Monday, December 10, 2012

The Action of Non-Action, Part 2

In the last blog posting, I posed a question that is often asked by mindfulness practitioners:

If we are "supposed" to simply acknowledge a situation, register our habitual reaction toward that situation, and then simply allow it all and let it be, doesn't that mean we will never take action when action is called for?

I then presented a Tantric meditation that helps us perceive that non-action, in the form of stillness, is an ever-present phenomenon. This leads me today to a brief investigation of how non-action can actually be a very powerful form of action in daily life situations.

First of all, I need to emphasize that when I refer to "non-action," I do not mean a passive reaction toward a situation or event (in other words, simply "doing nothing"). Nor am I suggesting that by practicing non-action we are somehow "detaching" ourselves from an unpleasant situation or event so it won't bother us anymore. What I am attempting to describe is the active choice of deploying awareness and attention toward a situation or event, and the awareness of the subsequent reactions of the mind and body in response to the situation or event. 

Once an event is registered in our consciousness, we have choices as to how we will respond to that event. One choice would be to allow the reactive mind to take over, resulting in whatever action the reactive mind deems appropriate under those circumstances. Usually, this reaction would be automatic or habitual - one that we have repeated over and over during our lifetime. Through this mindless repetition, it becomes more or less the default reaction for that particular experience. (This choice is actually quite passive because we are running on autopilot rather than making a conscious choice as to what to do with the situation.)

The more skillful choice that I am suggesting would be to actively witness and participate in the experience as it is happening by bringing mindful awareness to bear upon the situation before we take any outward action. By making this choice, we are actually taking action simply by becoming mindful instead of reacting automatically.  Remember, too, that we always have a choice as to how respond to things, unless, of course, the situation calls for a reflex reaction, such as being in an car accident.

An essential component of this process of "active non-action" is to bring awareness to feelings in the body during the situation or event. For example, there may be a sense of tightness or tensing up in the shoulders or throat, we might notice the heart is racing or the body is pulsating, the face may get hot and flushed, or there may be tingling sensations. Becoming mindful of our physical experiences gets us firmly rooted in the reality of the present moment, and also disengages us from the reactive thoughts the mind might be creating. 

In addition, noting the sensations in the body creates a "reflective space" between the stimulus and the response. In this space, we might be able to formulate a more skillful response to the situation (if a response is actually needed). This process serves the same function as counting to ten when we are angry. In this case, however, the entire process takes only a few seconds. It takes approximately 200 milliseconds for the brain to register the initial experience (roughly the amount of time it takes to recognize emotion in facial expressions), then a second or two to note the arising sensations.

Once we have established ourselves back in the sensory reality of the present moment, we can then turn our attention toward how the mind is reacting. These reactions might include cognitive distortions like jumping to conclusions (making interpretations before you know all the facts), catastrophizing (exaggerating gloom-and-doom), generalizing ("This always happens to me!"), or taking things personally that have nothing to do with us. In the few seconds of space that non-action provides, we can then note that the thoughts we are having are only thoughts, not facts.

So the simple process of directing mindful awareness toward a situation or event is the action, and what we often find is that no more action needs to be taken. 

We can learn this process very easily during our meditation practice. Perhaps, during a sitting, our neighbors make noise that the mind labels as "annoying." After the sense of hearing initially registers the sound, we can then notice the reaction of the mind and body. Maybe the mind personalizes and generalizes the experience. We "hear" the mind saying, "Why do those people always make noise when I'm meditating?" Then we can feel the tension in the body, or notice the hot movement of anger in the chest. Yet, as we continue to allow these mental and physical experiences to simply be, we notice that they change very quickly. We realize the noise has nothing to do with us. We acknowledge that we would rather it were quiet, but we also note that this is merely a preference created by the mind. When we return our attention back to the breath, we experience how quickly the anger subsides and fades away because we have disengaged from the the thoughts that gave the anger its energy.

By repeating this process, both during our mindfulness practice, and in our daily life, we develop a way of being that allows us to respond to things more skillfully and in a way that does less harm, while decreasing our stress and suffering.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Action of Non-Action, Part 1


After much too long an absence, I have decided to begin posting again. Many thanks to those of you who followed my Dharma 365 project in which I published a blog a day for a year, and to those of you who are new to this blog, welcome. 

I'd like to inaugurate this new phase with a teaching that I have found extremely useful, both for myself, as well as for my Dharma students and therapy patients. It stems from one of the most paradoxical aspects of the practice, and one that can potentially cause a lot of confusion and raise a lot of questions among mindfulness practitioners:

If we are "supposed" to simply acknowledge a situation, register our habitual reaction toward that situation, and then simply allow it all and let it be, doesn't that mean we will never take action when action is called for?

This is an excellent and important question that has been debated for many centuries. One important perspective on this problem can be found in the Bhagavad Gita, composed perhaps as long ago as the 5th century BCE (from my own translation, 2012):

In action, there is non-action;
In non-action, there is action.
Those who perceive this are wise;
Joining the two, one can perform all actions.  
 (IV, 18)

These slokas would indicate that both action and inaction (and in Sanskrit the word for "action" is karma) are contained within one another. When we sit in our meditation practice, we can perceive that the body is still, but that there is movement within that stillness: constant pulsations of energy (prana) can be felt moving through us; the breath flows in and out; the mind continues to be active, churning out thoughts seemingly without end. 

Likewise, when we place our attention on the movement taking place within the stillness (the place of non-action), we can witness that all of these things arise out of stillness, and then return back to stillness. The stillness, however, continues as "an ever-present background," as my teacher Richard C. Miller has said. All of these other movements - the pulsating prana, the breath, the activities of the mind, and everything else in our phenomenological experience - can be seen as a simply a movement in the foreground of our awareness, against a constant background of stillness.

This phenomenon can be directly experienced through a simple, yet powerful practice taken from the Vijnanabhairava, a Tantric text from the 7th century CE, that offers 112 meditations on "divine consciousness." The following passage is from a translation and commentary called The Book of Secrets by Osho, formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh (1974):

This experience [of perceiving the background stillness] may dawn between two breaths. After the breath comes in (down), and just before turning up (out). (p. 30)

To experience this, just follow the feeling of the inhalation as it arises out of stillness. Feel it as it turns into exhalation at the "top" of the inhale, then follow the exhalation "downward" and notice how it "ends" in a pool of stillness. Then the inhale will arise again out of the stillness, turn to exhale at the top, draw us inward and downward to the pool of stillness, and repeats over and over again. Pretty soon, you can begin to tune in exclusively to the stillness, sensing its presence even as the breath is moving "in front" of it (adapted from an unpublished lecture by Richard C. Miller at the Mt. Madonna Retreat Center, Watsonville, CA, August, 1997).

Stillness in movement; movement in stillness. Action in non-action; non-action in action.

Of course, not just the breath is moving in the foreground of our awareness. Anything that we can perceive with the senses comprises this experience of foreground movement against an ever-present background of stillness. After practicing this meditation for a while with eyes closed, the world can look very different when we open them again. We can really sense that everything we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch is constantly arising out of the stillness, and returning back to stillness. The world begins to lose its "solidity," and we can perceive everything, from the atomic to the cosmic; from the ant to the elephant; from the single-cell organism to us, as arising phenomena in a constant state of process - a process that includes action and non-action as essential elements of existence.

In the next posting, I will examine a little more closely how action and non-action play out in mindfulness practice, and how to then apply the insights gained from this awareness in daily life.