Alternatives to Will Power

I am a big believer in willpower. I am not talking about the Thelemic “True Will, every man and woman is a star” kind of will, although it is connected. This is just the old fashioned meaning of willpower. Its what your 6th grade gym teacher was trying to cultivate by telling you to stop wining and get in the game. It’s what your drill Sergeant wanted to around telling you to suck it up and get through it. Its what your personal trainer is trying to eek out of you when he tells you just a few more crunches.

I define willpower as the ability to make yourself do things that you know you should, in the moment that you least want to.

I believe strongly in the cultivation of willpower and discipline. It is an important key to having the life that you want. Unfortunately it is easy to talk about willpower and less easy to exercise it. This does not stop certain magicians and spiritual teachers from spouting shortsighted platitudes about it.

I recently read an interview with a popular western “Rinpoche” who stated that “Fat people are fat because they want to eat more than they want to lose weight – its that simple”.

Another spiritual teacher from a different tradition said almost the same thing about money “Poor people are poor because they value spending on impulse items more than they do saving money”

Both of these statements sound good to people looking for so called common-sense wisdom. Unfortunately common sense is what told people the world was flat, and these statements in particular are nothing but smug platitudes from people ignorant of their subject matter.

Each of us have certain genetic pre-dispositions that lend themselves to various bad habits. What might be a simple matter of willpower to one person, is a matter of fighting a collodal uphill battle against neuro-chemistry in another. .

Each of us have different upbringings and educations. Some of my students get bored at my financial magic classes because they were raised in families that taught them how to save, invest, avoid debt, etc. Others write to me overjoyed because this is literally the first time anything like this was ever explained to them. What is a simple matter of discipline to one, can be an epic battle against race, class, ethnicity, and environment to another.

The more you do something, the more your brain accommodates and craves it. If you eat a lot of fatty greasy foods, smoke like the marlboro man, avoid human contact like the bubble boy, or spend money like a drunken sailor, your brain develops neural connections to support those habits. Soon those connections get stronger and deeper and make you crave more of the same. Meanwhile the ones that don’t get used, shrivel up and disappear because they don’t get used. When you try to stop using the well worn pathways and start carving out new neural connections you are doing something with real physical effects. Stoppin smoking, avoiding fast food, saving money, approaching members of the oppositee sex can all be things that actually hurt physically. It can in fact be torture.

Now the fact that some changes in behavior will come excruciatingly hard for some is NOT an excuse for people to not make those changes. In my opinion, the defining quality of being human is the ability to override your impluses and natural inclinations and act according to reason and true will.

Thankfully when simply “nutting up” is not enough to give us the discipline we need, there are some tricks that we can use to force ourselves to do what we know we need to do in those moments we least want to do them. First you need to know a bit about your brain. Your brain has four sections, listed in terms of age and power these are:

  • Brain Stem: oldest and 1st developed part of the brain that controls breathing and unconscious functions.
  • Reptilian Brain or Limbic System: Primal functions of anger, revenge, fear, sex, etc.
  • Cerebellum: Coordination and Motor control
  • Cerebrum: Newest and last developed part of the brain which controls all Sophisticated functions including those focused on noble, altruistic, and long term goals.

The problem comes in that the older parts of the brain have veto power over the newer parts of the brain. It is your Cerebrum that develops the aspiration for enlightenment, good health, prosperity, and equanimity. It is your Reptilian brain that wants immediate gratification, and to flee from possible failure. More often than not our real goals and true will involves aspirations of the cerebrum that need to over-ride the mechanisms of the reptilian brain. The brain is not set up this way. Evolution was more concerned with survival than nobility and set the reptilian brain up to over-ride the cerebrum.

The reptilian brain fears failure which it views as pain. When you are so afraid of public speaking that your body rails against it this is the reptilian brain. Thus it is often better not to try than to try and fail – at least as far as the reptile brain thinks.

