“How do you tell the difference between someone who is going with the flow of things and someone who is apathetic? Many spiritual people I know pretend to be flowing but to me it just looks like apathy. I see it happening with me as well. Sometimes I think, “Why bother? It is what it is.” But on the other hand the rest of the world is constantly trying to fix things. And that doesn’t seem to work either. It just seems to complicate things.
Part of me wants to act but part of me is not sure if any action is needed. Any ideas?”
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So, goes the Serenity Prayer.
Those spiritual folks you talk about who are stuck in perpetual “acceptance” mode are there because they are clinging to their sense of serenity. They are terrified of losing that peace and calm and so they will rationalize everything that happens in the world as “things that I cannot change”.
The rest of society on the other hand is stuck in perpetual “change things” mode, in the name of “progress”, because they are driven by a constant need to display courage in the face of a harsh reality that will swallow them whole if they stop for even a moment. They are terrified of the whole artifice collapsing and so they will attempt to gain a greater sense of control and security by rationalizing everything that happens in the world as “things I can change”.
The irony is that the “serenity” of the first group is an artificial serenity and is actually driven by a deep anxiety. And the “courage” of the second group is an artificial courage actually driven by a morbid fear.
Meanwhile, neither groups display any WISDOM. Because, in order to have the “wisdom to know the difference” one must first have, both the serenity to accept the things one cannot change AND the courage to change the things one can.
This is important to understand. Because wisdom is really the ability to grasp the paradoxical nature of life. And wisdom is not a feature of the human intellect.
WISDOM VS. INTELLECT
The intellect requires an ideological stance from which to interpret reality. And based on this stance, it has two ways in which to take action. One is by being proactive and the other is by being reactive.
A proactive intellect is preoccupied with forecasting how things will pan out in the future and organizes its actions accordingly. It is forever adjusting its current position based on how it seems to align with its projected future destination.
The reactive intellect, on the other hand, is responding to ripple effects from the past. Everything that it does is a sort of course corrective measure to offset what appears to have been a “wrong move” on its part or on the part of others.
If you watch how the world works you will find most people operate in these two ways, some more towards the proactive end of things and some more reactive. In any of the major issues facing us in the world: climate change, identity politics, women’s rights, populism, trade wars and so on, the majority of the reactions you will see are reactive : “Oh my God! We have to fix this!” and a minority of proactive reactions: “here are a list of measures we need to implement if we are going to achieve so and so by this date”.
But wisdom maintains no such ideological stance. It utilizes the information that the intellect provides: whether proactively or reactively, but does not itself maintain either a proactive or reactive stance. Instead, it is centered in the present and is purely responsive.
There is a reason why the intellect can never possess the power to know the difference between what can and cannot be changed. And that is because nothing is ever fixed. Everything is in flux. What can be changed in one moment may not be in the next. What cannot be changed in one moment may become free to be changed in the next. The intellect, however, projects a static worldview and thus needs to bucket things definitively. Ambiguity is the enemy of reason. Certainty is what the intellect requires before it can make clear decisions. Too many variables and the equation becomes untenable.
But the vast majority of life IS ambiguous no matter what the intellect may say. And it is precisely this ambiguity that wisdom is designed to parse.
APATHY VS. COMPULSIVE ACTION
Apathy is the enemy of wisdom. So is compulsive action.
Both apathy and compulsive action are forms of inertia. One is the inertia of rest and the other is the inertia of motion. Apathy is like a giant rock that won’t budge. Compulsive action is like an unstoppable boulder rolling down a hill wrecking everything that comes in its path.
Both forms of inertia are the result of emotional baggage: unresolved emotional energy and trauma that sits trapped beneath the surface generating anxiety and projecting a fear-based view of life. This pent up emotional energy sits like a giant weight either keeping us fixed and motionless in our comfort zones or careening us forward like a bull in a china shop.
This is why SERENITY is a prerequisite to wisdom. Because, until a certain amount of that pent up emotional energy is released, inertia is the default state. To be able to come to rest at a moment’s notice, to forgive as quickly as one is angered, to return to the baseline immediately following an ecstatic high or a devastating low is the mark of a serene mind. And that is only possible when one has faced oneself and taken responsibility for all that one feels.
It is also why COURAGE is a prerequisite to wisdom, since it takes courage to face and release that emotional baggage. Inertia doesn’t allow for the response that is able to move quickly into action from a state of rest if the circumstances require it. Only a courageous mind is capable of such action. To be able to leave everything of comfort at a moment’s notice is not how society has equipped us to operate.
Neither courage nor serenity are possible as long as one is moved by the momentum of one’s emotional baggage.
You can think of it as steering a shopping cart in the supermarket. When the cart is empty, control is effortless. You can accelerate, decelerate, stop and turn effortlessly; weaving through aisles, other shoppers and displays at will. However, when you pile up that shopping cart the equation changes. The heavier that cart gets, the less control you have over it. At a certain point the effort it takes to get it going or stopping it becomes huge.
So, we begin to compensate by “projecting” things. We start calculating our stopping distance because we know that the cart isn’t going to stop exactly when we want it to. And we calculate the starting lag, because we know the cart isn’t going to get going when we want it to either. Anyone who has ever moved furniture on a dolly will know what I’m talking about.
