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Calling All Buddhist Chaplains

May 6, 2017
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‘Medicine Buddha’ by Gabby Altenberger via Flickr.com

Dear Buddhist chaplains, interns, and students,

I need your insight, compassion, and a little bit of your time for my dissertation research. Please take a moment to read this very dry description of my research project below. It’s actually much more exciting than it sounds, I promise. Please contact me if you have questions or want to participate.

If you are not a Buddhist chaplain, but know someone who is, please share this post. Please share it broadly with non-Buddhist chaplains working in various settings, as they might know some Buddhist chaplains.

Thank you from the bottom of this scholar’s heart,

Monica

Information Sheet for Research Study Participants

The Practice of Dharma Reflection among Buddhist Chaplains: A Qualitative Study of ‘Theological’ Activity among Non-Theocentric Spiritual Caregivers

Primary Investigator: Rev. Monica Sanford, PhD candidate

Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Duane Bidwell, Claremont School of Theology

Purpose

The purpose of this research study is to examine how Buddhist chaplains and chaplain interns practice reflection in relation to spiritual care to answer the following questions:

  1. What ‘theological’ methods or processes are used by Buddhist chaplains and chaplain interns when reflecting on the Dharma in relation to their practice of spiritual care? How are these methods/processes similar to or distinct from methods of theological reflection employed by Christian and other theocentric chaplains?
  2. What sources of Dharma are used or privileged during the process of reflection? (i.e. sutras/suttas, books, teachers/teachings, and other sources beyond direct experience)
  3. What is the relationship between one’s own experience as a chaplain or chaplain intern and one’s understanding of the Dharma and how is it articulated?
  4. How does the practice of reflection on the Dharma and their own experience change their practice of spiritual care? In other words, what interventions do Buddhist chaplains and chaplain interns develop as a result of their reflective practices and what effects do they have?

This study will result in an interpretive description of how Buddhist chaplains currently practice reflection, along with implications for further education and training for Buddhist chaplains and for how Buddhist chaplains interact with non-Buddhist CPE supervisors and fellow spiritual caregivers.

Eligibility

You are eligible to participate in this study if:

  1. You are Buddhist, belong to a Buddhist order or lineage, OR identify as multi-religious including Buddhist
  2. You are enrolled in or have completed an MDiv degree at University of the West, Naropa University, the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Harvard Divinity School, OR Claremont School of Theology
  3. You have completed OR are currently enrolled in a CPE program during the study period (May-Aug 2017)

Your Participation

Total time to participate in the study will be between three and five hours over three months. The study will consist of a demographic questionnaire, at least one interview either in person or via an online video conference lasting no more than 90 minutes, and submission of a written reflection sample of one to three pages in length. A follow up interview of no more than 60 minutes in length may be requested to clarify statements in the original interview or written reflection sample. All interviews will be recorded and transcribed. You will not be paid. You will receive a copy of the final results. All data collected from participants will remain confidential and will be anonymized in final reports.

Contact

Please contact Rev. Monica Sanford (monica.sanford[at]cst.edu ) if you would like to participate. You must return a signed Informed Consent before participation can begin.

Replace [at] with @ in the email above to make an address. This is a precaution against spam.

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May Path Update: Right View

May 3, 2017
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‘Buddha’ by Long Chung via Flickr.com

April Report: Right Concentration

I did miserably in April. My morning ten minutes of meditation continued to be spotty, though not entirely absent. I did not do any longer sessions of meditation, guided or otherwise. Not a single one. Sigh. I may have to do round one for this part of my path several times.

On a different note, I did maintain better concentration on regular daily tasks. One very fruitful method was curtailing my Facebook time. Early in the month, I took an entire week away from Facebook. That began a pattern of more mindful and intentional Facebook use.

Social media is very helpful for communicating about events and activities with large audiences, so I will continue to use it for that purpose. However, I no longer use Facebook to cure boredom. I must have a concrete task to accomplish if I am logging on.

