April 6, 2004

Facing the Demons of Inaction: Morita Therapy as a Resource for Moving Forward

by Gregg Krech

(An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Experience Life Magazine.)
ToDo Institute: Facing the Demons of Inaction

When I was 22 years old I moved into a freshly painted one bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. It was my first "solo" experience -- no roommates, no dog, no parents, no siblings. I could leave my dirty socks on the dining room table and stay up late playing my guitar. I reveled in the freedom of my solitude. About three weeks later, I was making myself dinner when I realized that I was completely out of dishes -- all the plates and bowls were piled in the sink and had been waiting patiently, for quite some time, to be washed. So I did what any self-respecting young bachelor would do and raced over to the convenience store to buy paper plates.

Why those dishes hadn't been washed is a bit mysterious given the well-functioning dishwasher that occupied a small space under the counter not far from the sink. I never did figure out how to get the dishwasher to reach over, grab the dishes, turn itself on and stack the plates neatly in the overhead cabinet. My role in the process, while essential, was limited. It didn't require great strength or intelligence. The task was not particularly complex. The time required was minimal. So what kept me from taking action -- from doing what needed to be done?

Ten years later I discovered the work of a Japanese psychiatrist that provided more than just insight into my struggles with procrastination. His work offered me a set of practical strategies for moving forward and taking action even when I didn't feel like it.

Shoma Morita, M.D. (1874-1938) developed a model of psychology no known as Morita Therapy. Rooted in Zen and borrowing from an Eastern world view it is a stark contrast to the European-based mental health models we have become familiar with -- approaches developed by Freud, Jung or Carl Rogers.

Patient: "I can't seem to get myself to wash my dirty dishes."
(Long pause)
Therapist: "So what I hear you saying is that you have a lot of dirty dishes sitting in the sink."
Patient: "Uhh... that's right."
Therapist (looking pensive): "I see. How does that make you feel?"

One of the main tenets of Morita Therapy is that our internal experience (feelings and thoughts) is basically uncontrollable by our will. If we feel anxious about going for a job interview we can't necessarily make ourselves feel relaxed and confident. If we experience doing our income taxes as frustrating and tedious, we can't just snap our fingers and suddenly find the task satisfying and exciting. Most of the reasons for procrastination have to do with "internal barriers," like fear, anxiety, indecision, perfectionism, etc. I call these barriers the Demons of Inaction. Traditional therapies generally suggest that you must conquer such demons through various strategies such as insight, self-talk, motivation, or increased self-esteem. But Morita Therapy offers a set of tools that is less about conquering and more about co-existing with. Rather than vanquishing your anxiety about the job interview, you simply take your anxiety along for the ride. Western therapy suggests that we must exorcize these demons before we can take action. Morita therapy recommends that we accept their presence, as unpleasant as that may be, and move forward anyway. If you can learn to do this, the demons lose much of their power and many of the causes of our inaction naturally dissolve into constructive effort.

Don't Fight with Fear

One of the most common obstacles to getting things done is fear. Strong feelings bubble up inside us. Our body tenses up. We begin to imagine the road up ahead -- failure, embarrassment, rejection, discomfort, pain, even death. In the face of fear we may find ourselves "frozen" in an iceberg of inaction.

But fear is not necessarily our enemy, although it feels that way. Fear can make us think twice about risky behavior. It can warn us to tread cautiously. It can remind us there are consequences we'd rather avoid. A surge of fear may prompt us in a healthy direction, in spite of the fact that it is disruptive to our inner harmony. Several people I know have made dramatic and instantaneous changes in their diet and exercise regime after they had a heart attack. Fear can be an effective, if not gentle, personal coach.

But sometimes fear arises when we are not in imminent danger at all. We're moving forward towards our dreams. We're taking action that involves risk -- yet all action involves some risk (even inaction involves risk). How do we stay on course when fear is making our hearts pound and our palms sweat? How do we keep fear from preventing us from doing what is important to do?

