Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mundane worrying, weakness of will, and procrastination

Ragdoll/Ashtanga Academic ended her latest post with these thoughtful lines from the 8th century Buddhist scholar Shantideva:

"Why worry if you can do something about it,
and why worry if you cannot do anything about it?"

These are very thoughtful lines, so I thought I'll piggy-back off them, and come up with a blog post from here.

Since the things we worry about are things that we either can or cannot do something about, we really have no reason to worry about anything at all, if we follow the logic of these lines. But I'm going to humbly beg to differ with Shantideva here, and suggest that the problem may be a bit more complicated than this. To begin with, I think that most of the time, the part of our minds that is doing the worrying is not the part that listens to reason. I suspect that, even at the very moment when we are worrying ourselves sick about something, we probably know that we have no reason to worry, logically speaking. But we go on worrying anyway.

Why do we worry when there is really no reason to worry at all, objectively speaking? One possible explanation may be what Aristotle calls akrasia, or weakness of the will. Our minds are capable of understanding the directives of reason (in this case, the directive would be something like "Do not worry; there is no reason to worry, one way or the other."). A perfectly virtuous mind would be, among other things, a mind that acts in perfect accordance with reason. This, at any rate, is Aristotle's view. But our minds do not always act in accordance with what reason tells us is in our best interests. We may know perfectly well that something is the right thing to do, or that a particular attitude is the right attitude to have, and yet fail to do the thing or adopt the attitude in question. A smoker may know perfectly well that smoking is very bad for her, and yet continue to smoke. In the same way, we may know perfectly well that we have no reason to worry about anything at all, and yet continue to worry.

But knowing that I suffer from akrasia is only part of the picture. The million-dollar question (okay, maybe it's not worth a million dollars, but I think it's worth a lot, at any rate) is: Why do I suffer from akrasia? Why do I continue to worry, even though reason tells me there is no reason to?

One possible reply is that we are not purely beings of reason; we are also creatures of emotion. There are things, events or individuals in our lives that evoke such powerful emotions that reason is seemingly powerless in the face of them. If I know that somebody whom I care deeply about is in a dangerous place or going through a very difficult time, and there's nothing I can do to help that person, telling myself that worrying won't change anything probably won't stop me from worrying. Aristotle probably has something to say about situations like these too, but I won't try to go into this now. For one, I am not an Aristotle scholar, and trying to say something useful about this would require too much research on my part. Besides, I don't feel like turning this post into a lecture about Aristotle anyway.

So I'm going to take this discussion in a slightly different direction. I dare say that a lot of the time, the things that we worry about in our day-to-day life are more pedestrian or mundane in nature. I'll just call this mundane worrying. Mundane worrying is not triggered by big life-changing events or extreme situations. Rather, it comes out of the grind of daily life. Here's an example: Is the bill payment that I just mailed out going to get there on time? Will I get slapped with a late fee? If I get slapped with a late fee, will the people at the billing company listen to my explanation if I call them? What if they don't believe my story? And so and so forth. Mundane worrying has a tendency to just spiral on and on; one worry leads to another, snowballing into a big mass of not-so-positive energy.

Mundane worrying is closely connected to another phenomenon of daily life: Procrastination. Let's use my bill-paying example again. Chances are I got myself into this unpleasant situation because I procrastinated: I could have avoided all this worrying about the payment not getting to where it needs to get to on time if I had just somehow made myself mail the payment earlier. So procrastination is, in a sense, the cause of my mundane worries. I assume that we can all agree that there are many similar instances  in daily life in which procrastination gives rise to a lot of unnecessary mundane worrying.

So the next million-dollar question is: Why do we procrastinate? (Okay, maybe you don't procrastinate. In which case, you can happily stop reading this post here, if you've actually followed me this far. If, like me, you also procrastinate, then read on. It gets better. I promise.) If we follow the logic of Shantideva's words, and procrastination is something we can do something about, then we have nothing to worry about; all we need to do is to stop procrastinating. But again, I think the matter is more complicated than this. For one, I believe that many procrastinators suffer from a form of akrasia: I know perfectly well that procrastination is bad for me (just as a smoker might know that smoking is bad for her), and yet I continue to procrastinate. So we cannot understand why we procrastinate until we understand why we do not act in accordance with what reason tells us is in our best interests.

