Willpower and Sense-Power

A healthful discipline is the sense of a maturity and dignity being tapped within us, an order that is innate and yet alien to our usual manner of thought. Most of our thinking has the character of infants, childish wants and dependencies that trigger shrieks of anguish when withheld.

Discipline can be helpful or destructive depending on whether it helps increase or decrease the flow of energy. When imposed in an insensitive way like a violent dictator energy is ultimately constrained and destroyed. Does it act as if to remove kinks from a constricted hosepipe or does it just turn up the pressure, increasing strain and the risk of breakage? Does it bring consciousness and sensitivity with it?

We can think of stereotypical old-style military training as all we’re trying to avoid. Constructive discipline is innate rather than imposed, gentle rather than violent and is well-modulated rather than all-or-nothing. We are autonomous internally responsive beings rather than puppets jerked around to external concepts.

Discipline as in the ancient myth is the act of tying our compulsions to the mast to better resist or even avoid entirely the siren call of sensation. The sensations drift by and afterwards we wonder why we were ever lured by them. The highest use of willpower is in avoiding situations where we have no choice but to use it; willpower is conserved as a precious resource.

As it’s conventionally understood willpower is nothing but a set of priorities skewed to one side or other. For example a required activity may be resisted ordinarily but as a matter of life or death is suddenly achieved with ease. Willpower is simply the present distribution of our motivations. The zealot, the fanatic – with a mind unbalanced – has huge willpower. Willpower produced from simplification offers a kind of clarity but it may be the clarity of the insane.

We may even need another word than willpower that emphasizes consciousness rather than self as the agent of change – perhaps “sense-power”. The motivating force being a sense of aesthetic order rather than self-defeating desire. The generation of will is unnecessary, a distraction and even counter-productive.

There’s no need to create will when something is clearly seen as harmful; your senses help you avoid it as you would any other  danger. If a large hole appeared in the path ahead would you need strong will to walk around it?

If while walking home we saw an escaped tiger in the distance the situation by itself would provide both energy and a course of action.  Our essential problem is we don’t fully see the tiger and so are deprived of the jolt of true perception.

The lure of sensual immediacy can best be countered not by “strong will” that after all springs from the same selfish source but by opening an objective link between a present and future self to create less bias toward the former. By seeing the complete picture we’re less likely to make choices unhealthy for the whole organism.

We often say when tempted by indulgence that we’re “in two minds” as to what to do. But are these paths really peers and equals or is one just a reflex of the body, a hijacking of an ancient survival instinct with no relevance today? Just by recognizing it as such can the destructive choice be weakened and a different set of priorities emerge?

When thinking clearly the healthiest choice truly is the easiest choice. It’s not stronger will we need but sharper, clearer senses and the dispassionate framework to use them.

Insight as art and science