Not trying too hard

One of the most useful skills we can learn in life is how to put just the right amount of effort into whatever we are doing. We often have a tendency to either over-exert ourselves, or else complete our tasks half-heartedly and absentmindedly. We think we save energy by not giving ourselves fully to something, and that we will achieve extra by trying really hard. Unfortunately, neither of these is true – it probably takes more energy to not pay attention to what you’re doing, because your mind is in two places at once. It’s also inefficient, and we often need to go back and fix up our mistakes when we’ve tried to get by on automatic pilot.

Using too much effort to achieve something can be more insidious, as we may not even notice we’re doing it. Take, for example, a simple action such as picking up a cup. We can do it carelessly, and drop it or spill it. Or we can grab at it and hold it with a tight grip, although it’s not very heavy. We can type using a lot of effort with our fingers, or hold the phone with more force than is needed, perhaps with a great deal of tension in our shoulders as well. There are many daily actions where we might notice ourselves doing this, once we start to pay attention. Years ago I became aware of tightening my stomach muscles while I was driving, as if my body were propelling the car forward rather than just my foot on the accelerator.

Another problem with using too much effort is that we tend to look terribly busy and important while we rush around expending our energy all over the place. The adrenaline kicks in, and we can feel quite elated and enthusiastic. We might get positive feedback from colleagues or managers, and if someone asks us how we are, we can say quite truthfully (with a little sigh),

‘Very busy.’

When we are having a challenging conversation with someone, we can also easily fall into the trap of either becoming overly aggressive (raising our voice perhaps, or trying to hammer home our point by repeating ourselves and bombarding the other person), or else becoming avoidant (not speaking clearly, mumbling something vague and avoiding eye contact before wandering off).

Daniel Siegel, who has written extensively on the physiology of mindfulness, has a nice phrase to describe how mindfulness can assist us to regulate our arousal levels by ‘balancing the break and accelerator function’. There are times in our lives when we need to give every ounce of energy we have, and other times when we can relax a bit and let ourselves be mindlessly entertained. We can save ourselves from wasting our precious energy, and from drifting through life on automatic pilot, if we become more aware in each moment of the amount of energy we’re using, and regulating ourselves to whatever is appropriate under the circumstances.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a moment to stop from time to time, and ask yourself – am I using too much energy here, too little, or just the right amount? Simple actions, such as chopping up vegies or making the bed, can be illuminating – how often do we end up performing these tasks with either little awareness or else far too much effort?

Anja Tanhane




Are you your own best friend, or your harshest critic? If you were a team, would you be playing for yourself, or against? Or perhaps you are a capricious friend to yourself – perfectly civilised when life is rolling along smoothly, but transformed into a snarling viper whenever you make the slightest mistake.

Many of us struggle to find the right balance between being willing to examine our motivations and actions, and giving ourselves an unnecessarily hard time, often over quite minor mistakes. How we treat ourselves depends on complex factors, including our cultural background, gender, religious affiliation and personality.

When people begin a regular mindfulness practice, they often notice an increased friendliness towards themselves. In the words of Daniel Siegel, we can allow ourselves to become our own best friend. Fortunately, this seems to correlate with being less judgemental towards others as well, becoming more patient with their foibles and vulnerabilities.

There is a significant difference between being friendly towards ourselves and becoming narcissistic. Longitudinal studies of American college students have shown a marked increase in narcissistic traits over the past few decades. Related traits such as unrealistic expectations, materialism, low empathy, and less concern for others, have also increased. We might sometimes feel that being too friendly with ourselves will encourage our narcissism, that we’ll no longer care enough about others. Interestingly, it seems the opposite is the case. Studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation have consistently shown that by tuning into our own experiences with an open, friendly acceptance, we are more able to be present and empathic with others as well. Like a well-functioning sports team which relies on good communication and encouragement, but also constructive feedback and a willingness to improve, it seems we’re at our best when we feel supported in our willingness to learn.

It is like a balm to our soul when we walk into a room and are greeted by a friendly smile. If we are greeted by a frown instead, our anxiety levels tend to rise. If we are learning mindfulness meditation to help us decrease our anxiety levels, it makes sense to not spend our lives metaphorically frowning at ourselves. As Mother Teresa said,

‘Peace begins with a smile.’

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you make a mistake, notice how you react. Are you unnecessarily hard on yourself, or do you find yourself brushing off your mistake without much thought? Are you less kind to yourself than you would be to a friend?

Anja Tanhane


Using our energy wisely


It was 11 pm on the last day of the Fifth International Martial Arts games in Melbourne, and most of the audience had already gone home. Those who’d stayed, however, were about to witness something truly remarkable. For the next thirty minutes, the North Korean taekwondo team fought, somersaulted, smashed and performed their way through some truly amazing martial arts displays. You can see them on YouTube, though that only gives you some idea of the incredible power and precision of their live performance. The North Korean taekwondo team embodies the potential of the human body and mind pushed to its outer limits (they were also quite humorous at times, which was a pleasant surprise).

Like taekwondo, Tai Chi is also a martial art, though the Tai Chi we practise at my weekly class seems a long way (several universes!) removed from what the North Korean taekwondo team were demonstrating. And yet, the basic principle is the same – the martial arts train us to harness and focus the energy we have available, expending it in the most efficient way possible. In order to achieve this, we have to learn to use our minds and bodies in a way which doesn’t waste energy, but instead cultivates and channels it effectively. Much of the time, we go through life using what Daniel Siegel calls ‘the break and accelerator’ functions at the same time. We expend far too much effort on even simple tasks, such as holding a pen or making a cup of coffee, and then wonder why at the end of the day we’re so exhausted. We get caught up in pointless office politics, when we should be focusing our energy on a family member at home. We stomp across the car park, when we could be using that time to ground ourselves using mindful walking, and notice the cool wind or the sunshine. Sometimes I find myself typing away very fast and forcefully, only to make so many typos I spend most of my time going back and correcting the mistakes. Years ago, I noticed I was tensing my stomach muscles when driving, as if my abdominal region played a part in compelling the car to move forward. Once we become aware of it, it can be disconcerting to realise just how habitually we dissipate our precious energy all over the place. Continue reading “Using our energy wisely” »