Ease over Effort

Might happiness be found in letting go and going with the flow?

I remember a moment in my early university days when a new friend asked what I was studying. When I answered “Arts, majoring in philosophy” she looked at me, slightly perplexed as another friend piped up, “She’ll end up being a waitress.” This memory has stayed with me and brought with it many philosophical reflections (what’s wrong with being a waitress?!). So far, though, I have had a really satisfying work life that utilises the skills I developed in that degree, which is sadly more than I can say for many of my peers. 

What this, and so many other life lessons, has taught me is that if you go with the flow, do what you enjoy, and don’t push things that aren’t working then the universe will usually have your back.

In a society that encourages you to strive and succeed, choosing the path of least resistance is ironically an incredible achievement. Like riding a wave, how would it feel if you let life lead you in the direction it wants you to go? We might call this going with the flow, choosing ease over effort, or simply letting go.

I know it sounds a bit woo woo but there’s something mysterious and magic about it. And Chinese philosophy can help you to understand and integrate this magic into your life too.  

Discovering Taoism: The Wu Wei Way

One philosophy that embraces ease over effort is Taoism. Aimo Javier is a certified Tai Chi and Qigong instructor and long-term philosopher who lives and teaches in the Byron shire. Aimo introduces me to the concept of Wu wei – the Taoist principle of non-doing. Perplexingly, non-doing is not quite the same as not doing. In fact, Wu wei is an incredibly noble action, and at the heart of the Taoist philosophy. It’s a paradox, because it’s essentially trying not to try. There’s effort in the ease. Day to day it might mean being at peace while engaged in busy tasks and finding yourself ‘in the zone.’ Long term, it’s simply swimming with, rather than against, the current. Setting aside your ego and letting go of rigidity to respond neutrally to what life demands of us in truth (which is often clouded by our self-obsession). Aimo says, “Letting go is the key. Letting go without judgement and accepting things as they are. Just let go.” 

This idea of letting go can sometimes feel abstract and arbitrary. Ironically, letting go often requires some effort. If you want to move towards a life of greater ease, then you might have to exert a bit of pressure. It’s okay to want things and move towards them, but we must do this in an open and accepting way. Aimo says, “If you’re trying to create something, you have to do it from a space where you’re not trying too hard, but you can’t be totally passive either.” When you learn how to master this balance between action and acceptance, you learn how to be in the flow. 

Find your flow

Relax your body

Notice where your tension is and invite it to dissolve and release. Don’t force, just maintain a passive focus. Once you become practiced in this physical letting go, you can start to apply it to other areas of your life. 

Listen

What you put into the world comes back to you with powerful lessons. If you’re running around trying to make everyone happy and suddenly you get sick, break a bone or, you know, a worldwide pandemic hits – listen – maybe it’s a sign to slow down. 

Trust

You know that it’s not all about you – there’s no man in the sky curating your perfect life. But as a cog in the machine that is our world, mother nature is on your side – she wants you to be healthy and well. Trust the path that feels easy (or easier!), natural and right. 

Connect with nature

Recognise that you are part of something greater. Spend quiet, quality time in nature and notice your sensitivity enhancing and evolving, allowing you to listen and accept more fully. 

Notice where you’re forcing

Are there areas of your life where you feel like you’re constantly pushing and struggling? If things continually go wrong or feel strained, it might be time to change course. 

In the end, my arts degree led me to a career in yoga teaching and freelance writing. Work rarely feels like work because I love it. Sometimes the writing work slows down and I focus a little more on yoga, and vice versa. But I never put my head in my hands and worry about work or money, because I know they always come. In my personal life I sometimes must let go of things that aren’t going well too, and although that can be hard, it usually leads to greater health and happiness. Mostly, I trust that the universe is always pointing me in the right direction – and so far, it’s going pretty well.  

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

Down to Earth

Exploring ways to ground can help us ditch chaos for calm

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a daydreamer. Blankly staring out of windows as I contemplate the future, and wondering if the blue sky I see is the same as your blue – or maybe you see green when I see blue? This natural, child-like inclination towards dreaminess evolved into something murkier over time, as innocent qualities often do. These days, I can get so caught up in my thoughts that I forget to feel my feet on the ground. Swept up in the neuroses, I can’t sense my centre, only the whirs and hums in my head, and even they feel disjointed and unclear – a cacophony of noises that drown each other out, like insects in the night. 

