The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology - by Gregg Krech

"Action is the antidote to despair." –Joan Baez


  1. **Paying Attention: **As I notice my environment and the world around me, does that suggest a particular action I need to take?

  2. **Knowing Your Purpose: **What am I passionate about? What legacy do I want to leave behind?

  3. **Self-Reflection (Naikan): **As I step back and reflect on my life and relationships, does that suggest a particular action I should take?

  4. **Urgent vs. Important: **What really matters? What is truly important and not just urgent at this moment?

Reflection + Risk = Contribution

Meaningful contributions are more often the outcome of taking time to reflect and then make changes that involve risk. If we study the lives of admirable people we often find that there was a point, or several, where they were willing to forego security and stability to step into the unknown and take a risk.

Morita Therapy

  1. Acceptance at the Heart of Action

  2. The Uncontrollable Nature of our Thoughts and Feelings: Accept your thoughts and feelings. Rather than fight what goes on in your mind, simply accept it.

  3. Action and Intention: Inevitably we must abandon the idea that INTENTIONS, even particularly strong, clear or meaningful intentions, will lead us to action.

  4. What Does Lead to Action? What we really want to do is develop a natural approach to taking action that meets the needs of the situation.

Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)

Have a clear purpose, show up, take small steps, repeat this formula daily, and be patient. Start with actions that are so small, so insignificant, that there's no resistance, no reason to procrastinate or avoid the task.


Naikan provides a systematic approach to reflecting on ourselves and our relationships that helps us appreciate the ways we are being cared for and supported, many of which we take for granted during the course of an ordinary day. It also helps us become aware of the impact our lives are having on the world around us. In essence, we get to see ourselves from the world's perspective, instead of our own. The process of Naikan reflection is relatively simple. It is based on three questions:

  1. What have I received from ____?

  2. What have I given to __?

  3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused __?

These questions provide a framework for reflecting on parents, friends, teachers, siblings, colleagues, children and partners. We reflect by answering these questions within a defined period of time. The time period we examine can be as short as a day or as long as three to four years. Naikan is a unique reminder system. By reflecting on our past (perhaps just the past week) we're reminded of something we should do for someone who was supportive or helpful to us. So Naikan is related to action, because it can influence what action we choose to take and when we take it.


Deciding Is Not Doing

Until I actually take some constructive action, I have not changed the reality of my life or the world around me at all by just deciding. It may seem like progress. It certainly feels like progress. But keep in mind that regardless of how much thought and energy went into that decision, I can change it in an instant. I can simply think, "No, I think I'll do something else instead." So please be cautious about thinking of decision-making as something you did. Generally, it's something you thought. Writing the first paragraph of your book… or planting some basil in the garden… or filing papers with the adoption office in China … or riding your bicycle for ten minutes. These are actions. These are the things that create ripples in our lives and in the world.

"I should write a letter"--"I should reply to a letter." If you think so, write immediately. You are not doing anything at the time but just think you will wait and do it later. Even small tasks should not be neglected, but completed right away. It is very important to be able to do this. People who get a lot done manage it because they have the ability to get each necessary thing done right there and then. If you put a task off until some other time, you will never get it done, because "some other time" has its own tasks. Consequently you end up doing nothing and become a person who keeps putting things off.

We should get so that it is second nature to put our thoughts into action. Start now, today. True, it is easier to say than to do, but the more you do it, the more of a habit it will become. It is an indispensable skill. To know something and not to put it into practice is a weak point, but knowledge is mere knowledge, and is not to be confused with ability and skill. Not until knowledge becomes an inseparable part of one is it an ability or skill.

My number one stress creator is not completing a task I have set for myself or following through promptly. Pondering why I don't feel like doing what I say I want to do, yet discovering one more time how great it often feels after I've done it, is just another reliable way to distract myself from the effort of doing the next thing. There is no substitute for "accepting my feelings" (of laziness or boredom, or anxiety, or whatever happens to appear), knowing my purpose" and then "DOING IT." My stress is relieved almost from the moment I start, and I go to bed that night satisfied with what got accomplished.

Start Before You're Ready

It's best to get clarity before you begin, but it's also best to begin before you have clarity. You have some general idea of something you want to do. Maybe it's a change of jobs, or some kind of volunteer work. Maybe you want to do something creative, but you're not sure what. So clarity isn't really available to you. What should you do? Go ahead and get started. Get started without clarity. Take some small steps. Investigate, research, look into possibilities, check things out, talk to people, and… if at all possible – try something out in real life. Action isn't something that comes after figuring things out. Action is a way of figuring things out.