We learn the skill of coexisting with fear.

The best strategy for coping with fear is to accept it. Don't try to fight it, work through it, understand it, or conquer it. Acceptance. The Japanese use the term arugamama to describe the state of "accepting things as they are." Many forms of martial arts use a similar philosophy. Rather than taking on your opponent directly, you use the energy of your opponent against him. That's why a 120-pound woman can throw a 200-pound man. We defeat fear by refusing to fight it -- by refusing to give it our attention. Instead, the effort goes into the task at hand, whether it be changing careers or jumping into a new relationship.

What is the secret of mastering this strategy for coping with fear? Practice.

Working with fear is a skill. What are some of the skills you've acquired in your lifetime -- typing, driving a car, yoga, music. Competence requires practice. When you first tried to drive a car with a manual transmission, how many times did you jolt the car forward as you let out the clutch too fast? But with practice, you learned to do it smoothly, naturally. Mental health skills require the same regimen. Skill development comes from practice and practice requires effort.

So you learn to cope with fear by the practice of coping with fear.

Each time you move forward and take constructive action while coexisting with fear you get better at it. And over time, the effort becomes more natural and a bit easier. So the next time you find fear standing in between you and your goal -- don't fight, don't freeze, just walk around this demon and keep moving forward.

Taking on Perfectionism

Once you've succeeded in getting past fear, you'll find a similar strategy works with related demons: shyness, anxiety, boredom, laziness. But here's a slightly different demon that can either prevent you from starting something, or keep your wheels spinning indefinitely -- perfectionism.

We'd like to write the perfect book, the perfect poem, create the perfect sculpture, or even plant the perfect garden. The realization that we may fall short of our ideal is mind-numbing. How do we handle this demon? Increase confidence? Heighten self-esteem? Or is that the problem?

It's fine to aspire to perfection, but human beings are designed to make mistakes. Even those who are considered great masters of an art or sport make mistakes from time to time. If we think our talent is so great that we shouldn't make a mistake, then we have a very grandiose attitude about ourselves. If you reflect on your past efforts you are likely to discover that the vast majority of your efforts were imperfect. So swallow healthy dose of humility -- a wonderful antidote to perfectionism.

Bottom line: Accept both your perfectionism and the likelihood that you will make mistakes or fail -- and take action.

Before you die!! Now there's a thought that should get us moving on our priorities. We act (and don't act) as if we were going to live forever. But our time on this planet is limited and if there are important things to do we better get started before the opportunity disappears. Art professor James Elkins, in his illuminating book, How to Use Your Eyes (Routledge, 2002), wants to take some time to just go outside and look at grass. He says, "Before I sat down to write the chapter on grass, I had never really paid attention to it. I guess I thought I could always do that sometime in the future, when I am retired and have time to spare." Elkins goes on to calculate how many days might remain where there's an opportunity to look at grass. He starts with 30,000 days, a normal lifetime for someone living in a developed country. By the time he's factored out the days he's used up (he's just over forty) and bad weather days, and seasons where the grass is either dead or not visible, he finds that aren't that many opportunities left.

Gregg Krech is a leading authority on Japanese Psychology and Director of the ToDo Institute in Middlebury, Vermont. He is the author of several books including the award-winning Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) and A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (ToDo Institute, 2000). He can be reached by email at todo@together.net

__________

GET GOING!
If you're ready to end your habit of procrastination, here are the next four steps:
1. Is there an important project or task about which you have been procrastinating?
2. What's the next step (just identify the next step, even if it's just a small task like making a phone call)?
3. When are you going to do it? (Identify a specific day and time -- this is an appointment).
AND NOW THE FUN PART
4. Accompanied by trepidation, fear, doubts, indecision, shyness, anxiety or any other demon who happens to show up� DO IT.
Taking action isn't always pleasant. But look at the payoff -- over the course of a lifetime -- a lot more accomplished and a lot less suffering. As Joan Baez said, "Action is the antidote to despair."
__________

"Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die."
- Shoma Morita, M.D.

