Right Action

“Right Action (samyak karmanta) means Right Action of the body. It is the practice of touching love and preventing harm, the practice of non-violence toward ourselves and others. The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness.”
Thich Nhat Hanh in The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

Right Action is one aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, which is the way to well-being. Other aspects are Right View, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Thinking, Right Diligence, Right Concentration, and Right Livelihood.

When a baseball player swings and misses the ball, is that right action? The intention was to hit the ball, and yet the ball is now in the catcher’s glove. Our actions are not always effective. Sometimes we swing and miss. Perhaps though, if our intention is clear, we can gain skill and become more effective in our actions.

A boy watched his father playing solitaire and picked up the game with an imperfect understanding of the rules. Trying to play as skillfully as he could, he could never win. Eventually, he gave up and held the dual thoughts that it was a dumb game and he must be dumb too, since he could never win. For many years he never tried the game again, and then, watching someone else play, he discovered that the rules were not as he had understood them, and he could play and win as well as anyone else.

Playing the piano seems incredibly difficult to many who have not had lessons and to those who have had lessons and have not practiced. To those who have learned well and have practiced, making music on a piano can be a fluid, sometimes effortless activity.

Being born into a body, we must act upon the world. To breathe is to act. To eat food, to sleep, to stand up or to sit down is to act. We can act unconsciously and self indulgently, which will inevitable increase suffering. Or we can act mindfully and with loving intention, which may minimize suffering, whether ours or that of other beings.

As we act through our lives, we will sometimes swing and miss. Sometimes we will misunderstand the rules. That is living. What we need to keep in mind is that while parts of life are complex and hard, we can gain skill. We can determine better the way things work. We can act and fail and gain from the experience. Nobody gets to live life without making mistakes. Everybody fails sometimes. Our job is to seek to act with more love, more skill, and more wisdom. If we fail to act as well as we might hope to, we can seek the cause of the failure. The cause may be in us or in our surroundings. It may arise from imperfect understanding.

When we practice meditation, we calm the mind and gain greater access to our wisdom. When we are calm and mind is clear, we can better know our intention. We can adjust intention when we are mindful of it. Being mindful as we go about our activities, we can choose wisely. We can observe our errors and learn from them. Acting, observing, learning from errors, we gain skill. Gaining skill, we gain confidence. We can enter into a flow of life where there is less struggling and more joy.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett