On Despair

I do suffer from mild anxiety occasionally. A practice of Stoicism has helped me tremendously dealing effectively with those occasional gloomy days which seem to creep up from nowhere. Recently, I started reading about Zen Buddhism, which has led me to works of Shoma Morita and philosophies of Kaizen and Naikan. The more I read about Buddhism and Japanese philosophies, the more I realize how much it overlaps with core values of Stoicism.

Usually, eastern philosophies are associated with meditation, contemplation, and dealing with the inner world. Surprisingly, there is a complementary branch of practical philosophies focused on taking action and dealing with the external world, at the same time practicing mindfulness.

So far, the best resource I have found to study the practical Japanese philosophies mentioned above is the book “The Art of Taking Action” by Gregg Krech. In contrast to typical self-help books (which I do despise, btw), this book doesn’t contain any wishy-washy/feel-good/Tony-Robbins kind of stuff. It draws on Science, Eastern philosophy, Buddhism, Japanese Psychology, Zen, the Samurai, and Martial Arts, providing concise thoughts on the philosophy of practical action. I have tried to summarize the lines and paragraphs which highlight the essence of the book.


If you’re apathetic, or filled with hopelessness and despair, you’ve got to do what you can. Taking action. It’s a skill and a habit, and the more you do it, the better you will get at it.

Taking Action: Doing what needs to be done When it needs to be done, In response to the needs of the situation.

Paying attention to the world around you is a priceless skill – a skill that is elegantly connected to taking action.

In resignation, we are not trying to escape from our feelings, we are simply languishing in them. Rather than stepping back and observing our feelings we are overcome by them. Our internal experience dictates our conduct and our lives turn into roller coasters as they become mirror images of the constant fluctuations of our feelings.

“Paradoxically, this practice of complaining increases suffering. The more they detail their complaints, the more they focus their attention upon the complaints.”

When we are anxious, we just let ourselves feel anxiety. When we are depressed, we just allow ourselves to feel depressed and hopeless. The state of arugamama is one in which we do not try to escape from our emotional experience. We are not seeking any kind of emotional or cognitive state other than the one we are in at the moment. Yet we continue to devote ourselves to what is important for us to do.

When we are caught up in our idealized views about how we should be, we cannot accept things as they are. One of the main tenets of Morita Therapy is that our internal experience (feelings and thoughts) is basically uncontrollable by our will.

“Trying to control the emotional self willfully by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or pushing back the water of the Kamo river upstream. Certainly, we end up aggravating our agony and feeling unbearable pain because of our failure in manipulating the emotions.” –Shoma Morita, M.D.

A person who is obsessed with the desire for perfect feelings tries to feel refreshed at all times. In fact, however, our daily feelings naturally flow and change according to internal and external conditions like the weather. A person who insists upon feeling refreshed is like one who hopes to have clear skies all the time. As soon as he sees a bit of a cloud he assumes the weather will be terrible all day. When he feels just a little out of sorts he tells himself that he is no good and he makes himself feel worse.”

Accept your thoughts and feelings. Rather than fight what goes on in your mind, simply accept it.

In Morita therapy, it’s very important for us to recognize the distinction between thoughts (which include intentional thoughts) and actions. There is a world of difference between the two, just as there is a world of difference between a photograph of a blueberry pie and an actual blueberry pie. It’s not that we want a magic pill that will help us act on our thoughts. Rather, we want to be able to act, or not act, according to our purposes.

What we really want to do is develop a natural approach to taking action that meets the needs of the situation. “There is no merit in just thinking about doing something. The result is exactly the same as not thinking about it. It is only doing the thing that counts. I shall acquire the habit of doing what I have in mind to do.” People who get a lot done manage it because they have the ability to get each necessary thing done right there and then.

Pondering why I don’t feel like doing what I say I want to do, yet discovering one more time how great it often feels after I’ve done it, is just another reliable way to distract myself from the effort of doing the next thing. There is no substitute for “accepting my feelings” (of laziness or boredom, or anxiety, or whatever happens to appear), knowing my purpose” and then “DOING IT.” My stress is relieved almost from the moment I start, and I go to bed that night satisfied with what got accomplished.

Cleaning your room isn’t a permanent cure for emotional suffering, but the order, and the muscular exercise, are temporarily helpful distractions. When I am filled with emotion, big muscle activity helps reduce my stress. “Physical exertion gives your brain a rest,” says Dr. Selye, and “helps us to stop worrying about the frustrating problem.”

Aimlessness and procrastination create frustration, and the stress of frustration is much more likely than that of excessive muscular work or engrossing mental work, to produce disease.”

Naikan reflection helps me see the way I waste money and time; assists me to triage my current situation into uncontrollable, controllable, and influenceable chunks. And I also see the support that keeps rolling in, in one form or another.

When I do experience the signs of stress, it is a relief to observe that some of my stressful moments fade with the passage of time; some by exercise; others by reflection, but mostly by looking at what needs doing in my life that I’m not attending to, and getting it done. That offers me true relief. Action isn’t something that comes after figuring things out. Action is a way of figuring things out. One of the central principles of Morita Therapy is that we have much more control over our body (actions) than our minds (thoughts, feelings).

Newton’s First Law of Physics: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by some outside force. Once you understand momentum, you can get it to work in your favor. And when you become aware that you have become a “body at rest,” you realize that you will also remain that way unless something changes. “Never mind likes and dislikes; they are of no consequence. Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness.”

“Nothing in life is more satisfying than to be able to change our likes and dislikes when we need to. In fact, anyone who has mastered this skill has mastered life, and anyone who has not learned to overcome likes and dislikes is a victim of life. the tree doesn’t complain about its situation saying, “I should have been planted in a better spot; now I can’t grow well.”

