There is No Try

Three weeks ago, I preached, “What’s Your Great Vow?” Last week, I preached, “Transforming Your Inner Critic.” Today, I want to bring those two sermons together.

In “What is Your Great Vow?” I asked, What is the mission of your life? I talked about noticing what your sources of vow were. You have inherited vows – a sense of purpose you got from parents or other particularly influential people as you were growing up. You have reactive vows – some experience of hurt or injustice that made an impression on you as worth working to stop or mitigate. You have inspired vows – heros, or people you look up to, who inspired you to be like them in some way. I asked you to reflect on those sources of vow, and out of that reflection discern your Great Vow, and email it to me for inclusion in a Shrine of Vows.

Our CUUC Shrine of Vows is currently electronic [HERE], but eventually we will have a physical display. Let me update you on the vows that CUUC members have sent in so far:
  • I vow to live with compassion and integrity.
  • I vow to make the time to care for myself, to be kind to all others, and to protect the planet.
  • I vow to push forward in love.
  • I vow to live soulfully, and to give back.
  • I vow to give of myself through caring, nonjudgmental listening, my empathy and sympathy, my friendship to all those who are struggling in life with things like sickness, death, relationships, or daily life for an immigrant.
  • I vow to give everyone the care I give to my family, to hold my beliefs lightly and change them as circumstances change.
  • I vow to be present in loving awareness.
  • I vow to be mindful of both self care and care for others.
  • I vow to arrive fresh, to arrive in love, to endear; to companion, to befriend, to love, to notice, to bear witness, to live until I die -- and die, and die, and die until I live.
  • I vow to love and to learn.
  • I vow to accept all beings as my teachers
  • I vow to recognize, cultivate and nurture community.
  • I vow to see the magic in everything.
  • I vow to care.
  • I vow to age gracefully, with compassion, frugality, and joy.
  • I vow to pursue education, not let others squelch my talents, be free of emotional instability, and support fairness and equality.
  • I vow to be selflessly loyal to my family, be open minded, no matter how challenging, and learn to be happy with less.
  • I vow to be in the light.
  • I vow to bring love with me wherever I go.
  • I vow to create peace wherever I can.
  • I vow to fight for justice, never give up, be strong, help the weak, be honest and respectful, be supportive of and nice to people and respect each and every one of them, work hard, live with integrity, and see and enjoy the beauty of the world.
Those are some GREAT vows! I’m inspired just reading those vows, and just knowing that we are a community of people who have pointed themselves in those directions. To those of you who sent in those vows, thank you so much – both for orienting your life that way, and for sharing your vow. And if you haven’t sent me your Great Vow yet, please do. Email it to me and I’ll add it to our CUUC Shrine of Vows.

Then last week, I talked about the Inner Critic. I said that a person consists of many internal voices, and that a healthy psyche is like a healthy democracy: every voice gets heard, and no voice dominates. Louis XIV of France supposedly said “L’etat c’est moi” – I am France. For France, becoming democratic meant no single person, or any group smaller than all French citizens, could claim to BE France. Likewise, for you to be a healthy democracy of internal voices, no single voice, or cabal of voices, can claim to BE you. But the Inner Critic can be so dominant that people may think the Inner Critic is just them, rather than one of their many voices. I talked about some ways to differentiate from the Inner Critic so you can hear what it says, and tend to its needs even as you know that what it’s saying is not the whole truth.

Now to bring the two sermons together. The Great Vow can be a tool for managing your Inner Critic, and managing your Inner Critic can help you be oriented toward your vow. Without a Vow, the Inner Critic can pull you this way and that with whatever way it happens to notice at the moment that you aren’t all things to all people.

With my vow before me, I can, for instance, say to my Critic,
“Sam (it’s helpful to give your inner critic a name), thank you for reminding me that I dropped out of piano lessons in high school, but no, I am not going to make up for that now, because realistically, that’s not the best way to move along the path of my vow. Making the world more beautiful with really skillful music is something I can, fortunately leave to Adam – and other musicians. Making a few moments maybe a little more fun with some slapdash guitar strumming – that I will do. Much more than that just doesn’t need to be in the cards."
So a clear vow can help narrow down the Critic’s range of things to carp about.

On the other hand, if you don’t also directly transform your relationship with your Critic, it will latch on to that vow and give you hell for all your failures to live up to it. Consider, for example, how the Inner Critic loves self-help books. Start reading up on spirituality and personal growth, and before long, your Critic will be telling you:
  • You’re not authentic.
  • You didn’t say that from your essential being.
  • You need to be more open.
  • You’re not real enough.
  • Your auric field is not clear.
  • Your energies are off.
  • You’re not in touch with your feelings, your sexuality, your body, your spirituality, your higher mind, or your core.
A vow is a wonderful thing – but we need to make sure we’re not just giving your Inner Critic one more crow bar with which to bludgeon you.

If you vowed to be a bearer of love wherever you go, that’s beautiful! The last thing you need is a voice inside that’s telling you several times a day, “Well, that wasn’t very loving.”

