Do or do not? Procrastination’s grip.

The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” that meant doing something against one’s better judgment. To put it another way, akrasia is a failure to do what one has intended to do and what one ought to do. Our modern word for this is procrastination.

Here are the things I do when I’m procrastinating about doing something else:

  • Check my email
  • Tell myself I can read one (just one!) chapter of a book
  • Call someone
  • Do some laundry
  • Do the crossword puzzle or Sudoko
  • Organize my desk

Here are some of the things that I should be doing instead:

  • Grading my students’ homework
  • Writing for this blog
  • Catching up on work projects
  • Scanning the documents that have been sitting in a box for 3 years

Why is it so hard to get started on these tasks? I know that I can’t really relax with the book or the puzzle while these other things are hovering in the background, yet even that unsettled feeling can’t always move me to begin.

Having just finished teaching a unit on time management to my students, I know that  researchers characterize people like me as either avoidance or arousal procrastinators. Avoidance procrastinators tend to be self-critical, often have a maladaptive sense of perfectionism, and possess irrational beliefs about the outcome that would result from actually doing the thing they avoid. Arousal procrastinators, on the other hand, claim to work best under pressure (which is usually not true) and seek the thrill that comes from doing things at the last minute.

I’m pretty sure that I’m an avoidance procrastinator, although I do have to admit that I get a little adrenaline rush when I’m working up against a deadline. We avoidance procrastinators often believe that unless our work is absolutely perfect and liked by everyone, our self-esteem will be threatened. On other tasks, we switch into avoidance mode because they require us to do something that is out of our comfort zone, and we question our ability to even accomplish them.2016-04-02 12.50.04

Those of us who struggle with procrastination could try jolting ourselves out of it with the Nike motto, “Just do it.” Or we could use Brian Tracy’s metaphor, “Eat That Frog!” which comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In other words, get the tough stuff done first and then it’s out of the way.

Those tricks might work for some of us some of the time, but it’s important to realize that procrastination isn’t just laziness or lack of willpower. For some people it can have lifelong consequences, such as an inability to make and achieve career or financial goals, a tendency to anxiety and depression, and poorer physical health. Fortunately, procrastination can be treated with cognitive behavior therapies such as REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). REBT asks you to imagine doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, and then predict and label the emotion that you would experience with it. It’s like a trial run for the real thing.

Practicing mindfulness might also help. A study done by Sirois and Tosti showed that higher mindfulness scores were associated with lower levels of procrastination and with more unconditional self-acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive that the present-moment awareness of mindfulness would be beneficial to procrastinators who already have difficulty being future-oriented and goal-directed. It’s true that many procrastinators are too focused on short-term pleasure and current rewards, but that’s not the same thing as mindfulness. When we practice mindful acceptance of our present experience, we can accept the discomfort of the difficult task and also generate more self-compassion while we do it.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

“When fear manifests, we want to have the seed of mindfulness also manifest to embrace it. So we have two energies present — the first is the energy of fear, and the second is the energy of mindfulness. The fear receives a bath of mindfulness and becomes a little bit weaker before it drops back down to  the depths of our consciousness in the form of a seed.”

Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.

Navigating a disturbance in the force

Ever since the first Star Wars movie burst into our cultural consciousness almost 40 years ago, its lexicon has become a part of our conversational lives. From the moment Obi-Wan uttered the line, “I felt a great disturbance in the force,” we understood that it was possible to feel shifts in the energy that “surrounds us” and binds us together. There’s no better metaphor for describing the unsettled feeling that arises when stress hits us and our homeostasis is threatened.

I’ve been experiencing just that kind of disturbance in the “force” for the past 6 weeks or so, ever since my son announced that he was moving across the country. While I’m happy for him and feel hopeful that he will be successful in his new life, I have many moments of anxiety about both the change and the process of getting there. In addition, my own home is experiencing upheaval as the things he wants to keep, but can’t take, somehow materialize here for storage. So I decided to look for some Star Wars wisdom to help me:

“Search your feelings.” (Palpatine) This seems like a good first step. Why exactly am I feeling anxious? Is it anticipation of loss? Is it fear of his failure? Fear of my failure? Do I not have enough trust? These are uncomfortable questions, but we can’t hide from emotions that make us squirm. It’s worth sitting a while with the discomfort to gain some clarity and see the path forward.

