Activity vs. Action

This morning I want to discuss the difference between activity and action. As far as the dictionary is concerned, there is not a big difference. Merriam-Webster defines activity as: the quality or state of being active. The definition of active leads us to: characterized by action rather than by contemplation or speculation. And finally action: the process of exerting a force or bringing about an effect that results from the inherent capacity of an agent OR an act of will.

So these words are closely related and even interchangeable at times, why bother? First, in my continued read of Tantra: The Supreme Understanding, by Osho I came across a section where Osho is commenting on how to be like a hollow bamboo, how to relax the mind and find ease in the body. In doing so, he looks specifically at these two words. The second reason is that this practice, of taking two closely related concepts and deeply examining them, is something my Zen teacher, Zentatsu Baker-roshi, often presents his students with. In the end, its not about finding the correct definitions or being right, it is an opportunity to examine the subtleties of our lives – to ultimately put these concepts to work for us and open us to greater possibilities of being. Maybe after reading this you will no longer view activity and action as the same thing, or you may notice similar structures of our language that you can explore in order to find something meaningful in your own life.

First, Osho’s words:

Remember two words: one is “action,” another is “activity.” Action is not activity; activity is not action. Their natures are diametrically opposite. Action is when the situation demands it, you act, you respond. Activity is when the situation doesn’t matter, it is not a response; you are so restless within, that the situation is just an excuse to be active.

Action comes out of a silent mind – its is the most beautiful thing in the world. Activity comes out of a restless mind – it is the ugliest. Action is moment to moment, spontaneous; activity is irrelevant. Action is moment to moment, spontaneous; activity is loaded with the past. It is not a response to the present moment, rather, it is a pouring your restlessness, which you have been carrying from the past, into the present. Action is creative. Activity is very very destructive – it destroys you, it destroys others.

I’ve heard it said that Osho is often over the top. Does activity really destroy? Remember he is pushing it to the edge so that we can see the differences.

Observing myself this past weekend while holding this passage in mind, I found it is quite difficult to define whether or not something that I was doing was an activity or an action. The truth is, according to Osho’s definition, most of what I was doing was a form of activity, based on habits or restlessness. Eating is often the easiest place to observe this delicate distinction. For example, you are hungry, then you eat – this is action. But many times you aren’t that hungry, and you go on eating anyway – this is activity. This is where Osho brings in the destructiveness: you destroy food, unnecessarily, to give you a small release of your inner restless ness. This destruction is sort of an unconsciousness violence.

Action is always spontaneous, it takes the total situation into account. It is a response to life, to the present moment without bringing in the past. You are hungry and find food, you are thirsty and seek water, you are sleepy and go to bed. We often rationalize our activities as necessary actions. “I became angry at this situation because of xyz and this was the appropriate response.” Its these very rationalizations that become what Gurdjieff called “buffers.” These buffers help us remain unconscious of the actual situation and action required of it, allowing us to rest in our old habits.

Many of us grow up with some version of the proverb “It’s better to do something rather than nothing.”  And because of this we have an obsession to be active, often meeting this obsession in useless activity. Thought itself can be an activity or action. Our your thoughts right now based on a total response to this very moment, or do they more closely resemble a mixture of your past with your current desires and needs?

Activity is your escape from yourself. In action you are; in activity you have escaped from yourself – it is a drug. In activity you forget yourself, and when you forget yourself there are no worries, no anguish, no anxiety. That’s why you need to be continuously active, doing something or other, but never in a state when non-doing flowers in you and blooms.

Action is good. Activity is ill. Find the distinction within yourself: what is activity and what is action; that is the first step. The second step is to be more involved in action so that the energy moves into action; and whenever there is activity to be more watchful about it, more alert. If you are aware, activity ceases, energy is preserved, and the same energy becomes action.

Action is immediate. It is nothing ready-made, it is not prefabricated. It doesn’t give you any chance to make a preparation, to go through a rehearsal. Action is always new and fresh like the dew drops in the morning. And a person who is a person of action is always fresh and young. The body becomes old, but his freshness continues.

Be aware. Feel the difference between action and activity. And when activity takes hold of you, when the activity possesses you, watch it, even if you have to do it, do it with full awareness. Let things drop, don’t drop them. Let activity disappear, don’t force it to disappear- because the very effort to force it to disappear is again activity in another form. Watch, be alert, conscious, and you come to a very very miraculous phenomenon: when something drops by itself, on its own accord, it leaves no trace on you.

Act more, and let activities drop on their own accord, a transformation will come to you by and by. It takes time, it needs seasoning, but there is no hurry.

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