Related to that, my mood improved significantly, despite an otherwise high stress month. I attribute this directly to reducing my time on social media. NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast has a great episode that explains why this happens. In nutshell, I abandoned the ‘fear of missing out.’

Coincidentally, I also started listening to Flow: Living at the Peak of Your Abilities by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi while taking the dog for our daily walk. This book is really all about a form of concentration called ‘flow’ that, when it permeates your life, brings profound satisfaction, even joy. This reminded me of my focus and give me some concrete tools for daily life, even though I wasn’t able to improve my meditation habit.

So although I failed abysmally at meditation, the month wasn’t a complete loss.

Right View

The next part of the path is Right View, which is typically listed as the first of the eight parts (even though I decided to start with Right Action). Right View is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, non-self, and the personal experience of truth, wisdom, or emptiness. For my purposes, I think it best to start at the beginning.

The First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering, the truth that all life is suffering. Although this truth seems self-evident, it is often also difficult to fully internalize. Intellectually, such we can grasp that life is suffering, but when we get down to brass tacks, we often quibble. Well, not all life, surely? Not every single second of every single day? Well, yes, actually.

Different traditions have slightly different things to say about the First Noble Truth, but I tend to prefer the more direct and definitive versions. So long as we are caught in samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth and becoming, then yes, every single second of every single day is permeated by a pervasive underlying sense of dissatisfaction. Even our most joyful moments are permeated by dissatisfaction because we know they will not last, so we grasp at them and mourn the loss of joy even while it is still with us. Only be escaping the cycle of samsara can we achieve true liberation from suffering.

Truly comprehending the First Noble Truth often leads to an experience of samvega, or shock, dismay, or alienation. This is where nihilism and cynicism can creep in. Many experience a low point in their practice here, but it can also lead to renewed motivation if we can develop confidence in the path to liberation. The first step is to continue to investigate the noble truths, to see in our own life that suffering is indeed caused by craving and ignorance and that certain practices do indeed work to alleviate suffering, both in the short-term and long-term.

Round 1: Deepen knowledge of the Four Noble Truths

My goal for this month is to look and see, with Right View, how suffering permeates my life and what practices contribute to it or alleviate it, that I might develop a stronger and deeper motivation to practice. This is an ongoing process, but I will dedicate additional attention to it in the month of May. I will do this by:

Both of the above works deal extensively with the unsatisfactory nature of the present life and the need to cultivate Right View in order to practice and achieve liberation.

Round 2: See through the delusion of the egoic self.

Round 3: Develop wisdom and skillful means for work in the world.

June: Right Intention

Homily on Compassion

April 9, 2017
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‘Homeless Sales’ by Fran Urbano via Flickr.com

Delivered for the Multifaith Service to Open Common Ground Week at University of the West on April 3, 2017

We saw the young man sitting on the cold concrete tucked in a doorway. His sign said “We FREEZE at night. Anything helps.” In his lap he cradled a large pit-bull dog, her body limp with trust, sound asleep, insulated from the cold ground by his narrow form.

My heart cracked open. I looked to my partner. I saw concern on his face, too. But we didn’t slow down.

I would have to dig in my purse for cash. We were late for our reservation. “We’ll stop on our way back,” we said to each other. On our way back from a good, warm meal, they were gone.

This is not compassion.

Compassion is not the feeling of the heart cracking open. Compassion is not concern for the suffering of another.

Compassion is the young man holding his dog so that she didn’t have to lay against the cold ground.

Compassion is not what we feel. Compassion is what we do.

Just feeling sadness and then hurrying on by is not enough to call compassion. This feeling can spur us to compassion, but compassion itself is in the act.

We have been trained out of compassion by our busy lives, by deadlines and reservations and crowds of people also walking by indifferent to the young man and his sign.

I will regret walking by without stopping for the rest of my life. I will wonder what happened to that young man and his dog for the rest of my life. Months later, I still remember it vividly – this time, like so many other times, when my compassion failed.

