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.”

First, do no harm

To reflect upon our true nature is one of the purposes of the five “yamas” in yoga, the ethical and moral codes that are at the center of the practice. In English they are nonharming, truthfulness, generosity, balance and moderation, and abundance. At the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday, I saw the yamas — and our true nature — on magnificent display. 2017-01-21-09-34-09

People of all ages, races, and backgrounds joined together with one purpose — to say “no” to the policies and mean-spiritedness of the new administration, and to say “yes” to love, inclusiveness and prosperity for all. While everyone came to the march with strong feelings and determination, there was still a joyfulness in the air. It was a relief to hear leaders speak the truth, and energizing to be surrounded by such an abundance of passion. There was no violence, there was a balance between pro and anti messages, and I saw uncountable examples of generosity and kindness among strangers. 2017-01-21-14-43-15

Going forward, though, the most difficult yama to practice could well be nonharming, because it means more than just physical nonviolence toward others. Stephen Cope says that the yamas “are really about restraining behaviors that are motivated by grasping, aversion, hatred and delusion.” So when we practice nonviolence (ahimsa) it means we have to monitor our negative thoughts, which can be a form of violence. We have to let go of hostility, and invite peace into our hearts and minds.  2017-01-21-09-13-08

Yoga Journal has some suggested asana (postures) for cultivating ahimsa. They include warrior poses, which might sound counterintuitive, but the challenge is to use our “warrior” energy with virtue. If you have ever done a warrior sequence in a yoga class, you may remember flowing from Warrior 1 to Warrior 2, to reverse Warrior, and perhaps Warrior 3. The sequence is done slowly and with grace, so that it becomes thoughtful, intentional and nonharming.

Can we bring the strength and quiet grace of the warrior to the long task ahead of us now? Thich Nhat Hanh says:

“Many people…know what needs to be done, and they engage in political, social, and environmental work to try to change things. But after a period of intense involvement, they may become discouraged if they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. Real strength is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep, inner peace.

“Practicing mindfulness in each moment of our daily lives, we can cultivate our own peace. With clarity, determination, and patience — the fruits of meditation — we can sustain a life of action and be real instruments of peace. I have seen this peace in people of various religious and cultural backgrounds who spend their time and energy protecting the weak, struggling for social justice, lessening the disparity between rich and poor, stopping the arms race, fighting against discrimination, and watering the trees of love and understanding throughout the world.”

If we are to be warriors for preserving the ideals of our democracy, we need to be mindful about treating ourselves and others with ahimsa. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, ahimsa toward self means that you recognize your limits and don’t push yourself beyond the point of well-being.  “You can start practicing ahimsa’s gentleness on yourself,” before turning it toward others. Expect to be challenged by ahimsa, he says. “It is easy to relate with ahimsa to someone who doesn’t threaten you. The test is in how you will relate to a person or situation when you do feel threatened.”

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.

Six ways to tend your emotional garden

Emotional wellbeing depends on regular nourishment, not unlike a flower or vegetable garden you cultivate. While vacations, sabbaticals and spa days are great, they’re the emotional equivalent of trying to maintain a garden just on the weekends or at the change of season — things might look okay, but they’re not thriving spectacularly with just that level of care. Most of us require more routine weeding and watering to maintain a high level of emotional wellness.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that our consciousness exists as seeds and as the manifestation of those seeds. We may have seeds of happiness, seeds of anger, seeds of sadness. But it’s the ones we “water” that manifest, and when they manifest they plant more seeds like themselves. Whatever is manifested the most takes up more space in the garden. Do you want it to be weeds or flowers?2016-07-21 16.59.10

You plant seeds during your own life, and also may have inherited seeds from previous generations. You may have a legacy of sadness or anxiety in your family, as well as seeds of joy or peace. Because of this blend of both inherited tendencies, and personal ones, the actions we take make a difference. Can you live in a way that will nurture the positive, healthy seeds rather than the negative ones?

People often overseed their lawns in the fall, so that new grass will come up in the spring and crowd out the weeds. So should we look for ways to overseed with the more positive emotional states that we desire, or as  Thich Nhat Hanh says, build “a strong storehouse of healthy seeds” to help us during times of trouble. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Have a place (a sort of safe space) that you go to regularly to re-generate. A special room in your home, a park, a church, a meditation space. I often regard the yoga studio this way – someplace where the outside world does not intrude, and the surroundings are peaceful.
  • If you are lucky, you’ll have at least one person in your life that you can confide in without judgment or recrimination. Sometimes we need to express things that are painful, shocking, or even hateful. Just because you have nasty emotions sometimes doesn’t make you a nasty person. It helps to have a space where you can rid yourself of these weeds.
  • If you don’t have such a person, or even if you do, you can also engage in expressive writing for health. Writing your story, for your eyes only, can be very healing. There’s some recent research from John Evans showing positive benefits.
  • Practice acts of kindness toward others. Seeing yourself in the eyes of someone you help or treat with love, feeling their gratitude, will scatter more seeds of love and kindness in your life and the lives of those around you.
  • And as for those around you, to the extent possible, surround yourself with people who are positive and loving. Yesterday, when I started to write this, I got a call from a friend who is one of the friendliest, most positive people I know. We made a plan to meet later in the week. When the call was ending, she said, “You’ve made my day!” but I was thinking, “No, you made my day.”
  • Practice living more mindfully and being present to the people and opportunities around you. Even when you are with loving friends and family, it’s important to be with them mindfully. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to “practice full awareness in each precious moment” you are together, so that your friend isn’t just “ameliorating your suffering” but also planting a strong image in your mind that you can call upon to sustain you later on when you are not with her.

