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When Is An Action Not An Action?

Sorry, dear reader, you will have to wait until the end of the piece for the answer. The fact is that we are acting, doing, from the moment we get up in the morning until the moment we go to sleep. Even when we take a rest we are doing something, namely resting and recovering from the action, and even our dreams can seem extremely busy and intensive, except that the body is not involved. It is very hard to imagine what it is like just to be, without doing. We might need to imagine a non-human life, such a cat that can sit quietly in an armchair all day, or an olive tree that grows in silent dignity for 100 years. We can honestly say that we are human doings not human beings.


One of the most important discoveries of the spiritual life is a reappraisal of what it means to act. Action here means almost anything that we do purposefully, including speech, movement, working and so on. From doing the dishes to switching on the computer. Normally we act because we want something, we want to change something, to get something, to get somewhere, to achieve a goal, to gain something and so on. If we are too demanding or intense around these goals, we put ourselves and others around us under stress and pressure, and this has some noticeable pathological results on health of mind and body. But even if we act without any pressure at all, we are usually completely identified with the ends we want to achieve by this busyness, and as such often feel a slave to our goals and intentions, and that something is missing in our lives.


Of course, goals, directions and intentions in our life are important. There is a need for great wisdom in navigating ourselves through the challenges of life with actions that are wholesome, beneficial to ourselves and others, that do not harm ourselves or others, that have moral sensitivity, that are like a mother who feeds her children. We have discussed this before in the context of karma, that is that the kinds of seeds we sow in our lives will tend to bear similar kinds of fruit. However here I am talking about something a little different. That is, the nature and quality of an action, not just its purpose and results. A famous example of