The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology

The Art of Taking Action

Gregg Krech

Gregg Krech is one of the leading authorities on Japanese Psychology in North Americaand is the founding director of the ToDo Institute, an educational center for purposeful living in Vermont. He is also an award-winning author of books such as Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, The Art of Taking Action - Lessons from Japanese Psychology, and Tunnelling your Sunlight - 21 Maxims of Living Wisdom from Buddhism and Japanese Psychology to Cope with Difficult Times. Over the past 30 years, Gregg has introduced Japanese psychology to more than 10,000 people through his workshops and online courses.

It’s not just about doing more and procrastinating less. It’s about your dreams, your passion, the risks you need to take and the opportunity to forget yourself and simply disappear into the moment as it unfolds. It’s about less talk and more action. It’s about less blaming and more appreciation. It’s about less mindlessness and more presence.

The Art of Taking Action isn’t simply about keeping busy or checking things off your to-do list. It’s about choosing what to do, how to do it, and the development of character.

I call this book The Art of Taking Action, because, like all arts, we can only improve through practice. We become skillful at taking action by taking action. What do you need to do next?

In this book, Gregg shares some of the principles, ideas, and strategies that helped him personally. In this review let’s take a look at the beneficial effects that Japanese psychology can have on our lives.

Taking Action

Doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, in response to the needs of the situation.

Taking action is one of the most important skills you can master if you wish to maintain good mental health.

Every person who reads this book has at least two things in common - birth and death. And when you are dying, you may have a chance to reflect on your life and the legacy you are leaving behind. You created that legacy during the past day. You are creating that legacy at this very moment. What will you leave behind? What will you create that will outlive you? How many hearts and minds will be touched by your deeds? Use your precious moments wisely. Do what you came here to do.

It really is important to be mindful of the actions that we take in our day to day living because every action that we make will have an effect on our future. In my interview with Dr. Shintaro Kono, he explained that life-legacy is a linkage between the past and the present. It’s a feeling that you are building on top of something you have accomplished, acknowledging that certain experiences have a key role in shaping your past and current life. 

So in order to accomplish something, we should take action; and do things that need to be done, the things that really matter, with great care.

Knowing what action to take

Gregg states some ways on how to recognize what actions to take, stating: “Paying attention to the world around you is a priceless skill - a skill that is elegantly connected to taking action. If you use it and develop it you will notice more and more. And the more you notice, the more you will be clear about what needs doing.”

Paying attention is like being in the moment; being present, and prioritizing the things that need to be done, and by doing so, we move forward in life.

Another way that Gregg states on how to recognize what action to take is by reflecting on our lives, with a focus on momentum:

Momentum is a double-edged sword. It can help us move forward on an exercise program or project. But it can also blind us to meaningful questions about our choices, our conduct, and the use of our time. What is the impact of what I’m doing on the world around me? Is this the most important thing for me to be doing? Are my choices consistent with my greater purposes or values? Is there a better way to do this - a kinder way to do this?

This reminds me of Shintaro Kono’s definition of life momentum; in my interview with him, Shintaro shares that life momentum is the connection of people’s current state -- who they are, what they are doing, and what they value --  to their future goals. And as Gregg says, self-reflection allows people to pause, step back, and consider what they have done and where they are headed.

The Psychology of Action from Japan

Morita Therapy

In his book, Gregg mentions Morita Therapy, and describes it as a practice of acceptance rooted in Zen. He states that there are four key elements of Morita Therapy:

  1. Acceptance at the heart of action
  2. The uncontrollable nature of thoughts and feelings
  3. Action and intention
  4. What does lead to action?

In my interview with Dr. Holly Sugg, she shared that Morita therapy helps patients to understand themselves as part of nature, to accept their authentic natural selves, to understand within that: their thoughts and feelings are natural things that are beyond their control. So Morita therapy helps people to shift their attention away from things that they can’t control, i.e. their symptoms and emotions, and instead to focus on their behavior and actions that they do have control over.

Kaizen

In Japan, there is an approach towards company improvement called “kaizen.” It’s a generic Japanese word that means “improvement,” but is usually used to describe a program of organizational development that is based on “continuous improvement.” 

Kaizen is about making changes over time..

Have a clear purpose, show up, take small steps, repeat this formula daily, and be patient.

While reading Bob Emiliani’s book, Kaizen Forever, one of the expressions that caught my attention was: “Thinking by using hands and looking by using feet.” In my interview with Bob, he explained that “thinking by using hands” means to get involved and do the job because people can only learn when they do get involved - when they take action; “learning by using feet” means to go to the actual place where the work is performed and experience it firsthand - the practical application of knowledge. He shared that Kaizen improves what the workers do and makes work more interesting for them.

