This concept appears to be the most difficult to comprehend. It’s also the one I’ve had the greatest difficulty discussing. We tie our notions of action so tightly to the process of striving. We cannot seem to imagine one without the other. We tend to fall back on rationalizations that to reject striving is to be nihilistic, that disillusion can only end in despair, and that hope consists in buoying our optimism. Faced with the most pressing case for letting go of the current paradigmatic world-view we fall short of being able to imagine action that isn’t the result of striving, action that is truly emergent, not manufactured or assisted into being.
This appears to me to be the crux of where we are. That this is the horizon we can’t seem to look beyond. I have the greatest trouble even bringing this up with the people whose thinking matters most to me. This as much for my difficulty making myself clear as it is anyone’s resistance to the idea.
How can we act without a plan? How can we expect to be effective without analyzing our situation and then striving to realize what we wish, er, hope to achieve?
We can approach these questions from two sides. First, we can challenge the assumptions behind them. I would assert there is no causal connection between effectiveness and planning, or analysis, or trying. Insert your example of choice here, and let’s demolish it together. Some combination of framing the alleged “success” to include its “externalities” combined with drilling down through the rationalizations used to cover over actions taken with a veneer of justification should cover most cases. What’s left can be dealt with by questioning the use of effective to mean desired or efficient.
We’re talking about Alchemy in a way. The pursuit of a process by which the ineffable, that which is held in suspension within the living dynamic of the Fabric of Being, and striving to distil it, to precipitate a “Philosopher’s Stone” that will give us ultimate power. The whole thing is damned at every step. “Knowing” is not understanding. What is suspended in a living dynamic is destroyed when precipitated out of its context. And, lastly, the pursuit of such power is a profound misunderstanding of the lessons of existence.
We get practiced at ferreting this out when it comes to our traditional “enemies.” It is so difficult to see the way we continue to labor under these same expectations ourselves. This is why dialogue is so important. At least one of the reasons. To stretch our perspectives in contact with the gaze of another. Facing the living reality of another and confronting their existence. We enter into a realm of action/contemplation that isn’t theoretical.
One of my difficulties seems to be either leaving out too much context, or getting caught-up in way too much! By the time I get to the question of action without striving I’ve exhausted all patience and/or run out of steam.
For me the two arenas that have provided me with examples of action without striving have been hazardous situations and the making of art – the latter I might consider a subset of the former, after-all I find myself caught-up in heart-pounding total engagement whether driving on ice or handling brushes, pigments, and canvas.
In these cases striving shows itself as totally inadequate. Trying, striving to survive, is akin to surrendering to the hockey-stick curve of exponentially increasing difficulties. We recognize this when we are there, acting without striving or plan, responding, even contributing to the creation of circumstances that lead us out of the apparent impasse. Nothing like the deer-in-the-headlights focusing on the obstruction and almost willing what in our minds we’ve become convinced is an inevitable collision.
We recognize it when it happens. Then we immediately begin to want to be clever – once the immediate need to be open has passed. We want to “learn” from the “teachable moment.” We want to codify an action plan. We begin to extrapolate into the “future.” We’re back chasing the Philosopher’s Stone.
This is where a practice comes in. Though not if we fetishize it into a ready-made provider of predictable results!
The strength we gain from disillusionment comes out of the stripping away of the hidden assumptions our habitual illusions throw at us. This has nothing to do with nihilism or hopelessness. Disillusionment is also never absolute. We are incapable of maintaining a lack of illusions simply because we have such a powerful projector in the human brain. We will always have illusions. The trouble comes when our body of illusions is so out of sync with our conditions as to lead us into suicidal behavior to maintain them. Disillusionment is a way of clearing away impediments to the creation of new illusions – call them stories? – while building up an awareness of our state of illusion and establishing habits that keep them from letting us see significant dangers in a creative way.
