The Importance of Soft Effort

Advice from my own Jiminy Krishna


photo courtesy of adobestock.com

When I hear the adage, “How you do anything is how you do everything,” I always think boy am I screwed. That’s the initial comedic response. But what really happens is I start to pay attention to the quality of my effort. And then my own personal Jiminy Krishna says to me, is this the way you want to do everything? No. So then I try to become more conscious, but it’s hard because I’m caught up in my story of how things are.

When you’re doing anything, what’s the quality of your effort? Say you’re doing the dishes or driving somewhere or putting on your socks. What does your body feel like while you’re doing it? What do you tell yourself about that? Do you do it haphazardly? Are you a control freak about it?


Are you present?


Everyone in the picture above is on their way somewhere, all carrying some measure of dissatisfaction, count on it. It’s part of being human. What’s also true is that they’re all probably doing the best they know how in their lives.


I’ve been in that crowd, rushing, not only with my destination in mind but also with the anticipated contempt waiting for me because I’m late. So I hurry more, I worry, I push, I’m annoyed at the slowpokes in front of me. The quality of my effort at that moment is get the f#k out of my way.


That’s when my little Jiminy Krishna says,

“Pay attention. How you do anything is how you do everything.”


Obviously, this blind aggression is not how I want to do everything.

Let’s backtrack a minute to last Saturday when I was teaching yoga. I had given my students instructions, reminding them to place their feet just so, and to be mindful of not letting the bent knee migrate toward the center of the room. “Lengthen the spine,” I said. “Stretch the arms parallel to the ground.” I had reminded them to soften the neck, the eyes, and the jaw, and to turn the head toward the right arm, looking over the fingers. I had told them that to support the spine, they could press their legs firmly down into the ground, establishing a strong base from which each vertebra could simply float upward toward the crown.


When I looked at them, there was so much striving and constriction in their faces, so much push, so much hard work. We would all benefit from a reframing of this moment.


“Stay where you are,” I suggested, “but let go of your striving. See if you can find a soft effort in the center of your bones. Let that radiate outward through the muscles and the tissues. Stop trying so hard and let that soft effort inhabit the shape you’ve taken. My verbal instructions are only to point the way. But the life force animating every cell of your body — that’s what does the going.”


What happened next will stay with me for the rest of my life. The energy in the room shifted. There was light and openness. Faces released into smiles. And, no coincidence, their expressions of the pose were fuller and safer and more whole.


Photo courtesy of adobestock.com

So back to the crowd, and my impatience, and the story in my head about what was going to happen and how shitty it was all going to be. My faithful friend, Jiminy Krishna, still there. “Is this how you want to do everything?”


I stop for a second. I remembered what I told my students. And I think, Ok, so what would accessing ‘soft effort’ look like in this situation? But even before I’m done asking, I feel it. My belly softens. I can feel my feet inside my shoes. I even laugh with the black dude hawking the comedy show with free coupons, saying, “Mama help me out here. We don’t have enough white people. Come see the show.”


And because I’ve made a space for a more mindful, less combative effort, I stop bumping up against the people in front of me and I see a way around them. This is something that never would have happened had I not paused to access the right kind of effort from within. I feel like a little fish riding the current to where I’m going. My anxiety and the stories that created it are gone. Finding the soft effort within me renders this little journey ‘effort’less. And (weirdly) I actually get there on time.


This practice can apply to anything anywhere: creating a quarterly report for your company, making a stew, initiating a difficult conversation, organizing a bathroom. You name it.


As you approach whatever you’re doing, begin by reaching into the center of that doing. Get curious about its energy, see if you can tap into its nucleus of soft effort. Imagine opening all your actions to that energy.


Strong-willed discipline has its place and its trajectory, to be sure. But the silence of soft, mindful effort will outlast it every time.


May we move through our days with that mindfulness. May we ride the current of life’s internal essence into all of our activities. And may we become stronger, gentler beings with every day that passes.



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