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Effortless Action: A Physiological Principle

"Effortless and highly precise action is a principle of nature and can be found throughout the animal kingdom."

"In adults, however, subconscious action normally becomes unreliable over time; even the simplest activities become compromised by harmful tensions that interfere with natural coordination."

The following discussion touches on the theme of effortlessness, which we mentioned in a previous blog post. While even the most efficient actions of animals may require enormous expenditure of energy -- for instance, this -- they are almost always performed within the context of nearly ideal muscoskeletal coordination.

This excerpt also touches on another theme: learned skill in adults. While this is very important, we offer this discussion in order to focus on effortlessness and precision in movement when the musculoskeletal system is properly coordinated. The animal -- and the very young child -- are both examples of proper coordination. This needs to be described and explained in a concrete way.


Well-coordinated actions are not an achievement of this or that specific muscle, since they occur within the context of a complex network of muscle pulls that include the head, trunk, and limbs. If we want action to occur in a coordinated way, the particular act must take place without interfering with this total system.

The question is how to accomplish this. We saw in the case of the pianist that when he raised his arms to play, he habitually tightened the muscles of the neck, back, and limbs. As a first step, it was necessary to bring about an improved condition of the muscular system. Yet even when we made adjustments to this system so that it was properly coordinated, the moment he thought of playing, he tightened his neck, back, and limbs. How then does he raise his arm to hit the notes, if the very thought of activity bring this interference into play?

We saw in the last section that when the pianist has the idea or impulse to act, this desire invokes harmful habits that interfere with the proper muscular coordinations. In order to avoid these habits, he must act without the thought of action. This cannot happen until he has become physically poised and detached from the usual preoccupation with ends; he must quiet the mental field of ideas in order to act from a quiet mind. When he is focused on maintaining the proper coordinations and inhibiting the desire to try, the act of quietly waiting, of suspending action, become the focal point for a new sort of action. The breaking of the habit of trying opens up space for conceiving clearly what he wants to do, and for allowing that conception to realize itself effortlessly within the context of a poised, coordinated state.

When this state is achieved, when the network of muscle pulls is perfectly in balance and the performer is able to maintain that system in a coordinated state while executing a specific motion, then the act of raising the hand occurs as if by itself, with a minimum of distortion and without any sense of effort. The movement of the arm is no longer experienced or sought after as a deliberate act but occurs effortlessly in the context of a coordinated whole.

This experience of control in process resembles the infantile experience: movement occurs by itself, and the resulting experience happens to the child as a kind of transformational sensory experience. Alert as he is, however, the child has no mastery over the process, nor is he conscious of the process governing the action, whereas the adult who experiences effortless action has achieved a level of mastery that can be applied at will through the overseeing medium of an alert, conscious mind.

excerpted from The Elements of Skill

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