When Is An Action Not An Action?

Dr. Stephen Fulder

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 the issue of quality of an action is when Moses struck the rock to draw water from it, instead of talking to it. He demonstrated a crudity and lack of trust within the action which drew on him highly painful consequences – his death outside the Land of Israel.  

There is a great secret in the balance between means and ends, that is, the way we do things and what we do. If we are obsessed by goals, the action is full of pressure, friction, stress, exhaustion and so on. We do not walk our talk. If we are obsessed by means, we are walking, but to nowhere, lost and wandering purposelessly. Means and goals reflect and mirror each other. We actually do not need to separate them. If we pay attention to the means as well as the goals, the actions become more harmonious and bear better fruit. An example is peacemaking, in which this is so often lacking. If we are talking about peace while dropping bombs, real peace seems unreachable. If we are peaceful, taking real steps to healing and repairing the situation, inducing trust by actions on the ground, as well as peace as a goal, all the doors to peace become open. This is ‘Peace in Every Step’ as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes. How much we need this in the Middle East.

Good musicians, practitioners of tai ch’i and martial arts, athletes and sportsmen, all gradually learn this secret of the power that is released when we let go of attachment to goals, without losing direction, and when mean and ends are in balance. It was made famous in the book, Zen and the Art of Archery. In the moment of a perfectly balanced shot, the way and the goal come together in a moment of pure being, or flow and release. Alexander teachers use a similar method in guiding the body to relearn actions that heal rather than that cause structural damage to the body. They talk about movement coming from its source rather than ‘end-gaining’ – trying to get somewhere.
When we look at our actions very carefully, from a spiritual point of view, we find something quite startling. That we never actually get anywhere  with any action that we do. It is simply impossible, an illusion , a habit of the mind that thinks  that is always running to get somewhere else, to run away from what is to what is not. When clearly seen, the reality is that we are constantly arriving not constantly going. We are again and again arriving in this surprising  present moment which unfolds itself in front of us like a red carpet. There is nowhere else we can be other than this moment in which our actions happen, whether we are aware of it or not. And if our minds are full of future plans, intentions and goals, we simply don’t notice the truth staring us in the face. We can only live in the present whatever sandcastles our minds are building somewhere else. Our minds are used to restlessness, but when we stop and look at where we really are we notice that we have never left. As the poet TS Eliot said: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  

I once asked my aunt, at the sprightly age of 93, how she explained her ripe old age. “Very simple,” she replied, “I practice masterful inactivity!”

When we are aware of this, then actions become non-actions. As the Tibetan teacher Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche writes: “Activities are endless, like ripples on a stream. They end only when we drop them. All activities are like games children play. Like castles made of sand. View them with delight and equanimity, like grandparents overseeing their grandchildren or a shepherd resting on a grassy knoll watching over his grazing flock.”

So is all of this relevant to us as we sit in front of the computer, answer the telephone, catch a bus, heal a client, read these words right now or any other of our normal activities? It certainly is, since the truth of non-action breaks through and makes us feel joyful and free when we notice it. It happens when we are more playful and less goal directed. It happens when  we relax deeply in the midst of activity and find ourselves easily accommodating to whatever happens as we go along – going  with the flow. It happens when sometimes we feel everything is  just right. It happens to us. That is,  an action becomes a non-action when  we feel that it is just happening. Happening by itself. In those wonderful moments  we feel that we are not only alive, but that we are being lived.   


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