Making Friends with My Lazy Mind
There is a part of my mind that wants me to take it easy. “Relax,” it says, “you’ve worked hard. Watch another episode. You deserve it. You can work later.” This is my Lazy Mind. It is the home to the procrastination and ennui that prevent me from getting things done. When I listen to it, I feel good for a little while, but then I experience anxiety because of everything left undone. I recriminate my Lazy Mind and fight against it. In all my years, it’s never gone away. I’ve never won the fight.
Yet my Lazy Mind is not a ‘bad’ part of me. It has good intentions. It protects me from overdoing it, from exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout. It reinforces my self worth and shines a positive light on all the work I actually accomplish. ‘Lazy Mind’ is a pejorative label I’ve given it over the years because of the strong, Midwestern, Protestant work ethic I inherited. A kinder label might be Relaxing Mind or Self-Care Mind, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. First it needs to be tamed.
The problem with Lazy Mind is the same problem with all mind – it suffers from the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and delusion. It is attached to the pleasure of relaxation, averse to the effort or work, and deluded in it’s understanding of what constitutes right self-care. Like the rest of the mind, Lazy Mind can be transformed into a wiser and more compassionate part. It wants to be tamed, to come in from the wild.
I have written in the past about struggling to create discipline in my life. Lazy Mind has a strong hand in that. My ever-changing class schedule is also another factor. I wake and sleep at slightly different times, eat breakfast and lunch at odd hours, shower whenever, do homework randomly, and so on. Yet, I still manage to get to class on time, work effectively, and manage regular study blocks, so I must have some orderly discipline in there somewhere, despite my Lazy Mind’s opposition.
People who study the formation of habits have noted a simple pattern: cue, response, reward. Your tummy grumbles (cue), you go into the kitchen a fix a sandwich (response), and you eat (reward). They say that if you want to develop a new habit (or get rid of an old one), you need to find a strong cue to prompt the behavior and then reward the behavior.
I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of this advice. (What am I? A dog?) It seems to reinforce attachment and desire rather than eliminate them. However, the Buddha said that desire for enlightenment is a useful tool, like a raft to cross the flood (MN 22), and should be cultivated. So perhaps the cultivation of good habits are a form of skillful means (upaya)? Don’t the many forms of Buddhist monasticism and ritual deliberately cultivate diligence through the formation of good habits?
My Lazy Mind resists the formation of habits that bring diligence and order. It fears being trapped into an unsatisfying lifestyle. It has good reason to fear. The most orderly, disciplined, and habitual parts of my life (public school and the few years after) was also the least satisfying. I felt trapped and lost. It was not until I radically shook up my life by going back to the university (and changing jobs and selling my house) that I found satisfaction. My Lazy Mind resists the trap of order and diligence that it associates with dissatisfaction, with not doing what I want to do.
My lack of insight into this force at work within myself has hindered me from bringing order and discipline back into my life. My Lazy Mind needs more than my understanding, it needs my compassion and reassurance. What it does, reminding me to take it easy, protecting me from dissatisfaction and burnout, these are good things. Discipline is not a trap. It can even help me to be more at ease because I can accomplish more when my discipline is good. I will work more efficiently and leave more room for relaxation and enjoyment, free from the followup anxiety and stress.
Therefore, like a skittish horse, I will gentle my mind slowly, letting it get used to the smell and feel of the bit and saddle, so that when I need to ride, it won’t panic and try to throw me. I start with a simple resolution: I will introduce one new habit each week, using the cue-response-reward method. As I plan these carefully, conscious of where the resistance arises, and listen to honest objections and take them seriously. Lazy Mind has its own wisdom that I can learn to recognize and appreciate.
My first habit is getting up promptly. This has always been difficult for me. Getting up in the morning meant going to a school or job I hated. But I still remember doing it with alacrity on Saturdays and Christmas (at least until my teenage years), so I know the capacity is in my somewhere. My cue is my alarm. I give myself one snooze button to come gently awake. Crawling out of bed in the cold is also a problem, so I will mount a hook much closer to my bed so I can immediately warm up in my fuzzy Jedi robe. To complete the comfort, I will get a soft pair of warm slippers. The reward is a warm cup of coffee and vegging in front of my computer for ten minutes before doing anything else. This is week one. The rest can wait.
Lazy Mind, are you listening? You take care of me very well. Now let me take care of you. We’re in this together.
Note: If it seems a bit odd that I am talking about parts of myself as though they are discrete identities, please read Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model by Richard C. Schwartz or Parts Work by Tom Holmes. This is the topic of one of my classes this semester and it requires a great deal of inner work (no mere intellectualizing here!) that will no doubt continue to be reflected in my blog.