07/07/2012 09:21 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2012

The Only Self-Help You Need: Right Action

It's a complicated world, and every day we are inundated with messages on how to make our way through it successfully. These messages often come to us via Facebook or Twitter, distilled from the books and lectures of self-appointed self-help gurus and life coaches. And these messages are often in the form of aphorisms - pithy statements that seem perfectly logical on their face, yet when taken out of context are actually meaningless or easily misconstrued.

I've patiently listened as friends tell me that they have found the key to happiness and fulfillment in such-and-such book, even as I observe that these friends seem neither happy nor fulfilled. I've watched my Facebook feed scroll by with pithy aphorisms taken from self-help books such as The Four Agreements and The Secret.(um, not highbrow), and I've largely ignored them because I am aware that they are being quoted out of context.

However, when a well-meaning (I think?) friend informed me that everything that has ever happened to us is the result of our thoughts, I felt compelled to kick the tires. As a breast cancer survivor, as the mother of two young boys who certainly did not invite my breast cancer into their lives, I had to know: how can this notion (which I believe is distilled from The Secret) be true? I asked whether "people" who get sick invited illness, or whether children whose parents get sick or die could be blamed somehow. I asked whether those who died in the World Trade Centers were responsible for their own deaths. I asked whether the Jews who died in the Holocaust had wished it upon themselves.

"You need to do your reading," was the only answer I received.

So I did. Only I didn't merely fold the pages of the aphorism-filled latest pop-psychology books. Instead, I referred to the thousands of years old Yoga Sutras. And I refreshed my memory of Transactional Analysis (which observes human interactions as multi-faceted and not unilateral) and cognitive behavior therapy (which has scientific credibility). I reread some of Pema Chodron's essays. And what I came up with is my own personal guide to personal satisfaction in interpersonal relationships (when you get those right, the rest of it flows):

How you treat people is your karma. How they react is theirs. But... If you treat someone poorly, and their reaction is to act poorly in response, it's rather poor karmic form to deny your own culpability by saying, "that's their shit."

How you treat people is karma that you put into the world right now, right here. If you treat people poorly, you should expect not only that they will treat you poorly back but also that the consequences wil ripple forth. Don't treat people poorly and expect it to affect only you. Slap your kid? Expect your kid to slap their friends. And then their own kids. It's not their karma alone. It never is. By acting toward someone, you have dipped your toe in the river, and the river will never be the same. You can try to say "their reaction is their karma," but when there's a kid crying in the playground because an angry kid slapped her, it's your karma too.

As for controlling our destiny by controlling our thoughts, well, good luck with that. You can't make someone treat you well by willing it so. You can't live forever by thinking healthy thoughts. You can't make yourself sick by thinking about illness. If thinking about death made you die, you would never be able to go to a funeral. If thinking about traffic makes for traffic on the road, then you just might be driving during rush hour.

There's no upside to blaming a person or being in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Sure, you could try, but really, you can't possibly know what each and every person who died that day did to bring themselves into the exact space where a crazed, suicidal terrorist was going to aim an airplane. And how would it help you to know anyway? All you're accomplishing is distancing yourself from a tragedy by distinguishing your situation from the situation of the victims. And frankly, you really don't know enough to do that.

Even if you believe that your thoughts hold the key to your success and fulfillment, you would never know how to use that key. Impossible. And anyone who wants to tell you differently wants to sell you something that can't be bought and then KEEP selling it to you over and over again each time you fail to think the "right" thoughts... which will be often, especially if not thinking the right thoughts makes you feel bad about yourself. Because feeling bad about yourself will only cause your negative thoughts to multiply, which will, in turn, cause bad things to happen (if we believe such nonsense), which will in turn create more negative thoughts about yourself, in an endless loop of shame and self-fulfilling prophecy.

Much more important than thinking good thoughts is doing right action. As a human being living in this world that is full of other human beings and interacting with those other human human beings, your actions have far greater meaning and consequence than any thought you might have. And even if I am completely wrong about that, your actions are all that the people with whom you share the planet have to go on. If you are good to them, they will feel good. If you are bad to them, they will feel bad. What you think about them is your business. No one has to know.

Go ahead: Think whatever awful thoughts you want, just don't put those thoughts into action. Thoughts and feelings are fleeting phantoms, and absolutely powerless unless and until we act on them. Give them more power than that? They become either shame or magical thinking, depending on the nature of what happens to you.

Karma is in your actions. Action is karma. Karma is action. Understanding that thoughts are powerless until we act on them will set you free of shame and of magical thinking. It's one thing to wish me dead, it's another thing to kill me. If you wish me dead and I die, I promise you, you had nothing to do with my demise. You are hereby absolved of all guilt and all shame.

I don't have a perfect life and I can't say that I have all the answers. But I know that more than anything else, I am defined by my actions. And my owning that makes me accountable.

Not blameworthy. Accountable. Knowing the difference is a challenge. But right action does not require understanding of the difference.

Right action is all there is, ultimately.