When to endure, and when to act

In a sense, we are always acting. Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash


One of the most significant problems of mindfulness is the dilemma between intervening and not intervening. A mindful approach, one might think, is to do with getting so peaceful inside, that no outside change needs to happen to resolve inner happiness. But then, does that mean that a wholly mindful person simply becomes a ‘happy banana’, sitting there not doing anything at all?

It is true that, correctly understood, happiness does not involve needing to change anything in the outside world. If we have resolved every bit of discomfort, then we do not experience any desperation to reach out and alter our environment. We are comfortable anyway.

But it is also true that it looks pretty heartless if a person says ‘I’m OK, so I won’t walk across the road and help that distressed person over there’. A group of meditators who live behind closed doors, never venturing out, are, it could be argued, as bad as wealthy property owners living in gated communities, failing to ameliorate life for those living outside their narrow range of movement.


So, imagine a person who has achieved the art of not needing to do anything. They could quite happily just sit there and watch life happen. In that sense, they are enlightened. Imagine they come to you and say: ‘what is wrong with simply relaxing and being happy?’ How would you answer them? Would you say ‘nothing’, and leave it at that? Or would you wish to promote some form of social activity – perhaps the fight for justice, or the defence of other people’s right for peace.

In the same way, imagine a person who has achieved the art of enduring all behaviours from others. Imagine they say to you: ‘I just smile, whatever anyone does for or against me. It’s all the same to me.’ Would you be content to watch them endure maltreatment from others? Or would you wish that they drew some boundaries, and held others accountable for their actions?


When to endure and when to act. It’s a very difficult dilemma to solve, Perhaps each person decides from minute to minute. We choose to be patient one minute, and to intervene the next. We choose to fast one minute and eat the next. We choose to reach out one minute, and leave things be the next.


Today I will be aware of when I am simply enduring the situation I am in, and when I am acting to change it. I will notice what I am choosing to build, and what I am choosing to let fall. I will notice my response to injustice, unfairness, cruelty. I will notice how sometimes I decide not to act, and sometimes I decide to try to right a wrong. I will notice the tactics I use when I do act.


Today, perhaps, I will explore both action and inaction. I will understand that, actually, I am always acting. From the moment I wake, I breathe. I choose to eat something at some point. I choose to speak to others at some point. Given that I am always acting, I will notice how I choose to act. I will notice my breathing, notice my eating, notice my speech.


Today, I will be aware of how I discriminate between action and inaction. I will notice when I choose to push forward, and when I choose to stay back. In my relationships, I will notice when, and why, I show dependence, and when, and why, I show independence. I will notice how sometimes I seem to rely on others, and sometimes myself.

It is very subtle, this issue of when to endure, and when to act. I can endure cruelty sometimes, and sometimes hold up my hand and say ‘no more’. I can witness fights between others and do nothing sometimes, and yet sometimes I can reach out and invite others to find peace.


We are always engaged, whether we like it or not. Whatever labels we put on our relationships with others and the world, we can choose, in this moment, what to do.