Monday, November 5, 2012

Action and Inaction

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that, “the wise man sees action in inaction, and inaction in action.” Sometimes, the most powerful action you can perform, is to perform no action at all.

I was in the sixth grade in Livingston, Montana. Due to inclement weather, our class was having recess indoors, in the gymnasium that doubled as our lunch room, and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, in a circle with perhaps a dozen other boys. Sitting next to me was a boy who's name I've since forgotten, but who's well-earned reputation as a bully I can still recall. We sat around, bragging about imagined exploits and generally lying to one another as young boys are wont to do, when the bully next to me suddenly turned to the boy sitting on his other side and viciously pinched the inside of his thigh, twisting the flesh until the boy squealed like a frightened piglet. A hardy laugh was had by all...well, all except the victim.

When I had seen what happened to that other boy, I had known immediately what would be coming next. I knew, as certainly as I knew that the sun would go down that evening and come up again the next morning, that the bully's next move would be to repeat his pinching and twisting procedure on another victim; and I knew that I would be that victim. But as I realized this I also made a decision: I would not try to stop him from torturing me but neither would I respond to it. I would let him pinch, but I would not squeal. I steeled my pre-teen nerves.

And sure enough, the young bully turned to me like clockwork and, with an demented grin, pinched my thigh and twisted hard. It hurt, sure, but I just looked at him placidly, trying my best to remain totally expressionless. His grin at once vanished, replaced by a look of confusion. Maintaining his grip on my thigh-flesh he asked in a tone of near wonder, “doesn't it hurt?”

“A little.” was my nonchalant reply. My voice didn't even waver. The bully released his grip, and I could sense that he was a little bit scared now, despite the fact that I was a scrawny kid who had never hurt anybody and didn't intend to. But my unexpected reaction, or rather lack of reaction, had thrown him out of his accustomed role of victimizer by making him apparently powerless over one who would normally be playing the role of victim. In this unaccustomed circumstance, he did not know what to do or what to expect next, and uncertainty, as I learned, is ever the traveling partner and boon companion of fear; and it must be said, I never got any more trouble from that boy.

Krishna tells Arjuna that, “the wise man sees action in inaction, and inaction in action.” The modern world is a very hectic place, everywhere people scurry from one occupation to the next, one task to the next, one hobby to the next; seeking ever higher levels of productivity, efficiency, luxury, bliss. The modern world is very busy, full of action, and yet there is nothing, really, going on. The forces that drive individuals and society as a whole today are no different than those forces and desires that drove the conquests of the Romans or the slaveholders of the old South. There is much apparent action in the modern world, but it is nothing more than a repetition of what has already been; now dressed up in hip modern fashion and sporting an electronica soundtrack, but only original on the surface, being, at heart, the same as what has come before. Hollywood is an almost pure manifestation of this principle, with their endless sequels that simply repeat the same simple plotlines in endless variation. Yes, we have progressed from Saw I to Saw VII, but has anything really changed?

On the other hand, an introverted stoic or contemplative mystic may seem, to the outside world, to be supremely inactive. There can hardly be conceived anything less active than Zen meditation, for instance, which is described by Zen students as “just sitting.” And yet, if through this process of just sitting, a person comes to a clearer understanding of the reality in which they find themselves entangled, if they find some peace or contentment that is both beyond and yet embracing of their everyday reality, then true and profound action has indeed occurred.

And also, there is this: that true action is impossible while one is in the process of reacting. Before one can truly act, that is to say, before one can act with free will, before one can be said to have willfully and intentionally initiated some action, one must first keep oneself from reacting, since reacting is only the repetition of already existing conditioning, of old modes of behavior.

If I call you a “d-bag a-hole” and you punch me in the face you have not truly acted, only reacted to my insult. It would be just as possible to assign the volition for the punch to me myself as it would be to you, since I was the one who initiated the sequence of events which unfolded mechanically once my insult had been uttered. Of course, it may be the case that I called you a “d-bag a-hole” not as an act of my own volition, but only as a reaction to some other event, say being intoxicated with alcohol. In fact, this is the case for most of us, most of the time. We are rarely, if ever, acting with true volition, with truly thoughtful intention, because before we have a chance to collect our thoughts we have already reacted in our accustomed way. When one becomes aware of this, the whole concourse of everyday life can seem nothing but reactions to reactions to reactions, with nary a truly intentional act to be found. It is for this reason also that we are told, “the wise see action in inaction and inaction in action.” The first, essential step to true action is the control of one's conditioned reactions, and so inaction is, in this sense, the necessary prerequisite to action.

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