As soon as you understand will-power, you’ll understand why it is an ineffective tactic for achieving what you want. So understanding it can eliminate potential frustration. Still, if it isn’t effective, what is?
Will-power is using one desire to overpower a conflicting desire. Since desires are motivations for action, it’s often used in an attempt to substitute one kind of behavior for another kind to improve outcomes.
If you have not had a lot of success using it, you may have come to think of yourself as being weak or undisciplined.
If you have had some success using it, you may have come to think of yourself as being strong or disciplined.
It works best if you can force yourself to do something regularly for several weeks until it becomes habitual and routine. Even then, however, it doesn’t work well in the long term. Even if you keep forcing yourself in one direction until you die, you will have lived a life of struggle rather than a life of ease.
Let’s briefly consider an example. Since weight loss is a common problem with which I have had my own difficulties and since I happen to have a good understanding of it, it’s a good example of using will-power. [If you do a Google search for “natural weight loss,” you’ll find one starred result: It’s a website of which I’m the co-webmaster, namely lasting-weight-loss.com (click here for its homepage).]
Suppose you are overweight and desire to lower your percentage of body fat. Since you are otherwise healthy and have your physician’s approval in advance, you decide to diet by lowering your daily intake of processed or refined carbohydrates.
You force yourself to give up, for example, bread, pasta, all products containing table sugar, all products containing products derived from corn, and so on. You lose ten pounds in a month and feel good about your progress.
You understand what comes next, right? Sooner or later you’ll give in to your desire for sweets. You’ll see a luscious-looking piece of chocolate cake and decide, since you have been doing so well, that you deserve a treat. After all, life is short. Why deprive yourself? You could be dead tomorrow anyway.
Once you have given in, you feel guilty. Still, it was delicious! It didn’t cause you to regain all ten pounds. Soon there’s a second violation of your resolve, and you quickly regain all those pounds that you had worked to lose.
In this way, using will-power in an effort to lose weight often results in yo-yo dieting. In fact, in terms of lasting weight loss, diets fail. To be considered lasting, the results must be sustained for a minimum of 5 years.
The reason using it fails to work in the long run is that it does nothing about the underlying desire. In this case, you forced your desire to lose weight to overpower your desire to eat carbs. That can work for a while. Using it can even work for years. However, it is always a battle, always a struggle.
In fact, your desire to lose weight is embedded within more desires such as the desire to become healthier or the desire to become more sexually attractive. Unless you are already a sage, you are caught up in a whole net of desires.
The problem isn’t with your supposed lack of discipline. The problem with using will-power comes from its superficiality.
Understanding this common example this way makes it possible to understand the general problem with using will-power, namely, it fails to treat the underlying cause.
What’s the answer? It’s simple: no effective desires, no need for will-power.
You may be thinking: that would be great, but it’s impossible! How could I ever get rid of my desire for carbs (or anything else)? I’ve always loved bread and cake and I’ll never stop.
Here’s how to eliminate the temptation to use will-power by undermining the effectiveness of desires: realize that desires are nothing but thoughts. Here’s the key: once you notice and fully accept a thought, you are able to move beyond it. As soon as you fully accept a thought, let it go to remove it as a motivator. Just noticing a desire saps it of its power, its effectiveness.
The real problem is to notice desires as they arise. Instead of being hit by your desire for carbs and then finding yourself to have just sucked down half a dozen cookies, catch it earlier when the desire first disturbs your tranquility and let it go.
The cure, in other words, for thinking that you need will-power is mindfulness, paying (much greater) attention.
Once you notice a desire, the work is done. Just abide with it a while.
If, like a natural hunger pain, it persists, then eat something. On the other hand, if it involves an unnatural addiction such as an urge to eat sweets, it may simply vanish. If it doesn’t, then either eat a sweet or not – that is secondary. Notice that will-power is not required either way.
The real underlying issue that tempts us to use will-power isn’t conflicting desires — it’s that we’ve become ensnared by a whole net of desires, thoughts, emotions. Are we in charge of them or are they in charge of us? Are we free or are we slaves?
Each time there’s an issue, you can be in charge of your thoughts simply by noticing them. To notice them fully is already to go beyond them.
Becoming free of addiction to thinking (compulsive thinking, thought bondage) is much more important than breaking (or using will-power to try to break) any other addiction you may have.
Want a sword to cut the net?
The solution with respect to will-power is the same as the solution with respect to anything else: stop identifying with your mind, with your thoughts and emotions.There’s nothing else important that is required for living well. Thoughts and emotions are only inhabitants of Becoming; they are not inhabitants of Being. [For the Becoming / Being distinction, click here.]
This is all that really matters: shifting your focus from thinking to awareness. Living well is that simple.