The Rule of Right Action - How to Behave for Fun and Profit

The Rule of Right Action - How to Behave for Fun and Profit

The other day I was watching some people arguing.  Neither participant was happy.  They were not spreading joy.  I don’t know the details or the rights and wrongs, but it was clear that love, peace and happiness were not in the ascendant for either of the actors in this drama.



That’s story number one.


Story number two relates to my husband.  He recently had a minor surgical procedure and about a week later, when he was able to drive, he went into town to buy a bunch of flowers, a thank you card and some chocolates, which he delivered to the nurses’ station.  He was happy when he came home, and he told me the nurses were delighted.  Everyone’s happiness was increased, including mine when he told me about it.


This triggered a memory of how we used to encourage the children at our school to behave.  We would tell them to do that which was right and reasonable, and to avoid doing things that were wrong and unreasonable.  It may surprise you but six, eight and twelve-year-olds know exactly what you mean when you tell them to do what is right and reasonable.  They can also tell you in detail when questioned about their wrong and unreasonable behaviour.


Two Pairs of Actions

There is a simple way of categorising actions which everyone, even a child, understands. There are two pairings: actions can be either good or bad; and actions can be either pleasant or unpleasant. Let’s look briefly at the first pairing – good and bad actions.


Actions can be either:








Good and Bad Actions

The wise tell us to do that which is good, and they counsel us to avoid doing that which is bad.


For our purposes, let’s agree that good actions include those that uplift, unify, spread joy and happiness, increase knowledge and awareness, increase the common fund of wisdom and love and strength.  These are actions which are traditionally referred to as virtuous.  Here are some examples of good actions: visiting a friend in hospital, caring for an aged relative, learning a new and useful skill, choosing a healthy food option, expressing gratitude for a kind deed, taking up a program of self-improvement - the list is literally endless.


Again, let’s agree that bad actions include those that hurt ourselves and others, that are selfish, spiteful, mean-spirited, that close the world down and harden our hearts, that spread ignorance and misery.  These are acts like spiteful gossip, stealing someone’s idea at work, ignoring friends who need your help. Again, there is a long list of these kinds of actions.


Pleasant and Unpleasant Actions

Now let’s turn to the second pairing - actions which are either pleasant or unpleasant.  


Pleasant actions make us feel good.  They appeal to our senses of sight and touch and taste and so on.  They are gratifying and agreeable.  These are actions like eating our favourite foods, drinking our favourite drinks, doing the things we like to do, like watching TV, walking in nature, playing golf.  


There are guilty pleasures as well – enjoying a bit of gossip, making jokes at someone else’s expense, eating foods that won’t do us any good.  


The important point here is that pleasant actions can be good or bad.  


We can do pleasant things which are also healthful and beneficial to ourselves and others.  On the other hand, we can do things that give us a hit of pleasure but which, either immediately or in the long term, are harmful to ourselves or others. 


Finally, unpleasant actions are hurtful and distasteful to ourselves, and often to others.  Again, the senses are involved – hearing discordant sounds, eating distasteful food, doing tasks that are boring or tiring or painful, inflicting pain and hurt on ourselves and others.  


These unpleasant actions can also be either good or bad.  


For example, a good but unpleasant action might be shouldering a burden for a long term benefit.  Alternatively, doing distasteful things that lead to self-loathing and don’t result in anything beneficial, is an action that is both bad and unpleasant.


Examples of Different Actions












Birthday card for a loved one


Addictive behaviours, over-eating





Hard conversation with a colleague


Drinking poison


The Big Mistake: Pleasant = Good; Unpleasant = Bad

I can go further with this.  A simple error that a lot of people seem to make is to equate the good and the pleasant.  Similarly, people connect the bad and the unpleasant.  In other words, if something is pleasant and agreeable, then in some unexamined way it is deemed to be good.  On the other hand, if something is unpleasant and uncomfortable, it is equated with being bad.


