Acting and Reacting
There are two ways of living: by reacting or by acting.
Reacting is imitating. Acting is being creative.
Reacting is saying “it is in my nature to behave thus.” Acting is saying “I have no fixed nature.”
Reacting is succumbing to the biological laws that rule the animal kingdom. Acting is embracing our responsibility and our freedom.
Reacting is mechanical and automatic. Acting is mindful and purposeful.
Reacting is easy. Acting is difficult.
We are immersed in this immeasurable Energy that moves the universe. An Energy that organizes itself into structures – stars, planets, rocks, trees, animals. Objects are moved about by the laws of physics; living organisms follow the modes of their biological principles. All objects and all organisms obey internal or external laws on which they have no control. The volcano erupts only when the earth’s crust cannot contain the pressure underneath; the lion hunts the antelope when the herd is seen in the savanna; the bees start working after the flowers open in the morning. There is no freedom in the universe: The planet is not free to change its orbit from elliptical to circular; the river to reverse the direction of its flow; the grass to grow under the snow.
Yet when Man makes his appearance in the universe, something extraordinary sprouts forth for the first time in the cosmos: the human Will. This living force seems to contradict Creation itself. It seems to have the ability to go beyond the constraining laws and circumstances of both the material and biological worlds. Suddenly, Man, this new strange creature that has split off from the rest of the animal kingdom, does not simply react, but acts. Out of and through his ethereal and invisible ideas, Man conceives and then actively becomes engaged in creating out of the materials that surround him, novel, unique, extraordinary objects, systems of organization, modes of functioning, that seem to lie outside the rest of the workings of the universe. Instead of waiting for billions of years for Nature to evolve on its own a pest-resistant strain of wheat, a mandarin with no seeds, a piano capable of playing music, a self-propelled automobile, Man throws upon the surface of the earth creations that seem to defy the tardy and mechanistic evolution of matter and life. It is as if Man carries within himself a generating force similar to that of the sun! Suddenly, there are the objects and activities of mechanical Nature on the one hand, and the objects and activities of Man the creator on the other. The human Will ends up being Nature’s co-creator.
It is this human Will that provides us with the clue as to whether we act or react each time we do something. For Will is always present in acting, but absent from reacting. And Will is Will-power, since it engenders its own purposeful motion. We may even say that, as we use the term here, “acting is willing,” i.e., acting is that type of doing that is guided by the power of the Will. Unfortunately, the words “will” and “power” often carry a negative connotation in the modern world, maybe because power is sometimes abused, or maybe because “going with the flow” and not “forcing things” has become an ideal in popular culture influenced by Buddhist or New Age concepts. But just as occasional floods do not make rain undesirable, the abuse of power does not make power itself bad. As for “going with the flow,” this does not mean idly and passively “waiting for something to happen,” but rather harmonizing our own actions with the flow of Nature (or of human affairs) by consciously acting in the most proper manner befitting the situation. The Zen philosophy “to drink when thirsty and sleep when tired” is not an incitement to live a “reacting” life. On the contrary, it is advising us to exert our willpower to stop our urge to continue doing what we do mechanically, in order to mindfully act to address our thirst or fatigue. In the modern world, where we work on computers until the early morning hours, disregarding the call from our bodies and minds for rest, the way of defeating the bad habits we have cultivated is mindful action. Zen is calling us back to “go with the natural flow” through diligence and discipline that require acting, not reacting.
Of course, we must acknowledge that, situated as we are in Nature, we cannot completely vanquish all reacting from either our biological nature or our life as a whole. There is the instinctive reacting of recoiling from a burning coal, or of trembling when naked in freezing temperatures, or fleeing from immediate danger. Then there is the reacting of having to adapt the whole of our life to a catastrophe such as an earthquake or war – we must perforce follow in great part the flow of events that we did not generate. Acting is not synonymous with the complete cessation of reacting. The instinct of self-preservation that protects us from fire or danger, and the necessity to fastly adapt to major natural or social upheavals that are beyond our control, are both unavoidable and prudent. Such reacting we must accept, yet it is not central to the theme we hereby explore.
But what about the situations where we must react to the behavior of people who cross our life’s path? Is this not, in a sense, the same as Nature-in-the-form-of-a-human forcing upon us “a course of reacting”? True, yet in this case, there is a way out. Let us take the example of someone who verbally insults us: We have the option to either react instinctively by reciprocating the abuse, or to thoughtfully handle it in some other manner. In the first instance, we will be reacting without our Will becoming involved in the process; in the second, our Will will be holding the reins. The first behavior is indistinguishable from the instinctive reacting we have already analyzed. The second is mindful reacting that is identical to acting. When we bring the power of our Will to bear upon any situation to which we are forced to react, we in effect end up acting. In such situations, acting means acting even when we are reacting! It means conscious, willful reacting. When we refrain from reacting mechanically, we may say that acting subjugates all reacting to the higher law of its willpower. Such acting that tames, controls, and mindfully directs all reacting, transforms the latter into true acting.
This “acting that subdues reacting” does not only apply to what meets our life from the outside; it also applies to the inner psychological forces that compel us to behave like automatons. It is probably in this field that the distinction between acting and reacting is most beneficial in our daily life. For example, we may feel too lazy to work, or we may feel unwilling to continue the diet we have just begun, or we may continually postpone dealing with an important yet unpleasant personal issue. These drives and propensities are none other than the inner automatic elements within us that are part of the grander mechanical motions of Nature at large. The moment we decide to lie on the couch and watch TV rather than do our work, or succumb to our desire to eat the chocolate cake rather than stick to our diet, or postpone dealing with the difficult personal issue, we do not act but rather react in exactly the same manner as plants and animals react to Nature’s mechanistic determinism. In other words, we fail to conquer our reacting with our acting – the biological or psychological instinctive urges that are found within our makeup prove to be stronger than our willpower. And of course, this is more obvious in those cases where we mindlessly surrender to our destructive or negative passions such as greed or anger or envy (to name three of the seven deadly sins). Every time we follow the easy path of yielding to Nature’s mechanical modes by reacting rather than acting, in a sense we take a step back in our evolution – our reacting resembles that of plants and animals! In these cases, we relinquish part of the power of the Will that defines our human nature. No other poet captured this evolutionary, or rather existential “regression” better than Cavafy, who, while exploring another deadly sin – lust – wrote one of his shorter yet strongest poems, “He Vows”:
“Every so often he vows to start a better life.
But when night comes with her own counsels,
with her compromises, and with her promises;
but when night comes with her own power
of the body that wants and demands, he returns,
forlorn, to the same fatal joy.”
But how do we cultivate our willpower and the subsequent ability to act rather than react to our life’s circumstances? Well, unfortunately there is no easy path to follow. For it takes Willpower to cultivate one’s willpower! This is so because Willpower is that prime (and primal) substance in our constitution that can neither be reduced to something else, nor be boosted by something external. Paradoxically, Willpower is the only power that can bootstrap itself! And probably the most effective way to achieve such a bootstrap is by being constantly conscious of this distinction between Acting and Reacting. By mindfully observing the absence of our Will when we find ourselves in the reacting mode, we can strive to summon its power to transform our reacting into acting. We then gradually learn to feel and see and know the absence of the Will, and call it in to bear upon any situation and activity in our life. The more we learn to do this, the more we will see all reacting in our life recede and vanish. Our life will then be ruled by Acting rather than by Reacting.