The way to have a Great Vow, while also not being harangued by your Inner Critic for failing to live up to is: Don’t try. Really. No more trying. Just like Yoda says: “Do. Or Do not. There is no try.” Don’t try. Simply do.

All our lives we’ve been taught to try. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” we heard over and over. “You only fail if you stop trying,” we were told. Michael Jordan is widely quoted for saying, “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

I’m not saying there aren’t some things that are worth energy, time, and effort. I’m saying there’s a difference between effort and trying.
It might be subtle. From the outside, it may not be discernible. But there’s a difference.

Suppose you are pushing on an enormous boulder. If you say, “I am trying to move this boulder,” and it doesn’t move, you failed. If you say, “I am putting in effort toward the moving of this boulder,” you’ve succeeded at doing that whether the boulder moves or not.

That’s an important difference. It’s the difference between seeing life as entirely about outcomes and seeing that it’s the doing that matters regardless of the outcome.

Your vow is not about outcomes. It’s about orientation. It’s about pointing your life in a certain direction – and then just seeing where that takes you. With a Great Vow, there’s never a point at which you say, well, that’s done. Mission accomplished. You’ve pointed yourself in a direction: whether it’s “I vow to speak my truth,” or “I vow to embody true compassion,” or whatever your vow is. And then you just see where that takes you. Maybe some days it didn’t seem like you were very compassionate, but you just keep yourself pointed in that direction.

It’s like flying an airplane through thick clouds, very limited visibility, and you have no instruments except a compass. Your vow is your compass. It keeps you pointed: East, say. There’s no question of ever arriving at East. Your Critic might want to say you should be getting there faster, but there’s nowhere to get to. There’s just being headed that way. Moreover, you have no speedometer (on the path of vow, there's no such thing as a speedometer), so there’s no way to know how fast you’re going East.

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

* * *

Happy Mother’s Day to all our Moms. When it comes to trying and not trying, I know that so many mothers have tried so hard to be good mothers. British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott advocates for the good enough mother. He urges being neither neglectful nor smothering. He noticed that babies and children benefit when, as he put it, their mothers fail them in manageable ways. So, Moms, you don’t need to try. Good enough is actually best.

Trying backfires. Hal and Sidra Stone, in their book, “Embracing Your Inner Critic” observe:
“It is like saying to someone, ‘Stand in the corner and do not think of an elephant!’ Try as you may, you will think of an elephant, and the harder you try, the harder it will be to get the elephant out of your head. Try to be loving all the time, and you will be engorged with negativity. Try always to keep your mind clear while meditating, and you will be invaded by thoughts and fantasies. Try always to be loving to your children, and you will be invaded periodically by negative feelings that will assault you” (53).
So let your vow be gentle with you. It’s a gentle pointing of you in a particular direction. If you push yourself in that direction, it just backfires. Just keep bumbling happily along, being exactly who you are, not one bit more or less, with your vow – which you identified by discerning who you are – simply orienting you, a soft reminder of your purpose. Your vow is not the taskmaster’s shove – against which you would only push back. Your vow is the vague echo in the direction of your own joy. Writing it down was like giving a great shout, so as to hear the guidance of that echo – in the direction of your own joy.

Poet Charles Bukowski has something to say to us here. Bukowski died in 1994 at the age of 74. A prolific writer of thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, his work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women, and the drudgery of work. He once told Life Magazine:
"We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us."
I mention Bukowski because his motto was “Don’t try.” In fact, it’s carved on his tombstone: “Don’t try.” It’s his philosophy of art and life – a prolific career of millions of words boiled down to just two: Don’t try.

In a letter Bukowski wrote to a friend in 1963, Bukowski relates that someone once asked him, "What do you do? How do you write, create?" Bukowski replied
"You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”
You wait, Bukowski is saying. And there’s also a sense of watching, of attention. In other words, you orient yourself toward something – like orienting yourself toward your vow – and then you pay attention and watch what happens.

You can’t make it happen – don’t try. Just point yourself in a particular direction and watch and wait. Life is not for muscling our way through.

Some years after Bukowski’s death, Linda Bukowski, the poet's wife, explained:
“Yeah, I get so many different ideas from people that don't understand what that means. Well, "Don't Try? Just be a slacker? lay back?" And I'm no! Don't try, do. Because if you're spending your time trying something, you're not doing it..."DON'T TRY."
Toward the end of my graduate student career, I was no longer trying to make myself into something, no longer muscling my way through Kant or John Dewey or Donald Davidson. Reading certain books and writing papers became just something I did – rather than an outcome I was trying for. Right about that time, the University said, “OK, you’re done. Here’s your terminal degree. Move along now.”

Then I was out in the world of trying – the world that people puzzlingly call “the real world,” though it always felt a lot less real to me. Then I TRIED being a professor for a while. Then I TRIED being a minister – until, finally, it became something I do rather than something I was trying. It was a gradual shift. It’s not like one day, boom, all the trying just fell away. Even now, under enough stress, I think the trying would come back – and the Inner Critic would come with it.

In fact, trying and being under the influence of the Inner Critic are the same thing. Trying is the name for what one does when attempting to appease the Critic.

