A major reason many people, especially Westerners, find spiritual work so difficult and frustrating is because they misunderstand the fundamental nature of that work. What is the nature of that work?

First, let me get specific about what I mean by spiritual work. For our purposes, let’s define that as regularly practicing meditation and mindfulness and a focus on letting go of our egoic selves. We could add Yoga, chanting and all sorts of other practices as well.

It’s an art not a science

The fundamental misunderstanding most people make lies in treating spiritual work as a science and not as an art. What does that mean? Working in the arts requires subtlety and nuance. When I wrote scripts in Hollywood, I couldn’t force myself to write good dialogue. I had to sit quietly and listen.And be patient. The artistic process requires giving up significant control and trusting the process.

Science, on the other hand, is about formulas and a rigid, methodical approach to work. It requires mostly linear thinking. Do A then B then C then D then observe what that produces.

What this all boils down to is trying versus not trying. And therein lies the rub for spiritual work. Because at the heart of spiritual work is this paradoxical truth: We have to try, but not try too hard.

The Wall Street meditator

Let’s take a look at meditation to see how this plays out. Pursuing a Wall Street, take-no-prisoners, investment banker’s approach to meditation would mean sitting down, closing our eyes and saying to ourselves, “Alright, let’s kick some ass, baby! Thoughts, you’re going down! I am going to WILL myself to keep 100% of my attention on my breathing at ALL times…Aaaaaand GO!” At which point they’re so keyed up and tense that the thoughts pour forward like water over Niagara Falls.

That’s a hyperbolic example, but it does cut to the truth of why Westerners especially find meditation so difficult. Our culture teaches us to dive in and attack our work. To think our way through obstacles. To be aggressive, persistent and energetic in pursuing our goals.

Spiritual work is the exact opposite. It requires quieting our thinking minds. We close our eyes and the only thing we do is observe, nonjudgmentally, what is happening in the present moment. Sounds, breathing, bodily sensations…anything in our field of awareness. What we don’t do is try to stop our thoughts. We merely observe those thoughts when they arise then let them pass.

Try, but not too hard

The kicker is that while we can’t try too hard in our spiritual work, we do have to try…just not too hard. For instance, if we sit down to meditate with no intention at all and just let everything fly, we’ll end up in a thought haze for the duration of our session.

So there definitely is some level of trying involved in corralling our attention on our breathing, for example. But not too much.

The same was true for me while writing scripts. The trying came in the form of getting my butt in the chair, outlining a story, figuring out plot points and many other actions requiring thought involved in the craft of writing. But the art of writing, the real gold, always came when I took my hands off the wheel, so to speak.

The takeaway

So what’s the point of all this? It’s simple. Unless this fundamental concept of trying, but not trying too hard, is both understood and embraced, one’s spiritual work is likely to be rife with frustration and lack of progress.

The obvious irony here is that the approach to the work, subtlety and nuance over rigidity and forcing, is the work. It’s about parking our egos at the door in furtherance of practicing…parking our egos at the door. All in furtherance of diminishing the role our egos play in the daily living of our lives.

Is the hard work of striking this balance between trying, but not too hard, worth the effort? Only if you value peace of mind and becoming better at everything you do…