Published in Blog Archive.
Do you ever catch yourself acting?
I don’t mean being false, or fake, or even pretending in some way. Maybe being honest in the moment, but “acting” with respect to a strayed action or intention—taking earnest, albeit unintentionally insincere, action.
Last Thursday I wrote a blog post, which is what has me thinking of this. I published it, but it felt so “off” that I almost immediately took it back down. I was too close to it at the time to see why it felt wrong, but I’ve thought about it over the last several days and think I have a better idea now. I want to share it, if only to reflect on how insidious the “acting” thing can get for me. Here it is:
An idea in this morning’s reading of Laura S.’s 12 Steps on Buddha’s Path: Bill, Buddha, and We dovetailed nicely with yesterday’s focus on “reacting” versus “initiating.” “As we become more skillful in recognizing [hinderances], we become increasingly skillful in responding rather than reacting. (Re-acting literally is acting again in old ways—that is, perpetuating ancient, twisted karma.)” This quote was preceded by a section on “doubt,” noting “The Buddha said that doubt is the most challenging of hinderances because it is self-generated and therefor seems so rational.” My mind loops in another word here, “inertia.”
To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of blaming the lettuce, we don’t typically blame a vegetable if it isn’t growing well, but we look at the conditions which are required for it to grow: Is something wrong with the soil; are rodents munching it to death; what’s really going on? It’s a matter of blaming versus understanding. Why then is our tendency to blame others, and ourselves, when things aren’t working out, rather than looking at the surrounding circumstances? The more I think about this the more I see a parallel to “H.A.L.T.” (hungry, angry, lonely, tired), which establishes alarms to watch out for when the internal pressure gauge starts running a little too high. Before blaming the lettuce, check to see if it’s hangry, essentially. Reacting, inertia, and doubt seem far less tangible alarms, yet no less impactful, each indicators of why that lettuce is wilting.
I’m imagining a family system here, of sorts, where “inertia” and “doubt” draw relational connections with “reacting.” I’ve crudely sketched out what first came to mind as the relationship between these factors:
In the overlap I see an interlacing trap that I’ve found myself in time and time again over the years. If I’m not in a space where I’m capable of deeper understanding (reacting) and I have no positive momentum (inertia) it’s natural to feel like my decision to not change is justified (complacency). If I have no positive momentum (inertia) and I lack confidence that change is possible (doubt), I give up (defeat). If I lack confidence that change is possible (doubt) and I’m not in a space where I’m capable of deeper understanding (reacting), I can convince myself that change is impossible (delusion).
Navel-gazing can only be so helpful though. Without corrective action that lettuce is just going to keep on dying no matter how much “insight” exists. “As we become more skillful in recognizing [hinderances], we become increasingly skillful in responding rather than reacting.” With that, I’m going to do something I’d never have been able to do five years ago and just leave this thought unfinished. My hunch is I’m going to gain a lot more from shutting the computer back down than I will by agonizing over a way to make it seem like I’ve got any idea what I’m talking about. Understanding comes in many forms.
There is an element of performance to acting and re-acting in the way I’m approaching it in this post. It’s not that I was acting or putting up a front last week, but there’s a little bit of hiding behind words going on. That line about how “Re-acting literally is acting again in old ways” is relevant as it’s something I’ve noticed of myself in the past, but was largely oblivious to while it was taking place. The constructed relationship between doubt and inertia is something I was (and still am) feeling. I feel doubt. I feel inertia. But writing my way through those feelings doesn’t help the way that taking meaningful action helps. Writing is re-acting, or performing as if the process might impact an unrelated outcome. I know exactly what I was thinking about that day and it was all of the “self-care” measures I’d told myself I was committed to doing, which I wasn’t actually doing.
It’s difficult as hell for me to exercise at home, for example, and when I don’t exercise, I not only lack the physical benefits of doing so, but I also feel guilty because I’d broken a promise to myself. That’s a tough one. Same goes for eating well, meditating, reading, all the things that are on my to-do list right now that I’m not prioritizing. Maybe writing as I was last Thursday was trying to intellectualize the lack of motivation or low level depression that comes with living amid our current circumstances, but spending more time writing about reading than on reading itself is definitely an action straying from my intention with this space. Commentary supplements the doing of what’s important, but cannot take its place.