Procrastination IS suffering, mental suffering. I use it as an example to confirm the Buddha’s most misunderstood ‘mantra’, i.e, that life is ‘suffering’, meaning that life is replete with discomfort, to put it mildly. He gave us the good news in the Four Noble Truth, paraphrasing: there is procrastination, the origin of procrastination, the cessation of it and the path leading to the cessation of procrastination.
This is how I understand and how I am applying sutra 19, I hope it makes sense to you. If you are new to Buddhism, reading the very first sutra in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya) will give you a real taste of what the Buddha was about. Your comments are welcome, especially if there was any part you considered useful. I apologize for my English grammar.
My procrastination in action
(a)The movie screen technique
Cravings are a pain in the mind
Easy to follow exercises
Intention, effort and will power required
Two kinds of thoughts
Darling, there is no ‘me’ without ‘you’
The inclination of the mind
The Buddha’s teachings consistently link a ‘clean’ (as opposed to a dirty) state of mind to the ability to concentrate and or meditate. Thoughts of sensual desire and other “unwholesome” thoughts (those which cause you to act in ways that will bring suffering to yourself, to others or both, e.g., planning revenge, dwelling on hatred towards someone, planning that trip to the casino with rent money…) distract the mind, making it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on the task at hand. The person has to then spend inordinate amount of time and mental energy fending off the results of those ‘inefficient’ actions.
It all comes down to the unruly mind.
So, that would be my ‘origin of procrastination’. The first task is to acknowledge those thoughts as part of my daily and routine cognitive process, which means learning to control my mind, mental process. Mindfulness is the best tool.
I apply the first paragraph to my (in)ability to finish my daily activities. I concluded: thoughts of sensual desires and ‘unwholesome thoughts’ DO intrude in my mind while I’m doing something; they lead me to PROCRASTINATION because they are not ‘harmless’ thoughts: they are pregnant with emotions that, like a knee-jerk reflect, make me try to avoid them by avoiding the activity I’m in at that precise moment when the thought surfaced, and make me look for the opposite feeling: instant gratification by stopping the activity and doing something more pleasurable.
Our concentration during physical activities and daily work is constantly being interrupted by thoughts, when we are alone and even during conversation with people. I look at what type of thoughts are interrupting me at that particular moment when I practice mindfulness (it can be done as mental ‘multi-tasking’ even while talking to a person). In my case, I hate doing the dishes, and before or right when I start doing them, these thoughts intrude in my mind, because I have not developed control over my thought process, and I stop doing them. But now I’m practicing mindfulness while doing the dishes.
The Movie Screen Technique
Then, I try to avoid emotional involvement with them as I observe them, just look at them, observe them as if flashing through a movie screen, without judgement and not taking them personally. I ‘see’ them as happening to Angelina Jollie or Brat Pitt in order to detach emotionally from them, and I do not allow them to interrupt my process of cleaning the dish I have in the hand. I continue doing the dish, aware that a thought interrupted me, and aware that I’m processing the thought together with the dish.
This is a form of Mindfulness. One has to cut the mental process in discrete pieces, don’t be overwhelmed by the whole process itself, for short moments.
I can feel reliving the old emotions accompanying those intrusive thoughts (for example, a scolding when I was a child, an embarrassing moment, etc). The task is to separate from the emotion, see it as emoting for something ‘dead‘, something that is in the past, acknowledge it and move on. But…
Mental Chatting is Cognitive Process
Those thoughts also represent the mental states one falls into as they stream through our mind. They have an effect on our mental states; we seldom recognize those state of minds (depression, anxiety, joy, anger, etc) as produced or linked to those free-wheeling thoughts. I just take the feeling (anger) and run with it, so to speak, as if the person in the memory who made me feel anger was doing it again right then and there in the kitchen. Now I have to deal with the emotion from an incorrect perception. It’s a memory I have given the power to live and hurt me. I stop doing the dishes and go for ‘distraction’ in the form of self gratification. I forgot it was just a streaming thought.
Those thoughts are the inevitable stream of consciousness, the persistent and unstoppable mental chatting, avoided only during meditation sessions.
So, be aware that the mental chatting is part of our daily living, it can’t be ignored. It is that chatting which we must learn to control. It unfailingly interrupts our concentration (at work or anywhere) with painful memories (by free association or not) of misfortune or of joys long gone; with the intrusion of shaky plans we are concocting – consciously or not – to how to shine at work over some coworker, or how to get that woman to like me enough to want to come to bed with me…Basically, is the chatting to plan how to satisfy the the never-ending craving for delightful feelings, or planning to avoid negative states of mind.
So, there is your origin of procrastination, it’s all in the mind. That’s why learning the technique of mindfulness can help in coping with it. The rest of the post, while long, has my understanding of the Buddha’s recommendation for controlling the mind. Consider studying it from the Majjhima Nikaya, The Middle-length Discourses.
You may want to keep in mind this Buddha’s description (sutra 18 The Honeyball) of how our process of cognition works. Let’s start with the visual sense, then you can apply it to each sense organ:
Dependent on the eyes and object of perception, eye-consciousness arises > the meeting of the three (eye, object, eye-consciousness) is contact > with contact as condition there is feeling > what one feels, one perceives > what one perceives, that one thinks about > what one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates> with what one has mentally proliferated as the source, perceptions and notions tinged by mental proliferation beset a person with respect to past, future, and present forms (objects) cognizable through the eye.
