The continuum of skillful and unskillful action

I got back a few days ago from a week long retreat with one of my teachers, Richard Miller. Many people have asked me if the retreat was good, and good is one word of many. It was good, bad, powerful, irritating, profound, annoying, sweet, vulnerable, sad, sleepy, enraging, connecting and so many other words.

I asked Richard about the difference between “right action” and conditioning. The more I delve into anti-oppression work the more I seem unable to tell the difference. I wonder if my actions are due to the ways I was conditioned or due to my intuitive discrimination for what feels right in the moment. Maybe sometimes it is both, and other times it is one or the other.

Richard shared with me the same conclusion I have come to: that when my actions are based on conditioning (conditioning of dominant culture, whiteness, able-bodiedness, straightness, etc.) I can take responsibility for that (attend to the impact) and refine my actions from messing up. Essentially, through wrong actions I can move more and more towards right action.

I was hoping for a different answer. I was hoping I could find the magic meditation that would cut through all the conditioning and I would never make another mistake or harm another being and I could transcend this body and mind. As I sat with this desire I realized this too was part of conditioning and wrong action. Wanting to get away from the messiness of life is wrong action because it isn’t possible. Wanting to not affect someone in a harmful way ever again is wrong action because I will impact someone negatively again (and most likely very soon).

In this moment wrong action and right action feel very intertwined, and I am even hesitant to continue to use those two words to describe what I am talking about. More accurately what I am meaning is skillful action and unskillful action, and they are both necessary. In yoga therapy there is a lot of focus on welcoming and accepting (and maybe even loving) all the parts of ourselves, even the parts we don’t like. As Richard would say, “they are all messengers.” The unskillful actions I have taken have helped me refine my actions with myself, my relationships and the world, and through that refinement I have found more skillful actions. Maybe, like most things in life, this is a continuum rather than an either/or. How can our unskillful actions become more and more skillful as we continue to learn, refine and be honest with ourselves and each other? How do you work with right or wrong action or skillful or unskillful action?

Using All the Gears

In the last month or so I have been practicing #reactionaryselfcare. Reactionary self care is going from one extreme to the other and than back again. When white supremacists took over Charlottesville I dove into social media and the news to find out what was happening and the responses to the violence. I could feel my body start to go into overdrive, and I would become jittery. Once that happened I shut off my phone and computer and would do something to settle myself. I swam. I meditated. I hung out with my dog. Once my nervous system came back down I would dive in again, and within a period of time I would be jittery again. The jitters were my cue to react and do something different.

I talked with my therapist about this, and she brought in the concept of gears. I was going from 5th gear to 1st without much fluctuation in the middle gears. This pendulation from high intensity to low intensity is a familiar feeling, and yet I am also familiar with the burnout that comes with this pattern.

In the last few weeks I have attempted to practice 2nd, 3rd and 4th gears, which has been difficult. I have trained my nervous system to know 5th gear and speed up. I notice when I walk in the woods I speed up and challenge myself to walk at a 3rd gear pace. I notice when I move from my home to the studio I do it in a fast pace, and I try to slow down, have a brief conversation with the chickens and move to the studio with intention rather than rush. When I move through my day in a 2nd-4th gear I don’t need reactionary self care as much. When I am primarily in 5th and 6th gear I do not sleep as well, my stomach hurts, I am frazzled, forgetful and lose capacity to tolerate discomfort. 1st gear eventually becomes a necessity rather than a choice, due to sickness, injury or emotional overwhelm.

I also notice the discomfort of 2nd-4th gear. I feel I “should” be doing more, being more “productive.” There is a feeling of guilt in these gears that I do not have in 5th gear. There is something powerful and strong about 5th gear that I am attached to, even addicted to. I also believe there is conditioning of capitalism and whiteness that is showing up inside myself that makes overdrive feel normal or even positive. Both of these systems of injustice and dehumanization condition people to work harder, faster and your value is associated with your work and your wealth instead of your inherent value as a human being. So I am learning to sit with discomfort in new ways. Instead of emotional overwhelm and a jittery nervous system I am feeling the discomfort of slowing down. When I am willing to allow myself to feel this discomfort it shifts, unlike the discomfort of 5th gear. Reactionary self care becomes a necessity in 5th gear overdrive. A few moments of mindfulness can shift my feelings of guilt in 2nd-4th gears, and I can move through the world with more groundedness, stability and sustainability.

Are you addicted to 5th gear? Have you found ways to move through the world with intentionality rather than reactivity? How do you practice #intentionalselfcare over #reactionaryselfcare?