I put off what I don’t like doing, what I think will be difficult or complicated. There is an element of fear – I am afraid of failing or not being able to handle the task. There is a sense of dread and it’s like a big obstacle has been placed in my path and I can’t get around it, so I avoid even looking at it and fill my time with anything that will distract me.
This short article explores how Buddhist thinking can help prevent procrastination.
We can think of the mind as a mountain lake; deep under the water is crystal clear, peaceful and still. In Buddhism, this inner peace or contentment is the true cause of our happiness.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:
The real source of happiness is inner peace. If our mind is peaceful, we will be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions, but if it is disturbed or troubled in any way, we will never be happy, no matter how good our external conditions.
How to Transform Your Life, Page 8
We destroy this inner peace and contentment (our happiness) with our negative thoughts. Let’s say I have a tax return to fill in which I am procrastinating about because I hate filling them in. The moment I have negative thoughts about this, I start to create an internal monster that will stomp about in my mountain lake, creating a mind that is more like a stormy sea or a washing machine on spin cycle. In this moment my contentment and inner peace have gone, and I am left with an agitated mind. I have robbed myself of my happiness.
In Buddhism, the negative thoughts that we have about completing a task or doing something we don’t want to do are called deluded minds.
In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:
The first step towards changing our mind is to identify which states of mind produce happiness and which produce suffering. In Buddhism, states of mind that are conducive to peace and happiness are called `virtuous minds’, whereas those that disturb our peace and cause us suffering are called `delusions’. We have many different types of delusion, such as desirous attachment, anger, jealousy, pride, miserliness, and ignorance. These are known as `inner enemies’ because they are continually destroying our happiness from within. Their only function is to cause us harm.
Deluded thinking arises from “inappropriate attention” or thinking about something in a false way. It’s a distorted way of looking at something. Inappropriate attention is cultivated by letting our minds go on and on about it like a broken record. In the process of doing this, we allow our mind to develop a false story or narrative that builds the distorted thinking into something big and solid but totally unrealistic.
To illustrate this, I can use the story about my tax return. In my mind the form becomes a horrid thing, I hate it, I see it as making me unhappy, I see it as a difficult thing for me (because I have convinced myself that I am really bad at filling in forms and I always get them wrong). I fear I will get it so badly wrong I will have to do it all again. And so, the story goes on, building and getting bigger until it’s an obstacle in my mind that I can’t overcome.
If I was to really examine this narrative, I would see how distorted it is. The form or whatever the task is (the large ironing pile etc) cannot give me a gigantic dose of unhappiness. How I view this task – love it or hate it – is the critical thing. Some people love filling out forms or ironing, so their view is, “Oh great, I have a tax return to do”. This means that the hateful task is not intrinsically a horrid thing: it just depends on your view, the way you look at it.
“It will make me unhappy” should be changed to – I make myself unhappy by having negative thoughts about the task. These negative thoughts are like letting the monster stomp around in my mountain lake – it creates havoc and my mind is churned up and I am agitated and irritable.
We all have these monsters in our lake. We know they are lurking around in some murky depths. We are living under the influence of these unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they are there which is why we avoid them and distract ourselves with a million other things. Buddhist teachings invite us to identify our deluded thinking, our monsters, and invite them to show their faces. When we do this, we see that there is nothing to be fearful of and we can eventually laugh at our own creations and watch with amusement the different tactics they use to scare us.
Buddhist teachings are about getting to know our own mind, changing our thoughts and changing how we view things. This will enable us to make informed choices about which thoughts are helpful and which thoughts we want to get rid of. In addition to the teachings, meditation and mindfulness help us to train the mind so we can reduce and destroy of negative thinking and replace it with calm, positive thoughts that increase and maintain our inner peace. As soon as our thoughts change, everything changes.
If you would like to know more about training your mind and increasing your happiness, come along our centre for modern Buddhism at Thornby Hall.