He then explains that if you don’t hold to, delight in, or welcome those tinged perceptions and notions, you are not going to be tormented by lust, by our tendency to aversion, to conceit and its many ego problems. Brawls and wars are prevented by this mental attitude of not holding to tinged perceptions; and, says me, you can finish your daily tasks without procrastination because you can recognize the kind of thought besieging you and put it aside.
Let’s see if it can be applied.
The delight in sensual pleasures consist in the not wanting or needing anymore after satiating the cravings arisen by them. That fancy cup you bought with the Versace logo for $75 bucks is nothing but an object – and definitely not worth $75 bucks, you were had. Its value is in the CALMING down of that craving and wanting stimulated when your eyes made contact with that object in the window. That craving was not there a second ago, it was STIMULATED by your senses, the visual in this example. The experience linked to many unconscious memories, old and recent, and to desires only you could recognize, ’cause they are particular to you. And those delights are ALWAYS covered in the honey of conceit: that cup represents my social status, above yours, I’m better than you. Buying that cup is a boasting behavior without words.
Craving and wanting are like a persistent itch that doesn’t go away with 10 bottles of cortisone. Only submitting to the craving can satisfy it. We ‘desire’ in order to not-desire any more. They are the producers of karma, actions that bring good or bad consequences to self and or others. (I’m not talking about after life karma, only about consequences in this life.)
From there, I guess, the Buddha’s constant admonition that, to progress in your meditative goals, one has to be…
“secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states…”
The Buddhist concept of ‘renunciation’ comes from that. It is a conscious choice made to prepare the mind for the experience of the power of the Buddhist psychology. But you don’t have to renounce everything, just be MINDFUL of it.
Back to the sutra. I found that I don’t have to be a full-blown Buddha to do the exercises described in this Sutra 19 (Two kinds of thoughts). The Buddha was kind enough in this Sutra to hint about that to the monks (Bhikkhus). He told them that he practiced them “before” he reached enlightenment.
“Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta…”
“I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will, and thoughts of non-cruelty.”
This seems easy. This is like a table or list he made in his mind to ‘classify’, so to speak, on either column whatever thought crossed his mind. But, hey, there ARE requirements before sitting to do this.
“As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and reolute…”
Right from the beginning, it is clear that I must TRULY be motivated to do this because those three states (diligent, ardent and resolute) are not superficial states of mind, mind you. A lot of mental energy is required for that.
Clearly, the message is that as long as we are actively obsessing with things like work, buying, planning that trip and polishing our egos, we will learn crap out of this effort. And if you are happy satisfying those cravings, you are not reading this post. Buddhism is for people unhappy with personal and social suffering. I don’t expect Bill Gates’ sufferings to be the kind that would prompt him to ‘renounce’ any of the things he has acquire through the years.
The two thoughts are:
- thoughts related to sensual desires and some of their negative social concomitants – cruelty and ill will, and
- thoughts of renunciation of those in #1.This is not about your simple desires, those which have no impact on others, like, I don’t know, buying from the guy in the traffic selling iced water. Is more about desires and thoughts that bring bad karma: thoughts with intent, with conceit behind them; thoughts morally wrong because they intentionally hurt the self or others.
Recognizing, mindful of those thoughts:
“As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of sensual desire arose in me. I understood thus: This thought of sensual desire [of cruelty, of ill will] has risen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nirvana.
[practicing renunciation starts here:] When I considered: “This leads to my own affliction”, it subsided in me; when I considered: “this leads to the affliction of others”, it subsided in me; when I considered: “this leads to the affliction of both”, it subsided in me; when I considered: “This obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nirvana”, it subsided in me. [this is renunciation in action:] Whenever a thought of sensual desire [cruelty, ill will] arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it.”
As you can see, the Buddha was not a selfish s.o.b. nor was he teaching us to be selfish in our mental development. He considered his affliction and that of others separately, and then both together. He taught that the human mind thinks in terms of duality and that the fate of “me” and “others” are linked together. I guess this is the part of Buddhism that the libertarians hate.
Catching a thought or feeling in mid fly in my mind and stopping it so that I don’t mindlessly act on it requires will power, intention and mindfulness; and yet, it is enough to prove the efficacy of the exercise.
Sure, it requires practice. But, now I can do it at least 10 times a day (10 seconds out of 24 hours) because I know it helps me in reducing negative thoughts and procrastination. It’s not all day, nor even every day that one can do this exercise. The mind is too lazy, it takes training it.
So, why does it work? I’m sure that today’s psychologists could come with some half-ass explanation, but the Buddha figured it out over 2k years ago.
“whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.”
Consistent with our tendency to think in duality, the human mind can’t have two opposing thoughts at the same time, unless one’s mind needs to be taken to the garage for maintenance. If you are thinking about gratifying some sensual desires, you have, in fact, abandoned the thoughts of renunciation at that exact moment to cultivate the thoughts of sensual desire. And your mind will be inclined to follow those thoughts and, maybe, act on them.
That’s all you have to keep in mind to practice this technique:
- recognize a thought as either sensual (and of cruelty, ill will or other negative social consequences for you and others), or as a thought of renunciation ( ‘I will not entertain such an ugly thought‘).
- remember that your mind will be inclined to that particular thought, good or bad one. You could imagine what karma you will derive from it and decide if it deserves to be given any more energy or allow it to hatch, the thought. If you are thinking about good deeds and renunciation, towards that is where you mind will lead your behaviors.
You know it works if you can recognize a craving or wanting in the ‘fly’ and stop yourself from acting on it. This will be a life-long commitment, but once you accept its usefulness, it becomes easier to practice. And more important: you will want to practice it.