The reptilian brain loves comfort and instant gratification which it views as pleasure. When you sabotage your interview at the last moment, this the reptilian brain fighting against the unknown factor of a new job.

So, although it is best to just face this head on, suck it up, and will your way through it, sometimes it is just too much. At such times it is wise to make the reptile brain work against itself by making what it would normally find pleasurable painful, and what it would normally find painful, pleasurable by comparison.

For instance, I am a terrible procrastinator. Writing articles, much less books, is often a difficult task for me to finish. The only reason that I completed my first book is that I managed to sell them to a publisher and get an advance. In this case the reptilian brains fear of the pain of being sued by the publisher is stronger than the reptilian brains pleasure it would derive from avoiding the massive amount of work it takes to write a book as well as the fear of the book failing.

Most people who have lost 80plus pounds or more and kept it off (without surgery) tell a story of a moment that stuck with them and made the pain of possible death or even just romantic failure worse than the pleasure derived from eating whatever they wanted. Kate Moss got a lot of flack for once saying “being thin feels better than eating that tastes”. Now granted Kate Moss is probably anorexic, thus the flack for the statement, but if used as a mantra for someone reminding themselves of how crappy being overweight feels, she is kinda spot on.

So my advice is to find the thing that you can’t seem to just tackle head on and find a way to make not changing more painful than changing. There are a number of ways to do this. Here are some ideas:

  • Visit a lung cancer support group to help quit smoking – my father in law just passed away from it last week. I saw him about 3 hours before he died. Its fucking horrific.
  • Tell people that will hold you accountable that you are going on a diet – you have to be motivated by embarrassment for this one. Both RO and I tried it once and neither of us felt particularly motivated
  • Curse yourself or summon a guardian to curse you when you fail to make the change. I have done this and MAN it is effective. Be very careful and only place yourself in the hands of benevolent entities.
  • Calculate how much you would be able to do for yourself each month without that $10,000 in credit card debt hanging over you. Post it somewhere to remind you.

Whatever it is that will motivate you, do it.


About Inominandum

Author. Sorcerer. Consultant. I have 30 plus years of experience making magic a reality for myself, my clients, and my students. For a complete background go to
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17 Responses to Alternatives to Will Power

  1. Mike C says:

    Freakin’ excellent post… I love the seamless integration of Biology, Science and Magick. Years ago I used Crowley’s behavior modification by razor technique for several months and while it definitely did get the job done, I think a more Strategic approach such as you’ve outlined here would have worked equally well. (Not to mention I’d have a dozen less scars on my upper arms)

  2. RO says:

    It would have worked, that little agreement we made, if I had more shame.

  3. Excellent post, Jason, particularly the clear explanation of the parts of the brain, which can cause so much inner conflict. There’s an analogous point I’d like to suggest. While the “more painful than not” approach absolutely works, I think it’s useful to remember that it is also possible to work on retraining your brain to make the desired behavior more pleasurable instead of painful. For instance, when I quit smoking, it was 10 years after I watched my mother die of lung cancer (horrific, indeed.). But it wasn’t until I focused on the small joys of unimpeded breathing, of clean-smelling clothes and a clean-tasting mouth, not to mention the pleasure of feeling in control of my behavior, that I was finally able to quit for good (25 years now). I think, as a society, we tend to focus much more on the behavioral modifications that pain can induce, because pain is such a powerful and immediate stimulus. But the mindful pursuit of pleasure is also a source of power and transformation, and, I feel, one that is too often devalued in our society, because it is seen as self-indulgent and antithetical to the spiritual path. Personally, I think just the opposite is the case, though I will emphasize that “mindful” is the key. I also think that the work involved in becoming a magician tends to integrate the brain in ways that allows anticipation of pleasure to be as powerful a motivator as the avoidance of pain. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

    I also appreciate your insightful comments on willpower and the “colossal uphill battle against neuro-chemistry” that is often involved in transformative work. It never ceases to amaze me how many self-described “spiritual teachers” are so lacking in the very empathy and compassion their spiritual path enshrines.