The less responsive one is able to be, the more one needs to be proactive or reactive in one’s approach. Thus, the intellect is what TAKES OVER when inertia debilitates us from acting in a sensitive manner to our environment.
So, to return to your original question: “part of me wants to act but part of me is not sure if any action is needed” – this is really a non-dilemma. Because, it’s really your intellect wrestling with two forms of inertia. One is the inertia of rest that wants you to stay safe and passive, the other is the inertia of movement that wants you to do something for fear that, if you don’t, things will fall apart. Both are driven by fear and anxiety. And that fear and anxiety is the result of unresolved emotional energy.
In other words, neither “part of you” is right because they are seeking an intellectual solution: an ideological stance to provide a buffer against the anxiety that is driving them.
So, there is neither serenity, nor courage in this equation. Thus, no wisdom.
I’ll tell you how I have learned to approach life. Because I also wrestled with similar questions at a certain point of my life. I also was a compulsive actor for a time followed by being apathetic to the world driven by a false sense of serenity. And it is only by adopting a certain attitude towards myself and my circumstances that things gradually began to change.
First and foremost, I began by acknowledging a certain glaring fact that I had been avoiding my whole life:
I am completely alone in my subjective world.
No one can see the way I see. No one can see what I think, what I feel, the moods and attitudes that sweep over me. No one can feel the burden of my emotional baggage, no one can see the fear and anxiety fueling it. No one can see what arouses me, what gives me hope, how I feel inside when something wonderful happens. All of THAT forms the vast majority of my experience of life. And I am utterly alone in that experience.
I am like a prisoner in solitary confinement. All I can do is communicate with other prisoners in their own cells through the walls of the cells.
So, I am responsible for all of what happens inside me. It is no one else’s responsibility. My moods, my attitudes, my ups and downs, the fear and anxiety, the hope and wonder – all of that is happening within the borders of my solitary cell. It is my responsibility and mine alone to maintain that cell. Is it going to be messy and cluttered full of crap that only hems me in and makes me claustrophobic? Or can it be an open airy space that allows me room to breathe, to move, to think in a relaxed manner?
So, I began by taking total and complete responsibility for myself holding no one else responsible for anything that I think, see and feel.
Facing and releasing my emotional baggage, over time, opened me up to a more serene and courageous attitude towards life. Rather than perpetually remembering or calculating, more of my attention became freed up towards openly observing. (I talked about this in some length in my “MIRROR, MIRROR” article. How the intellectual mind cannot create any NEW DATA, only rehash the old. It is only an open, observing mind that can register new data because that information is only available in the present moment.)
And through this open and inquisitive orientation of my awareness, wisdom began to emerge as a guiding faculty of intelligence. Yet, there continued to be many times in which my reactive/proactive intellect would re-emerge. Any time an old trauma or unresolved emotional issue was triggered, my wisdom would subside and my intellect would dominate in order to resolve the inertia of fear and anxiety paralyzing me. I would start projecting problems and solutions and begin either taking action on things I hardly understood or failing to act on things that needed my attention.
Yet, it was all growing pains. Each time this tendency to take a rigid intellectual stance would emerge, I would introspect on the energy driving that stance. And it was inevitably fear and anxiety at the base of it. Facing the trigger courageously allowed its release leading to a greater sense of serenity. And thereby, in the newly cleared out space, wisdom would return as the default intelligence operating.
This an ongoing process that continues in my life even now. But it has become mostly automatic.
It was only by taking responsibility for myself, that the space to accommodate “others” could truly open up. And those “others” began with those in my immediate vicinity, those in my family, those I came in contact within either in daily life or online. That sphere of influence grows gradually and organically yet, the core of responsibility always lies in my own self-perception. That is what anchors all my other responsibilities.
And wisdom is what emerges when that anchor is set.
There is a reason why “beginner’s mind” is considered the optimal state of awareness in Zen. To have beginner’s mind is not a judgment on one’s lack of spiritual advancement. Rather it is something even the most advanced practitioners aspire to.
Beginner’s mind simply points to a state of awareness that is open, receptive and highly responsive.
It is like the mind of a child that is fully centered in its present, absorbing information from its environment like a sponge and responding in an instinctual manner. However, unlike the child, we also bear the burden of experience. That experience provides additional information in the form of memories from the past as well as projections of the future. The information that experience provides is also vital.
Beginner’s mind then requires the skill to not only be present to one’s immediate circumstances, but to also be present to the information being provided by experience. In other words, one is present not only to the PRESENT but also to the PAST AND THE FUTURE.
A child is capable of being open and responsive but does not display wisdom because it has no experience. Most adults, on the other hand, have much experience but cannot display wisdom because their experiences have closed them off from life as it happens, opting instead for a proactive or reactive intellectual position on things.
Yet the intelligence that emerges from beginner’s mind is able to remain open and responsive to all of it. It is the kind of intelligence that brings the present, past and future together into a seamless whole. And it is from that holistic perspective that it takes action.
Not driven by the hungry ghosts of fear and anxiety, one reacts with neither apathy nor compulsive action. Instead, one is serene when one is at rest and one is courageous in one’s action. Yet, one also possesses the wisdom to rest when rest is required and act when action is.
“When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m tired, I sleep.”