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Procrastination, Determination, and Compassion
I've known people who go to a single meditation retreat and when they return home they start sitting an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening and keep it going for years. I was never one of these people and most people I know are not either. If sticking to resolutions comes easily, then perhaps you don’t need to read this article. As someone who is even procrastinating over writing an article about determination, I can only share what I’ve learned as someone who struggles with it.
Adhitthana (Pali, determination, resolution) the eighth of the 10 paramis (Pali, perfections). Determination is really a foundation to all the other paramis. Without determination we will not apply any of the teachings. And yet, there is wisdom in its being placed later in the list of paramis for it takes time to learn what things are worth our determination. Think of someone planning to get a promotion, to have an affair, or to obtain their next hit of heroin. They may be very determined, but that does not make it a spiritual perfection. Before we look deeply into our minds and our lives, we might choose to direct our determination in ways that don’t bring about liberation.
Fortunately, the Buddha offered a clear teaching on what types of determination are to be cultivated: “(a) wisdom (Pali: panna), (b) truth (Pali: sacca), (c) relinquishment (Pali: caga), (d) tranquility (Pali: upasama).”* When deciding what actions and intentions to pursue, simply ask if they will bring about wisdom, truth, relinquishment (of negative states of mind), or tranquility. It seems simple, but I’m often surprised how my impulses will override these intentions until questioned intentionally. It only takes a few mindful moments to practice this and the rewards are well worth it.
But even when we’ve clarified what is a beneficial to our liberation, simply saying, “just do it” isn't enough for most people, despite the millions of dollars poured into that phrase by Nike. After my first meditation retreat, I wanted to meditate every day. I kept up the practice for a few weeks and then it faded. I went to another retreat, practiced on my own for a while and again it faded. It took me five years to establish a daily meditation practice. While I often felt like a failure during those first years, the fact that I kept trying was its own form of determination. We will all fall short of our intentions from time to time. Cultivating the determination to begin again is the foundation to all other forms of determination. As Rainer Maria Rilke writes:
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly. **
Doing sitting meditation every day is a beautiful practice, but it’s not the only way to follow the teachings of the Buddha. Practicing the five precepts, I would argue, is even more important than sitting meditation, though they ideally go hand in hand. I was already a vegetarian before I came to the Buddha’s teachings and it was an easy decision for me. I couldn’t think of a dead animal without tearing up and I knew I could not kill an animal to eat it, so I stopped eating animals that other people killed for me to eat. Did this require determination? Yes, but it was a very gentle determination, like coasting down a hill on a bike. I just didn’t stop myself from doing something that fit me well. In the past I didn’t value this kind of determination, but now I see that we can’t get very far by fighting with ourselves. Violence will only bring more violence. Cultivating gentle, easeful determination is an important practice, no matter what today’s “no pain, no gain” society tells us.
Our capacity to follow through on resolve is also greatly determined by the environment. I can enjoy eating a very healthy, simple diet when I am far away from an ice cream stand. But when deserts are offered, repeatedly, it’s still very difficult to keep to a resolve of healthy eating. The Internet is also an easy distraction that takes up far more of my time than I’d like to give it. When I use the Internet in a common space, with windows and other people around, it’s much easier to be stay focused on what I intend to do online than when I’m alone in a space with no natural light. If you’re having trouble maintaining resolve, look to see what aspects of your environment are affecting you. This is not a sign of weakness. Rather, we must see conditions for what they are and accept them as they are. If certain environmental factors trigger habits that are stronger than our resolve, we first have to know and accept them before real change can take place. When possible, let your surroundings help you.
We can also let science help us. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (New Harbinger Publications 2009) and Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (Harmony 2013), writes that our brains are, “Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. . . . To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.”*** Knowing this, we can better understand that practices such as keeping a gratitude journal or saying a blessing before a meal are actually skillful means to help us imprint positive experiences in our minds that tend toward the negative. Understanding this, we can resolve to spend 15 seconds focusing on positive things like a sunset or catching the bus on time, and not just letting them slip by unnoticed. The determination to experience more joy is a worthwhile effort.
There is a myth that “real” determination is an individual effort. While this is true for some people, there is power to be found in harnessing the strength of our friendships and communities to grow our resolve. I have a habit of telling people what I’ve resolved to do because I feel more compelled to do it then. Others feel less motivated to stay the course when they've spoken their resolve, so they keep quiet. What works best for you? Experiment and use what you learn about yourself. I have friends who have meditation buddies to help themselves keep a daily practice—they call each other every morning to simply say, “Good morning, how are you? Have a good sit.” This strengthens their resolve as well as deepening their friendship. Finding an accountability buddy or discussion group to check in with every week or month on a topic you’re both working on is an incredible support. This goes beyond a sitting meditation group. I rely on others to help me with my growth and learning, even without formal teachers. I have friends that I show certain articles to for feedback before publication, a group at the monastery that practices compassionate communication together, and an online group that gathers twice a month to share how we’re unlearning and healing from racism on an individual and social level. Thinking that I could resolve to grow in these domains on my own is simply ignorant. Asking for support is a strength, not a weakness.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that I had been stuck in procrastination. Procrastination seems like the opposite of determination. One seems to waste time and energy while the other focuses it. What does it have to do with determination, you might ask. Well, we first need to understand procrastination to truly understand determination. Chronic procrastination can become a serious problem when rooted in lack of self-esteem and anxiety. Perfectionism, trying to attain unattainable goals, often leads to unhealthy procrastination. In this case, it's more beneficial to focus on other parami, such as generosity and virtue, to build up healthy self-esteem and faith in oneself. Otherwise, trying to cultivate determination and not meeting one’s goals can turn into a greater sense of failure and shame, which destroys our capacity for determination. But there is a healthy procrastination that is simply the body’s way to say, “Stop! Too much!” We can learn from procrastination, rather than judge ourselves as lazy. What I saw when I couldn’t get this article written last week was that I was tired from organizing a retreat (and teaching a writing workshop!) It wasn’t until I let myself rest and felt refreshed that suddenly I was able to write again, effortlessly. We have to come back to the Buddha’s four points of determination—wisdom, truth, relinquishment, and tranquility—when we’re not sure what is skillful or not. Sometimes mindfulness practice and cultivating the spiritual perfections shows us more deeply all the parts we don’t want to see in ourselves, like procrastination, perfectionism, and addiction. So we must also, and always, be determined to be compassionate. Adhitthana, the spiritual perfection of determination, comes from embracing the whole of our flawed and wondrous humanity.
* Digha Nikaya, 33 1.11(v 27). Translated by M. Walshe. 1995. Wiltshire: Pali Text Society, p. 492.
** Rainer Maria Rilke. 1996. Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. New York City: Riverhead Books, p. 117.