Procrastination, Mindfulness, and Beginner’s Mind

Students have more opportunities than most for procrastination.  Many times, I’ve found myself grappling with impending tasks and getting entangled in anticipatory feelings that lead to procrastination.  The shift from anticipation to dread is a familiar experience, whether it’s rooted in imposter syndrome, fear of failure, or something else entirely.

As complexity increased in my own life, the pressure reached a zenith and I knew I needed to find a concrete action that would help keep me moving forward.  One of the most effective approaches (and the one I stuck with) involves mindfulness and cultivating an attitude of “beginners mind” or “Shoshin”.  The concept originates from Zen Buddhism, but you don’t need to sit in a perfect lotus posture or meditate frequently to see its benefit.

“If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything, it is open to everything.  In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the experts’ there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.  While at first this might seem like a standard condemnation of egoism and arrogance, it is much more.  It’s about looking at everything with fresh eyes, to make a serious effort to evade expectations and assumptions in each moment.  It’s about re-igniting your curiosity, even for the mundane or repetitive moments of your life.

When we procrastinate, we imagine the future and feel its’ weight on our shoulders.  We ruminate and over-analyze, building a quagmire under our feet.  Take this opportunity to try something new; recognize that every moment is truly new and see how that changes your experience.

Begin with a deep breath, focusing intently on the sensations associated with the breath.  Notice that every sensation, every thought, is brand new.  Did the last breath feel the same as this one?  When you pay attention to the sensations of sitting, how your body feels, is it always the same?  What about your thoughts?  Can you recognize them appearing and disappearing, in constant flux?  From a first-person perspective, each moment is an opportunity to begin anew.  This is a crucial realization that will allow you to view your internal dialogue in a very different way.

Imagine sitting on the banks of a river, watching the flow of your conscious experience go by— through the practice of observing thoughts without undue attachment, without preconceptions, a sense of clarity develops.  Recognizing that procrastination often arises from contemplating the entire magnitude of an endeavor rather than focusing on the present can be transformative.  By shedding the burden of future expectations and learning to observe thoughts without succumbing to rumination, we can reclaim the present moment and act within it.

This process involves being compassionate toward yourself, forgiving the time spent in apprehension of the future, and cultivating a mindset of perpetual renewal.  The joy inherent in the learning process, no matter how challenging, becomes palpable.

Personally, I’ve discovered that embracing this mindset transforms mistakes into moments of laughter and everyday discoveries into wonderous gifts.  Specifically in academics, it’s allowed me to find curiosity in topics I had previously dressed up in my preconceptions and declared unworthy.  My sincere hope is that we can all learn to enjoy the present moment a little more and bring our beginners’ minds with us.

If you’re interested in further reading more on the subject, I recommend reading Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki or if you’re a little more adventurous, try Shobogenzo by Dogen.  Good luck!