World chaos, work, kids, and life’s many responsibilities can create the perfect storm for becoming stuck in your head and out of your body. But to spend your life fully, completely and authentically, you must find ways to come back to the present and back to your Self, despite whatever blizzards are blowing around you. 

I’m not the only one searching for solidity. Grounding is now an actual, formal practice that involves exploring ways to connect to the earth’s electricity – by placing your bare skin on the ground or immersing yourself in water. Studies show that this practice has astounding physical and mental benefits, such as strengthening the immune system, reducing muscle damage, and improving mood and sleep. 

In yoga philosophy, the root chakra (Muladhara), located at the base of the spine, is said to be responsible for our sense of safety and security. Balancing Muladhara can help us create a foundation from which to evolve physically and spiritually. You can create harmony in this part of the energetic body by indulging in activities that allow you to ground. Earthing yoga practices that bring your attention into the lower body, meditations and visualisations that focus on the philosophies of the root chakra, and other activities that invite a sense of safety, grounding and connection to the earth. By creating a healthy root chakra, you can feel a greater sense of connection to Self, and release emotions like stress and fear.

For me, grounding comes when having a cup of tea with my chickens, taking my dog for a walk in nature, practicing yin yoga or picking bindis from my front lawn (trust me, it’s very meditative!). These things all help me to find a sense of connection with the earth, and to sort through the thoughts until clarity emerges. Kind of like letting my blue heeler run wild until he stops, puffing and panting, finally able to take in the beautiful world around him.

A root chakra balancing meditation 

  • Prepare a pen and paper for the end of the exercise (or skip the journaling part if you’re short on time). 
  • Find a comfortable space to sit or lie down. Be as close to the earth as possible and, if lying down, bend your knees and place your feet on the ground. 
  • Close your eyes and tune into your breath. 
  • Bring your attention to the base of your spine and imagine sending slow, full breaths all the way down. 
  • Start to tune into your centre of gravity, sensing a subtle current from your base chakra down into the earth. 
  • Imagine a red, glowing light at the base of your spine (Muladhara chakra is the colour red). As you inhale, feel the light growing bigger and brighter. As you exhale, imagine the light getting a little smaller as it settles back into its nest. 
  • Continue like this, allowing excess tension to drain into the ground and your thoughts to quieten. 
  • When you feel ready, open your eyes, find your pen and paper and jot down some answers to (some or all of) the following questions:
  1. How often, and how, do I connect with nature?
  2. How is my physical health?
  3. How is my relationship with work and money?
  4. Do I feel I have a right to be here on this earth?

Once complete, sit for a little while longer observing your thoughts and breath. 

Get grounded: Tried and tested ways to find your centre

Embrace Mother Nature

No matter where you are, there’s a patch of nature to explore. You might walk through the forest, dip your toes in the ocean, or simply sit by a window and feel the sun on your skin. 

Go barefoot

Notice how kids love taking their shoes off? It’s such a beautiful instinct and something that promises to connect us to the earth instantly. 

Move

Take a walk, dance in your loungeroom, play hide and seek with your kids or chase your cat around the house. Bodies are a part of nature, and we are made to move. 

Practice gratitude

Gratitude is an essential daily practice for me, and I swear it has kept me sane amidst the greatest calamities of my life. Personally I habit-stack by reciting 10 things I feel grateful for each morning while I shower. The perfect way to start the day!

Write

Let your thoughts run wild and release them by putting pen to paper. You might have a daily journaling practice or just jot down some notes on your phone when you’re feeling overwhelmed to clear your messy mind. 

Eat

Take a leaf off your basil plant and eat it right away, indulge in a bowl of root vegetables or enjoy some fruit from your local farmer’s market. When you do eat, think about where your food came from and all the energy that went into its journey to your plate, enjoy the sensation of the taste on your tongue and allow yourself to be fully present in the activity. 

Connect 

Look in front of you and see what’s there. Is it a dog barking incessantly because he’s ready for his second walk (or is that just me?)? A child asking for your attention? A to-do list begging to be attended to? Whatever is there, can you be fully with it? Life is full of interruptions to our plans. You may find less stress and resistance, and more connection and grounding, by simply going with the flow. 

