“For fifteen minutes, welcome everything in yourself. Invite every new experience, offer it tea, send it love.”
I didn’t have high hopes for this exercise. Don’t I already welcome everything during my daily meditation? Well, it was worth a try; I was having a crappy day anyway.
Almost immediately, I realized that what had seemed a calm mind had actually been composed of a cacophony of voices. Here’s a dramatization.
- Crastie: a lovable, tantrum-throwing child responsible for my procrastinatory tendencies
- The Auntie Committee: a group of well-meaning but dogmatic matrons who have taken it upon themselves to solve Crastie’s problems.
Crastie: I don’t want to write this blog post!
Auntie Vigilante: No time for fretting, you’re behind on your writing already!
Auntie Anti: Now, Crastie! Why don’t you brighten up?
Auntie Tauntie: How about you do something nice and relaxing, like reading a book? That will cheer you right up!
Vigilante: Half an hour with a book in hand, and you’ll be ready to get back to work!
Crastie: I don’t wanna!
Tauntie: Oh, okay… Then maybe you could do the dishes while listening to podcasts? You always enjoy that! It’s relaxing and productive. As soon as you see that glorious empty sink, everything will be right with the world.
Vigilante: Now isn’t that right, Crastie? There’s no end of wholesome activities! You could water the plants in your garden. Or make some iPad sketches – you’ll gain some lovely graphic design skills too!
Crastie: I don’t wanna do ANYTHING!
Anti: Well, perhaps you’re right. It’s important to Do Nothing every once in a while. Maybe it’s one of those days: a nice hour of meditation, and you’ll be good to go.
Vigilante: Or perhaps some gentle yoga?
Tauntie: Or maybe a little power nap? You haven’t been sleeping well, poor thing! Go right ahead – a half-hour nap, and then you’ll wake up good and refreshed!
Phew! All this was going on in my head? A Committee of Aunties jabbering a mile a minute, offering a new self-help scheme every ten seconds? No wonder feeling sad turns me into an exhausted insomniac, kept up at night by the chorus in her head…
I had been welcoming everything, including the Aunties, but now I focused my attention on Crastie. What if she – I – really didn’t want to do anything right now? Could I welcome that?
I lie down and close my eyes for a little while. Then Crastie chimes in: what if we played some phone Boggle?
The Aunties are back.
Auntie Anti: Young lady, phone games never did anyone any good! You say it’ll be fifteen minutes, but it’s always a lost afternoon, not a second of it enjoyable.
Vigilante: There are a hundred wholesome things you could be doing, and you choose to fritter away your time instead?
Crastie: F**k that wholesome s**t!
I always wondered why my procrastination involves excruciatingly boring activities like phone games and scrolling through Facebook. Now I have an epiphany. Crastie chooses her activities precisely because they are unenjoyable. When the Aunties declare an activity Wholesome, they expect it to cheer Crastie up – so if she chooses a Wholesome Activity but continues to mope, they blame her and exhaust her with further solutions. Better to choose something which will probably make her feel worse. When it does, at least she can’t be blamed for doing it wrong.
I try out an experiment. “Sure thing, let’s play Boggle.”
It’s surprisingly fun; I’m better than I’ve ever been at this harmless game. After twenty minutes, Crastie asks me to put down the phone. “Thanks. I think I’ve had enough.”
When the Little Prince asks the Drunkard why he drinks, he explains: “I drink to forget that I drink.” While this sounds circular, it isn’t: what fuels the drinking isn’t the drinking itself but shame. It’s the same mechanism when Crastie and I play phone Boggle or endlessly scroll through Facebook. Yes, those things are made to be addictive, and at some point quitting cold turkey is the only way out. But that’s not the fundamental reason we keep scrolling. The fundamental reason is that as soon as we stop, the Aunties will wag their fingers and lament: “She did it again! All that time down the drain!”
This is why Boggle lost its addictive power as soon as I removed the taboo against it.
I should have known this. When I meditate, I make a point of thanking my subconscious whenever it alerts me that my mind has wandered. Yes, the ultimate aim of meditation is shorter and shorter periods of mind-wandering. But getting mad at myself when I fall short of this aim – negative reinforcement – just doesn’t work. My subconscious has no reason to let me know that it has strayed if it will only get scolded once it does.
I need to treat Crastie the same way: like the Prodigal Son. Unless I give her amnesty for confession, she’ll always choose to forget that she procrastinates.
Last year, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. I was hoping it would help me write my dissertation by strengthening my willpower, but nothing of the sort happened. In fact, after ten days of paying attention to my breath, I started doubting that willpower even existed… If I didn’t want to do something, no plea or threat or appeal to duty could convince me otherwise.
Despite that apparent handicap, the few weeks after the retreat were some of the most productive in my life. I made rapid progress on my dissertation. I woke excited for my research every day. I couldn’t do anything I didn’t want to – but somehow I wanted all the right things.
I was also surprised to find that I still scrolled through Facebook. The big difference was that I noticed the scrolling almost as soon as it happened, and immediately paused and gently asked myself what I needed.
Crastie and I were on friendly terms back then. Whenever she showed up, we’d find that my to-do list had taken me in the wrong direction. I was tired and overworked and needed a break, or my self-imposed deadline had been unreasonable, or I disagreed with my advisor’s suggestion, which I had interpreted as a demand. My procrastination always had a reason.
Getting to know the Aunties has helped me understand a puzzle about depression and anxiety: why is it that every time I find a “cure,” something that reliably dispels dark moods, it stops working?
Because as soon as I know that a method “always works,” the Auntie Committee hijacks it. They create an expectation that the activity will work, which triggers Crastie’s fear of failure. “Do some self-care, and you’ll be good to go!” they chirp. This pushes her right back into the rule-following mindset which was the cause of her unhappiness in the first place.
Crastie isn’t the problem; the Auntie Committee is the problem. They transform love to duty, joy to rule-following. They don’t understand the concept of not doing anything; for them, there is only Doing Nothing.1 For them, there is no such thing as “for its own sake;” no such thing as Being, only Doing.
American culture is run by Auntie Committees. It has transformed self-care into a type of action, another item to check off the to-do list. But self-care is an attitude, not an activity: not yoga, not baking bread, not bubble baths. If it’s run by the Auntie Committee, it isn’t self-care. If it’s done for its own sake, from the heart, with no expectations, it is – even if it’s running a marathon or scrolling through Facebook.
An unhappy child doesn’t need advice. She needs a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a big, unconditional hug.
It isn’t any different when the child is me.
 I suspect they are also the reason my meditative practice keeps degenerating into a baroque litany of rules. (E.g. After every six breaths, check if you’re still paying attention; if you notice sleepy thoughts, breathe more deeply; if you can’t bear to sit still, count to ten before deciding whether to move.”)
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