I've often wondered about the paradox that seems inherent in the meditation practices of various spiritual traditions--somehow you have to make some effort, but the real growth comes from letting go. How, then, do you develop a discipline that "leads" you anywhere, if in the end you learn that there was really nowhere to go, and all you had to do was relax and open to life?
We might be cute and say, "Eh, this question is pointless, I can just forget about it and live my life." But anyone who has already started asking this question knows that that answer is not a satisfying one. We want meaning, and we want growth, and yet we know somehow that we can't figure it out, either.
In a way, this question about effortless effort is the one we must sit with throughout our lives, without ever expecting some gargantuan answer to arrive at our doorsteps. We simply ask it, again and again, while engaging in the process of opening our hearts and minds. Often, we push too hard in our discipline, and we're left sick, tired, and weary of spirituality altogether. But even that is an expression of the path--the very motivation that led us onto the path is now being revealed. We may want to beat ourselves up, saying, "If only I hadn't been so pushy, maybe then I'd be more spiritually advanced." Yet it doesn't work that way--the pushing must simply unravel itself, and it often takes years of aggression to get us to the point where we give up our struggle.
At that point we may even need to take a break from our practices altogether, and even that is an expression of a path of growth.
I have studied and practiced Tibetan Buddhism for over ten years now, and it took a huge health crisis for me to finally take a break and surrender to something deeper in myself that needed some tending to. I finished all sorts of "lists" of practices, rushing head-on towards the "real" practice I wanted to do. And I have landed in a situation of adrenal burnout--having about a tenth of the energy I used to, along with insomnia, general digestive upset, and a 13-pound weight loss that is only slowly coming back.
I want to blame my practices for this whole upset, but really it was the mentality I carried into them that has led me to this point. Would I have gotten sick like this if I hadn't pushed through the practices? Probably. It may have taken a longer time, but it would have happened. The mentality we carry with us cannot be discarded when it comes to our path. We need to let it run its course and learn how to surrender in our own time.
In other words, surrender requires even surrendering to not surrendering. We truly cannot force our own growth. We can only harness the energy we have, and see where it leads us. When we try to "get rid" of our aggression in our growth process, that's only a symptom of the aggression itself.
I will say after months of dealing with chronic fatigue that the only antidote I have found to any of the symptoms of this kind of crisis--both physical and psychological--is to relax into reality as it is. I'm aggressive--open to it. I'm scared--open to it. I'm full of energy--open to it, and if possible, stay with the energy instead of trying to get rid of it, which will only lead back to more exhaustion. But if I do push too hard, open even to that.
We are also often told that the way to mental health is through positive thinking--"replace" your negative thoughts with positive ones. This may be helpful in the short-term, but genuine healing can only happen when we learn to open to all experience inside ourselves--positive, negative, whatever. We become the space that holds the weather storm, rather than identifying with the weather itself, or trying to control it.
This is the place where true surrender, healing, and growth can really happen. But we cannot force it. We can only sit with the paradox and let it grow us up, again and again. In this way, spiritual "enlightenment" is not some place we arrive at. It's simply an opening, and it can only happen in each moment.