    • Ivy says:

      I second the boost pleasure idea. If you can boost the pleasure of the “good” choice and increase the pain of the “bad” one… it’s a double whammy. Also, since willpower is a muscle, you should avoid overloading it. That means that you shouldn’t try to change every bad habit at once (and explains in part why people who quit smoking gain weight, I mean in addition to oral fixation). You should also set up systems to reduce the active temptation avoidance you have to do. If you want to quit drinking soda, get it out of the house. If you smoke at the bar, find a different bar. If you stop for donuts on the way to work… take a different route. Save some strength for when you need it (like when someone else brings donuts to work to share — doh!).

      I quit smoking by slowing restricting the places where I couldn’t smoke. So, no smoking in the house (I kept them in the car). And then I added no smoking in the car (I kept them at work). Then no smoke breaks at work. Just slowly pushing it out of my life.

      You can also just out and out trick the more primitive portions of your brain into doing what you want through the superior logic skills of your advanced portion. One of the best ways to lose weight is to throw out all your dishes and get smaller ones. Get rid of your dinner plates and use your salad plates. Buy tiny bowls (the kind they use for mise en place in cooking) for snacks and desserts. Get tiny glasses and little cups. It sounds odd, but while your conscious mind knows the difference your reptile brain totally doesn’t. It just goes, “I drink three cups of coffee a day” or “I refill my plate once at dinner” or “I enjoy a bowl of ice cream.” Currently, a pint of Haagen Dazs is six servings for us.

  4. Jason says:

    Good stuff, and of course timely, since I promised you I would so something weeks ago because you were gracious enough to make me a fantastic offer, and I haven’t done it. That’s not like me at all, so my bad.

    But it does speak to the power of sever clinical depression, not just feeling sad or situationally depressed. It’s something that most people can’t really understand who haven’t grown up with it; it sucks the life out of you so pervasively that even if you “nut up” for years, you’re really just burning through your energy faster. It’s like slamming a bunch of coffee for an all-nighter – it will work, but there will be a price to pay.

    I even chose my profession – sales – partially as a discipline to force myself to at least SEEM happy, because no one buys from sad people. And ironically I’m pretty good at it, but the depression leaks through anyway, and managers and coworkers notice, and like the sharks they are, circle and go for the kill whenever they have a chance. Especially when I’m outperforming them in actually selling – ironic huh?

    So this speaks to something I’ve been trying to figure out – when to “nut up”, and when to realize that goals and values aren’t aligned. Because when it comes down to it, no one needs willpower to do things they really want to do. We only need willpower when it’s something we DON’T want to do. So the trick is distinguishing if you don’t want to do it because it’s not truly aligned with who you are, or if you don’t want to do it because you’re overfocusing on one aspect of it that you don’t find tremendously enjoyable. I’m finally coming to grips with the fact that my willpower is extinguished for living a life that’s not authentically me because it doesn’t align with who I am, but that this is still no excuse not to do the little things in life that just have to be done no matter who you are. It’s not an easy task for someone who really never wants to do much of anything, even things I theoretically know I should enjoy, but at least being able to see things more clearly for what they are helps save up the little energy I do have for the things that matter.

    Thanks for contributing to the process with this article!

  5. Jason says:

    Haha, “sever clinical depression”. That’s a great Freudian Slip if I’ve ever seen one.

  6. Frater EH'e... says:

    First – sorry for this way to long post. If you like you can delete it. But you should read it first^.

    For Jason & RO, and everyone out there who would like to drop 40,50,60 or even 70 lbs – all without surgery, much hunger or any Exercise (which the MD’s always use as an excuse when you don’t lose weight with their diets,) all the while maintaining fairly normal to higher energy levels so you can make it through the day – let me tell you how I’ve dropped 50 lbs in the last six months (from 245 to 195 and heading to 175 before long.) This miraculous advice is also sorta magic related.

