Letter No 112 - Action in inaction

Dear friend,

Do you feel the tension between doing and non-doing?

Do you sometimes feel that you have been torn into two different parts. One part of you want to get things done, complete tasks, be proactive, learn new skills, and all that. And the other part of you wants to close your eyes, relax, do nothing, be playful, give some love, listen to some music or read a nice book. And these parts of you are in battle, taking away all your peace.

Do you? I do.

In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Hamlet struggles with the logistical difficulties and moral burdens of vengeance, constantly shuttling between whether to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death once and for all, or whether to do so would be pointless, cruel or even self destructive. At one point he is even haunted by his fathers ghost who charges him with taking revenge by killing Claudius. But Hamlet misses opportunity after opportunity (often intentionally) and soon begins to wonder what his own inability to take action says about himself.

In this case, should he have acted, or should he have not? The science of morality would tell us inaction is better.

But in the Bhagwad Gita, Lord Krishna told Arjun to perform his duties and go ahead and slay his cousins and uncles on the battlefield.

Even in Hamlet, Shakespeares brings on the character of Fortinbras, the young prince of Norway who is determined to take back his lands his father lost in battle and marches relentlessly across Europe. For his decisive action Fortinbras is rewarded with the one thing Hamlet partly longed for but never could take the action necessary to be secure - political and social control of his country. Hamlet watches as Fortinbras takes the action he himself is unable to.

By now you must surely be thinking I'm clearly in favour of action. Or at least I'm in favour morally guided action.

But the question is this - was Hamlet's inability to take revenge by killing Claudius morally guided?

I think not.

At times we desire to take action, but there is another part of us that doesn't want to. We are split. That well known metaphor of the angel sitting on one of our shoulders and the devil sitting on the other. Both whispering their ideas for action into our head and confusing us. Which one do we listen to?

But is listening to either one of them the right action or inaction? In these situations we are split. We are torn. We are not one. We are not longer 'integral'. We are constantly flitting between do this or not, do this or do that, between action and inaction.

To me that is where the problem lies - in not having clarity. Then I become like a flag flailing in the wind. Or rather a pendulum oscillating this way and that way.

That takes away my peace and my strength.

Had Hamlet been clear and truly morally guided, he would have acted differently. After 27 years of been tormented in prison by his captors, Nelson Mandela chose a different kind of action. He chose to rebuild a new kind of democratic South Africa rather than seek revenge against those who had oppressed him and his fellow citizens.

But this example may make you think that one always has to take the 'high road'.

Let me share another story that gives a different perspective that I found during the course of my research on courage, I found a story about two military leaders in battle.

Both were faced with a decision to advance or retreat against the enemy. One leader knew he and his men would not win, but he didn’t want to return home, dead or alive, labeled as a coward. So, he advanced, and he died. The other leader didn’t have stellar eyesight and didn’t feel good about taking his men into battle with impaired vision. He decided to stay back — knowing he would be taunted as a coward upon his return home.

Without thinking too hard, it’s fairly easy to conclude from this short story that the first leader’s decision was characterised by action, or movement, while the second leader’s choice was marked by inaction, or non-intervention.

But, the question that comes next is, which leader chose courage?

The story above leads us to ask what is the motivation or emotion that led to the choice that was made - was it fear or was it courage and clarity?

May Ann Radmacher famously said 'Courage doesn't always roar'.

Too often we just glorify action and productivity over not doing anything or resting.

But it is the decision and the intent behind it that really makes the difference.

A decision to retreat is also courage.
A decision to taking time off to rest and recuperate is also productive.
A decision to forgive comes from strength.
A decision to stay silent is powerful.
Taking time to play is also a meaningful decision.
Giving love and receiving love is creative decision.

Taking a decision with clarity is what we must do. That is empowering. That gives peace. Even if sometimes the outcome didn't work out, you took a decision. Next time you will have better data to take a different decision.

The problem is when I want to take a decision, but I’m not clear, or I'm scared.

I want to call my friend and say I'm sorry, but I want him to call first.
I want to ask for guidance, but I want to learn on my own.
I want to stand up and take a stand, but I also want to be politically right.
I want to disobey my parents, but I want to be a good child.
I want to learn limitlessly, but I want to be a regular student and follow my friends.
I want to be entrepreneurial, but I also want safety and certainly all the time.

Take a decision. Then act with clarity. Don't be split.

Haha, don't worry, I'm not giving you advice. As always, this is to myself. Every time I act from a place of clarity (my own clarity at that point of time), based on my values, I feel peaceful AND powerful. When I act from fear of 'what will happen' or based on what others told and without making their advice fully 'mine', I lose my peace and my strength. And that's whats it's all about for me in the end - peace and strength.

In the Bhagwad Gita it is written that - those who see action in inaction and inaction in action are truly wise among humans. Although performing all kinds of actions, they are masters of their actions.

Sometimes we see burdens in doing our duties and work. Then we feel tired.

When we do what we do in a state of 'flow' and without worrying about results all the time, then even if we engaged in all kinds of burdensome activities, we will not be tired and burned out - at least at a mental and emotional level.

That’s why I like this quote - 'Relax and Work'.

I'm not always there. In fact in the last year, I've hardly been there at all. But it's okay. There are times when the playfulness goes aways, when the clarity goes away. But keeping the intent on, staying inspired with good thoughts, constantly reflecting and 'seeing' where you are, and allowing good people around you to love you, always brings it back. I’m blessed in that sense.

Here is a 5 step process to help you identify you action in inaction and action in action!

Identify what is your intent behind making a decision, then action or inaction is not right or wrong. It’s important to hold on to that intent that will drive a decision. Now, let think how to identify that intent:

  • First think and write down 1 recent decision you recently made, that you either had to change or could not hold on to
    For example- I decided to take a holiday and then changed the decision not go.
  • Next ask yourself why did you take that decision?
  • Some answer will come up. Now ask yourself again, but why did I REALLY make that decision? - stay with this questions for a few minutes and you will discover a new layer of answers coming through
  • Now ask yourself - did the decision you took, match with the REAL intent you started with?
    For example- I wanted to take the holiday. When I ask myself why, the answer was 'becuase I want to get away'. When I asked why again, the answer was 'to feel energised and relaxed again'. Hence I ask myself 'deciding not to go ahead does that still make me feel energised and relaxed?' If no, then I’m not holding true to my intent. Then this decision is not a decision I took with a strong sense of confidence but from a place of something else - fear or frustration.
  • Finally ask yourself - how can I go back to my intent and make a another fresh decision?

Keep being playful.

In fratitude,