Today we have the opportunity to train in compassion. During this week of Common Ground, we have many opportunities for compassion. We have the chance to serve others, to serve our community, and to act from a heart broken open.

This week we can share food, art, charity, and service with one another. Every culture has these things. Beyond all our differences, these are things we hold in common.

Every culture values compassion. And every culture struggles with it. Every society tries to make us too busy for compassion. And every religion says, slow down and act compassionately.

The only way seven billion people can survive together on this planet is if we help one another. Do not be too fast for compassion. Do not think you’ll have another chance. Compassion is now, only now.

Thank you for joining us to train in compassion this morning.

Back on the Path: Right Concentration

April 1, 2017
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Photo by THE ZEN DIARY via Flickr.com

February and March Update

Last October, I began to consciously work the Eightfold Path into my life. Then life got busy. I did not give up on the habits I have been trying to inculcate, but my capacity for new efforts diminished in the face or workplace and academic demands.

In February and March, I continued to attempt, with some spotty regularity, to adhere to healthy routines in the morning, workday, and evening.

My morning routine includes writing for one hour, usually on my dissertation, but sometimes other topics, meditating for ten minutes, and having a bowl of oatmeal before leaving the house.

During the day, I try to take a couple of brisk walks around campus, limit caffeine intake, and, during March, I began packing healthier homemade bento lunches. So far, I am very happy with this new habit.

After work, I take the dog to the park and (if I can muster the energy) jog about half a mile of our 1.3 mile route. In the evening I do at least two chores, eat a healthy dinner with my sweetheart, watch television (2 episodes only), do push-ups and other exercises, shower, and try to get to bed early. Soon, I want to incorporate at least a little reading for my dissertation into this routine.

I am better at some of these habits than others. In other words, I fail often, but not usually at all of them in any given day.

So while I took two months off from consciously trying to incorporate new habits into my path, I did fairly well at maintaining current habits and made progress on healthy eating and wasting less food, which was one of my November goals.

Right Concentration

It is time to get back on the path and start where I left off: Right Concentration.

Lopez and Buswell’s dictionary defines this as “concentration of the mind on wholesome objects.” It is often associated with meditation, but I recall that Thich Nhat Hanh also talks about wholesome consumption of the mental objects, such as books, movies, music, and television shows. Over the years of my Buddhist practice, I notice that my tastes in media have changed. I tend to avoid stimuli that sparks attachment (i.e. consumerism), aversion (i.e. excessive violence and horror), and delusion (i.e. most news outlets). This is a subtle manifestation of Right Concentration.

However, most Buddhist traditions agree that intense meditation is necessary to deeply cultivate Right Concentration. In the Pali Cannon, this cultivation is synonymous with the jhanas or states of “meditative absorption” in the object of meditation to the exclusion of external stimuli. The first stage of this absorption helps one overcome hindrances in one’s path. To my knowledge, I have never obtained or experienced a jhana, even in my best meditation.

What then, can I do to cultivate Right Concentration? I think perhaps I must start at the beginning.

Round 1: Deepen regular meditation practice.

  • Continue ten minutes of breath meditation each morning
  • Once per week, hold a longer, guided meditation session
  • Throughout each day, attempt to maintain focus on one task at a time and minimize distractions and digressions (i.e. “killing time”)
  • Remain mindful of the five hindrances by posting them where I can see the list regularly and ask myself about my present moment experience:
    1. Sensuous desire hindering focus
    2. Malice hindering rapture
    3. Sloth and torpor hindering applied thought
    4. Restlessness and worry hindering joy
    5. Skeptical doubt hindering sustained thought

Round 2: Deepen meditation practice through one-day retreat.

Round 3: Deepen meditation practice through multi-day retreats.

