The Myth of Willpower

A healthful discipline is the sense of drawing on balance and dignity within us, an order that is innate and yet perhaps alien to conventional modes of thought. Most of our habitual thinking has the character of infants, childish wants and dependencies that trigger shrieks of anguish when withheld.

The much used 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 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? 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.

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 willpower is in avoiding situations where we have no choice but to use it; willpower is conserved as a precious resource.

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 with ease. 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 respects. Willpower produced from simplification like this 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” or “order-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.

Try only to raise sensibility every day, make that the top priority and then just see what happens. You might be surprised.

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.

Why is effort directed at changing or confronting our desires – the stuff of the self – so often self-defeating? One part of the self makes battle with another part so waging an (un)civil war with no obvious victor or conclusion. Success in this sphere is not some innate mental “strength” but simply how we happen to order our priorities. Ordered in a different way our “willpower” will magically increase or decrease. It may help to make these preferences explicit, bring them into consciousness and write them down.

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.

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.

It’s this empathy that’s a balancing force, that circumnavigates will altogether. What is harmful, now or later, is clearly seen and avoided once the complete picture is seen. Once again it’s our awareness that’s lacking not our resolution.

Understanding as art and science