In the Buddhist tradition that I belong to, we sometimes refer to “The Great Matter”. Among practitioners you might find a number of definitions; existence as a whole, the balance of life and death, and certainly our relationship to all of it. There is a sutra that is recited during meditation retreats at the end of the day which goes like this:
I beg to urge you everyone:
Life and death is a grave matter;
All things pass quickly away.
Each of us must be completely alert;
Never neglectful, never indulgent.
This admonition is spoken at a time of concentrated effort by a group of people and it has great power. Naturally we don’t live at that kind of pitch day in and day out, but sometimes it would be nice to summon that kind of dedicated drive towards things we need or want to face, manage or accomplish.
The life and death part resonates with me this month as my father died on May 1st after a 4 year dance with dementia; in his case Alzheimer’s. I have been moving through the grief that entails and staying busy helping my mother with her own needs, both emotional and physical as she faced a hip replacement, which had been too “inconvenient” while my father declined.
Like giving birth, all the stories and books don’t add up to the actual experience of a loved one’s death. And they are the most common things in all of human existence. While this passage was in progress I happened to be reading a book called “Being Mortal”, by Atul Gawande. Talk about synchronicity! I highly recommend it and want to emphasize that it is not morbid or depressing. Instead it faces squarely the great matter that so few of us in the land of plenty ever do until forced by circumstances. We are mortal. How shall we manage our own end times? Not by pretending they won’t happen.
This great matter includes moving onward, stepping up to what is required even when I am sad, tired and overwhelmed. This past month has been full of that, and I find that the skills I use to keep going have been useful in sitting down to write this newsletter. I seriously considered skipping this month, and then remembered that I have wanted to write about will-power – when it can serve you and how to harness it. So voila, here is an opportunity to practice what I preach.
Self-control is just part of the landscape. When I am controlling myself I’m usually trying to NOT do something. Leave the sticky bits on the honey jar, make rude gestures at aggressive drivers, or leave clothes on the floor, for example.
It easy to feel overwhelmed by all sorts of self-generated “should” messages. I should always publish my newsletter every month no matter what. Alas, “shoulds” can lead to a defiant expression of willfulness that rejects the message. My husband can wipe off the honey jar, if they cut me off they deserve a wake-up call, and surely I deserve a break in general, right?
And on that note, check out Gretchen Rubin’s list of Loopholes. They are the stories we tell when willpower fails. I find them hilarious and oh so true.
How about a different approach: if I think about will power as a positive choice for some specific reason, often in my own best interests, things get easier. I hold a vision of what I gain by owning my actions. This is qualitatively different from “having to control” myself.
Here is how I turn around the examples above: I participate in domestic harmony by cleaning up my messes, my blood pressure and general well-being are enhanced by not taking other drivers so personally, my clothes are always ready to wear again if they are hung up. And finally, I know that my writing muscle just keeps getting stronger when I use it regularly.
I think the shrinks call this re-framing. In fact it is also a muscle – the more you exercise your will power, the more you have. The social scientists say that with practice you can then resist temptation more easily, restrain aggression (who, me?) and here is good one: cope with fear.
I find that fear is a very pervasive cause of a lot of organizational issues. People may not think of themselves as “fearful”, but what else is behind inability to let go of objects, low-grade panic about making wrong decisions, resistance to change or refusal to examine habitual behavior?
Flexing your will power muscle can also expand your ability to wait for rewards, to manage thinking patterns, and therefore choices! This point is a key factor. The real engine of will power or self-regulation is inside you; it is driven by your inner goals and desires. External drivers can be helpful – money, fame, the perfect car or relationship – but they tend to be less effective than an internal reward.
Here are some examples. The first might get you moving, but the second will reward you in the long term:
- Earning a good grade versus learning something and making it your own
- Losing weight for new clothes versus feeling good in whatever you are wearing
Be advised; studies have shown that willpower as a resource (just like a muscle!) can be stressed or injured by overuse. If you’re struggling to exert your will all day, it might be harder to maintain in the evening. Just something to keep in mind, if you’re clutter clearing all day and facing hard choices, don’t expect to resist dessert that evening.
The thing to remember is that the motivation for all these choices should come from within you, and what you believe about yourself. No outside force will inspire your willpower as much as what you know inside.
In my examples above it comes down to: I want the honey jar to be pleasant for my husband to use, I prefer to feel calm and alert when drive, and I like my clothes to look good when I take them off the hanger.
And heaven knows I like the satisfaction of writing something meaningful for my clients and readers.