    What happened was I was watching a rerun of a David Blain show and interview (you know – the magic’eek (sic) dude you always see on TV that floats – lol,) He mentioned a diet, and swore by it, called the ‘Lemon Cleanse Diet.’ I did a bit of googlemancy and ended up buying the little yellow cover book/pamphlet.

    What it says it that it’s a cleansing diet\fast, only to be used for 10-30 days, two or maybe three times a year. This raised my suspicions, But Dave gave it such high praise I just had to give it a try. I just like,,, and,,, trust,,, the,,, guy……..:-).

    So I ordered a half gal. of Maple Valley Organic Grade B Maple syrup and when it arrived I went out and bought a bag of regular (not organic,) lemons. Plus your need to mix in a pinch of cayenne pepper (to taste.) The book said to drink between 6 and 10 of these drinks per day (each has 1 liquid oz. of maple syrup and 1 oz of lemon juice + 12\14 oz. of water.) and not to eat anything else – uh-hum.

    Well I knew right off I would never be able to drink that many of anything but I went ahead and gave it a try. I WAS RIGHT. Oh well.

    Still the stuff tastes great – for lemon aide. I swear it’s the best lemon aide ever! And you drink it hot\warm – not cold! So I figured I’d just drink a couple of them a day to replace ice tea and coke; until it was all used up – and consider it as just another of the proverbial learning experiences that life has become.

    Then a funny thing happened. I started losing weight. Two weeks latter when I would normally have to go buy groceries I discovered that I still had a weeks supply left. Then it dawned on me. The lemon aide is completely killing my normally ravenous appetite.

    Just two per day and you don’t have to feel bad about skipping a few days when you run out of syrup or just get tired of it. After a couple of days without it you will start to get hungry again, gain a couple of lbs. and become highly motivated to get back on it. Did I mention that you can lose all this weight without doing any Exercise at All? Interesting huh? Plus once I had been doing it for like three or four months I found that you can get by on just one per day for several days at a time. I suspect that once I hit my target weight one per day well work great as a maintenance schedule.

    Wonderful stuff – and the only stuff I’ve ever seen that works. At least that works and doesn’t make your teeth fall out:-). Plus you can skip a few day and start right back up again and in two days its working again. Miraculous I Say! Plus you will save more in food bills than the stuff cost to drink – Halleluiah! Here’s a link where I buy mine from Amazon. They ship it for free if you subscribe to monthly delivery.

    You may have to paste the whole thing in the address bar – friggin long ass links. Now where did I put that ‘tiny link’ thing-a-ma-jigg…crap. Can never find – ah never mind.

    Get it a quart at a time and have them ship it for free when you sign up for automatic delivery. I do it twice a month. You can skip a delivery every now and then. The quart jars are just easier to handle. Remember it has to be Grade B Organic Maple Syrup. Grade A wont work and neither will the junk you normally buy for your morning pancakes at the local grocery (mostly corn syrup with maple flavoring.)

    Also there are some less than scrupulous syrup purveyors who are clearly selling miss-labeled or adulterated grade B syrup. The name Highland comes to mind. However it is a lot cheaper – lol. Maple Valley is the brand recommended in the book and it works well too – but naturally its more expensive.

    Plus if the kids are a bit on the heavy side a couple of these (morning and night,) should help out without them even knowing they’re on a freaking diet. YMMV…

    Frater EH’e…

    Or what’s left of him :-)…

  7. John says:

    Hey Jason, is a promiscuous sex life an impediment to students of the occult? I know they train their wills to direct it to some matter or gesture but I find it hard that some people I know, with really active sex lives, do not find it hard to raise energy and direct their wills in ritual, and get satisfying results.

    As for me, I would need to abstain for a while to raise energy but it makes me boring as if I’m infertile or something.

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