Grreat. It looks like I have just been going around in a big circle: We fail to act in accordance with reason, even though we know better (akrasia), and worry even though we really have no reason to. We fail to act in accordance with reason, because we procrastinate when we should know better. And we procrastinate because we suffer from akrasia. And we suffer from akrasia because we fail to act in accordance with reason, even though we know better.

Hmm... This doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, and I'm getting really exhausted. But let me see if I can at least end this post on a somewhat brighter note. Here's T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Have I known anything? Actually, yes: I need to stop procrastinating, and get to grading my students' papers!b


  1. Hm, this is a great topic, yes we do not follow reason, not at all, not when it comes to matters of the heart, I am thinking of that "the heart has its reasons" how was that? do not remember the phrase completely.... why do we procrastinate is also a good one, lots of food for thought here

  2. "The heart has its reasons", interesting. This also implies that "heart-logic" is very different from "head-logic".

    Have you read anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, by any chance? I was thinking about Florentino Ariza, the hero of Marquez's novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera" (Spanish: El amor en los tiempos del cólera). I think Ariza is a very good example of somebody who follows the reasons of the heart.

  3. Help from Nobel's yoga community: I hope you don't mind, Nobel, that I co-opt your blog for a quick second and ask for a little help from you & your yoga friends.

    I have been trying to master Navasana and I think I may have aggravated my sciatica. Could this be possible? And if so, what comparable poses could I do that don't rely so much on balancing on my tailbone to get to my abdominal muscles?

    I am doing a lot of Gomukhasana to relieve the pain in my sciatic nerve and that is helping a little (ouch- I sit a lot during the day)but I need core work while I recover.

    Thanks in advance for any help! Cheers, Cathrine

  4. I see where you're trying to go here with this line of questioning and I don't know if you're going to find a satisfying answer. Perhaps that 'why' is less important than accepting that it just 'is', because as humans, we are as much an emotional creature as we are logical.

    Your breakdown of why we procrastinate/worry reminds me of what Patanjali talks about with regards to Samskaras - behaviors shaped by habit that we succumb to without realizing it and in the process find ourselves caught up in a cycle of behavior that we can't seem to break out of even though we want to.

  5. I like what you say about the samskaras, Danielle. You are probably right that I will probably not find a satisfying answer with my approach. But I do my best. In a nutshell, here's the issue: We are emotional creatures at least as much as we are logical (it just 'is'; it's the way we are). But at the same time, we are also aware that it is not a good idea to act on every single one of our emotions. We learnt this from a young age, and that's one of the things that differentiates us from children. I understand that one can go too far in trying to control one's emotions; that's when one becomes repressed. But we do control our emotions on an everyday level, and that's usually a good thing. For example, I might be really mad at somebody, and feel like yelling at him or her, but I do not. The trouble is when certain emotions come up that are so strong that we know we probably shouldn't act upon, but we act upon them anyway. Such cases may mean one of 2 things:

    (1) I have lost self-control.
    (2) Perhaps the strong emotion I am experiencing is my mind/body's way of telling me that I have gotten my priorities wrong. For example, if I feel very strongly about taking time off to take a small vacation, even though my reason tells me that I need to devote myself to work, the strong feeling might be my mind/body's way of telling me that I need to set aside some time for rest and relaxation.

    Gee, this is enough material for another new post. You have really set me thinking, Danielle.

  6. In my personal experience, I've found emotions to be the most challenging part of life...in the sense of managing negativity, my reactions to situations and outlook on things. I guess you could say that it's the search for balance between heart and mind that's tricky.

    In your example above, I don't think the 2 options are mutually exclusive, in fact, I think they represent different stages of a negative emotional outburst. First, we succumb to them, and then when we cool down, with the benefit of hindsight we are able to see the different factors at work that led to the outburst. Based on what I've read about yoga/Buddhism/meditation so far, my understanding is that the practice is designed to enable us to avoid #1 and turn #2 into our first reaction by making us more aware of 'the fluctuations of the mind', and through constant practice, the new way of thinking/reacting helps us break away from our conditioned behaviors.

    This is my two cents' worth on how I see yoga's practical application on our lives off the mat anyway, influenced by Chip Hartranft's translation of the Yoga Sutras. Makes a lot of sense, but not so easy to practice! :)