Facing the Demons of Inaction

Morita therapy lets you take a philosophical, tough-love approach to undoing your own undoings.

When I was 22 years old I moved into a freshly painted one-bedroom apartment. 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. They had been waiting patiently, for quite some time, to be washed. So I did what any self-respecting young bachelor would do: I raced over to the convenience store to buy paper plates.

Why those dishes hadn’t been washed was a bit mysterious, particularly given the presence of a well-functioning dishwasher that occupied a small space under the counter not far from the sink. But I never did figure out how to get the dishwasher to reach over, grab the dishes and turn itself on.

Admittedly, my required role in this 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?

At the time, I really didn’t know. But 10 years later I discovered the work of a Japanese psychiatrist, which 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, MD (1874–1938) developed a model of psychology now known as Morita Therapy. Rooted in Zen and borrowing from an Eastern worldview, it stands in stark contrast to the European-based mental health models we have become familiar with – approaches developed by Freud, Jung and Carl Rogers that go something like this:

Patient: “I can’t seem to get myself to wash my dirty dishes.”

Therapist: (long pause) “So what I hear you saying is that you have a lot of dirty dishes sitting in the sink.”

Patient: “Uh that’s right.”

Therapist (looking pensive): “I see. And how does that make you feel?”

Morita Therapy doesn’t ask you to examine how you feel. Morita assumes that whatever you’re feeling, by focusing on it and picking it apart, you’re actually more likely to intensify it. It also assumes there’s no real reason to change it.

One of the main tenets of Morita Therapy is that our internal experiences – our feelings and thoughts – are inherent, essential and acceptable parts of us. They make us uniquely who we are, and they are largely uncontrollable by our will. By attempting to find their source, to adjust or eliminate them, we only amplify them and extend their natural life.

Adjusting Through Action

If we feel anxious about going for a job interview, we can’t will ourselves to 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. But if we adjust our action, and act in the face of our feelings, generally those feelings will change or subside naturally – much faster than if we explored or mulled or worried for a long period, but failed to act.

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 these demons through various strategies, such as insight, self-talk, motivation or increased self-esteem. But Morita Therapy is less about “conquering” than about “coexisting with.”

Rather than attempting to vanquish your anxiety about the job interview or examining it ad nauseam, you simply note your anxiety, accept it as normal for you, and then take it along for the ride.

Western therapy suggests that we must “fix” our feelings before we can take action. Morita Therapy recommends that we accept the presence of our feelings, and if a particular action is important to us – to our success, our expression, our priorities – that we move forward anyway. When you learn to do this, the “demons” lose much of their power, and many of the causes of our inaction naturally dissolve into constructive effort.

Seeing What Scares You

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. Fear can make us think twice about risky behavior. It can warn us to tread cautiously, or tell us we need more information. It can remind us there are very real, negative 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 regimen after having had a heart attack. This goes to show you that in some cases, fear can be an effective (if not particularly gentle) personal coach.

But often fear arises when we are not in imminent danger at all. We’re moving forward toward our dreams and are nervous about that. We’re taking action that involves risk – yet all action involves some risk. Even inaction involves risk.

So 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.

Refusing to Fight

Morita Therapy says the best strategy for coping with fear is to simply accept it. Don’t try to fight it, talk yourself through it, understand it, or conquer it. Decide to cease focusing on your fear, and direct that energy toward action instead.

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.

Here’s how one woman describes her experience using Morita to work with her fear:

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. Then I’d 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.

Working with fear is a skill. Think about some of the skills you’ve acquired in your lifetime? Typing, driving a car, yoga, music? All competence requires practice, and that includes mental health skills.

Once you’ve succeeded in getting past fear, you’ll find a similar strategy works with related demons: shyness, anxiety, boredom – even perfectionism (which is really just the fear of failure or not being good enough).

In Morita’s view, it is most often our focus on our imperfections, rather than the imperfections themselves, that prevents us from realizing our potential and living the most useful, meaningful and enjoyable lives possible. So if you are ready to make a change in your life, start with action, not by trying to change your own nature.

“Give up on yourself,” Dr. Morita advised. “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.”

Gregg Krech is the director of the ToDo Institute in Middlebury, Vt. (www.todoinstitute.org). He is the author of several books, including Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002).

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