"When I left my job after 13 years I initially felt as if I had lost my right arm. After I grieved my losses (loss of seeing friends every day, loss of routine, loss of steady income) I became very scared. I remembered the suggestion to feel the fear and do it anyway! This saying became my motto. When I was scared to make a networking call to someone I didn't know I would be petrified, think of that saying, and make the call. Fear actually helped me -- it energized me. My situation changed when I put the energy to good use instead of becoming anxious and fearful."
- Carol Jennett

Posted on April 6, 2004 8:54 PM
Comments

I remember having the book "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway" many years ago. That phrase helped me to overcome a paralyzing fear of public speaking. I used to hyperventilate and cry as soon as I began speaking. I worked with an axiety specialist who taught me to recognize that the fear was mounting and to slow my breathing by practicing what I called "sleep breathing" - I actually practiced by mirroring my husband's breathing as he went to sleep. After a little practice, I was able to use the energy from what had been fear to give very dynamic and energetic presentations. I still feel fear, but not as much an nobody else notices. In fact, I am not told that I am a very effective presenter. I also took an Aikido class which use the idea of not directly confronting an opponent but usuing their own energy to defeat or deflect them. It never occured to me to use these ideas to overcome other areas of procrastination. Duh. Thanks

Posted by: ann on March 1, 2011 2:22 PM

I need to learn more but it it interesteing to read about a morita and naikan therapy.I am figting with my graduate school gpa.
I introduced these therapy to the professor who is the dept professor of cultural anthropology and ho also gane me a c-.
I hope this therapy help me to recover my gpa.
I think morita might be much helpful than naikan.
Because our school is a mission school in korea.
What do you think?

Posted by: jung on October 15, 2010 8:31 AM

I encountered Morita therapy in the mid-90's, with David Reynolds books. This article was a wonderful, simple explanation and a great reminder of how helpful this approach can be. The very opposite of "quit whining and do it anyway." This is exactly what is most helpful to those in an acute depression, as I was at the time. It is a wonderfully realistic approach. Things lose the outsize, overwhelming quality you have given them.

Posted by: Susan Lee on January 18, 2010 10:53 AM

In response:

The four point plan which is referenced is not based on the premise, "stop whining and get on with it." It's based on the premise that our experience is shaped by our attention. The most effective way to learn to cope with anxiety (and depression) is to become more skillful in working with our attention. This is important not just for people who are moderately anxious, but particularly for people who are suffering a great deal from psychological challenges. The key is to realize that this is the development of a new skill -- just as we have already developed (too much) the skill of focusing on ourselves.

- Gregg Krech
Director, ToDo Institute

Posted by: Gregg Krech on October 5, 2009 9:19 AM

Is the 4 point plan not just another way of saying "Stop whining and get on with it?" Certainly works with those who are lazy or a little "down", but if a person is suffering from clinical anxiety or depression this approach is dangerous since it can set expectations that can not be met. Perhaps the key is to ensure enough resourcing and support exists to allow the effort to manage the situation and achieve it despite the fear. With enough training and resourcing the person may well be able to accept that they are not equal to their fear, and that the fear is simply an emotion they have along for the ride. This takes time and practice however.

Posted by: Stuart on October 4, 2009 12:48 PM

How do you take consistent actions in spite of OPPOSITE feelings? I can do it once but acannot do it DAILY, and for change and RESULTS daily , consistent actions are required.
Than you, Svetlana

Posted by: svetlana on June 21, 2009 12:38 PM

True because those who have anxiety and phobias also have some tendencies not to get well from anxiety for they may be thinking that they have gains as well in having such complaints called secondary gains.When accepting the existence of anxiety, and not fight against it, they may also think and recognize the second gains and feel the need to get rid of them as well.