We don’t “solve” “problems.” We enter into creative dialogues with our predicaments. And the effectiveness of these dialogues does not rely on meeting our expectations for desirable outcomes, but having our expectations meet our conditions at a possible point of intersection. – This does not signify adopting a “defeatist” attitude, see the bit above on the deer-in-the-headlights. – This equation of desired for needed, or essential, is a fundamental trap set by our conditioning at the end of a long period of growing expectations and seeming unlimited power. We cannot confront the “future” without coming to grips with this in ourselves.
Now I’ve got a headache! That’s what comes of stretching.
These concepts aren’t ideologies, at least they fail as soon as they are reduced that way. They can’t be taught or learned. They can only be experienced. Dredging up this thought experiment has been one kind of experience; chasing a stream of consciousness, connecting examples from past experience into a train, and pointing out where certain stumbling blocks might lie. Also falling into perhaps unavoidable inconsistencies, like using a kind of analysis to arrive at the conclusion of the limits of analysis….
Still, this doesn’t compare with the experience we find within a dialogue, as we wrestle with staying in the question together.
Still, these are all just aspects of “training.”
Action without striving happens.
11 thoughts on “Action without Striving”
Thanks Tony for writing all this, it is describing in detail something that has been and still is very much on my mind as I’m trying to work out how I make decisions and why I do things, and how it is possible to do things differently. I understand (I think I do anyway?!) what you’re describing, and I agree (I think I do anyway?!) with your analysis. The part I’m not following in what you’re writing is how this actually happens in a practical sense in our daily lives and choices. Could you dig deeper into some examples of what it means to live the way you describe – how to let action ‘happen’? For instance, even in your example of painting… you may not bring an intention of what image arrives as that is an internal process playing itself out. But don’t the intention and plan exist in some form as a desire/will/wish/resulting decision and action to produce a painting in the first instance? Don’t you rationalise and plan in the most pragmatic sense of taking the steps to procure paints and brushes and canvas from whatever source they come from, and then applying them toward the act of creating a painting? I’m confused by the notion of action just happening, without some degree of striving or intention. I think – no, my gut tells me – that the concept you are describing is valuable, I just don’t understand how it works beyond the conceptual.
Thank you for reading and for your question. You get right to the heart of what I “want” to get across.
There are so many traps in the language! That action happens doesn’t mean that we don’t do things. It’s not a passive process as I see it, but a different attitude towards striving, desire, intention. It’s not that the what of what we do is that different, but that we approach the whole process differently.
As I wrote this post, even more so now “trying” to “answer” your question, I was/am aware that I’m slipping in and out of the point of view, and the language that supports it, of striving and that of Being. This is central to what makes this so difficult to talk about.
To use the example of painting. I set-up the situation to make painting possible. I prepare myself to face the act as a conduit, and not the owner of what will happen. What makes it scary and thrilling is riding on the edge of letting things happen – not in some “wild” manner, but with enough gentleness and caring for what is being created to nurture as well as allow what is developing to unfold. There is a constant tension with the habits of intention. The will-to-control is always there ready to exert itself and take over. This can express itself as much in destroying what is coming into shape as in taking ownership of it. Neither is helpful.
There is also a constant struggle with authority/authenticity. The “self” comes through in the doing. This can be misunderstood in a variety of ways. We can see its signs as failings: we “know” what “good” is and it’s the mark of someone else’s hand, not ours. Or we can be either entranced or repulsed by a sense of what “I” brought to the work. These too are distractions that lead us off into Ego responses and away from Being and participating in creating.
There is a patience/perseverance that doesn’t seem possible outside of an attitude that has let go of intention. Caught up in intention, we’re always ready to lie to ourselves about how well we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to do. This might be where the whole optimism/pessimism, wishing versus hope thing comes in. We strive/try harder and harder, and we flirt with futility as we are blinded to the way we’ve been de-railed. When we are acting without striving all of that slips away. Glimmers of a greater “objectivity(?)” come to us and we face the entire engagement differently. We recognize the futility of striving and we see how effectiveness actually arises in the doing.
