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.


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