I’m starting to understand how the whole concept of willpower is a sham.

It’s sort of funny because I took an entire college course on the psychology of willpower. All sorts of experiments have been conducted on people’s ability to do things like “delaying gratification” (such as looking at but not eating a bowl of cookies) and voluntarily withstanding various types of pain (how long will you immerse your hand in ice water?). There are mathematical models describing how willpower is depleted and renewed and how it relates to the immediacy (or lack thereof) of the anticipated reward.

The first signs of brewing trouble came (for me) in the form of studies showing that diets, exercise programs, and other regimes of “do it because it’s good for you” (including some religious doctrines) generally speaking do not work. They often work in the short term, but in the long term are more likely to leave participants worse off than they were before they started.

Then I began to see that the whole concept of willpower is antithetical to mindfulness, wholeheartedness, integral psychology, Zen, etc. These approaches first and foremost teach us to get out of our heads and tune into the sensations and experience of the body in the present moment. We work to fully experience our feelings, our body’s needs like hunger and movement, and our spiritual needs like connection and compassion. We then try to proceed in life honoring those needs without overriding them with preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “proper” or “civil” or the way to fulfill some other role that we are used to occupying (student, parent, spouse, employee, caretaker, and on and on).

Willpower is forcing oneself to overcome one’s own instincts and needs. Mindfulness is compassionately accepting and integrating our whole self, as it is, right now. These are polar opposites.

Ironically, the creators of the diets and workouts — and the prophets who headline our major religions — most likely were enlightened. That is, in a compassionate and mindful way they discovered methods by which they achieved health and happiness. Then they wrote those methods down for the benefit of the rest of us. And then, the rest of us started trying to force ourselves and each other to do those things.

Clearly there is no intrinsic problem with eating healthy and getting exercise and being honest and treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated. The problem comes when we try to do those things by force of will rather than out of compassion and mindfulness for what our whole self wants and needs.

I say this as someone who has been more or less stuck in my head for my entire adult life and who is at the present moment deeply hungry but putting off getting food because my mind wants to write this article and is afraid of pausing even for a few minutes because the rest of my body might realize that there are other, more pressing needs.

If that’s willpower, I no longer want it.


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