The Ineffectiveness of Willpower

At its core willpower is nothing but a set of priorities skewed to one side or other. For example a required but tiresome activity may be strongly resisted but as a matter of life or death is suddenly achieved in moments. Willpower is simply the present distribution of our motivations, how we freely decide to arrange them. The zealot, the fanatic – with a mind unbalanced – has huge willpower, at least in certain limited respects and for limited time. Willpower produced from simplification like this offers a kind of clarity but it may be the clarity of the insane.

However despite our natural assumptions or what popular entertainment shows us, self control by means of willpower is ultimately ineffective in the long run. Willpower creates a split in oneself – the part that acts and the part that is acted upon – that is inherently false and unstable; an (un)civil war whose battleground is the mind. Inevitably in time willpower must fade to leave us more despairing than ever. 

It’s been discovered we use the same cerebral mechanism to commune with a future self as we do to empathize with strangers so that self control is simply empathy in time rather than in space. When we compress time we compress space. It’s this empathy that transcends will altogether. What is harmful, now or later, is clearly seen and avoided once the complete picture is seen. It’s our awareness that’s lacking not our resolution.

Healthful and lasting outcomes can be achieved as almost a side effect of our seeing. What is termed willpower, being essentially separative, in fact acts against this broader view. A compassion for other beings that includes a future self is the key to a rational and productive way of life. Self control then emerges as just a facet of this care and conscientiousness.

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.

Rather than battling the world and ourselves with desires instead try only to raise sensibility every day, make that the top priority and simply see what happens.

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 a clear and obvious course of action and the energy to carry it out would come at once without the middleman of words or thought. Our essential problem is we’re partially blinded, don’t fully see the tiger and so are deprived of the jolt of true perception. We can’t see the danger right in front of us and seeing is all that’s required; action if needed will take place automatically.

When thinking clearly the sanest and healthiest choice truly is the easiest choice as all three converge. It’s not stronger will we need but sharper, clearer senses and the dispassionate mind-set to respond to them.

The heavily trafficked concept of “discipline” can be helpful or destructive depending on whether it helps increase or decrease the flow of energy. When imposed in an insensitive way as by an ideologue energy is ultimately constrained and destroyed. Does our discipline act as if to free a constricted hose pipe or does it just turn up the pressure, increasing strain and the risk of breakage? Does it bring consciousness and sensitivity with it? In a word is it intelligent?

We can think of stereotypical old-style military training as an extreme example, all we’re trying to avoid. Constructive discipline is self-generated 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.

When used rightly discipline and sensitivity create each other and merge together in a virtuous cycle without beginning or end.

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

Understanding as art and science