These practices become even more important when we are surrounded by so much turmoil 4-Co. Kerry-Killarney NP (10)and angry rhetoric in our world. The volume of that discourse could easily fertilize the seeds of anger, hate and misunderstanding within us if we let it. Change has to begin within each one of us, planting seeds of love instead. Remember Gandhi’s words, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”

 

Don’t hit send (yet)

To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, experience isn’t what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us. We have a choice about how to relate to any given situation, but oh, the choices we make! Too often they are knee-jerk reactions to events rather than responses that are the result of any real thought process.

How recently have you sent an email or text that you almost immediately regretted? It’s so easy and quick to react and hit ‘send’. But then the second thoughts arrive, or worse, the other person’s angry answer. And so we get caught up in a cycle of reflexive reaction that often makes honest, productive communication difficult to achieve.Email send

I currently have to work with someone whom I find very difficult. Unfortunately, email, with its inherent weaknesses, is the usual way we do business. This person seems (to me) to be overly sensitive, easily stressed, inattentive, and often very reactive. Sometimes I will send what feels like a very straightforward, innocuous message to this person, and get something back that just makes me want to scream. In the past, my instinct would have been to reply with some sort of snarky, hostile email. Now I am learning to wait a while before replying so that I can practice responding instead of reacting.

Responses are logical where reactions are emotional. Responses relate to the current situation as it is, while reactions tend to have some emotional associations to the past. Responses are thoughtful, reactions instinctual. Parent coach Nicole Schwarz recommends meeting “emotionally-charged behavior” not with criticism or judgment, but with observing and questioning. Richard Blonna has a list of  responding skills, including using “I” language, saying “tell me more”, paraphrasing, and reflecting back what the other person has said. These all have a way of defusing an emotionally-charged or angry situation.

The basis for responding rather than reacting is the cultivation of equanimity, being able to meet people and situations with tranquility, open-heartedness and acceptance. This is especially important when dealing with things that are out of our control, such as other people’s actions. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes,

The path of entering and blending in moments when you feel attacked or threatened in some way obviously involves taking certain risks, since you can’t know what the protagonist will do next nor how you will respond. But if you are committed to meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as possible, and with a sense of your own integrity and balance, fresh and imaginative solutions that might lead to a new level of understanding and greater harmony often come to mind…

Kabat-Zinn suggests that we apply this attitude even when we text or email. Be “in your body as you use your devices, …  thus being in the present moment…construct texts mindfully, with full awareness of what you are doing. If you are responding to tons of email, …pace yourself…” We can tell whether we are responding effectively by the feelings that result. Do you feel balanced and relaxed, or angry, fearful and imbalanced? Olpin & Hesson say that “Responding ineffectively leads to a chaotic inner environment.” Responding effectively can lead to feelings of growth, and potentially better relationships.

Sydney_147It’s not easy to compose each text and email as if we were sitting down with a pen, paper, and all the time in the world. The world around us insists that we rush and multi-task, that everything we own have multiple functions, that every thought and emotion be shared. Can we resist just a little? Take a breath, and decide, “I don’t need to say what I’m thinking right this moment. I can do better than that. I can be better than that.”

 

Got troubles? Don’t chew them over.

Ruminant animals, such as cows, are known for “chewing their cud” over and over before digesting it. It’s a process that enables them to get maximum nutrients from plant-based foods — they ferment the food in a special stomach, regurgitate it and chew it again. The rechewing allows them to break it down and digest it more easily. It’s easy to see the parallels with the way we humans sometimes think about an unpleasant event over and over and over again in an attempt to process it — in fact, we have a word for that, rumination.

cow chewingUnfortunately, we probably aren’t getting any beneficial nutrients from our rumination process. In fact, when someone tends to chew things over, and also has a pessimistic explanatory style, they are more prone to depression. Such nonstop rumination with no positive action statements not only fuels depression, but has been shown to extend the cortisol release that happens during stress.