Posted by: yasar SElcuk on June 27, 2007 1:37 AM

To Kevin:

Your question regarding living up to future expectations is exactly why I procrastinate. For me this is my biggest fear not having the ability to create perfect results on a continuous basis. I have a fear that I will be unable to continuously match my past efforts. There is also the fear of others doubting my ability if everything isn’t perfect.

So, I freeze and procrastinate! I press and press myself but then I wait to the last minute and produce adequate work then feel disappointed that no one has noticed the work isn’t perfect. I become more disappointed because I know my efforts were last minute or that I have missed important deadlines. How do I step passed the fear if I’m FROZEN?

How do I refuse to fight or give my attention to fear when I’m frozen by fear?

Thank you,

R

Posted by: R on February 27, 2006 8:06 PM

To Chrystal:
Are you afraid you're going to succeed, then once you do, you'd be expected to stay at that level (either by yourself or others) and not be sure you could handle it, fearing that you would eventually fail?

Posted by: Kevin on February 6, 2006 10:36 PM

I have struggled almost all of my life with the following phenomena:

I will make things happen very quickly -- create wonderful opportunities -- and then as soon as I have to do the work associated with the project, I stall, freezing in my tracks.

Now, I consider myself a writer. This is what I hold dearly as my life purpose, but when push comes to shove, my mind becomes mush and tells me that this isn't what I want. I wait until either the last minute when I don't have enough time to complete the task in the way that I envisioned or I pass the deadline completely.

This has hurt myself and others greatly. I then get depressed and wonder what is wrong with me.

This sounds like procrastination and fear but I can't understand why I would do this? Is there something deeper than this? I intellectually understand your concepts of living with fear and moving forward regardless, but I have attempted this to no avail. I've tried therapy and no one has been able to get to the root of the problem.

I would be straight A's in school and then stay home for two weeks and get incompletes. Create amazing wonderful writing and project and job prospects only to not follow through.

Please, help. I'm going through it now with a television show that I put together and I have a deal about to fall through if I don't get my act together.

Thank you,

Chrystal

Posted by: Chrystal Jordan on January 30, 2006 5:28 PM

I am so glad I searched for the word "procrastination" in my search engine and found your website. This and the fear of failing seems to be my biggest obstacles. I have started my own business and these problems have stopped me from reaching the goals that I want to achieve so badly. I have been trying to overcome the fears and nothing is working. I never thought about living with them and including them with my challenges everyday. Tomorrow will be a new beginning for me as I will contemplate on procrastination and the fear of failing being with me as I tackle my goals for financial freedom. Thanks so much for bringing these great thoughts to those of us who are searching for ways to cope and make our lives better.

Posted by: Rita on January 8, 2006 12:13 AM

I struggle with the paralysis of procrastination. It is a debilitating parasite, sucking my future away, the future I imagine for myself. To be able to focus on the necessary tasks, not only at work, but at home and accomplish them on a "daily" basis would be exhilirating! I have read so many books in attempts to overcome this malady yet I have not achieved the results I look for. I fear my marriage, my career, raising confident children, hangs in the balance. Your words are interesting. What else?

Posted by: Kevin on December 29, 2005 11:10 PM

procrastination has been a detriment in my life

Posted by: susan on December 17, 2005 10:36 AM

I don't know of a procrastination support group. It can be useful to partner up with someone and make a "contract." The arrangement is "I'll take action on Y, if you take action on Z." If you don't follow through, you let the other person off the hook.

Posted by: Gregg on August 26, 2005 9:50 AM

Is there such a thing as a procrastination support group?

Tim Riley

Posted by: Tim Riley on August 25, 2005 9:01 PM

I loved every word of this article. I have been procrastinating so bad that it had become a very normal part of my whole me. I have been just existing evey day with no motivation and no purpose. I found your site while looking for something to help motivate my dauther. I was not understanding why a healthy, smart and beautiful teenage girl would be bore at all times, and leave her studying, completion of homework and projects to the last minute. Now I know that my "ACTION" will be her best motivation since she is just refleting me.

