We all have projects we know we should have started by now – whether it’s a career change, hitting a body goal, or learning a new skill.
The thing is, our survival instincts have hardwired our bodies to take the path of least resistance, which is why embarking on a new challenge can seem like such an uphill battle. Often, it’s not that we are genuinely too busy, it’s that our life’s own inertia is too heavy to overcome…
Fortunately, authors like Gregg Krech are ahead of the problem and have mined wisdom both ancient and modern. In his latest book, ‘The Art Of Taking Action’ Krech has found solutions to an age-old problem in Japanese psychology.
Here are seven key lessons we learnt from reading the book…
1. The First Step Is Arugamama You might think that action comes from nowhere in particular, but Japanese psychologist Shoma Morita formulated a way of thinking – in the early part of the 20th Century (drawing on Zen and an Eastern world view) – that says different.
Part of this psychological model said that an acceptance of things the way that they are is a key requirement for taking action. Morita called this ‘arugamama’.
‘The state of arugamama is one in which we do not try to escape from our emotional experience,’ writes Krech. By ceasing to worry about how we should or should not feel about something, we remove a mental block to taking action. Acceptance is the first step.
Start with actions that are so small, so insignificant that there’s no resistance, no reason to procrastinate or avoid the task
2. The One-Two Punch Of Kaizen…. Kaizen can be summed up in the words of Lao Tzu: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.’ Crucially, you can’t just turn up at the start of the journey – you then actually have to act, even if it is just to take a first step – but then kaizen also requires you to plan the next step. It’s all about continuous, gradual improvement or progress, especially if the improvements seem minimal.
‘Start with actions that are so small, so insignificant that there’s no resistance, no reason to procrastinate or avoid the task,’ says Krech. If, for instance, you’re writing a book, then don’t sit down to write the first chapter. Just write the first line, or the name of the first chapter. Then stop. But make sure you add another small thing the day after.
After a month of this you may only have a couple of pages of your book, but you’ll have built a resilient habit into your lifestyle, which is much more likely to see you through to completion. After all, it’s far easier to build on a small habit than find room for a big, new one.
3. …And Naikan Naikan simply means ‘inside looking’ AKA self-reflection. You might think that navel gazing would be the enemy of taking action, but for Krech it’s vital to give you a sense of perspective, and of appreciation to the work of taking action itself.
The three simple questions at the heart of naikan are: What have I received from…? What have I given to…? What troubles and difficulties have I caused…? ‘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 – that is what self-reflection offers us, It’s a way of action that goes beyond just checking something off our to-do-list,’ he writes.
4. ‘Don’t Prepare – Begin’ It’s drilled into us from an early age that preparation is vital to getting things done well. But what if this misses the point – what if it becomes an excuse for not getting things done at all?
Krech says that our enemy is not a lack of preparation, or the difficulty of a task, or the state of the marketplace – it’s 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.’
His advice is simple: ‘Start before you’re ready. Good things happen when we start before we’re ready. For one thing we show ‘huevos’. Our blood heats up. Courage begets courage.’
Nothing in life is more satisfying, more masterful than to change our likes and dislikes when we need to
5. Train Your Likes As George Bernard Shaw said: ‘Never mind likes and dislikes, they are of no consequence. Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness.’ (And no, he wasn’t talking about Facebook.)
That’s all well and good, but as Kerch points out, we naturally gravitate to doing the things we like and avoiding the things that we find hard, or that seem overwhelming. This is a problem if we are attempting to succeed in something new – we’re likely to dislike it, give it up and retreat into the prison of our ‘likes’.
As Kreb quotes the meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran: ‘Nothing in life is more satisfying, more masterful than to change our likes and dislikes when we need to.’ Part of this process, says Kreb, is to adopt an investigative mindset.
If something seems difficult or tedious, then treat it as a mystery and rather than just thinking about it, decide to actively investigate it; to stretch yourself and gain something from the process. ‘In truth, tasks such as weeding or sewing can involve profound levels of investigation, if we really approached them with a ‘beginner’s mind’. Mundane chores can reveal great mysteries,’ says Kerch.
6. Don’t Get Stuck Before You Begin Before beginning a project it can be a good idea to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve – it helps you to begin and also to ‘stay on track.’ But, like preparation, this can become a block that keeps you stuck fast to inaction.
As Kreb says: ‘Action isn’t something that comes after figuring things out. Action is a way of figuring things out.’
While this means that clarity is desirable, it also means that it’s good to take action without clarity: ‘So, be clear and take the first step. Or be confused and take the first step. Even if you have clarity, eventually you’ll run into something that completely confuses you. And if you’re confused… you may always be confused. Life is confusing. Don’t let that bother you.’
7. Beware The Excitement Trap You may have experiences of starting a new project, interest or even a relationship with great energy and drive. You imagine how things will be when you achieve your goal and are swept along with enthusiasm. But then the excitement falls away.
The reality of your new project doesn’t seem so compelling and your attention starts to drift to new things and different goals. This is perfectly natural, says Kreb – in fact it is inevitable: ‘Our minds associate newness with excitement and something is only new in the beginning. Over time we become accustomed to the object, person or environment and we cease to respond with feelings of excitement.’
The trick, says Kreb is not to rely on excitement as fuel – enjoy it while it lasts but know it will fade, to be replaced with frustration, boredom or doubt: ‘This is where you remind yourself of your purpose. This is where you reach deep down and find the jewel of your determination… There is great potential in this formula for making dreams into reality. It’s all very exciting, isn’t it?’
WHAT NEXT? If you want to find out more about how zen can calm your mind then find out what happened when RSNG asked Zen Master Julian Daizan Skinner how to achieve inner peace.
‘The Art Of Taking Action: Lessons From Japanese Psychology’ by Gregg Krech is available on Amazon
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