This is how things/being/people evolve and develop. I’m convinced of this. Intention can only lead us back to where we already were. This is where I break with any notion of futurism, no matter how it’s dressed up. That whole process of “imagining” a “future” and then striving to make it, greet it, help it; holds us trapped by the existing limits of our imaginations. The other way extends those limits. This doesn’t lead to “solving” anything. That cannot now be, could never have been, possible to do. That is the vanity of civilization in its basic form. When we extend our imagination we find a greater role for acceptance, not as a martyrdom, some sacrifice to a power we’d like to appease or cajole into helping us, but acceptance of our place in existence. We see the “overhead” of civilization for what it is, the trading of ease for the destruction of the fabric of Being, then finding that ease is elusive and unsatisfying.
I hope this helps. Your participation has helped me!
You could ask, Where does intention fit in the first place? I mean, we chose to do a certain thing and not something else. I’d say that even there, looking at intention as the “driver” may not be useful. It seems to me that what I do that matters most I don’t do out of intention, but because I can’t not do it. I would say that paying attention to intention is what keeps us from discovering what we “must” do, by keeping busy doing what we “want” to do.
Thanks. This is good, I think you are expressing something that language is not well suited to – perhaps even by expressing your reservations with the language.
It reminds me of dancing tango – which I could turn into an overlong metaphor, but I’ll just say that the subtlety of movement, cooperation and timing that are necessary to produce a sublime experience cannot be willed to happen, but with practice and some level of mastery, those moments become more likely.
I am also thinking about my other creative pursuits, which very often involve cutting up bicycles to make some other kind of vehicle, etc. In that case, there is some spontaneity in the cutting and fitting of parts, but the majority of the creative ‘act’ was the generation of the design being produced. The rest is application of skill to particular materials, which in that case are not so fluid as paint, so can be rearranged in a very limited set of ways.
But I think what you say is very important, that having a preset notion for how the future (long or short term) must play out is not only almost certain to get you whacked by reality, but it is a (the?) major block to the kind of imagination & creativity that we are suffering such a lack of.
Thank you for your response. Wrestling with language, like the Tango, or baseball, put us in the presence of difficulty in a way that keeps us honest without running the risk of actually killing us. They give us the experience of the limits of intention within a privileged zone where we aren’t likely to be seriously damaged.
You bring up the way, in a technical work, creativity tends to be limited to the design stage. Even there, and it sounds like you are aware of this, doing this, each action can and is best done as a culmination of all that has come before it and with whatever freedom from imposed, as opposed to necessary, constraints we can manage to bring to it. It also helps to keep the question Why? in mind throughout, as an antidote to the inertia of doing something just because it’s there.
I keep thinking that the value of a “fine art” is not in the social and cultural trappings that have accumulated around them within civilization, but in their plasticity – not just of their media, in their ability to be manipulated and to stand for and reflect/transmit meaning all out of proportion to their “usefulness,” but because they put us into a relationship with the world that appears to me to be related to, similar, in some important way identical, to the relationship with the world that a human creature had before civilization began to dis-integrate us.
This might be where questions of authenticity reside. That there is a challenge implicit in the uselessness and utter plasticity of a fine art to find a right relation with the world, one that isn’t a repetition of an old form, but one that is embodied in a form that arises out of the circumstances of the making. This ties in with what might be the origins and true function of ritual, to put us in situations where we can affect habit, by reinforcing some and eroding others so as to maintain a relationship with the world that is in some way true.
This kind of relationship with the world is significantly different from any sort of futurism/imagineering. It keeps us in contact with the value of humility, not as some “virtue” in the sense of having followed a prohibition to the letter, but as the entry into dynamic connection. We don’t presume to “design” a future because we can recognize the futility of such an attitude and that such hubris removes the possibility of engaging with the world as it is. If we can disengage from the urgency that is a symptom of striving, we begin to see that instead of a giving up, letting go is actually the only way to truly engage.
