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Coaching the Skill of Inaction in Action

By 23 June 2016February 3rd, 2022No Comments

Studying the ancient but sophisticated wisdom in Vedic and Buddhist texts gives me great joy. Very often these are woven together by way of a collection of hundreds of pithy two line sutras or threads. Every word in every line is a jewel, seemingly vague and innocuous until one dives deep to reveal the profundity of its essence. It can take hours and days, even months of reflection on just two lines to scratch the surface of these great teachings. And then of course lifetimes to master it. One couplet that has me in deep reflection currently is this from Gandhi’s favourite book, The Bhagavad Gita:

He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction; he is wise among men, he is a Yogi and an accomplisher of everything.

What on earth does that mean, I wondered? Intrigued, I found that it contains very wonderful advice for living fully but peacefully—deeply relevant to our stressful and fast-paced context. A way to ‘be in the world but not of it’, as Shakespeare wrote. This takes great skill. So here are some preliminary expositions—I have no doubt that there are many more deeper meanings to be uncovered. These represent a few simpler interpretations.

Seeing inaction in action

Quite simply, this refers to inner awareness and presence. The ability to not lose one’s self in constant frenetic activity. Not by ceasing our activities—we have duties and actions to perform in the world and these actions, if performed with consciousness, bring wisdom. For example, if Sam takes on the role of leading a team, even though he feels fearful to do so, taking on that action with pure intention will gift him with knowledge: Knowledge of how to  manage people, knowledge of himself, knowledge of leadership.  He sacrifices his fear and desire for inertia by taking on the activity and thus receives knowledge. The danger with being embroiled in ceaseless activity is losing ourselves to mental agitation, anxiety and stress. And this is where the skill of seeing the inaction in action comes in.

If you listen carefully in this moment, you will hear many sounds all around you. If you deepen your listening, you will hear a silence behind the sounds. As the sky holds the drifting clouds and silence holds the sounds, so too is there a Presence in you behind all your activities. It is your inner witness. As it is outside us, so it is within us. Behind the endless stream of thoughts in your mind, is a deep peaceful spaciousness. It is seemingly inactive yet fully alive. If you can tap into this inner sanctuary of your Being, amidst all your tasks and doings, then you will understand experientially what it is to see the inaction in the action. It is to be in constant awareness of that from which all action springs.

What is the point of it? It brings a deeper quality to the action. Purity and consciousness of intention. Peacefulness. Freedom from a sense of the egoic pushing and striving born of fear. A lightness.

Seeing action in inaction

This refers to the great action of meditation. Meditation, to those who have never tried it, looks like inaction. It is external stillness, while engaging inwardly to bring the mind into focussed stillness. Not blankness. There is a difference. It involves action. This action may not be externally observable but you will feel a great deal going on inside you when you sit for meditation. It is engaging in action within so as to experience what lies behind it.

A very powerful depiction of seeing action in inaction is Gandhi’s movement of non-violence.  It may have been perceived as inaction. In reality it contained a great swell of right action.

To run away from activity is also an action. To sink into inertia or sloth in a bid to be action-less is an action of deception.  It does not bring peace. It does not bring higher knowledge.  To see what is really the action behind our inaction is to open our eyes to the truth of our intentions.

Where is the wisdom in it

Nature holds a harmony between action and inaction and so can we.  Study this picture of the tree flower blossom about to unfold. Can you see both the action and the inaction? There is a dance between the two. Being able to discern in this way—seeing the action in the inaction and inaction in the action, broadens our structure of interpretation. It helps us to not be dragged about by surface impressions but to look and to live deeply. It brings a different quality to our way of being and the actions we offer to the world. My greatest mentors in this regard have been a few monks that I have fortunate to study from. Their responsibilities and tasks appear to me more heavy than that of the CEOs I worked closely with in the corporate world as they juggle educating and feeding the underprivileged, seeing to the ill, counselling hundreds of unhappy humans, running massive non-profit organisations, giving discourses of great intellectual capacity—their time is not their own. And yet, they are grounded very deeply in peace. It is inspiring to observe. And it shows us that it can be done. How can you cultivate this skill? Slow down the restlessness of the mind. Physically slow your self down as difficult as it may be, in simple ways—perhaps walking slowly, or breathing slower. Meditate. Connect to your higher purpose. Every now and again retreat into nature. Reduce the need to keep doing for the sake of doing. There is only one way to know the worth of this ancient wisdom. And that is to try it. Experiment. Observe. Feel.

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