Skillful Action

A client asked me how to resolve the seeming contradiction between acceptance and taking action. This is a common misconception about mindfulness, that it is a state of blissful inaction wherein the practitioner stops thinking. I suppose this idea could be a by-product of the concept of heaven, the reward for being good. Mindfulness, though, is a very different state.

Instead of stopping thinking, one becomes fully aware of thinking. After all, the average brain generates something like 60,000 thoughts a day. It seems unlikely that such a thought-generator could be made to stop. The process of meditation is simple, set an intention to focus on an object (such as the breath), notice when the mind has wandered off the intention (usually to thoughts about the past or the future), and gently direct it back to the intention. Over, and over, and over…

Mindfulness is about full engagement with present-moment experience while directing the mind away from the tendency to get caught up in thinking about the experience. Due to our reliance on thinking, direct contact with experience is something we rarely have. When was the last time you paid attention without judgment to the full set of sensations in your body while feeling anger or sadness? Or noticed your opinions about a topic that evokes your passion without believing that your opinions were absolutely true and right?

Full engagement includes taking action in your life, far from sitting passively and blissed out. The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism instructs how to free oneself from suffering by acting skillfully. Rather than cool detachment, mindfulness engages one with being fully present and involved. The focus is on the skillful use of thoughts, words, actions, and vocation to contribute to peace and the liberation of all beings from suffering (attachment to impermanent existence).

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has a similar goal, to help the client step out of thinking about action and step into full, committed action. The compass point that shows the course of action is one’s values, the personal qualities and ongoing states of action that engage one in life in a meaningful, vital, and empowered way. For example, if I want to have better communication with my partner, I could notice the thoughts and feelings I have when we argue, step out of attachment to being right, and step into the values of cooperation and acting lovingly. I would still have the feelings of anger, resentment, etc., and the thought “I’m right and he needs to see that he’s wrong,” and from the place of values I would choose to speak kindly while working through the argument. I would show up completely, without the protection of my thoughts. Bold action, indeed.

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