When I tell people I think life should be effortless, they usually laugh. They think I’m joking. Everyone knows life isn’t effortless, that getting things done and achieving anything worthwhile requires hard work, time and a lot of effort. Success costs, and people who become successful without paying are either cheats, crooks or just lucky.
Think, for a moment, about the metaphors you use to describe your experience of life. We often see life as a struggle, a battle, a war, a difficult journey with obstacles to be overcome, a test to be passed. These images colour our actions and determine the way we go about doing things. We have come to see brute force as the best way to get things done. In the west, especially, we tend to carry around images of the lone pioneer, the individual battling against the forces of chaos, taming nature. To have achieved is to have beaten the odds, to have struggled and held on and never given up. Victory is for the tenacious, the resilient, the person who never gives in.
But there is another way of seeing things, and another way of getting things done, a way which sees life differently and recognizes the importance of harmony, balance and living peacefully, the importance of following the natural course of things.
Every situation – whether a relationship, an organization, a community – has within itself a natural structure, a kind of grain along which everything flows. Sometimes it’s called a ‘culture.’ Every situation is different, and the effortlessly successful amongst us do not make assumptions. They watch carefully until they understand the natural geometry of the situation, and seek to fit in. They don’t waste energy fighting the way things are – they ‘go with the flow.’
Success can come about by force – the energy of revolution can make things shift – but sustainable results only ever come about by going with the grain, seeking out the path of least resistance, and hence leveraging off the natural structure of the situation. Lao Tzu, the semi mythical Taoist master, wrote, ‘By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.’ Water always seeks the low ground and always yields to resistance. Yet it carries enormous energy and can, over many years, wear down sharp rocks into small, smooth pebbles and carve wide, deep channels through the landscape.
When I was a kid, my father taught me how to saw wood. He showed me which way to cut – no good cutting against the grain since it will be hard work and the timber will only crack and splinter. And he showed me how to hold the saw – not too tightly, not pushing down into the wood but allowing it to move naturally and fluidly, guiding it ever so gently. Let the saw do the work, was his summary. The skilful craftsman knows better than to use force.
Lao Tzu continues, ‘Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’ Our attempts to speed things along and do things in our own way and in our own time usually make things worse. To pull fruit off the tree before it is ripe is to end up with sour fruit; to row against the current is futile.
A river rarely takes a straight course, meandering instead through the natural shape of the landscape, keeping to the lowest points, moving around mountains and hills. But the water keeps flowing powerfully, carving great valleys into the landscape. Like nature, our own achievements can take time; they happen in their own way and at their own pace.
To resist the natural course – to row against the tide – is exhausting and pointless; those who try only wear themselves out getting nowhere. But hose who embrace the reality of the situation, tap into its energy and use it creatively can be wildly successful. Instead of fighting the natural order, they use its power and its energy to create results – and they do it effortlessly.
The effortlessly successful are also open to new experiences and accept that the future is a blank canvas. In the end, we know very little. My own life looks nothing like the way I imagined it; indeed, in many ways it is exactly what I would not have chosen. But things could hardly have worked out better. It is my belief that, when we relax and stop pretending that we are in control, life starts to work.
The truth is that we don’t really know what we want. Despite our search for certainty and a clear vision of the future, we cannot know what the future holds for us, what new lands we shall discover when our ship has been blown across the sea. All we can do is keep a vigilant eye for opportunity, relax and enjoy the journey. ‘Thinking that you know is a kind of sickness. The wise are sick of sickness, and so they are well.’
An effortless life is a truly effective one. When energy is not wasted on misguided attempts at control, and when we seek to follow the natural course, we can be supremely effective. We can find the tipping points and create enormous and sustainable change. And when we are open to new experiences, ready to fall into whatever comes our way, we can experience a truly vibrant and meaningful kind of life.