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

The Joy of Journaling

Like a debrief with your best friend, journaling is an essential element in any self-care schedule

By Jessica Humphries

For as long as I can remember I’ve been expressing myself through written words. Way back when it was called ‘writing in your diary’, before social media came along with a much more enticing way to kill time, I’d spend my afternoons pouring my heart out in my velvet covered notebook. My mum tells me that whenever we fought, instead of throwing a pre-teen tantrum, I’d write long letters about my feelings. There’s just something so cathartic about writing things down. The opportunity to reflect between revelations, to experience the magic of that precious pause. Allowing the messiness of the monkey mind to become somehow disentangled. And the research is on its side too. 

Journaling has been found to enhance both mental and physical health. A 2005 study, by Australian researchers Baikie and Wilhelm, demonstrated that journaling about traumatic events led to improved mood, reduced depression, fewer visits to the hospital and doctor, improved memory, reduced blood pressure, improved immune system functioning and more.

Inspired by such studies, I recently created a workshop for my yoga students on ‘values writing’ – a practice that evidence-based researcher Steven Hayes is particularly passionate about. He says, “Research has shown that values-writing has more impact on behaviour and health than just asking people to pick their values from a list, or state them in a few words. Values writing can reduce defensiveness, making us more receptive to information that suggests changes we need to make in our lives. It reduces physiological stress responses and buffers the impact of negative judgments of us from others.” Hayes explains that values writing is most powerful when it leads us to transcend our own ego and stories, allowing us to care more deeply about others – helping to build our sense of gratitude and purpose. 

Through my own jotting and journaling, I have found a greater sense of clarity. I’ve felt allowed to delve into the nooks and crannies of my being without judgement. Life’s daily trivial matters can sift through the cracks as I devote more time to contemplating what’s important, leaving me feeling clearer, more aware and, well, less like there’s a mental monkey behind the wheel of my ever evolving (but often cluttered) psyche. 

A values-journaling meditation 

  • Prepare your pen and paper and find a quiet and comfortable space. Sit or lie down as you settle your attention on your body and breath. Gently invite the lungs to expand, encouraging deeper breaths. Sit for a few minutes, allowing your mind to wander then gently guide it back to your breath. 
  • Open your eyes and write down the 10 things in life that you truly value. Some of my personal values are family, health, nature and authenticity. What matters most to you?
  • Now, look over the list and see if you can narrow it down to five core values. 
  • Next, answer the following questions on paper (remember, no one else is going to see this, so take as long as you like. Your words might be as complex as a poetic stream of consciousness or as simple as a few bullet-points): 
  1. How am I integrating these values into the way that I live my life? 
  2. In what ways, if any, am I contradicting these values in my daily life?
  3. How could I incorporate these core values into my life even more? 
  • Take as much time as you like to free-write. When you’re finished, lie down. 
  • Scanning from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet, allow each part of the body to relax. Let your mind settle onto your core values as you visualise waking up in the morning. Imagine a day, from the moment you wake in the morning until going to bed at night, where you integrate your core values into the way you live. Really see how a day in your life might look if you were living these core values fully. 
  • When complete, start to deepen your breath as you bring your attention back into your body. Gently come back to sitting.    

How to integrate journaling into daily life

  • Sit your journal next to your bed and write as soon as you wake up or before you go to sleep
  • Integrate the practice into an already established habit – such as after exercise or meditation (or brushing your teeth!)
  • During the day, keep your journal somewhere you can see it. When you feel overwhelmed, jot down some thoughts 
  • If you feel stuck, look up ‘journaling prompts’ for inspiration

Research-backed reasons to write your wins and woes

  • Reduces feelings of sadness and anger
  • Decreases intensity of pain
  • Frees up cognitive resources
  • Enhances feelings of gratitude
  • Improves sleep
  • Improves memory
  • Can help trauma recovery
  • Enhances immune function

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

To breed, or not to breed?

That is the question, and it’s a big one. 

