Drawing on Eastern philosophy, Buddhism, Morita therapy, Naikan and Kaizen, Gregg Krech offers an approach to ACTION that guides you to doing what is important for you to do in the time you have left.
The four key elements are Attention, Purpose, Importance and Self-reflection
Taking action can be stressful. But it can be more stressful to procrastinate and leave things untended.
Practical strategies for taking action including “overcoming by going around”, likes and dislikes, non-attachment, slowing down, dealing with deadlines, and more.
An introduction to three key methods of psychology — Morita therapy, Naikan, and Kaizen.
Fear, Indecision, Perfectionism, Discouragement — these are just some of the “demons of inaction” you may have to battle.
It’s not just about you. Your actions (and inaction) impact on others. How can we consider others in our choices of what we do and don’t do?
“An object at rest will remain at rest.” Getting started is often the biggest challenge. But it can be done.
Practical strategies based on Japanese Psychology, Buddhism, Martial Arts and Eastern Philosophy
Learn to go outside your comfort zone to take action and respond to what needs to be done
Empower yourself by avoiding the trap of only doing what you like and avoiding what you don't
Learn practical strategies for taking the first step
Learn how to use momentum in order to build consistency in your efforts
Don't let perfectionism keep you from finishing what's important to you
Many of us associate Eastern philosophy and religion with contemplative practices, such as meditation (zazen) or self-reflection (Naikan). We’ve borrowed from the contemplative East in order to integrate practices such as yoga, mindfulness or calligraphy into our lives. But there is also a foundation of Eastern wisdom directed towards ACTION. We tend to overlook these ideas because we may see our lives as already too active – too much to do and not enough time to do it. But the action principles that come from the East are different from those in the West. They emphasize a value system grounded in principles such as non-attachment, purpose, gratitude, interdependence, and coexisting with fear. Such principles are prominent in martial arts (Aikido, Kyudo), psychology (Morita therapy, Kaizen) and even religion (engaged Buddhism). The Art of Taking Action isn’t simply about keeping busy or checking things off your to-do list. It’s about choosing what to do, how to do it, and the development of character.
Nowhere is the art of taking action more elegantly manifested than in Mahatma Gandhi. As the grandfather of the non-violence movement, Gandhi inspired millions to consider non-violent resistance as a method of civil disobedience and change. On the surface, we might see his methods as an excellent example of inaction. You do not run. You do not fight. You do not resist. You do not cooperate. And yet, his philosophy created a revolution against one of the greatest colonial powers of modern times – England. Gandhi, himself, was a man of strong willpower and action. He never preached passivity or withdrawal from the world of human affairs. The meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran described Gandhi’s character this way:
“Very, very few people in human history have accomplished more than Gandhi. Not many people even have the colossal vitality he had. But he generally looked so relaxed that a superficial observer might have thought he was lazy. If you look at some of the pictures of Gandhi, he looks so relaxed that he reminds me of our cat. . . Actually, although Gandhi looks frail in photographs, he had not only a Ferrari engine but a Ferrari body as well. Only a strong, resilient body could have taken the rigors of that life. John Gunther, who was over six feet tall, recalled that he had to run to keep up with Gandhi when he went to interview him, and Gandhi was in his seventies at the time. His vigor was unmistakable. His power was untouched until the situation demanded it; then he would take off in no time, from zero to sixty in one minute, as calm as ever behind the wheel. It was all power steering too, just the opposite of the stereotype of the tense, time-driven man of action. I was only a student when I met him, and it gave me a whole new idea of what it means to operate successfully in the modern world.”
Many of Gandhi’s biographers confirm his reputation as a man of action. But they also describe him as a man of spirituality and prayer. Though he is best remembered for his leadership of non-violent resistance which ultimately liberated India from colonial authority, he also demonstrated how we can integrate contemplative practice and action.
Sometimes you can’t get clarity, even if you try. You have some general idea of something you want to do. Maybe it’s a change of jobs, or some kind of volunteer work. Maybe you want to do something creative, but you’re not sure what. Maybe you want your family to have a “nature experience” but you don’t know what that means or what it would involve. So clarity isn’t really available to you. What should you do?
Go ahead and get started. Get started without clarity. Take some small steps. Investigate, research, look into possibilities, check things out, talk to people, and . . . . if at all possible – try something out in real life. Be like a cook who needs to make a stew, but doesn’t know what she’s trying to make. Just start cooking and tasting, cooking and tasting. Add a little more pepper, or a few more carrots. “OK, this isn’t quite what I was looking for. What can I add to make it different?” Worst case scenario – throw it into the compost and start over. Be willing to fail. And learn.
The problem is most of us associate figuring things out with thinking. We imagine Einstein at his blackboard, spending days writing complex equations. This may work for you if you’re a physicist or mathematician. But in real life, it just keeps us stuck. It keeps us from moving forward and taking action.
Action isn’t something that comes after figuring things out. Action is a way of figuring things out.
So be clear and take the next step. Or be confused and take the next step. Even if you have clarity, eventually you’ll run into something that completely confuses you. And if you’re confused . . . you may always be confused. Life is confusing. Don’t let that bother you.
