My first start-up business venture was a healing arts center. I became so overwhelmed with details that it felt like a large multi- national corporation. In the end, I could heal no one, not even myself. I dropped the project and began a deep self-examination.
A whole human life contains a balance of stillness and action. To be constantly lost in action is exhausting; to be always still is like depression and avoidance of the possibilities in life. The art of living is in keeping this balance of stillness and action.
We can become quietists, obsessed with stillness. During my mediative period of life the quiet, the stillness became the main way of solving all of life's problems. One friend went to Nepal and India to do very long meditation retreats lasting as long as three months. She came back, and again lost herself in the fast-paced flow of her own thoughts and desires. The retreats gave her a break from the normal flow of life, but not a real change in her outlook.
Many spiritually-minded people think that Buddha had to merely meditate with enough concentration to affect a sudden leap to the enlightened state. This is very unrealistic. It is not enough to stop the mind. The mind is not all there is -- unless you believe that all that is can be reduced to "Mind" so that the sound of the tree in the forest does not exist without a mind to be aware of it.
Well, even with a quiet mind, there remain all those trees falling around you: the desires and memories in your body. The desires and memories of all the people, animals, and things around you. It is a big universe, once you allow your compassion to expand to your surroundings.
So what about social ills? Don't we have an obligation to do something about these problems? A friend once said, "Can't work on society, or even our friends around us, until we change ourselves first. Better to start by cleaning your mind up. Then go on and make a social contribution by cleaning up the public bathrooms." Perhaps a good society reflects the will of a critical mass of good people.
It is hard to know what it is that we need to do to improve human life around us. Action, just for action's sake, may just confuse matters seriously. The couple next door is having a fight. You go there to help. All of a sudden you have added your own emotions and reactions to the situation. Both sides think that you are siding with the other. You are lucky if you walk out alive. Your action was worse than no action at all. A prayer and a song would have been better.
Gandhi sat for a long time "doing nothing" until in the fullness of time the right actions to take become clear. Why expend energy on what cannot be changed at a certain moment? But when the time is right, just a small push leads to amazing results! We wait until there is a load of force large enough, then just add one more straw and the camel's back is broken. So it was with the British in India.
There is no real compassion in mere acts of reaction as in wars of revenge for past wrongs. Activism is activity for the sake of action itself. "Don't just sit there, do something." Sometimes, doing nothing is better than mixing up the pot. Better to let things settle down. The muddy waters clear. Then we know were we are. We can dream, plan and act with a clean slate.
In the television series, "Star Trek, the Next Generation," Federation personnel are prohibited from interfering in other cultures. A well meaning do-gooder can cause unexpected problems by solving only an obvious problem. The actions of good people eliminated malaria with DDT in many tropical countries so that more humans could live, then hunger grew as the population increased without proper food support systems and birth control practices.
John-Paul Sartre said that the ultimate freedom is in saying "no." Sometimes being still is the most profound action open to us. Stand still and the world turns around you.
To attain stillness the restless impulses must be restrained. Like a wild horse, these impulses can be tamed over time with attention, love, and patience. This very "activity" of making stillness is a productive force in life. Keeping still stores energy to be released when action is required.
Yesterday, one of my artist friends called me on the phone. He expressed surprise that I was really involved with business. He assumed that I always floated in some state of non-action. It amazed him that I have a very active side. Within my business life, many people believe it impossible that I can slow down to zero m.p.h. I can't meet expections on either side. I am still; I am active. I guess I'm at least two-sided, even paradoxical.