So with the help of kaizen, people are more motivated to take action, and do what needs to be done.

Naikan

The final member of our psychological trio is an approach called Naikan, which means “inside looking.” It is a method of self-reflection that has its roots in Shin Buddhism from Japan. 

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. 

Not only does Naikan influence what we do, but it also influences our attitude toward doing it.

In my interview with Gregg, he shared that naikan is a structured technology; what differentiates it from the general theme of self-reflection is that it provides an actual methodology; it comprises three questions:

  1. What have I received from ___?
  2. What have I given to___?
  3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused ___?

I think that it’s very helpful to practice naikan because through this method we can evaluate our entire lives; all the meaningful relationships that we have built through the years, and with these reflections, we will know what actions or steps we need to take next.

The Price That Others Pay

Remembering our impact on others during decisive moments can help us to make a different history for ourselves.

Let’s search out the demons. Take them on more earnestly. Be aware of our impact on others. Remember how short life is. Look at the big picture. Take action and do what needs to be done. --

I think that this is a good reminder for all of us that our actions may impact others as well, so we have to be mindful of the things that we do. What seems to be a small thing for us, can be different to others’ perspectives or experiences. In taking action, we should not only consider what will be beneficial for ourselves, but I think it is also important to consider the people around us as well.


Small Steps and the Law of Momentum

The true value of small steps is often ignored. They involve motion. We go from not doing something to doing it - even in a minimal way. 

When an object is in motion it will basically stay in motion. This is what we refer to as momentum. This is why small steps can be so valuable. They offer momentum at a fairly low cost. In other words, it takes very little effort to create momentum.


This is similar to one of Ken Mogi’s five pillars of ikigai: starting small. It is about taking small careful steps with aspects of your work or hobbies - doing things that others might not give attention to. Then, later on, as you improve or progress, you make something amazing, a breakthrough, and then others will notice and be amazed of the results or benefits that these small steps bring


Working with the conditions that we encounter

The tree does its best with what it gets. It’s easy for us to focus on how we were dealt a lousy hand in life and use that as a constant source of complaint and excuse as to why we haven’t done better. This type of attitude contributes to our own suffering and to the suffering of others. In fact, by complaining like this we create conditions for the “trees” around us that make their lives more difficult. So perhaps we can take a lesson from our friends, the trees, and simply do our best with whatever situation we encounter. The conditions of our lives will always be less than ideal. But just to be planted on this earth for the short period of time we call ‘this life’ is truly a gift that we should continuously reflect on.

This reminds me of an interview I had with Yoko Inoue, while working on her happiness project, Yoko reached out to Tal- Ben Shahar, and asked him how to be happy in a place deemed ‘the happiest country in the world’. At the time Yoko was struggling to find happiness. He replied: "Even in the happiest country in the world, it's important to give yourself permission to be human, going through periods of uncertainty, and unhappiness is natural, and in fact, can be a springboard to a deeper understanding of one's purpose, and passion."

It is normal for us to experience uncertainties and difficulties in our lives, but these should not stop us from living. Instead, we should take these struggles as motivation to keep going; to take action, and take charge in our lives.

The Perils of Excitement

Enthusiasm is often connected to something new. But, like any feeling state, it doesn’t last. It fades. You used those feelings to help you get started, but now they’re not available anymore

Excitement, which we seek and think of as pleasant, can also be the cause of great distress.

It’s not really the feeling of excitement itself which is the culprit here, it is the loss of excitement which prompts us to abandon our efforts towards fulfillments of our dreams - dreams which were, at one time, very exciting to us. If anticipatory excitement moves us to action, the loss of excitement  often prompts us to stop. Action dissolves into inaction.

It is really not about the goal, it’s more about the experiences that we encounter in our journey of achieving those goals because once we reach a goal, we tend to look for other things to pursue. That’s why I think it’s important to have ikigai in our lives because that is what keeps us going. Ikigai is one of the things that motivates us to take action. Ikigai responds to proactiveness.

Conclusion

Morita therapy, Kaizen, Naikan - each of these methods offers us some wisdom about what action to take and how to take it. They are like three wise, old teachers offering guidance as we try to do something meaningful within the limits of a lifetime. 

You just need to figure out how to work with your life - with your circumstances, your feelings, your family members, your challenges, your dreams and your disappointments. You have to figure out what you need to do, when you need to do it, and how to do it to the best of your ability. There’s nobody whipping you from behind. Your life is in front of you, waiting… for your next move.

This is an interesting read as it provides knowledge about Japanese psychology that can be applied to our daily lives. With the help of these Eastern concepts, we can have an idea of what things we should take action on; the things that really matter, and not just do things for the sake of doing something. By taking action, we create meaningful experiences. 

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