A couple of phrases I’ve incorporated into my personal philosophy frequently help guide me.
- ‘You can’t control how others behave, only your reaction.’
- ‘Act, don’t react.’
(If you have an idea where these phrases originated, please leave a comment.)
Taoist tales (often involving warfare) tell us that to react is to have surrendered; action creates the setting for all involved.
But contradiction, especially while using analogies, is common in Tao literature, for the Tao Te Ching often suggests that we must act in harmony with what is happening around us, which sounds like reaction.
Once again I remember that action and reaction are not opposite forces, but perceptual. They are as ying and yang – harmonious and complementary.
The master potter, sword fighter, painter, dancer, and healer react instantaneously to changes in the situation, seemingly supernaturally. This is because of their great experience, their flow, and their deep understanding. They act on purpose but seemingly without thought. We would not advise them to avoid reacting!
Action and reaction – the endless dance that creates every dynamic.
The wise look further ahead than others, that is all. The seeker lives on purpose, that is all. The master works with Tao and accepts, that is all.
Image credit: Barry Skeates
To me the difference between acting and reacting stems from mindfulness.
When you are distracted by idle thoughts and not present in the moment, if something out the ordinary, something “different” enough to drag you out of autopilot you are forced to react, scrambling to solution.
When one is mindful you can perceive reality as it happens and as such you aren’t caught of guard. Any required response comes from deliberate action.