Posted by: Ann on June 23, 2005 10:41 PM

A window has opened for me since I read this article. Procrastination has been so self destructive for me because I have spent so much time identifying the fear. I recently had an audit to complete where I became immobilized by my fears. The concept to accept the fear and go
on from there may save my carrer and eliminate a
stressful life. In the past,I have used all of tje psychological models with little extinction.

Posted by: zoe on May 27, 2005 5:43 AM

To Diana, and also in regards to this article:

Self-confidence is somthing the world tells us we must have to take action, just as we are lead to believe fear must prevent us from action. But really, self confidence (or lack thereof) is just a feeling just like any other one.
This article hits the nail right on the head - acceptance of any emotion is the key to ending the struggle. We feel limited by our feelings and spend so much time trying to control them, when really they are just electric impulses in our brains; just conditioned reactions to a stimulus or situation. Feelings are as thin as the wind, and as tangible as thought without action. Accept all of your feelings, good and bad, and you will end your struggle with them.
It is not often the feeling that hurts or affects us the most, as the struggle we allow ourselves to have with it. Accept a feeling and accept the struggle, accept your lack of self-confidence and accept the fact you don't want to accept it...ask yourself "could I just allow this? even just for now?"..and perhaps you will realize that even what appears as an insurmountable emotional barrier is actually just part of your chosen existance, and is no actual foe.

Posted by: Genevieve on April 2, 2005 11:49 PM

This article on fear was almost perfect, it is such a great welcome from the Western point of view, to analyze it and probe at feelings to try and overcome them. This has never worked and if anything, has made it an even more difficult task, only heightening the accompanying feeling of helplessness.
However, how does one conquer the lack of self-confidence. I think low confidence in oneself is a definate factor in having no motivation, continuing to stay lazy and of course perpetuating fear. Is there any way (besides the usual norms) that one may be able to gain self-assurance and self-esteem?

Posted by: Diana on March 3, 2005 1:47 AM

-loved every word- I have been procrastinating so bad that I gave up trying. this really makes me want to start all over. am retired and building a small home. with that and a lot of personal problems with two grown sons,I was just existing every day.

thank you so much for your exact cure plan !

Posted by: dorothy ranger on February 15, 2005 5:41 PM

An excellent article. I was attracted to this site to find some answers, this happened once I accepted the fact that my procrastination had to stop. I hadn't really thought about the fact that putting off specific tasks (procrastination) was really due to fear; the fear of not doing a good enough job (lack of confidence). Now, having read this article, and realising/accepting the fact that procrastination is very harmful to me, it has prompted me to take action. The worse that might happen is, I might not do as good a job as I had hoped (like completing a final paper for a school project). The fact is, a strong effort is far more acceptable than no effort, and far less stressful. Thanks for the acticle.

Posted by: Latif on December 29, 2004 10:13 AM

So true, so true!
If we want to leave a trace in this world, how infinitely better to leave an imperfect one than none at all!
Then maybe we'll look back one day and think that actually it didn't turn out that bad after all....

Posted by: Jan on June 3, 2004 8:14 PM

A year ago a very important person in my life died suddenly. For the last 30 years she spent all of her working days being an actress. So, on this day I began looking for information about her death and her memorial services.

I was most impressed by a tribute given to her several months after she died. An grade school was named for her in the city we attended school in as youngsters. I was very proud of her life and all she had accomplished.

It was a very powerful moment for me because when I was dating her, as a teenager, my dad joked and called her a silly dreamer. That always bothered me because I knew how capable my friend was.

Reading her obituary was great motivation for me to get on with my own dreams. It was while looking for motivation that I happened upon your powerful website.

Know that you answered many questions for me and sent me out to do what I do best. I am an artist and a scholar.

Posted by: Fred Moore on April 23, 2004 2:41 AM
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