One of the central principles of Morita Therapy is that we have much more control over our body (actions) than our minds (thoughts, feelings). So a distinguishing element of Morita's work is to put effort into getting the body to take action, rather than trying to manipulate our thoughts or feelings. Often, once the body is moving, there is a natural influence on our emotional state and our thoughts. We might call this the law of momentum--it is easier to keep going once you've started than to get started in the first place. This is often true of exercise programs, diets, public dancing, writing--almost anything.

"It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop." –Confucius

What Do We Have Here?

One of the best ways to start something is to step back, look around, and say, "What do we have here?" This puts you in touch with the reality of your situation. It shifts your attention from your feeling state (boredom, anxiety, confusion) to the concrete reality of the circumstances surrounding your work. This is what we start with. This is what we have to work with. This is what the reality of the situation is right now. Step back. Take stock. Examine. Assess. This is where you begin.

Show Up

One of the simplest approaches to taking action is to get your body in the right position. This is incredibly effective for me when it comes to writing, exercise and household repairs. Your commitment is just to be there. You're not committing to doing anything. If you do something, fine. If you don't, fine. The suffering caused by anticipation is worse than the actual reality. We actually create more suffering for ourselves by procrastinating than we would if we just jumped into what we need to do. Rather than trying to motivate yourself, psyche yourself up or work with thoughts and affirmations, just put your body in the right place at the right time. Then see what happens.


Likes and Dislikes

Try investigating something today. Be curious. Stretch yourself. Take on a problem for which the answer is shrouded in mystery. Don't just think about it – actually investigate it. Exploration brings excitement as well as anxiety. They are really two sides of the same coin. Don't let the expedition leave without you. Venture into the unknown. Notice your likes and dislikes and learn to do what you don't like.

The Perils of Excitement

If anticipatory excitement moves us to action, the loss of excitement often prompts us to stop. Action dissolves into inaction. Our minds associate "newness" with excitement and something is only new in the beginning. Over time, we become accustomed to the object, person, or environment and we cease to respond with feelings of excitement. In the course of a project, we are excited about the "idea" of the project, but most projects turn out to be more difficult and complicated than we expect them to be. And over time we may grow weary. Or confused. Or frustrated. Such feelings replace the excited feelings that we had in the beginning. This happens in relationships as well, as the romantic phase fades and we discover that a meaningful, intimate relationship requires effort, skill, patience and conflict resolution. The only way to really deal with the problem of excitement is to stop becoming dependent on it. We stop connecting the feeling of excitement with the persistence of action-taking. We stay with something because it remains important, even after our excited feelings are gone.

I Get To

Any time you begin to say "I should" or "I have to," try replacing it with "I get to." This simple word substitution prompts a far different mindset. "I have to go pick up the kids" becomes "I get to go pick up the kids." With a turn of phrase I can notice a Naikan-like sense of appreciation shift the balance in my everyday life. I laugh to myself at how this simple turn of phrase has changed my thinking. I get to floss my teeth. I get to take my car in to be repaired. Using "I get to" allows me to see that my daily deeds are gifts. Life is burgeoning with opportunities to meet our human needs. In context, it is all a blessing. I finally get to see that.

Non-attachment: Effort and Outcomes

Whenever we're facing a challenging situation, one of the wisest things we can do is take a few minutes to distinguish between what's controllable and what isn't controllable. I suggest you use a pencil and paper. Simply divide the paper into two columns and, as you reflect on the situation, place each element into the proper column. What you end up with is a "map" that shows what you can work on (actions which are controllable by you) and what you can't control. This empowers you to move forward and do what you can do. This exercise is also helpful when considering our dreams and aspirations.

Outcomes, in most cases, are uncontrollable. The alternative is to focus on the effort we make. Our effort is almost always controllable – an action, something we can do. A second benefit of moving from a focus on goals to a focus on effort, is that it naturally moves us from focusing on the future to focusing on the present. And finally, when we are truly focused on effort, rather than outcomes, we find it easier to resist the temptation to abandon our integrity. If our focus is on effort, then "how" we move forward is of great importance. We consider the impact of our actions on others.


Whether we like it or not, we have to work with impermanence. And the way we work with it is to respond to change according to what needs to be done. It's not about how we feel (i.e. frustrated) or what we're thinking (doom and gloom thoughts). It's about taking action according to the needs of the situation. We accept the circumstances that we cannot change. We accept the internal reaction we're having – our feelings and thoughts – that we also cannot change. And we try to simply step back and look clearly: What are the needs of the situation? That's how we know what to do and when to do it. If you don't like what's happening, rest assured, it will change. If you are pleased with the situation, rest assured, it will change. Those are the rules. Enjoy the game. Build something. Tear it down. Have fun. It will be over all too soon.