For as long as I can remember I’ve been curious about the concept of having children. As a philosopher at heart, I pride myself on taking a leaf out of Socrates’ book and questioning the status quo. Having children is a part of life; a rarely questioned given – and those who challenge this biologically motivated milestone are often dismissed as selfish and strange. But as the axis begins to tilt and we start to question our desire to reproduce, from both a personal and ethical perspective, we wonder if unleashing more humans onto the world is really in everyone’s best interest. 

Philosophers have been pondering procreation for eons, and these days there’s a whole philosophy dedicated to the idea that having children is actually wildly unethical, known as anti-natalism. Anti-natalists argue that people should abstain from procreation because it is morally wrong.  Why? Put simply, it causes unnecessary suffering – to our children and to ourselves. Suffering is, of course, an inevitable aspect of existence. But, if we don’t exist then we can’t suffer. Morbid, right? But that’s life! 

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Men think that, by nature and some ancient constitution, it is a matter of necessity to get children. And so, it is plain, do other animals too; for they all acquire offspring by nature and not with any useful end in view – when they are born, the parents suffer and rear each as best they can, and they fear for them as long as they are small, and if they are hurt they grieve. Such is the nature of all living creatures; but for men it has been made a custom that some gain actually comes from offspring.” Having children is not something that we generally dedicate much thought to, because we assume it’s a necessary addition to a life of fulfilment. But is it, really?

These days, there are countless social media groups, articles and personal musings exploring the philosophy that, for a number of reasons, we’d be better off without extra beings. Among them are concerns about passing on mental health challenges to children, the concept of consent (yep – suing your parents for being born is now a thing) and considerations about overpopulation and the environment. Some thinkers even advocate for the extinction of the human race, claiming that, given the destruction that we are causing to the planet, the best outcome would be a peaceful phase-out of human existence. 

Those who may once have been considered conspirators are now mindful millenials making genuine sacrifices for the planet – including going against their very real biological instincts in an attempt to mitigate some of the damage we have done. 

On the flip side, parenting is hugely life-affirming, fulfilling and a necessary step on the journey of life for so many human beings. My friend and fellow writer, Caitlin Cady, is a working mum of three littlies (2, 4 and 6) and the author of the soon to be released book ‘Heavily Meditated’ – a down to earth guidebook for bringing the magic of meditation into your daily life. Not one to make any decision unconsciously, she says becoming a mother was a mindful and yet primal choice that she never questioned, and it has certainly been a rollercoaster ride. She says, “You can’t imagine the love and joy you will feel as a mother, but you also can’t imagine the intensity, the anxiety, the deep sense of duty and responsibility either. The extremes of motherhood – the exquisitely beautiful and outrageously difficult – are unimaginable and indescribable – in both the best and the hardest ways.” She describes the joy of watching them grow and discover the world, and muses over the gift of laugher that infiltrates the everyday mundane, as well as the opportunity to grow through parenting – “Kids have the most incredible ability to bring out the best in you but also to push your buttons and mirror some of your shadows. My kids are the three very high-stakes reasons that I want to be the very best version of myself.”

In many of us, there’s clearly a very deep and real biological desire to reproduce that is supported by the indescribable joy of parenting. Lucky for me, I can kind of perch myself on the fence here and enjoy the best of both worlds. 

I’ve been in the very unique position of playing part-time mama to my almost four-year-old nephew – a role that has piqued my curiosity even more as it has allowed me to see parenthood from the simultaneous and rare perspective of both parent and non-parent. I lived with my sister and nephew when he was born and played ‘mama-Jess’ for over a year. Since then, I have continued to be an extremely hands-on Aunty who intimately understands the ins and outs of what parenting actually involves. Just yesterday I spent my daily walk with a small child in each arm, moderated multiple toddler tantrums and dedicated a mind-boggling amount of time to cleaning up spills of all sorts (I don’t need to spell that one out, right?). 

If you don’t know already – let me tell you, parenting is both the most rewarding and thankless job you will ever do. It is, in equal parts, terrifying, exhausting, boring, enlightening, heart cracking (in good ways and bad) and utterly blissful. And while it’s certainly not the case that choosing to abstain from baby-making is selfish, having children absolutely teaches you about selflessness in ways that you otherwise may not quite comprehend. Suddenly, you just don’t care all that much about your own egotistical happiness – and that can take you to incredible places – ones that might even inspire you to be a better human being. 