A small step doesn’t get you very far, and generally we judge the value of the step based on distance. If your workout today consisted of jumping rope one time (one revolution), you probably didn’t burn many calories or lose much weight. On that basis we tend to discount small steps. We want to take giant steps that allow us to move forward quickly in large leaps. With a Dorothyesque click of the heels we hope to get from here to there, even when “there” is nowhere in sight. The true value of small steps is often ignored. They involve motion. We go from not doing something to doing it – even in a minimal way. According to the laws of physics, we go from being a body at rest to a body in motion. Here’s Newton’s First Law of Physics:
An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by some outside force.
Sir Isaac Newton was one of the most extraordinary intellects of his time. He realized that when an object is at rest it will basically stay at rest unless something influences it. It’s also true that when an object is in motion it will basically stay in motion. This is what we refer to as momentum. This is why small steps can be so valuable. They offer momentum at a fairly low cost. In other words, it takes very little effort to create momentum. One pushup, one dish washed, one photo organized, one paragraph written in your novel-to-be. Have you gone very far? No. Do you now have momentum? Yes! And once you have momentum (you are in motion), you are more likely to continue – in motion.
Several years ago our journal, Thirty Thousand Days, interviewed Dr. Robert Maurer, who wrote a book on Kaizen. Kaizen is a program of organizational change originally developed in Japan by an American – W. Edwards Deming. (I discuss Kaizen in the section of this book on Japanese Psychology). Maurer found that some of the same principles used in business were successful from the standpoint of personal change. When we asked him for a personal example, he mentioned writing his book. He received a contract to write a book, and felt overwhelmed. He had read that many Nobel Prize winners wrote books by committing to write one page per day. So Maurer made a commitment to write for one minute a day. One minute! He found that often, after one minute was up, he kept on writing – for five more minutes. Or ten. Or forty. That’s how he wrote a book. He used Newton’s First Law of Physics. He created momentum – and he finished his book.
Momentum doesn’t guarantee you will remain in motion. There will always be forces working against you – internal forces (like anxiety or fear) and external forces (like emergency medical problems and illness). You can do something every day for a month and then miss a day. Are you back at square one? Yes and No. You have to start over again and get back in motion. But you’re not the same person you were a month ago. You have different karma. You have a different history.
Once you understand momentum, you can get it to work in your favor. And when you become aware that you have become a “body at rest,” you realize that you will also remain that way unless something changes. How to take that first step from being a “body at rest” to being a “body in motion” is something you have to learn to do. While you’re trying to figure it out, go ahead and do it.
The other day I was walking down our driveway which had become icy as a result of sleet, freezing rain, a warm sun, and then cold frigid temperatures. One large segment of the driveway was like a skating rink. Even if you walked very carefully, it was almost impossible to cross the ice without slipping and falling. So I decided to simply go around the ice by walking alongside the driveway where there were still several inches of crusty, hard snow. By going around the ice, I was able to continue my walk without confronting the ice directly.
This is the strategy Morita therapy offers for dealing with the challenging feeling-states we all face from time to time — depression, fear, anxiety, despair, frustration and even anger. We are generally taught that we must face ur problems and confront them directly. This can work well when the problem is a car that won’t start or weeds in your garden. You get in there and work hard on the problem until it is solved. But this doesn’t work very well when the “problem” is our feeling state. For this problem, we are better off learning how to “overcome by going around.”
“There is an old Buddhist term, ocho, which means overcoming by going around. In confronting a problem head-on, you may encounter a wall so high and thick that you cannot break through it. So you turn to one side and go around the wall. This is ocho. Instead of sitting desolately in front of the wall that is blocking your progress, you try to get around it by making a long detour, or even by digging under it… It is a subtle but simple movement of the mind that makes this transformation complete, but an invaluable one to learn and perfect.”
— Hiroyuki Itsuki
It takes a lot of strength to knock down a wall of depression. It takes great courage to break through a wall of fear. But to simply go around the wall doesn’t require any strength or courage at all. It requires a bit of wisdom. It requires clarity of purpose. And it requires acceptance. We leave the ice intact. We leave the wall standing.
I saw a wonderful example of this applied by a musician who had stage fright. He wanted to perform in front of an audience. But when he did, he was terrified. And his voice would shake which affected his singing. Do you know how he conquered his stage fright? He wrote a song about it. And when he performed he would sing that song. He said the greater his anxiety, the more his voice would shake and he would be nervous. And that actually improved his song – it made the performance better. He didn’t do battle with his anxiety. He kept it and found a way to make it work for him.
We overcome our anxiety by going around it, not by destroying it or freeing ourselves from it. You don’t need to travel in a straight line. Water doesn’t travel in a straight line. Because of its flexibility it is impossible to contain it. Let us learn the art of ocho and live more like water.
Gregg Krech discusses how to take action once the “newness” of something has faded
30,000 Days = the average number of days a person has to live
“Having a lot of check marks on your daily to-do list doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living a meaningful life. How many days do you have left to live? What percentage of those days will you be healthy and capable enough to do the things you identified that you want to do? What are you willing to give up to do what you want to be doing with the time you have? What are you willing to risk?”