If vacations aren’t just a pleasant thing to do, but an absolute necessity because if you don’t get a break from your day-to-day the you’ll crack, you could be trying too hard.

If the stress and anxiety of everyday life is driving you to medication – including the self-medication of alcohol or overeating – you could be trying too hard. If you’re only doing what you think you should do, and not what you want to do, you could be trying too hard.

If you’re having a difficult time distinguishing your Inner Critic from yourself, you are trying too hard. Ultimately, trying at all – instead of simply doing – is trying too hard.

In the story Tracy shared with us [Ashley Spires, The Most Magnificent Thing], the girl sure was trying to make a most magnificent thing. How do we know she was trying rather than just doing? It isn’t because she is unsatisfied with the first product and tosses it aside – or because she tosses aside the first several products. The doing of any creative work almost always includes abandoning the early products, scratching through much of the first draft – if not most of it – if not all of it. No, that’s not how we know she’s trying rather than doing.

We know she’s trying rather than just doing because she gets mad. She’s muscling it – smashing pieces into shape, jamming parts together, pummeling the little bits in. And her Inner Critic completely takes over as she explodes, “I’m no good at this.”

There’s no anger in just doing. No fear, no anxiety. No heavy sighing.

When Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is getting his Jedi training from Yoda, he learns to use the force to levitate a rock. Then Luke’s X-Wing starfighter sinks into a bog.

Luke: “Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.”
Yoda: “Do you hear nothing that I say?”
Luke: “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.”
Yoda: “No! No different.”
Luke sighs, “All right, I’ll give it a try.”
And that’s when Yoda says, “No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

There’s no sighing in just doing. There is a wholehearted commitment – but it isn’t commitment to any particular result. Just a commitment to the doing – and a waiting and watching to see what the result might turn out to be.

The other film that I referenced in the description for today’s service is The Karate Kid (1984). Mr. Miyagi is about to start Daniel’s karate instruction.

He says, “So. Ready?”
Daniel says, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Mr. Miyagi draws a breath and says, “Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later – sqwk – get squish, just like grape. Here karate same thing. Either you karate do ‘yes,’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so.’ Sqwk. Just like grape. Understand?”

Just doing does involve whole-hearted commitment to the just doing. But it isn’t commitment to, say, winning the tournament. Spoiler-alert – if it’s possible to spoil a movie that came out 36 years ago – Daniel does win the tournament, but that’s just Hollywood. “The victory is the doing,” as Mohandas Gandhi said -- regardless of what happens at the tournament.

The problem is, trying not to try is just one more form of trying. Just like not being free of your Inner Critic is one more thing your Inner Critic will criticize you for. Just let your vow point you in your intended direction, and cultivate the spirit of waiting and watching – attending. Make what room you can for grace, and let grace take over from there -- understanding that you can’t rush it. Grace, as they say, keeps to no schedule – but it’s always right on time.

Be it so. Amen.


When I was thinking about today's message, "don't try," and remembered the two movie clips referenced above, I misremembered them both. In The Empire Strikes Back, I thought I remembered that Luke had been really trying hard -- muscling it, so to speak. When Yoda repeated the instructions -- like, "use the force, Luke" -- Luke exclaimed (in my mis-memory) in exasperation, "I'm TRYING to do that!" In this context, when Yoda says, "Do. Or do not. There is no try," he'd be suggesting that Luke relax a bit and not try so hard.

In the same way, I also misremembered the context of Mr. Miyagi's line -- "Karate do 'yes,' or karate do 'no'." I thought Daniel had been trying too hard and gotten frustrated. In such a context, Mr. Miyagi would be meaning, "Just do your karate -- or don't. Don't get frustrated over results. Just do, and never mind the results."

In both cases, however, when I located and watched the clips, I discovered that the context was the opposite of what I had thought I remembered. Luke and Daniel weren't trying too hard. Rather, they were insufficiently committed to the practice they had supposedly come to learn. When Luke sighs, "All right, I'll give it a try," he's not whole-heartedly giving himself to the enterprise at hand. Nor is Daniel when he says, "Yeah, I guess so."

Both points -- the point I had misremembered the clips as making, and the point the clips actually make -- are true. "Don't try" prescribes a middle path: neither, on the one hand, trying too hard, nor, on the other hand, "trying" as an excuse for half-hearted doing. "Don't try" steers between attachment to results (which is what is happening when we are trying too hard) and lackadaisical practice.

Some of us are more likely to err on the side of trying too hard. This is where the work of recognizing and differentiating from the Inner Critic is especially important. The Critic has teamed up with the Pusher to make us into over-earnest, stressed strivers. "Try! Try!" is the Critic's cry, and the more you heed your Critic, the stronger your Critic becomes. The Critic is never satisfied.

Some of us are more likely to err on the side of low commitment. This is where the work of articulating and committing to your vow comes in.

And very often we err in both directions at once: as when we strive after results instead of simply committing our lives to our vow -- our promise to keep up a certain kind of practice whether the expected results materialize on the expected schedule or not.

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