The tree does its best with what it gets. It’s easy for us to focus on how we were dealt a lousy hand in life and use that as a constant source of complaint and excuse as to why we haven’t done better. This type of attitude contributes to our own suffering and to the suffering of others.

It’s not really the feeling of excitement itself which is the culprit here, it is the loss of excitement which then prompts us to abandon our efforts towards fulfillment of our dreams—dreams which were, at one time, very exciting to us. If anticipatory excitement moves us to action, the loss of excitement often prompts us to stop. Action dissolves into inaction.

Any time you begin to say “I should” or “I have to,” try replacing it with “I get to.” “There is an old Buddhist term, Ocho, which means overcoming by going around. In confronting a problem head-on, you may encounter a wall so high and thick that you cannot break through it. So you turn to one side and go around the wall. This is Ocho. Instead of sitting desolately in front of the wall that is blocking your progress, you try to get around it by making a long detour, or even by digging under it… It is a subtle but simple movement of the mind that makes this transformation complete, but an invaluable one to learn and perfect.” –Hiroyuki Itsuki

“You can be willing to feel fully and acknowledge continually your own sadness and the sadness of life, but at the same time not be drowned in it.”

Whenever we’re facing a challenging situation, one of the wisest things we can do is take a few minutes to distinguish between what’s controllable and what isn’t controllable.

We live in a goal-oriented culture and we receive encouragement to identify goals, write them down, and work towards them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that we can quickly find ourselves attached to the goals themselves, which are nearly always outcomes. And outcomes, in most cases, are uncontrollable. Finding a job, losing weight, getting a book published or finding someone for an intimate relationship are examples of outcomes which you really can’t control. When these outcomes become the main focus, we implicitly define success based on accomplishing something outside our control. Sometimes we are successful, and sometimes we aren’t.

The alternative is to focus on the effort we make. Our effort is almost always controllable – an action, something we can do. But if we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve done it to the best of our ability… that can be our measure of success.

Most of us would like the assurance that if we just work hard enough towards a goal, we’ll accomplish it. But it doesn’t always work that way. We have to accept the limits of our human control over the world. We have to accept the uncertainty of the way life unfolds. Attachment to our goals traps us in a life of seeking more and more control which not only creates disappointment, but creates an ongoing source of pressure and stress.

A second benefit of moving from a focus on goals to a focus on effort, is that it naturally moves us from focusing on the future to focusing on the present. Goals are what we desire or hope will happen in the future. When we are truly focused on effort, rather than outcomes, we find it easier to resist the temptation to abandon our integrity.

So the next time you consider a goal or dream, come back to the present circumstances of your life and take a constructive step forward. Make your effort the focus of your attention. Make your effort one which is sincere, attentive, persistent and thorough. Once you’ve done that, leave the outcome to life (or God or Buddha). There are too many uncontrollable influences to know, with any certainty, how things will unfold. Even a strong, well-built ship can be blown off course. We have to find a way to enjoy the journey, even when we don’t get the results we hoped for. Sometimes, those surprising, unhoped-for results are a real blessing.

Then we realize that life can be worthwhile without us being in control.

There’s a story that comes from the Tibetan tradition about a young man who has been in spiritual training for several years with his teacher. He is about to embark on one of the tests of his training. He must enter a room which is pitch black, make his way through the room and find the exit door. In the room are demons, and each demon represents one of his greatest fears. As he prepares to enter his teacher offers him two pieces of advice: “First, remember that the demons aren’t real. But when you encounter them they will seem real. So you must maintain a presence of mind and know, even as you are filled with fear, that the demon is not real.” “And what is the other piece of advice, my teacher?” he asks. “No matter what happens, keep your feet moving. If you keep your feet moving, eventually you will find the way out. But if you stop moving, your attention will be absorbed by fear and it will be hard to get your body moving again.” The student took the teacher’s advice and entered the room. Horrifying demons, transforming themselves into his fears, swarmed at him and surrounded him. At times, he forgot his master’s first piece of advice and thought they must be real. But he kept his feet moving. And he found the way out.

There is a far bigger picture to life than what we are facing in any particular moment. NOTE: control your perceptions.

Most procrastination is caused by a tendency to make a decision, in the present moment, based on what we feel like doing at that moment. And if we don’t feel like doing something NOW, then we’re not likely to feel like doing it later, because later will just be another NOW. If you don’t feel like doing your taxes NOW, just accept that you’ll probably never feel like doing them.

This is one of the reasons that Morita therapy is so valuable. It teaches us how to do that. We learn that we can coexist with our feelings and take them along for the ride. We don’t fight them. We don’t fix them. We don’t transform them. We coexist with them, while we move forward and take appropriate action.

Most of us need the pressure of a deadline closing in to kick us into action. Why? Because the feeling of discomfort or aversion we associate with the work is stronger than the feeling of anxiety we have about getting it done. So we wait until the feeling of fear or anxiety becomes stronger than the aversion to the activity. It’s a battle of feelings. The alternative is to simply do the work because it’s what needs to be done, regardless of how we feel. We can call this maturity, or self-discipline, but it’s really about developing the skill to coexist with our feelings and take action anyway.

Think of your life as a movie you are watching. You are midway through the movie and you don’t know what is going to happen. But you’re not supposed to know what is going to happen. The movie is not over yet. This is the challenge posed by the demon of indecision: Can you move forward in the face of uncertainty? Can you co-exist with confusion and not-knowing and take the next step?

“Give up on yourself. 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.”

In many cases, the mistake is less important than what you do after you’ve made a mistake.

“What is needed is not concern with what we’ve done wrong, but the determination to meet the demands of the moment.”