my subject matter as I did. In my head I knew this was true, but it was difficult to trust in my heart. Sometimes trust come slowly.

I grew into my trust. As I trusted my knowledge, I was able to engage the audience much more. I was free to move around and to look people in the eye. It was like my speaking became more personal. I was able to “read” the audience in more detail. I could tell whether they were not understanding my point, which then allowed me to slow down and repeat it in a fresh way if I saw they did not understand. And as people responded in a more understanding a warm fashion, I was encouraged to do it even more.

Some might not think it was hard work to move from manuscript to speaking more freely, but it certainly felt like work to me. And the work paid off. I was rewarded with success and this made me even better. Success does breed success. So it seemed, I had learned a good lesson. And it is a good lesson. But it also masked another lesson.

That other lesson is sometimes we can try too hard. This is a tough lesson to learn for all of us who learn that hard work pays off. When this is our approach, we have to learn the paradoxical lesson: sometimes we try too hard. How can this be, we want to complain? Let’s look at this for some clue.

One of the places I know we are tempted to try too hard is meditation. Meditation is a key spiritual discipline. And it also has become a fashionable thing in the business world. Meditation is touted as a way to be focused, to relax in our jobs and as a health benefit. I think all these are true. So why would not everyone meditate?

I suppose the easy answer is many people are too busy. Others don’t really believe it makes a difference. And a third group will have tried it and concluded it does not work. It would be this group that I suspect they often tried too hard. I know I fit into this category for a while. People of this kind tend to be the ones who feel all good things come by virtue of hard work. If you are not succeeding, try even harder.

That usually does not work when it comes to meditation. As I write this, I am reminded of the old Zen dictum. That saying affirms, “If you try too hard to meditate, you can’t.” To meditate means you sit and begin to relax. You focus. But you don’t try and, especially, you don’t try too hard. As I said, this can go against the grain of the tendency of some of us like me. If I am not succeeding, my tendency is to try harder. Put more effort into it has been a personal mantra. In most cases this seems to work. In meditation it won’t work.

Instead I need to be reminded to relax. I need some Zen master reminding me: “Quit trying. Quit trying not to try. Quit quitting.” While this sounds funny, it is true. If someone tells me to quit, I turn that into a work. I try not to try! When I write it, it seems silly. But in the moment I realize I am trying not to try! The Zen master is right! Not only will my effort not work; it will prohibit any grow in meditative practice.

I need to learn to sit there and let go. Letting go sounds so simple---so easy. Sure, let go, I think. And part of me wants to say, “I’m trying!” And that’s the problem. I am trying not to try! This is where I need to get back to a trust level. I need to trust the process will bring to a place I want to be and it us not up to me. I need to give myself the grace of not trying.

Grace is always a gift. And grace is always difficult for all of us who are so used to trying. And if that does not work, try harder. In many cases effort is the way to succeed. When it comes to meditation, effort often is a blocker, not a booster. Quit trying too hard. Quit trying.

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