Effortless Effort

You hear about “effortless effort” a lot in the martial arts.

Sure, it’s nice and poetic, but I think that poetry in instruction is only useful after the student has already grasped the term, as a sort of mnemonic. I’ve seen teachers who use terms like that, then merely repeat them when the student asks for clarification, and to perpetuate that teaching technique, I’ve seen students who’ve repeated the instruction as if the poetry of it makes the meaning and application clearer: “oh, I get it! Effortless effort!”

Here’s my attempt at clarifying “effortless effort”, for your consideration: “effective and efficient execution without unnecessary strain”. I’ll try to clarify the apparently contradictory meanings of “effort”: the teacher wants you to practice and pay attention (effort 1) but he/she also doesn’t want you to stress and strain (effort 2), using the wrong methods to achieve the desired result.

For example, in squash, our desired result is to swing the racquet naturally, without getting in our own way and messing up that natural swing by pushing the racquet or muscling the racquet (effort 2). Instead, we should relax and let the racquet swing. Of course, we still need to pay attention and practice (effort 1) in order to improve while in the training phase. This probably holds true for golf and baseball as well as just about any sport that involves a swing with the arm or leg. The result of this should be that we make the best shot we can, without (as previously mentioned), getting in our own way.

When we stress and strain, we get in the way of natural function by tensing muscles unnecessarily. Unfortunately, this is often the result of taking our training so seriously that we invoke feelings of fear or anger, essentially turning this into a life-or-death situation. This is where meditation comes in, to help calm us down, but more on that later.

Another meaning of the desired effort might be simply “doing”, or “action”. “Effortless effort” could mean “stress-free action”, in other words.

Does that make sense?

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