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.