Taking Action in Relationships

Acting "as if" simply means choosing "nice" behavior, even when you don't feel like it. It means not allowing your feelings to dictate how you will behave, but instead, motivated by your desire to become a more spiritual person, choosing how you will behave. When you act as if, you are no longer at the mercy of your feelings or your mood. Here are five tips:

  1. Start small. You can act as if you are a loving, adoring spouse, even if you don't feel that way, for just five minutes, for a half hour, or for one evening a week.

  2. You can also act as if, not in response to a situation, but as a proactive way of taking initiative or providing leadership. What do you want from your partner? Do you wish he or she were more demonstrative? Do you wish you had fun more often? Would you like more romance? Create these activities yourself. What do you wish you could do with your partner? Don't wait.

  3. Don't be discouraged if your feelings or your mate's responses don't change quickly and dramatically. Patiently proceed with acting like a loving spouse on a regular basis, even if it is just for a few minutes at a time, even if you see no direct results or changes.

  4. Be prepared for voices of resistance within you. My partner doesn't deserve this loving behavior. This is too one-sided. I shouldn't have to be nice. This is too fake. I can't pretend I feel loving. I don't!

  5. Actions matter. When you are trying to create a happy, safe atmosphere in your marriage, actions are what will make this happen. Apathy won't help you. Talking won't make any difference. Blaming will keep you stuck for years. Only new behavior, even when you don't feel like doing it, will make changes start to happen. As we've said, you will never feel your way to a new way of acting, but you can absolutely act your way to a new way of feeling.

Defeating the Demons of Inaction

  • Fear: We must learn the skill of coexisting with fear. Notice the feeling, recognize it for what it is, take a deep breath, and shift your energies to that which needs doing. "Right now, I am feeling a great deal of fear." We notice fear. We acknowledge it. We accept it. But we don't put fear in charge. We don't let it decide what we do and don't do. And at some point, we may learn to harness the energy of fear and use it to take action in response to the situation we are facing.

  • Indecision: We try to think through the issue in our minds. We analyze it and ruminate about it. But we can't figure out life in our minds. Life is resolved through life itself. Even when we think we've figured everything out intellectually, life seldom plays out as a perfect replica of our mental plan. So when we are confronted by indecision, we need to take action despite our doubts or confusion. We need to move forward, even if we're only taking small steps. Those steps, regardless of which direction they go in, are likely to give us new information and experience. Our actions send ripples into the world. The situation may change or reveal itself in a new way once we have moved to a new vantage point.

  • Discouragement: Nakagawa Roshi says that when we are suffering, that is when we should provide encouragement to others. He doesn't say, "first get yourself together, and then give others encouragement." It's the act of encouraging others that heals our own discouragement. The secret underlying this process has to do with attention. When we are discouraged, all of our attention is on ourselves. If you think of your attention as a kind of fertilizer, you realize that by focusing your attention on your own suffering you are actually helping it to grow and deepen its roots in your mind and body. But to encourage others, you have to shift your attention to the suffering of the other person. "How is their life hard? What is the nature of their difficulty? How can I support them?" When you shift your attention to encouraging someone else, you have removed the nourishment for your own suffering. Where is your suffering when you're not paying attention to it?

  • Perfectionism: First, we have to understand that mistakes are unavoidable. In many cases, the mistake is less important than what you do after you've made a mistake. You may get discouraged, demoralized or angry at yourself. But once a mistake is made, we must simply respond to the new reality. What action do I need to take now?

  • Boredom: As with fear, our main strategy is to coexist with the thoughts and feelings of being bored, while continuing to work on our task. Clarity of purpose is a critical factor when dealing with boredom. Tolerating the experience of boredom is much more manageable once the reason for doing so is clear. Boredom may be an indicator that we are not paying attention to the details of what we are doing. When we pay attention to details, our curiosity is often awakened.

  • Difficulty: Frequently our minds create boundaries about what we can and cannot accomplish, but often these boundaries fall far short of what we can really accomplish when we make our best effort. In essence, our minds often underestimate what our bodies can do. The Demon of Difficulty tries to persuade us to always remain in our "comfort zone." When we do things we already know how to do, we usually can remain safely in our comfort zone. To overcome this demon, we need to take the risks of doing things that stimulate feelings of discomfort, fear, anxiety, and confusion. We need to develop the capacity to coexist with these feelings as we tackle a new or challenging task. We need to accept the possibility that we might fail or make mistakes and move forward cautiously, but, nevertheless, move forward. Don't bother with self-talk, trying to convince yourself you have confidence, or with artificial efforts to pump up your self-esteem. Simply move forward and take action. Be persistent.

Don't Just Be in the Audience

You are in a passive state. You are witnessing someone else's creative energy. You are being exposed to someone else's imagination and experience. What about your own imagination? What about your own creativity? Are you making time to express yourself--your experience, your ideas, your unborn creations?