Book Notes: The Art of Taking Action

The Art of Taking Action:  Lessons from Japanese Psychology by Greg Krech

[Disclaimer:  This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]

– Taking Action: Doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done in response to the needs of the situation.

– There must be something else you need to do, beyond keeping your bathroom sanitary and your car clean, if you are to find fulfillment and meaning in your life.

– Self-reflection often inspires a greater appreciation for what you have received from others and a natural desire to repay those people for what they have given you.

– So we have four factors that can help us with the question, “How do I know what action to take?

• As I notice my environment and the world around me, does that suggest a particular action I need to take? (Paying Attention)

• What is my purpose? What am I passionate about? What legacy do I want to leave behind? (Purpose)

• As I step back and reflect on my life and relationships, does that suggest a particular action I should take? (Self-Reflection)

• What really matters? What is truly important and not just urgent at this moment? (Urgent vs. Important)

– The biggest risk you can take is to do nothing at all, when you know there’s something you need to do.

– Ironically, those who play it safe may be in the greatest danger. When we don’t take risks, we get stuck in a rut of safety. Over time, we become trapped inside our own life, like a pearl confined to its shell. Life becomes stale and boring. We grow resentful at ourselves for letting our grand passions languish. We tell ourselves, there’s got to be something more out there for me. But we know we’ll never find it unless we take more risks.

“The habit of action — this, I think, is the most important thing we must acquire.”

– When we are hot, we just let ourselves be hot. When we are anxious, we just let ourselves feel anxiety. When we are depressed, we just allow ourselves to feel depressed and hopeless. The state of arugamama is one in which we do not try to escape from our emotional experience. We are not seeking any kind of emotional or cognitive state other than the one we are in at the moment. Yet we continue to devote ourselves to what is important for us to do. We carry out the purposes of our lives, because they give life meaning.

– Generally, we think of acceptance being in opposition to action. But acceptance is very connected to action. In fact, we might say that acceptance – of our internal human condition as well as external conditions – is at the very heart of action.

– It’s very important for us to recognize the distinction between thoughts (which include intentional thoughts) and actions. There is a world of difference between the two, just as there is a world of difference between a photograph of a blueberry pie and an actual blueberry pie.

Personally, I’d rather have one small forkful of an actual pie, than an 8 x 10 photo of the entire pie. Good intentions are wonderful but I’d rather have a small portion of compassionate action than a barn full of ideas about kindness.

– Conscious change may well require some simple, basic ingredients – have a clear purpose, show up, take small steps, repeat this formula daily, and be patient.

– Naikan (self-reflection) is essentially AWARENESS – awareness of others and objects and of our relationship to our surroundings; awareness and greater understanding of our relative existence

When we’re cleaning a room, we are grateful to have rags, towels, brooms, a dustpan, cleanser, and a vacuum. We’re never really doing work on our own; we’re always part of a larger team, seen and unseen, that makes it possible to do what we do.

– Self-reflection can help us appreciate the capacity to do our work, and to bring that sense of appreciation to the work itself. To mow the lawn and be grateful for the mower, for the lawn and even for the ability we possess to walk back and forth while pushing the mower – that is what self-reflection offers us.

– Purposeful awareness includes self-awareness, other-people awareness, environmental awareness, and grateful attitude.

“There is no merit in just thinking about doing something. The result is exactly the same as not thinking about it. It is only doing the thing that counts. I shall acquire the habit of doing what I have in mind to do.”

– Our goal need not be freedom from all stress — that would mean death – but rather to live in such a way as to minimize the stress that is most harmful.

– Fundamental code of everyday living:

– know your long-range purposes
– work in the service of some cause that you can respect
– attempt to live and work in an environment in line with your own innate values
– develop a philosophy of gratitude
– reduce procrastination – it can be dangerous
– use muscular activity to alleviate frustration
– understand that aimlessness causes harmful stress
– work itself is good and a basic life necessity

– There is no substitute for “accepting my feelings” (of laziness or boredom, or anxiety, or whatever happens to appear), knowing my purpose, and then DOING IT. My stress is relieved almost from the moment I start, and I go to bed that night satisfied with what got accomplished.

