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Why "will power" won't (do it)

One of the most deep-seated illusions in all of Western culture is the belief that we can and should control our behavior by using "will power". I can't hope to overthrow an idea as deeply entrenched as this one in this short piece, but I can sketch another system that is much better for solving personal problems. If what we were already doing was working, I'd have no reason to be writing. But it isn't working; our problems aren't getting solved. We need a whole new mental outlook.

Our entire culture is based on "doing," not being." The whole show runs on a narrow tightrope: try and try again, do and do some more, achieve, achieve, achieve. We all believe that anything we value--things, jobs, status, awards, relationships--came to us because we tried so hard to get them. I used to believe this firmly. In fact, the only thing I knew how to do was "do"; it was the only thing I ever thought I had to learn, or anyone tried to teach me. Learning "not-doing" was as hard as anything I've ever tried to grasp. (Notice that when you talk about "not-doing," all the words you use sound like still more doing.)

A person's errors in how to think are nothing more than a personal version of the culture's outlook. We have every reason to think the thoughts our culture teaches us to think, even if they're wrong; but if we're unhappy with the results, we can also look at reality for ourselves, then change our minds so that our ideas fit better with the way things really are.

The amount of stress we feel in our daily lives is the direct result of how much we want things to come out the way we want. Wanting results means wanting to control events until everything comes out as we want it to. All of us have both control-your-life and accept-what-you've-got traits, but it's safe to say that compulsive people spend a lot of time trying to control and very little trying to accept. A passive attitude is strange to us because we are so comfortable with "doing"; we think of passiveness as laziness.

Since most of us believe in self-control,we distrust the idea of giving up such control in favor of "letting go." Those who believe that "will power" and "self-control" are needed are also those who most resent external attempts at control. (These are the people who buy lots of diet books but reject any specific weight-loss suggestions.)

But in actual fact relaxed, focused, non-self-conscious effort is the quickest path to success in any field of endeavor. In Genius, his biography of the world-renowned physics Richard Feynman, James Gleick commented on Feynman's habitual way of approaching problems: "the goal was a mental flash, achieved somewhere below consciousness. In these ideal instants one did not strain toward the answer so much as relax toward it."

A surprising discovery was made not too long ago that validates the "no-stress" approach to solving problems. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the behavioral psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in economics, describes the research he did with his late colleague Amos Tversky, Using brain imaging, the two discovered that whenever a person applies great mental exertion in order to do or think about something that's difficult to accomplish (here, let's say staying on a diet), the brain is put under more strain than usual, and thus uses up its primary fuel, glucose, faster than normal, producing a condition Kahneman and Tversky called "ego depletion." In other words, the brain, tired from the strain of trying to achieve ambitious goals by means of "will power," is ironically even less able than it normally would be to cope with subsequent challenges. Thus the stress and mental fatigue caused by trying valiantly to stay on a diet using "will power" makes it even harder than it normally would be to resist whatever temptations may come along!

Today's Words of Wisdom: "The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in the widest sense." Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Interview with Nancy Bryan - Mike Horn
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