“Fear is the path to the dark side.” (Yoda) It’s very easy to slip into darkness and inertia when we let fear take over. I recognize that my own fears and anxieties don’t help my son, yodabut only make him more anxious. If I catastrophize about this move by engaging in negative self-talk about it, that can only hurt. Focusing on strengths and practicing positive self-talk will help dispel fear, and leads to:

“Your focus determines your reality.” (Qui-Gon Jinn) If we think only about what can go wrong, something probably will go wrong. If we can stay focused on positive outcomes, our actions will move us in that direction.

“Patience you must have..” More wise guidance from Yoda. Not only must I have patience with my son, who doesn’t always follow the path I want him for him, I must have patience with the process. Transitions take time, and frequently there are bumps in the road. Not everything is on my timetable. I will take a breath, and allow things to fall into place with time.

“Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.” (Obi-Wan) Or as we say in stress management, perspective is everything. Sometimes there is no universal truth, just different versions of the story. Can I shift my point of view about my son’s capabilities, about my role in his life at this point, about what is a good outcome? Can I be flexible enough to let go of beliefs that don’t serve me or him anymore?

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda) My naturally cautious son has suddenly adopted Yoda’s philosophy, and is just going to do this. He is letting go of fear and stepping off the diving board. As for me, there can be no “try” either when it comes to supporting him. I must just do it.

“Remember — the force will be with you always.” If we change the word “force” to “love”, this is the message I am left with. No matter what happens, I will always love my son and be here for him. I am cheering for him as he embarks on this journey, and ready to live with all the uncertainty that risks worth taking bring.

She rises still

I rose today and found out that Maya Angelou had died, but in her beautiful words I found inspiration and an intention for my days:

My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.

Maya Angelou wrote frequently about courage. She realized that it takes courage to love and be loved, it takes courage to express empathy, it takes courage to avoid making the same mistakes twice, and it takes courage to see ourselves for who we are. Like Aristotle, she thought that courage was “the most important of all virtues. Because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtues consistently.”

600full-maya-angelouWithout courage, it is difficult to have faith in the unseen and unknown; without courage, hope becomes a struggle; and without courage, it is nearly impossible to fight for justice. For most of us, courage is a word that we use to describe other people, not ourselves. We think that someone who is courageous faces danger all the time without any fear. But Maya Angelou seemed to know that being courageous is about embracing fear with resolution, and acting in spite of it. A courageous person has the self-possession that allows her to live life fully. Courage can be quiet too.

To be courageous is to accept risk and uncertainty. In the absence of such courage, we often resist, as Sally Kempton says, “not only life’s difficulties but also life’s potential sweetness.” We deny ourselves the pleasure of opening to love or to personal growth because it might upset the delicate balance of life as we know it.  But Maya Angelou was not afraid to disturb or to change. She experienced abuse, poverty and segregation, and still embodied hope, faith and courage. She was a dancer, poet, author, actor, mother, and activist. She was not caged by any label, any role or any experience.

How do we become courageous? Eleanor Roosevelt said that, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.” We become brave by practicing courage one day at a time; by saying “Yes, I can”; by letting go of fear, and moving toward love.

Wobbling toward trust

Bob Dylan sang, “Trust yourself …If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.” Somehow I think he must have known just how much many of us need to hear that.

Reckless personWhen I wobble in tree pose, or can’t bring myself into a headstand in yoga, it’s not just equilibrium or core strength holding me back – it’s lack of trust in my ability to do it. When the anxiety over my recent move took hold of me, it wasn’t because anything was going wrong — it was my failure to trust myself and my strength. When I worry about one of my kids doing something new, it’s not so much about them, but about me not trusting that I taught them well.

According to Psychology Today, not trusting ourselves often evolves out of being hurt by someone or something we trusted. We become afraid to trust anyone again, and we start to question our judgment. From there, faith in our selves begins to dwindle. So how do we rebuild trust in our own abilities, capacities and judgment?

