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Saturday, January 16, 2021

When actions are lost in translation

How transforming knowledge into action brings about positive change.

Reading Time: 3 minutes 

Often we hear the comment that many things are lost in translation, from one language to another, be it in fiction, prose, poetry or spiritual texts. Apart from the limits of language itself, many nuances peculiar to one culture or vernacular are difficult to convey truthfully in another language. A lot of what may be important gets lost.

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Translating also means the conversion of something from one form or medium to another, for example, the translation of research findings into clinical practice. In such translation, much can be lost when certain interpretations are made. In everyday life, it is not about academic findings being translated into practice but putting into practice what we know.

There are many times when we know what action needs to be taken, but we do not translate that knowledge into action.

As children, we learn about acceptable behaviour. Quite often, however, in spite of having the necessary knowledge, children will not act accordingly. We say that then, they are impulsive and do not fully understand the repercussions. As adults, most of the time, we have an idea of what needs to be done and what should not to be done, what words may hurt and what actions will be ineffective.

Yet, often we go ahead and do the very thing that may cause hurt, or speak words that may be spiteful. This is when knowledge alone does not bring about results. It is in the translating of this knowledge into action that brings about change.

In maintaining good mental health, we need to be aware of how we react to situations, what pitfalls in communication we need to avoid and how we practice the values we have learned from our own culture and experience. We need to constantly reflect and detect patterns of unproductive actions and thoughts and translate them in our behaviour. This is the essential first step in learning self-control.

Not everyone has the capacity to seek spiritual liberation, nor even have the desire to do so, but most want to escape from the drudgery of everyday frustrations and annoyances. Sadly, when things do not go the way we want them to, we point the finger at others or situations around us as the cause and want that to change. Perhaps, the change has to come from within.

The more important thing is to realise that how we react to circumstances is within our control, though the situation may not be. Situations and individuals alone are not responsible for the feelings we experience, whether it is hurt, anger, upset or unhappiness. It is our evaluation of these that trigger the responses. In short, as the Dhammapada says in the very first verse, ‘We become what we think’. How we think is how we behave which then leads to feelings. When we do not translate our knowledge into actions, we may be a storehouse of abundant knowledge with not much to show for it in daily life.

Dealing with problems

When a problem arises, there are only three steps to deal with it.

  • Firstly, examine what is the problem. This requires a lot of soul searching. It may very well start with looking within ourselves.
  • Secondly, what do we need to do about it? This may be learning new ways to deal with a problem or learning new skills, or sometimes even realising that change may be out of our control.
  • Thirdly, and most important, is to put the understanding we have into practice. We can get stuck at any of the steps. The real tragedy is when we know what the problem is, when we know what we need to do about it, but we do not translate it into action.

At a higher level, seeking spiritual truth requires reading, reflecting, understanding and making sense and then acting on them. In daily living, while it may not be the interest of everyone to indulge in spiritual contemplation, a momentary pause to reflect and learn from what has occurred in the past may prove to be a very valuable tool in initiating change.

Many of the scriptural texts draw attention to this need for translation into action. In the Bhagavad Gita, for example, the Way of Knowledge (Chapter 2) is followed by the Way of Action (Chapter 3). In Chapter 5 v.4, it clearly states that ‘only children, not the wise, speak of knowledge and performance of action as distinct.’ Knowledge alone is not enough and action alone without truly understanding its consequences is not enough either.
In the Dhammapada, one of the early verses (v19) clearly says, ‘those who know only a few verses but practice their teachings’ have everything to gain.

If we apply this to our daily life, we need to translate the knowledge that we have acquired from our learning and experience, such as human values of truth, compassion, fairness and service to others, into practice whenever and wherever possible. No situation is trivial, every single one poses a valuable opportunity to put knowledge into practice.

READ ALSO: Understanding anger

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Dr Saroja Srinivasan
Dr. Srinivasan is a western trained clinical psychologist by profession; has been living in Sydney for over 40 years; interested in wisdom traditions in particular Indian philosophy and how it can inform us to lead a happy life; in her columns she has tried to synthesise her personal and professional experiences in dealing with everyday situations

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