– Aimlessness and procrastination create frustration, and the stress of frustration is more likely than muscular work, or engrossing mental work, to produce disorder or disease.

“It’s hard to feel stressed out and grateful at the same time. In truth, we are all continually supported.”

With this realistic self-examination against my own standards, it soon becomes obvious that I have received more from the world than I’ve given, or could ever return. This knowledge often gives me a different perspective on my current problem and redirects my attention towards some form of action, rather than just worrying.

– Maintaining a sense of accomplishment, and maintaining the feeling of general well-being, is simply a matter of responding to the needs of the next moment.

– When I do experience the signs of stress, it is a relief to observe that some of my stressful moments fade with the passage of time; some by exercise; others by reflection, but mostly by looking at what needs doing in my life that I’m not attending to, and getting it done.

– Remembering our impact on others during decisive moments can help us to make a different history for ourselves.

Other people are depending on us, whether we want them to or not. We all are depending on each other, as we weave our lives, families and communities together. So when we do not carry our weight, the fabric gets a buckle in it.

– So let’s be aware of our impact on others. Remember how short life is. Look at the big picture. Take action and do what needs to be done.

– Remember, our enemy is not lack of preparation; it’s not the difficulty of the project or the state of the marketplace or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is resistance.

– The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why we can’t /shouldn’t/ won’t do what we know we need to do.

– Go ahead and get started. Get started without clarity.

– Action isn’t something that comes after figuring things out. Action is a way of figuring things out.

– We generally have more control over our body (actions) than our minds (thoughts, feelings). A distinguishing element of Morita’s work is to put our effort into getting the body to take action, rather than trying to manipulate our thoughts or feelings. Often, once the body is moving, there is a natural influence on our emotional state and our thoughts.

– The suffering caused by anticipation is worse than the actual reality. We actually create more suffering for ourselves by procrastinating than we would if we just jumped into what we need to do.

– Working on your tax return may not be fun, but it’s not quite as bad as you expected it would be. So rather than trying to motivate yourself, psyche yourself up or work with thoughts and affirmations, just put your body in the right place at the right time. Then see what happens.

– We actually have very little control over our thoughts. Thoughts arise. They dissolve. Other thoughts arise and dissolve. In the course of our normal day, it is very unusual to “will” ourselves to have a particular thought. Good ideas, worries, likes, dislikes, criticisms of others, frustrating thoughts, thoughts about the past – they mostly arise spontaneously.

On the other hand, we have much more control over our behavior. We can will ourselves to remain silent during a presentation, pick up the phone and make a call, answer an email, or drive to the store.

– “Nevermind likes and dislikes; they are of no consequence. Just do what must be done.”

“Nothing in life is more satisfying, more masterful, than to be able to change our likes and dislikes when we need to. In fact, anyone who has mastered this skill has mastered life, and anyone who has not learned to overcome likes and dislikes is a victim of life.”

– Mostly, we don’t try to understand others, because we’re preoccupied with other people understanding us.

– We have to abandon our self-preoccupation and just try to understand something outside of ourselves.

– Try investigating something today. Be curious. Stretch yourself. Take on a problem for which the answer is shrouded in mystery. Don’t just think about it – actually investigate it.

– Taking a few minutes to really examine things, such as objects or settings or processes, is excellent for well-being. It stimulates curiosity, centers our intentions, focuses our attention, and settles us in the present.

– It’s best to feel and embrace excitement (or enthusiasm but not to rely on it for action.

Excitement/Enthusiasm is not bad – it is the loss of excitement which then prompts us to abandon our efforts towards fulfillment. Embrace excitement or enthusiasm as it comes, but don’t require it.

– The only way to really deal with the problem of excitement is to stop becoming dependent on it.

– We stay with something because it remains important, even after our excited feelings are gone.

– So the next time you are about to start something important, enjoy the excitement that may accompany you on the initial steps of your journey. But remember that it won’t be long until your excitement fades and you meet frustration, tedium and even doubt. This is where you remind yourself of your purpose. And remember, the pleasure of excitement will certainly return at some point.