May: Right View

Love in the Face of Fear

March 12, 2017
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‘Building Peace’ by Yasmeen via Flickr.com

I haven’t written about the political climate lately because I really don’t know what to say. There is too much. It’s not necessarily about feeling overwhelmed. I don’t actually. I’m paying attention. I have an opinion. But there is a difference between paying attention, having a stance, and knowing what to say about it – all of it.

Mostly I just want to ask people to be kind. I know that seems like a no-brainer, but it’s really not. Everyone thinks they are kind. Everyone thinks they are the good guy. No one thinks they’re the villain. And even when we know we’re being unkind to each other we think “they deserve it” or some variant thereof. Of course, we’re always kind, except when the “other guy” is being an asshole.

Last week Dr. Michael Jerryson came to our campus to talk about religions and violence. He wasn’t arguing that some religions are more violent than others. He didn’t try to paint violent people as deviant or mentally ill or evil. Rather, he pointed out that when any human being perceives a threat to their survival, their family, their nation, or a threat to whatever they hold good and sacred, they may respond with violence. Evil acts are done by ordinary people.

I think he’s right. I think we’re seeing a lot of that right now.

A lot of people in this country believe they are under threat. They believe their enemies are trying to destroy everything they hold dear. The problem is, they’re not wrong.

But here is the distinction – some people are being attacked and others are just being opposed. The problem is we can’t always tell the difference.

I oppose white supremacy because white supremacists attack and kill people of color and enforce oppressive laws that threaten and limit the survival of people of color. I want white supremacists to be arrested and jailed for hate crimes. I want society as a whole to so loudly, publicly, and repeatedly denounce white supremacy that they can’t say a word in public without being shouted down, can’t write a single line of fake news that anyone would click on or read, can’t suggest a single law without being being thrown out of legislative committee, and can’t mistreat a single POC customer without being fired on the spot. But I don’t want to kill them.

Likewise with sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, the greedy and corrupt. I oppose them. I will do everything I can to stop their behavior and denounce their views. But I don’t want to kill them, even when they want to kill me.

According to Dr. Jerryson, people become more prone to violence when they enter a mindset he calls a ‘sacred emergency.’ They perceive whatever they hold dear to be sacred, righteous, and ultimately good. Whoever opposes them is, therefore, evil. Their mind begins to interpret all opposition as a literal attack, a threat not only to their existence, but to the existence of the sacred, the good.

It’s like flipping a switch. Normal moral behavior can be suspended in such a state of emergency. Violence and self-sacrifice are justified because the person in the sacred emergency is “at war.” You’ll hear this rhetoric from white supremacists. They believe they’re at war.

More frightening, however, is that you’ll also hear this rhetoric from people in the White House right now. They believe they’re at war – against Muslims and Jews, people of color, immigrants, feminists, liberals and social progressives. They’ve mistaken opposition for attack. They see an opponent as an enemy. They fear loosing because they believe it means annihilation.

Because they believe they’re at war, they can justify almost anything, even a literal war. Honestly, I am most afraid of this possibility. We’re not there yet, but in the meantime, they’re doing plenty of damage with executive orders, harmful laws, and overuse of police powers. I am afraid, though mostly on behalf of more vulnerable brothers and sisters who are, literally, being attacked.

Fear is a very hard thing to fight. The people in the White House today are afraid. The people who voted for them are afraid – of loosing jobs, of loosing ways of life, of living in a country they don’t recognize anymore – mostly they are afraid of change, which is a very human thing. They have suffered in their lives, as have we all, and have willingly grasped a mis-attribution of the cause of their suffering. They are afraid, they are angry, and reaching out for every bit of control and power they can find.

The struggle is to prevent myself from doing the same. I am afraid, but I try so hard not to be angry. Some days I fail. I want things to change so badly. I want the power to change it, but I don’t want that power to come at the expense of others less fortunate or more vulnerable than I.

This is too vague. A dozen times I’ve started a specific list of things to oppose, things to support, causes to give money to, politicians and policies to denounce. There’s just too much to say about it all, but others are saying it if you know where to look.

So I’m just going to do this. I’m going to keep opposing attacks on others. I’m going to continue to be an advocate on social media. I’m going to keep giving to causes that protect others from attack. I’m going to vote. I’m going to speak out in public when I see someone being attacked. I can’t promise I’ll put my body in harms way to protect another. I wish I could, but I just don’t know that about myself yet. So I’m going to do what I know I can do. I’m going to educate. I’m going to love in the face of fear.

Spiritual Formation of the Bodhisattva

February 19, 2017
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‘Estatuas en Hasedera’ by Carlos Alejo via Flickr.com

Around the 8th century CE, a monk at Nalanda, one of the largest Buddhist monasteries and universities to ever exist, composed a text called the Bodhicaryāvatāra or The Way of the Bodhisattva. It’s actually a great story. Basically, all the monks had become convinced that he was a lazy do-nothing, so they challenged him to give a public lecture. They expected him to embarrass himself. Instead, Śāntideva expounded what is now considered on of the greatest works of Buddhist literature.

Whether the story is true or apocryphal, the Bodhicaryāvatāra has been used for hundreds of years to guide the spiritual formation of aspiring bodhisattvas. According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a “being intent on enlightenment.” Pema Chödrön calls them “spiritual warriors who long to alleviate suffering, their own and that of others.” In other words, a bodhisattva practices in the path of the buddhas, to obtain enlightenment and liberate beings from suffering.

That sounds like a tall order. Especially when one considers the great mythic figures like Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with a thousand ears and a thousand eyes to hear and see the suffering of the world and a thousand hands and feet with which to reach out and help them all. Or like Ksitigarbha who vowed to aid suffering beings trapped in the hell realms until such realms were entirely emptied.  That sounds like a lot. One might think “So when we talk of bodhisattvas, we’re not really talking about me, right?”

Śāntideva was speaking about aspiring bodhisattvas just like you and I. In fact, he was speaking for himself, from his first-person very human experience, and speaking to his very human audience of fellow monks, not without some tongue-in-cheek, too boot. He laid out a clear path for how a normal person becomes a bodhisattva in this very lifetime. Of course, the story then asserts that after expounding this clear path he floated away into the sky, so make of that what you will.

I have recently completed my first thorough review of the Bodhicaryāvatāra with an eye towards its implications for my practice as a Buddhist chaplain. My conclusion is that this is a rich text entirely applicable to our lives and work today, especially in relation to the spiritual formation of Buddhists on the path of the bodhisattva.

Spiritual formation, briefly defined, is how one’s spiritual practice or religious beliefs inform one’s everyday life and work. Formation is an ongoing developmental process related to how we see ourselves as persons and how that changing self-perception informs our thoughts, speech, and actions throughout our lives. Spiritual relates to questions of ultimate concern, that is, what is most important in this life and/or the next. For a practicing Buddhist, ultimate concerns tend to relate to liberation from suffering in this life and/or the next through following the path of the buddhas to enlightenment. (Of course, many practicing Buddhists have much more mundane ultimate concerns such as making a living and raising a family. These are laudable as stages in the path and not to be denigrated.)

As a professional chaplain, spiritual formation relates to several clinical pastoral education (CPE) outcomes (ACPE Outcomes 311.1, 312.1, and 312.9) and standards of professional practice (APC Standards TPC1 and IDC1-4). Chaplains are expected to pursue their own spiritual formation consciously and proactively throughout their lives. In other words, on the path towards developing Right View, we need to start by figuring out just what is our view? And how does that inform what we do?

Śāntideva starts in exactly the same place in the Bodhicaryāvatāra. He begins by examining how one forms the intention to become a bodhisattva. This concern accounts for almost a fifth of all the verses in the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It is especially prominent in  chapters 2 and 10, and is also found in every single chapter within the work. What characterizes the intention of the aspiring bodhisattva?

The bodhisattva will not tame the mind or achieve wisdom unless she cultivates a pure intention to do so for the sake of all beings. A selfish intention, that is, one that clings to the notion of “I,” is the very antithesis of wisdom and arises from a mind overrun by sensual desires. Śāntideva, therefore, encourages the bodhisattva to develop bodhicitta, or the awakened mind/heart.

1.8
Those who wish to crush the many sorrows of existence,
Who wish to quell the pain of living beings,
Who wish to have experience of a myriad joys
Should never turn away from bodhichitta.

In both cases, the first part of the word, bodhi, comes from the same root as the word buddha, the “awakened” one, so it is the same kind of awakening for both. Citta is commonly translated as “mind,” but also connotes “thought,” “attention,” “desire,” “intention,” and “aim,” leading Francis Brassard, author of The Concept of Bodhicitta in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, to describe bodhicitta was the “will of enlightenment.”

The great bodhisattvas, through countless rebirths, are motivated by māhakaruṇā or “great compassion.” Any motivation aside from compassion simply will not work for the purposes of enlightenment. Having a good intention, in this sense, is the only way to achieve an ultimately good result. Therefore, verses on the formation of proper intention are commonly accompanied by an exploration of the fruition of the Buddhist path in complete, total enlightenment and liberation from suffering, also known as nirvāna.

3.1
With joy I celebrate the virtue that relieves all beings
From the sorrows of the states of loss,
Exulting in the happy states enjoyed
By those who yet are suffering.

Only a purely altruistic motivation can abandon the “I” delusion and realize all phenomena as empty – ultimate wisdom. Likewise, good intention involves the fate of other beings, so intention is related to how one should regard those other beings, as either equal to or more important than oneself, and treat them accordingly. Through study, meditation, and our work as a chaplain, we begin to apprehend the relationship between prajñā, śūnyatā, and nirvāna.

Understanding begins with intention. Chapter 2 of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, which is called “Confession of Sins” or “Offering and Purification,” is about forming a strong intention to become a bodhisattva for the sake of all beings. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the purpose of the entire text is “to further his [Śāntideva’s] own spiritual practice and that of those who are at the same stage as himself.” In other words, Śāntideva explores the aspiring bodhisattva’s purpose from a first-person perspective, an ordinary human perspective. His Holiness elaborates:

Driven by the desire to help beings, one thinks, For their sake, I must attain enlightenment! Such a thought forms the entrance to the Mahāyāna. Bodhichitta [sic] then, is a double wish: to attain enlightenment in itself, and to do so for the sake of all beings.

Chapters 3 and 4 continue to build on the intention of the aspiring bodhisattva while also introducing the various virtues the bodhisattva will perfect along her path. Chapters 5 through 9 are dedicated to those virtues. Chapter 8 focuses on the development of meditative concentration as a necessary prerequisite for the exploration of wisdom in chapter 9. Chapter 10 forms the final dedication of the book and contains of of the most poetic recapitulations of the bodhisattva’s intention.

10.55
And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.

This intention forms the root of our practice. We should train gradually to build a stable foundation. According to His Holiness, we need to start with a “clear, overall view of the path,” so we know when we’re making progress, then practice regularly to profoundly change our minds through long sessions of meditation. Later these changes carry off the cushion into our daily lives. We then start accumulating good merit. We then reach the “path of connection with its four stages of warmth, climax, endurance, and supreme realization.” Then we move onto the path of seeing and gain wisdom and eventually Buddhahood, helping countless others along the way. This path begins with the will to walk it.

Anxiety Lies

February 14, 2017
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‘Anxiety’ by katieg93 via Flickr.com

My dog is lying on the floor in the sunshine. I stretch out one slipper-clad foot beneath my desk. I can just touch his back with my toe. He cracks one dark eye open, but doesn’t move. He knows this is just his person procrastinating, not a genuine invitation to play.

There is a dissertation proposal draft to finish, two loads of clean laundry to fold and put away, a sink of dishes to wash, several bags of bottles to take to the recycling center, homework to grade, and emails to write that I’ve procrastinated since Friday. It’s now Sunday.

There are healthier ways to procrastinate. I could meditate or exercise or take the dog to the park.

Mostly I want to go back to sleep. I want to dream. I want to binge watch television or binge read novels. I want to hide in my house and not talk to anyone at all for at least three days.

The funny part is that I know exactly what this is. I teach it to my students. Procrastination is an emotion-based coping tactic when an action-based coping tactic is necessary. It is a way of attempting to deal with anxiety, stress, sadness, or other negative feelings through the active use of distraction.

It is more effective to target the source of the anxiety by working on my dissertation proposal, for example, until it is done and I feel good about it and have less reason for anxiety. Except that I know when it is done I will still have anxiety.

I am waiting, in limbo, caught between having turned in my qualifying exams and the meeting that will tell me if they are actually any good – if I passed. And in my addled brain, those are the options. Either they are very, very good and I passed or they are absolutely worthless and I didn’t pass. Which is silly, of course.

I don’t believe my work is worthless, even if it’s not sufficient. Whatever they tell me tomorrow, I’ll learn from and improve what I’ve done. I might spend a little time sobbing in the ladies’ room, first, but then I’ll pick myself up and start writing again. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.

Procrastination feels bad because underneath that “I don’t wanna!” feeling all that anxiety is lurking. We don’t want to face it, but it’s there and it’s not going away. Procrastination feels bad because we compound that anxiety by making ourselves more likely to fail by selecting the wrong coping strategy, and we know it. Procrastination feels bad because it neglects behaviors that would actually make us feel better. And finally, procrastination feels bad because we feel helpless to prevent it. We feel like we’re not in control and feeling lack of control sucks.

So on Sunday, I spent about ten minutes sitting in my office, staring at my computer and poking the dog with my toe. Then I started writing again. I started with what was going through my mind just then. Nothing fancy, just what I was thinking right then.

I wrote this about procrastination and, in so doing, put all my anxieties out there in the open and then refuted them. They’re not silly, they’re just anxieties, same as everyone else’s. They’re normal.

When I can see anxiety as normal, it somehow isn’t as scary. I start to remember exactly what to do with it. So I started writing and wrote this, then I got up and washed the dishes. I took the dog to the park. I folded laundry while listening to a favorite podcast. And I felt a little better after that.

Anxiety lies. It tells us we won’t feel any better until the source of our anxiety is resolved. In my case, until I hear the outcome of my exams. It locks us into a state of limbo, but we have the key.

We can’t live in that state of limbo forever. I mean that literally; we can’t. Our bodies can’t handle that level of chronic anxiety. They seek to get out. Sometimes we get out through procrastination and distraction. Some people drink or engage in other destructive behaviors.

We can also get out of limbo in other ways, like laundry and dog walking and writing about why we’re anxious. We don’t even have to get very far out. We make a little progress and our mood gets better and suddenly limbo is a much bigger place than we thought it was.

After I walked the dog and did the laundry, I had lunch and watched some West Wing. (I’m in desperate need of a fictional government that actually cares about me these days.) I spent time with my partner, which always makes me feel better in ways I can’t even explain. I graded some papers and that helped me feel like I’d accomplished something worthwhile.

Then I sat down and finished my dissertation proposal draft. I’m sure it still has room for improvement. Almost everything does. But I’m happy with it and I sent it off to my advisor for feedback.

I’m as prepared as I can be for my meeting tomorrow. Yesterday, I got up on time. I meditated. I ate healthy and exercised. I went to work and I made progress on projects. I tried to help other people. I came home on time. I snuggled with my sweetheart. I cuddled my critters. I went to bed on time. I slept well. These are all the things procrastination wants to prevent me from doing, all the things anxiety tells me won’t help. They helped. Anxiety lies.

(Credit due to Wil Wheaton, who has written so openly about his struggles, often using the phrase “depression lies,” which I have shamelessly cribbed.)