Yes, that takes it much further and it makes sense. :) What strikes me most in your response is noticing how deeply the ideas of ownership (of actions, outcomes) and investment (of oneself, one’s time/effort) are embedded in just about every move we make. So thinking out loud… is it mainly a case of using different language, to reframe the attitudes we bring to things? Is it all down to cognitive therapy? I know you’re not offering your thoughts as prescription, that we’re talking about application here rather than stipulation. But actually, it’s a circle that goes back to my original question: how do we change how we do things? Your response points toward attitude as the source of change, and language as the tool of attitude. But language isn’t reliable, and the meanings of words shift constantly – you acknowledge that from the start.
How do we change an attitude without taking a position – that is, taking some ‘ownership’ of our views in terms of identifying and connecting to them? You mention objectivity (and you qualify it with a question mark) so let’s look at that more closely. Where do objectivity and subjectivity fit in this? Objectivity suggests detachment from willfulness and control – at least that’s what I think you’re suggesting with it?? – and subjectivity then contains the demands of Ego. But is it helpful to detach ourselves? Isn’t objectifying ourselves part of what creates the problems? And aren’t you describing subjectivity when you speak of doing what you must do? I don’t know: am I mixing apples and oranges here? Oh well I’m enjoying the conversation anyway! :)
You bring up important questions.
For me personally, I was only able to get out of the bonds of depression and chronic anxiety with the help of cognitive therapy. There is such power in using language to find and defeat the cognitive patterns that work on us by cycling our thoughts at speeds so fast as to escape our notice, by finding these loops of “stinkin’ thinkin’ and simply writing them down, objectifying them and putting them “outside” so that we can see them as they are, ridiculous vestiges of internalized trauma.
The difficulty lies in the context of therapies. For the most part, and as I was exposed to therapy, it is done in the context that there is something wrong with the individual’s ability to cope with their social surroundings. There was never any attempt to tackle any pathology that might exist in the society itself. Much is made of familial precursors and the trains of inheritance of predispositions and behaviors, but this stopped at the edge of the “personal.”
Most of what I’ve written here over the last few years has been about the discovery and the implications of finding that we live in truly psychotic societies, and that these pathologies are destroying the world. This requires a rethinking of attitudes around notions of therapy.
“Ownership and “position” have reverberations that need to be addressed. In the sense of responsibility, we definitely “own” our behavior. We also “own” the relationships we have with others and the world. The only effect we can have on our circumstances is through our own actions and attitudes, although there we are limited by the whole issue of intention and striving….
I’ve found some significance in making a distinction between standing and striking a stance. In cognitive therapy we are urged to act as though we were a certain way, since this will then inform how we “are.” This relates to acting as an art. It’s what makes improvisation so important. I would say that when we do this, we are standing in a place – look at David Abram’s work for a lot of the background on this vocabulary and “terrain.” We are authentic, not tentative or speculative. We are recognizing a position, not striking a pose.
This brings up some thoughts I’ve had recently about the difference between Greek contraposto, the fluid pose with the weight on one hip that stands at the beginning of the classical ideal; and the “home” position in Qi Gong or Bagua. The one seems to be the “planned” decision to strike a pose that is “dynamic” looking for the benefit of affecting the opinion of an audience, taking the earlier “static” stance as more “primitive” and even boring. The Qi Gong position is not concerned with how one might appear, but is about integrating dynamic motion with stillness and finding a subtle point of contact with all of one’s conditions and circumstances.
Let me wrap this up!
I’d suggest reading, or at least watching some of the video’s available online – I’ve linked to some of them earlier – of David Bohm’s dialogues with Krishnamurti. His notion of suspending and not suppressing our conditioned responses has helped me tremendously to get past the stumbling blocks in the whole Freudian repression/release viewpoint.
Thank you again for participating!