– On appreciating any dinner: The refrigerator has fresh vegetables picked by stooped farmers. Truckers, away from their families, deliver fresh food to our market. There are about 50 varieties of such produce to choose from every time I go to the local grocery store. THIS PROCESS OF AWARENESS AND APPRECIATION IS TRANSFORMATIVE.

– Being harmonious with others and the uncontrollable environment: The key is to be able to adjust our rhythm to the needs of the situation – conscious adapting, or flow.

Whenever we’re facing a challenging situation, one of the wisest things we can do is take a few moments to distinguish between what’s controllable and what isn’t controllable.

– Make your effort the focus of your attention (not regulation or manipulation of your mindset or thought process). Make your effort one which is sincere, attentive, persistent and thorough. Once you’ve done that, trust yourself, and leave the outcome to life (or God or Buddha).

– There is a far bigger picture to life than what we are facing in any particular moment. Attune to this truth.

– When we stand before a chasm of futility, it is first of all faith in this larger perspective that enables us to go on.

– The fundamental change we need is a shift from a feeling-centered approach to decisions to a purpose-centered approach. The only question is, “What needs to be done?”

– We can coexist with our feelings and take them along for the ride. We don’t fight them. We don’t fix them. We don’t transform them. We coexist with them, while we move forward and take appropriate action.

– Simply do the work because it’s what needs to be done, regardless of how we feel. We can call this maturity, or self-discipline, but it’s really about developing the skill to coexist with our feelings and take action anyway.

– From sand to mandala and back to sand. Impermanence.

– Whether we like it or not, we have to work with impermanence. And the way we work with it is to respond to change according to what needs to be done. It’s not about how we feel (i.e. frustrated ) or what we’re thinking (doom and gloom thoughts). It’s about taking action according to the needs of the situation.

– We quickly and easily accept the circumstances that we cannot change. We quickly and easily accept the internal reaction we’re having – our feelings and thoughts – that we also cannot change. And we try to simply step back and look clearly: What are the needs of the situation? That’s how we know what to do and when to do it.

– Be clear about your purpose, accept your feelings and thoughts, and then just do what needs doing.

– We can begin to open our hearts to others when we have no hope of getting anything back. We just do it for its own sake. We can thank others, but we should give up all hope of getting thanked in return. Simply keep the door open without expectations.

– You have control over your own behavior. You can make a deliberate choice to act as if you feel good.

ACT (take action) as if you feel good. Don’t pretend to feel good. Don’t try so hard to feel good. Simply ACT (take action)or DO as if you already feel good.

– So when we are confronted by indecision, we need to take action despite our doubts or confusion. We need to move forward, even if we’re only taking small steps. Those steps, regardless of which direction they go in, are likely to give us new information and experience.

Once you take a small step you get new information: New sensory data comes in and changes your physiology, and you are now operating from a different perspective.

– It’s better to put your energy into doing the best with whatever situation arises, than getting lost in the anxiety of trying to make the “right” choice.

– Once a mistake is made, we must simply respond to the new reality. What action do I need to take now? No anticipatory stress or reactive stress needs to be involved.

– Boredom may be an indicator that we are not paying attention to the details of what we are doing. When we pay attention to details, our curiosity is often awakened.

– Curiosity is a path that leads to details. And details are the antidote to boredom.

– “If I insist that my work be rewarding, that it mustn’t be tedious or monotonous, I’m in trouble…”

– It’s ridiculous to demand that work always be pleasurable.

– Work is not necessarily pleasing; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. If we’re detached and simply pick up the job we have to do and go ahead and do it, it’s usually fairly satisfying.

– We need to take the risks of doing things that stimulate feelings of discomfort, fear, anxiety, and confusion. We need to develop the capacity to coexist with these feelings as we tackle a new or challenging task. We need to accept the possibility that we might fail or make mistakes and move forward cautiously, but, nevertheless, move forward.

– Never take anything in front of you for granted. Be intrigued be the process of how something came into being. Think about all the people that might have been involved in the production or service.