Non-Desire and Action

David Yerle blogged about Acceptance and Desire, and raised a common concern about acceptance. Isn’t change motivated by non-acceptance? There are several possible resposnes.

One response is the opposite: that change is impossible without acceptance. How can one change a situation unless one accepts it for what it is, and how is effective change possible without deep acceptance? After all, one need only look at people in denial to see what non-acceptance does.

But this may sound like word-play. Fortunately, there are other approaches. The key is to understand what acceptance means. Acceptance does not mean that one sits still while things happen. Rather it means that one does not inwardly resist what is. Acceptance is a mental act, not a physical one. One can act while fully accepting, and one can be outwardly passive while not accepting.

For instance, if I see something I dislike, I can work to change it. What is my inward attitude while working to change it? Am I railing against it? Am I bemoaning that our world is so awful that such things can happen? If so, then I’m not accepting. On the other hand, if I let it go while working on it, focusing on the task at hand itself, then I have accepted the situation.

Action and acceptance is something that many people have thought about and there are quite a few answers to this seeming paradox.

One poster brought up the Serenity prayer, which also has more secular variants, from the Buddha to Mother Goose. It’s all about knowing what we can change and what we cannot. If we can change something, do it. If we can’t, let it go.

Hinduism has tackled this in the form of Karma Yoga, which is about acting while detaching from the fruits of action. In fact, The Bhagavad Gita can be read as an extended answer to this question.

Taoism has Wu Wei — action without action. In this sense, I believe the “without action” refers to the inward action, which is the non-acceptance, as it would mirror the outward act of physically changing.

I want to look at it from another angle. What is motivation and how is it relevant to this case? In my situation, I’m concerned with what I’m feeling.

Let’s say a child is playing with a toy car and she wants to drive it from one point to another. She has two ways of doing this. First, she can steer the car the whole way.  Second, she can simply aim the car at the destination, push, and let momentum take care of itself. The first is analogous to non-acceptance, keeping things in mind. The second is similar to acceptance — even if we allow an initial act of non-acceptance — it can be let go of and the course of action set can take care of itself.

Let’s make this more concrete.

Let’s say I get up to shower and someone asks me why I’m showering. My response would be there’s no reason. I just am. Oh sure, at some point in the mists of time, I developed intentions and views about showering and made a conscious decision to do it, but after a while it became a habit, and I simply did it. That a motivation happened back in the day is irrelevant; unless the motivation is in my consciousness, it might as well not exist.

In fact, I think this is the way most of us live our lives — by habit. I think most of us act and live with no reasons, no intentions. Having a reason or intention is a rarity.

I think this is the key; there’s a difference between desire as a first principle, and as something IN consciousness. What I’m conscious of affects my well being. Therefore, even if we allow that inward non-acceptance is required to act, it would just be the initial motivator and can be let go of, and after that only the act would remain. Since the bulk of my time is on the act, the initial impetus is so minor as to be negligible.

If I want to combat homelessness for instance, it’s an initial desire (or even logical decision) that motivates me, but once I join an organization, I simply go to the organization to do my thing, because that’s what I do.

At the end of the day, it’s all about what I’m aware of.


5 thoughts on “Non-Desire and Action

  1. “Acceptance does not mean that one sits still while things happen. Rather it means that one does not inwardly resist what is.”
    I like that statement. But it does imply we know what is. I think if you were to inwardly resist what is, you could not really ‘see’ or ‘know’ it. So you might need to accept a priori, then see, then know, then act. (And hope you’re not still deluded while doing this.)

    1. Interesting… I take it you are taking “is” to mean things as they really are and not as they appear to be?

      By “what is”, I just meant whatever we were experiencing, which of course may not even be “what is”…

  2. Well, yes. I am not sure if we could ever perceive things as they really are (within the limitations of our senses, of course) but if you’re resisting, the turning inward would make it impossible.

  3. Great! That pretty much solves my conundrum, though it still leaves this first act of non-acceptance to account for why I’m doing things at all.
    How about desire, though? Can you tackle that with the same argument? If you have no desire, do you still have any reason for action? You could probably say that you just keep doing whatever you kept doing before you got rid of your desires, out of habit.
    What I’m actually thinking about in this case is Buddha himself. He reaches enlightenment, a state of no desire and complete acceptance. And then he decides to go help other people reach it too. Why would he bother? Doesn’t that imply some kind of desire? The desire to make people happy or enlightened?

    1. Great questions. Yes, desire is covered by the same argument. Further, not all desires are created equal and desire is not all or nothing. So the real issue is the kind of desires that bring pain. For instance, the desire for revenge is pain causing, the desire for altruism, much less so. A desire that invokes action and is let go of has much less power than one that is clung to while acting.

      Desire is not all or nothing, so simply working to reduce it can bring greater happiness and avoid many of the paradoxes that arise with a desire/no-desire duality.

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