But, when I tell my parent friends that I’ve decided not to go down the motherhood road, they look at me a little seriously, nod and say, ‘yeah, I get that.’ 

10 questions to ask yourself before having children

Am I ready to let go of my current identity?

Am I prepared to give up time for myself? 

How do I feel about criticism and judgement?

Do I have the patience to tolerate constant requests and demands?

How much do I need to be in control? 

Is this world a safe, harmonious place to live? 

What challenges might my child face in their lifetime?

Is my relationship with my partner strong enough to withstand the pressures of parenting?

Am I ready to be confronted by my own flaws on a daily basis?

Do I have the strength to let the person that I love more than anything else in the world feel pain, make mistakes and walk their own path? How easily can I manage the constant challenge of letting go?

Words by Jessica Humphries for Wellbeing Wild magazine

The Power of Gratitude

Can being thankful really make you happier?

Recently, I began a daily gratitude practice. Every morning when I shower, I list ten things I’m thankful for. On a good day, it might be my relationships, the glorious weather and a recent, delicious yoga practice. On a bad day, it may simply be the roof over my head and food in my belly. It doesn’t always come easy – but it does somehow allow me to see my life through a slightly different, more expansive lens (you know, one where I realise for a moment that I’m not actually the centre of the universe). 

On the surface, having a ‘gratitude practice’ sounds a bit irksome – like the kind of thing your mum would have insisted upon when you were a kid complaining about eating your broccoli (‘don’t you know how lucky you are? There are kids starving out there!’). But, there’s no denying that gratitude can contribute to your happiness. In 2011, researchers found that grateful contemplation resulted in a physiological response. It activated the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and decreased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight), indicating that gratitude can increase wellbeing and reduces stress.

It’s not always easy to muster up a sense of thankfulness though, and at times it may actually be counter-productive, bringing up conflicting emotions and making you feel worse (‘I’m a terrible person for not being grateful’). Recent research, which analysed 27 different studies, showed that gratitude interventions had limited benefits for depression and anxiety. This doesn’t mean that gratitude can’t be beneficial, just that it’s not a cure-all, especially when it comes to some mental health challenges.

However, gratitude can create a shift in perspective. Dr Lauren Tober, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, has experienced this shift firsthand through her photographic project, Capturing Gratitude. In 2012, after having read the positive research on gratitude, she began taking a photo every day of something she felt grateful for. She was surprised by how instant and profound the effects were. She says, “Almost immediately I was tuned into all that was wonderful in my life, and I found a deep sense of joy and contentment…In this personal longitudinal study, what has been most profound is that not only have I felt happier and more connected to myself and others, but that I am able to ride the waves of the ups and downs of life with more grace and ease.” 

When reflecting on my own gratitude practice I have undoubtedly experienced shifts in the way that I view my life and, in turn, make better decisions for myself. For example, when I began to see glimpses of comparison showing up in my gratitude practice (‘that person on instagram has a better house/body/yoga pose than I do’) I decided to spend less time on social media and replace it with the things that I feel fortunate for – like sitting with my chickens while drinking my morning cup of tea. When I’m aware of the things that feel good in my life, I’m more likely to dedicate energy to them. During times of turmoil and overwhelm, my gratitude practice hasn’t necessarily eased my anxiety, but it has provided an opportunity to press pause for a brief moment and come back to what truly matters. And for that, I am sincerely grateful. 

5 ways to integrate a gratitude practice

  1. Habit stack – contemplate things that you’re grateful for while showering, brushing your teeth or doing another daily task
  2. Journal – write a list of things you are grateful for daily 
  3. At the beginning/end of a yoga/exercise practice
  4. Bed-time reflection – before you drift off to sleep, ask yourself, ‘what went well today’?
  5. Take a picture as a keepsake 

Benefits of gratitude

A 2003 study on gratitude discovered that those who practised gratitude:

  • Reported more happiness and joy
  • Experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness
  • Spent more time exercising
  • Were more optimistic and satisfied with their lives
  • Reported increased positive affect and decreased negative affect
  • Were more likely to offer emotional support to others
  • Felt an increased sense of connection with others
  • Slept more hours with a better quality of sleep

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine