Embrace discomfort: the Japanese art of getting things done

LotusWhen publishing a book in Britain or the US about eastern spiritual practices – meditation, yoga, reiki – there’s an unwritten rule as to the cover design: it must feature a lotus flower, pebble, clear sky, still lake or smiling statue. (You can generate titles by randomly combining those words, too: Smiling Pebble In A Clear Sky: The Art Of Meditation. Out now in all good bookshops!) These cliches reflect the widespread assumption that the traditions of south-east Asia are all about slowing down, looking inwards and cultivating calm: the things you do, in other words, when you’re desperate for a break from the pace of modern (implicitly, western) life. But for Gregg Krech, an expert on Japanese psychology, that’s only half the story. Look closely at such philosophies, he argues in a new book, The Art Of Taking Action , and you’ll find they’re full of practical advice for getting things done. True, his book’s cover shows some bamboo strips by a pond, but there’s nothing so placid about what’s inside.

The problem with the usual up-and-at-’em approach to motivation is, in Krech’s view, that it’s far too hung up on the importance of being excited about what you’re doing, while avoiding the discomfort associated with boring, difficult or unglamorous work – far too hung up, in short, on emotions in general. If you see life that way, the cure for procrastination is clear: change your feelings of reluctance to feelings of enthusiasm. But trying to control emotions “is like trying to push back the water of the Kamo river upstream”, says the Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita, who is central to Krech’s book: it’s impossible. Morita’s alternative, “arugamama”, is to stop fighting uncomfortable feelings, accept them, and do stuff anyway – far more practical than being enslaved to the emotions of the moment. Krech quotes the meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran: “The statement we hear so often – ‘I like it, so I’m going to do it’ – is a confession that a person is not free.”

It’s eye-opening to think of excitement this way: not as the thing we should all seek in life, but as a mildly embarrassing affliction that’s as likely to distract you from what matters as guide you towards it. “The only way to really deal with the problem of excitement,” Krech writes, “is to stop becoming dependent on it”: it’s after excitement fades that you discover what you’re made of. This needn’t mean resigning yourself to a relationship or job you hate; it just means not relying on excitement, or the avoidance of discomfort, to decide what to do next. Life (to paraphrase the Buddha) is inherently unsatisfactory. And that’s liberating: you never have to wonder if the path you’re on will lead to unbroken thrills and zero frustrations, because you can be certain it won’t.

In an old Zen parable quoted by Krech, a monk asks his superior what to do about being too hot. His reply: “When it is hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.” Not literally: that’d be a rubbish productivity tip. But spending less time battling discomfort? That’s a productivity tip to beat them all. To be able to do what needs doing, whether or not you feel like it, is pretty close to a superpower.


First published in Guardian Weekend. Photo by Miriam Durán on Flickr.

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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