Food is a good example.  We may know somewhere in the back of our minds that too much pudding is not recommended, but we like it and so we tell ourselves that just a few more mouthfuls won’t hurt.  After all, it makes us feel good.


On the other hand, we may be engaged in some task that needs to be done.  We grow tired and bored and decide to drop what we are doing. We go off to do something more pleasant, explaining to ourselves that we shouldn’t be expected to work beyond a ‘reasonable’ limit.  The unpleasant task is ‘bad’ for us, and we go off to find something pleasant to do.


Four Pairs of Actions: Two are Easy; Two are Hard

We can now mix and match the two sets of actions – good/bad and pleasant/unpleasant.  This gives us four pairs of actions:  


  1. Actions which are good and pleasant
  2. Actions which are good and unpleasant
  3. Actions which are bad and pleasant
  4. Actions which are bad and unpleasant















Flowers on Mothers Day



Gossiping behind someone’s back






Completing an important  project despite tiredness or boredom



Hurtfulness to a loved one


More Examples

Remembering that everyone is different, let’s look at a few more examples of each.


Buying a thoughtful gift for a loved one would generally be considered a good action and also, regardless of the effort required, generally a pleasant one. Good and pleasant actions, such as those flowers delivered to the nurses, are ethically right, and they also cause feelings of pleasure.


Let’s take our next example.  You have a hard, honest conversation with a friend whose behaviour has become self-destructive. This might be an example of an action which is good, in the sense of necessary and right and hopefully helpful, but could be seen as unpleasant.


Addictive behaviours which give an initial rush of pleasure, but which lead to debilitating after-effects are actions which are bad and pleasant.  There are a lot of examples here. Usually these involve over-indulgence or addictions to alcohol, gambling and so on.  There’s the ‘sugar rush’ followed by the recriminations, until the cycle starts again. 


And finally, bad and unpleasant behaviours are those which are harmful and hurtful to ourselves and others, like saying something hasty and thoughtless which we regret at the time and feel guilty about afterwards.  


The Key Point: Easy v Hard Actions

The main point here is that it is relatively easy to do good things that are also pleasant.  We can all be pretty virtuous if it also gives us a little buzz of pleasure.  That thoughtful gift, nicely written card with the touching message that lights up the face of our loved one, and gives us a well-deserved lift.  Likewise avoiding bad actions that cause us pain and suffering is, on the whole, not too hard.


The trouble arises with the other two parings – doing good but unpleasant actions; and avoiding pleasant actions which are bad.  


Doing that which is good, right and necessary, when it is unpleasant, is hard.  Picking up the phone to apologise for a thoughtless or hurtful comment, speaking up when a hard truth needs to be said, persevering at an important task when we are tired or bored.  These are moments when we are tested. This is where effort, resolve, persistence and work are required.  This is where the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical rubber meets the road.  


It is a similar story when temptation opens a path to bad action.  Saying no when friends try to persuade you to have just one more drink; excusing yourself when the easy friendly banter and conversation takes a nasty turn; steering clear of situations that you would initially enjoy but you know will lead to trouble.  These are also the crucible in which we are all tested.


Green = Easy; Pink = Hard













Relatively easy to do



Hard to exercise restraint






Hard to get going



Relatively easy to avoid



The Inner Struggle:  How We Grow Strong and Confident

Everyone faces this inner struggle to do the right thing regardless of the discomfort, and to refrain from doing the wrong thing regardless of the temptation.  


My spiritual teacher used to call this inner struggle the ‘battle between yes and no’.  He said this mental, emotional and spiritual effort kindles an inner fire, which burns away bad habits and illuminates the right path.  It is uncomfortable but the payoff is totally worth the effort.  



What to do

So my advice?  


Use a simple easy practice.  In any situation ask yourself: “What is the right thing to do here?”  (Note: the right thing to do might be to stop doing something).  Then, when the answer appears, take a breath and do the right thing before your mind or ego has the chance to stop you.  Again, the benefits of this simple exercise are phenomenal, both for yourself and those around you.


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