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?