The magazine offers this simple somatic exercise as a first step to restoring trust in yourself:

“Sit or lie down so that you are comfortable and in a safe place.
Now, how can you make it even more comfortable? Get a blanket, a pillow… whatever will make you feel relaxed and content.
Once you are settled, ask yourself: “How do I know this is comfortable?” This might appear to be a silly question, and perhaps even confusing. However, it is an important one in increasing your skills of building trust.
Continue to explore what sensation you feel that you recognize as comfort. For example, you might think, “I do not feel any pain,” “I breath easily,” or “I feel relaxed.”
You might be anticipating that this feeling won’t last, which is true. We can’t control or grasp on to this pleasurable feeling. It’s only important that you are in the present moment right now, not drifting into thoughts of the future or the past. Thinking of the future can create anxiety; thinking of the past can create depression.
Remain aware of any sounds, the temperature, the light, and your physical sensations. Can you let yourself simply enjoy the moment?
You can practice this exercise for as long as you prefer and as time allows you. Just keep checking in with your level of comfort. What feelings indicate that you are comfortable? With time, you may start to trust your feelings again.”

When we were babies, we learned to trust when our needs for food, safety, warmth and love were satisfied. This exercise takes us back to those basics. If I believe that this warm, comfy feeling I’m experiencing right now is real, then I can have faith that it will come again and I will be able to recognize it.

Great Ocean Road_23.1The other thing worth noting about this exercise is that it is very much focused on present-moment awareness. If we think about trust as the flip side of fear, then the inability to trust is all about fear of what the next moment, or the one after, might bring. By staying focused on the present, we only have to trust what we are experiencing in this moment.

Life is full of surprises, dangers, joys, hurts, disappointment, elation, boredom, passion. In order to have the good with the bad, we need to worry less about what’s around the corner and focus more on everything that is absolutely right, right now. As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, we should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?”

Letting go of fear

Does Cory Booker practice yoga? I wonder because the Newark, NJ mayor was speaking the language of yoga in an interview with the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne a few days ago. Discussing violence and crime prevention, he said, “Fear is a toxic state of being. You’ve got to lead with love.”

At its essence, the word yoga means to yoke, join or unite. It strikes me that Booker is speaking that language when he says that love can unite people when it replaces the fear that’s at the heart of so much of our distrust of each other. Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig says that in order to meet challenges, we need to “let go of fear and move back into a place of love.” I think they are saying the same thing.

Stress often comes from being unfamiliar with a person, place or experience. That fear of the unknown often manifests itself by us labeling someone or something as “other”, as different from ourselves. By focusing on differences we harden ourselves to feeling any compassion for the other, and we rationalize conflict and dislike. We use otherness as an excuse for our feelings about people of different nationalities, religions, races, political parties, social groups, or abilities. It makes it easier to ignore the paths that might lead to understanding.

Cory Booker’s interview covered a lot of topics, but he was talking in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. While there’s a lot we’ll never know about that tragic evening, we can be pretty sure that it started when one person saw another and labeled him as “other”.  It started with fear and distrust.

I’ve written here before about the “Just Like Me” meditation developed by Chade-Meng Tan. Combined with a loving kindness meditation, it becomes a powerful process for tearing down those feelings of otherness. The heart of it is acknowledging that the other person has the same needs and desires for health, happiness and love that you have.

As Meng says, “There are three premises behind this practice. The first is that when we perceive somebody as being similar to ourselves (“just like me”), we become much more likely to feel and act positively towards that person. The second is that kind and loving thoughts towards another can be generated volitionally. The third premise is that mental habits can be formed with practice, so if we spend time and effort creating thoughts of similarity-to-others and loving kindness, over time, these thoughts get generated habitually and effortlessly…”

circleIt takes practice to get to the point where we react with love and kindness first. But isn’t it worth the effort? The “Just Like Me” meditation is a tool for finding our common ground, our humanity. President Obama said last week that, “we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.” That circle starts with compassion for self, then widens out to families, friends, to neighbors, communities, and eventually encompasses the stranger, the “other”, even perhaps an enemy, by admitting the truth that they are “just like me.”