Most of the time, I do a good job of keeping myself from rumination (some research does show that women are more likely to ruminate than men are). I’m a pretty positive thinker, I have a lot of distractions to keep me busy and I’m usually good about expressing my feelings to others. Lately, however, I’ve found myself engaging more in rumination after some stressful interactions, getting caught up in a kind of circle game with the same thoughts going round and round in my head. So I’m turning to the experts to help me get back on track.

Martin Seligman has several skills that he recommends for ruminators. Thought stopping is the first one. Literally say, or even yell, “Stop!” You can write it on a card to remind you, or ring a bell — anything to shift your attention away from the recurring thoughts. Because it is the nature of rumination to circle around in the mind, you can even schedule another time to think about it. The purpose of these thoughts is to remind you of the event, so sometimes writing down the thoughts helps too. If they are written down, you no longer need the mental reminder, and you can stop thinking about them.

The use of expressive writing about the stressful event may also be useful. The important thing is that the writing can’t just be ruminative, a regurgitation of the events. It has to be turned into a story, attached to feelings, and ideally, reveal insights into the situation that might move you forward. What are the emotions and feelings that surround the story? Fear, guilt, regret, anger? The RULER method teaches us to recognize, understand, label, express and finally, regulate emotions. Writing about the troubling event can be a healing part of that process because it is an opportunity to take the first four steps (RULE) and attach them to the story.

Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. One that was published in 2008 (Chambers, et. al) showed that after a 10-day intensive mindfulness program, participants demonstrated reduced rumination, fewer depressive symptoms and more working memory capacity. Since mindfulness is all about staying in the present moment, this makes sense — it’s hard to think about a past event while staying present. If the unwelcome thoughts come up during mindfulness practice, we learn to just observe them, without judgment, and let them go.

Ultimately, rumination is a desire to control an event that is out of our control — either because it has already happened or it involves other people’s actions, not ours. We all wish we could have do-overs, or make other people do what we want. The techniques that I’ve mentioned here help to distract, heal and re-focus from what is out of our control. Eventually, we may learn to surrender to what is, accept the reality of it, go with the flow, and trust the universe to make it right.

Do you know the lonely one?

The front page story yesterday about how loneliness is “lethal” would lead you to think that we just discovered it. The fact is that scientists have known for some time that loneliness and social isolation put people at higher risk for heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. What’s new in the past couple of months is that studies of the genome are yielding information on the specific mechanisms that make it happen.

Because social cohesiveness and cooperation were vitally important in early human history, the brain is rigged to see a lack of strong ties as a signal of danger. Just like any other kind of stressor, that signal puts the body on the alert, even down to the cellular level. In studies of both humans and macaque monkeys, researchers have discovered that social isolation leads to specific genetic changes that turn up inflammatory processes in the body and turn down the production of antibodies against viruses and other pathogens. These genomic adaptations are linked to human evolution, designed for our survival, and are closely related to the body’s stress response.

This heightened fight-or-flight response, activated on a chronic basis, results in increased inflammation and a reduced immune response, leading to significant long-term damage. The mechanism is observed in both directions: a change in gene expression predicts future loneliness, and loneliness predicts future gene expression. In older adults, perceived loneliness leads to an increase of 14% in premature deaths.

Sydney_142It’s worth mentioning that loneliness is not the same as being alone. What matters is whether someone feels connected, and feels satisfied with the connections he or she has. Plenty of people (myself included) relish some solitude on a pretty frequent basis, but that doesn’t equate to loneliness or isolation.

While we often focus on the elderly being socially isolated, loneliness can strike anyone, from the bullied schoolchild to the working adult with social anxiety. In the book “Fear”, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about original fear and original desire. He says original fear started at birth when we were pushed, helpless, out into the world, unsure whether anyone would take care of us. That fear “was born along with the desire to survive. This is original desire.” Original fear and original desire stay with us as we grow, especially the fear that no one will love and care for us. To me, loneliness is one manifestation of that fear.

You may be reading this and thinking, “I’m not lonely – I don’t need to worry about this.” There’s a bigger picture, however, that might concern you. Analysis of social networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler has shown that loneliness (like obesity, quitting smoking and other habits and trends) is contagious. So the more time that people in your social network, even those on the fringes of it, spend feeling isolated, the more likely it is to spread to others in the network. Over time, there’s a possibility that more of us start experiencing those feelings.

In a world where connection is constant, but often feels unsatisfying, how can we feel less lonely? How can we help others who are lonely? Forced togetherness is not the answer. Interestingly, some research has shown that a mindfulness based stress reduction program is more successful than social networking or community programs are at reducing feelings of loneliness in the elderly. MBSR has also been shown to turn down the pro-inflammatory processes in the body. The focus on present moment may be guiding attention away from the fear of being alone.

Christakis has said that when you help “the people on the margins of the network, you help not only them but help stabilize the whole network.” It would be wise to consider how we can do more to reach those people and offer them positive social connections. Maybe we can light up the network with love rather than fear.Lights