East vs. West: What Is Right Action?By: hawkgrrrl
As an American living in Asia, I often encounter cultural disconnects. A peer or friend will make a comment that is so obviously based on assumptions or values I don’t share that I realize that my own values and assumptions must sound equally foreign to them.
A few months ago, one of my co-workers in India made a statement that I found very unsettling. He said: ”When we focus on results nothing changes. When we focus on change we see results.” Since this claim was made in a business setting in a results-driven culture, I was taken aback. I had to ask him to repeat it several times, yet it still flew in the face of everything I believe as a business person. I really was at a loss how to respond to someone who believed that. Was he really saying you should get an A for effort and that results didn’t matter? If so, that explained a lot about the results I was seeing from his group!
In talking with another colleague from India, I shared the mantra of our mutual colleague with him, and that I thought he was taking an idea of non-attachment from Hindu spiritualism and (perhaps mis-)applying it to a work setting. He agreed, and as a fellow Hindu he understood the concept. We could both agree in principle that the idea of taking “right action” or doing the right thing regardless of personal reward was a common principle or value between our cultures, having the integrity to do what is right, even if it’s not immediately advantageous. Yet, there was definitely more to what my first colleague was saying than just that. His holy texts were leading down a different thought path than the way we look at things in the good old U.S. of A.
Last month while vacationing in India, I saw a saying from the Bhagavad Gita engraved in the temple wall at the Vishwanath temple at Benaras University in Varanasi: ”Thou hast power to act only, not over the result thereof. Act thou therefore without prospect of the result and without succumbing to inaction.” This seemed like a slightly more palatable version of the same thing my colleague had said. Even so, it sounds great if you are meditating, but I wouldn’t take it into a review with your boss or client. ”Sorry, guys. I only had power to act, but my results are totally out of my control.” That sounds like a recipe for unemployment.
On the flip side, it also occurred to me that our American focus on results must make us sound like total control freaks by contrast. And maybe we are. After all, our founding Puritan parents certainly fit that mold. The American dream (rags to riches) is basically a lesson in controlling your results through your actions – hard work pays off. The little guy gets ahead. We aren’t content with our lot in life – that’s the American entrepeneurial spirit, right?
Mormonism is a religion with deeply American roots; the more I travel the world the more I see those American roots exposed. For most global converts, American values are one of the elements that attracts a person to our faith:
- Autonomy rather than duty. Many converts align more strongly with their new Mormon family, breaking with their cultural or familial values – even breaking with their actual families.
- Egalitarian views. Even in racist or hierarchical cultures that require submissive behaviors, we are all equals in the sight of God within the church.
- A belief that hard work yields tangible results. Whether we are talking about self-reliance or the focus on works as a vital part of faith, this belief is deeply engrained in Mormonism and in American culture.
Looking at other Hindu texts, there are nuances to this idea of detachment from results that we almost never hear in Mormonism, certainly not in the workplace, and seldom in American discourse:
“Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.” ~The Bhagavad Gita
And a trip to the unemployment line!
“A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return.” ~The Bhagavad Gita
‘Tis better to give than to receive – so I suppose we can all get behind this one. However, in a work setting, this might be replaced with Quid pro Quo.
“One should perform karma with nonchalance without expecting the benefits because sooner or later one shall definitely get the fruits.” ~Rig Veda
This one is more aligned with American values in that you do get something for your efforts, but you can’t control when. In this sentiment, efforts do eventually pay off.
“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.” Mahatma Gandhi
Also not jangling to our American values. This one is just a call to do something, anything, and not just sit still waiting for good things to happen. It’s a call to action! And we do love action.
“One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action.” ~Veda Upanishads
As a man thinketh, so he is. Another twist on the importance of action in building character, regardless of the outcome of the actions.
“To the illumined man or woman, a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.” ~Bhagavad Gita
This is another one about not attaching value to things. However, try depositing a clod of dirt in your bank account and see if they’ll let you withdraw gold in exchange.
A few questions to consider as East meets West:
- What is the difference between detaching from the outcomes of our actions and just not getting anything done? How do we take right action if there is no regard for outcomes? Isn’t expected outcome how we judge what is right action?
- Are Americans too materialistic? Does materialism taint our spirituality within Mormonism or Christianity? Or is that an American value that is tempered by our faith? Are Indians not materialistic enough? (I must admit, that thought certainly crossed my mind when I saw elderly men in India who had renounced all worldly goods, including clothes, in pursuit of spiritual things. I mean, c’mon, nobody wants to see that.) I also have to point out that Americans are nowhere near as materialistic as some Asian countries – but India’s not one of them.
- Should we strive to let go of outcomes (take no thought for the morrow) or should our actions be done to achieve outcomes?