How to increase will-power

We know we are doing something wrong and yet, when the time comes, we are unable to stop ourselves.  This can happen for very small things and also for things which have a crucial impact on our lives.  When we are quiet, by ourselves, we feel that we will not indulge in wrong movements or repeat our mistakes. But as soon as the occasion arises, not only do we forget our resolutions, but even begin to find justifications and excuses for our indulgence. And the whole cycle repeats itself over and over again. We sometimes wonder why this is so.   This article explores the way out of this psychological predicament.

The human personality is extraordinarily complex consisting of several antagonistic parts nominally bound together under the control of the mind.   The mind itself is not a flawless instrument either; it is always capable of finding a way of explaining everything and providing admirable reasons for its conclusions. Depending on which side one begins to argue from, it can justify any impulse in the world.  The mind cannot eliminate the multitudinous impulses and desires we cherish within; it can only suppress them until the moment inevitably comes when mind becomes fatigued or foggy, allowing some other part of the personality to rebel and satisfy its pent-up thirsts.    The other thing to observe  is that one cannot exhaust a desire by fulfilling it just once or a few times.  The habit patterns cannot be broken by reinforcing them even marginally; they are nullified only after we have cast ourselves into the Greater Light of the Spirit.

When we begin to struggle with our desires, we begin to observe that there is a certain rhythm to it.   Once we gain enough will-power to refrain from a certain act, we realize that the habit hasn’t really been eliminated.  The vibration which has been cast out from within seems to hangs around in one’s atmosphere (circumconscient) from where it can re-enter during a moment of depression, anger or excitement.   To overcome this difficulty, one has to illuminate one’s own atmosphere through regular practice of Yoga, but even then the struggle is not over for the vibrations which we presumed to have been neutralized tend to sink into the subconscious, and from there they can rise during moments of weakness or during dreams when we are supposedly fast asleep.  The seeker of Yoga finds himself or herself caught in this labyrinthine game of hide-and-seek which can consume the greater part of one’s life.   But then, the unexamined life is not worth living, is it?

Manjit Singh pulls a double-decker bus. Click image for his website

We must begin with little victories.

The only solution is to keep making the effort day after day and, little by little, allow the rhythm of the body to change.  As the Mother Mirra Alfassa puts it:

It happens only when you have decided: “Well, this time, I am going to try not to do it, and I shall not do it, I shall apply all my strength and I shall not do it.” Even if you have just a little success, it is much. Not a big success, but just a small success, a very partial success: you do not carry out what you yearn to do; but the yearning, the desire, the passion is still there and that produces whirls within, but outside you resist, “I shall not do it, I shall not move; even if I have to bind myself hand and foot, I shall not do it.” It is a partial success – but it is a great victory because, due to this, next time you will be able to do a little more. That is to say, instead of holding all the violent passions within yourself, you can begin calming them a little; and you will calm them slowly at first, with difficulty. They will remain long, they will come back, they will trouble you, vex you, produce in you a great disgust, all that, but if you resist well and say: “No, I shall carry out nothing; whatever the cost, I shall not carry out anything; I will stay like a rock”, then little by little, little by little, that thins out, thins out and you begin to learn the second attitude: “Now I want my consciousness to be above those things. There will still be many battles but if my consciousness stands above that, little by little there will come a time when this will return no longer.” And then there is a time when you feel that you are absolutely free: you do not even perceive it, and then that is all. It may take a long time, it may come soon: that depends on the strength of character, on the sincerity of the aspiration. But even for people who have just a little sincerity, if they subject themselves to this process, they succeed. It takes time. They succeed in the first item: in not expressing. All forces upon earth tend towards expressing themselves. These forces come with the object of manifesting themselves and if you place a barrier and refuse expression, they may try to beat against the barrier for a time, but in the end, they will tire themselves out and not being manifested, they will withdraw and leave you quiet. [1]

Painting: Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891). Ulysses escaped the seduction of the sirens by tying himself to the ship's mast

The right order is to work from outside-in

The Mother said that the most effective way to achieve self-control is to work from outside-in.

“…you must never say: “I shall first purify my thought, purify my body, purify my vital and then later I shall purify my action.” That is the normal order, but it never succeeds.  The effective order is to begin from the outside: “The very first thing is that I do not do it, and afterwards, I desire it no longer and next I close my doors completely to all impulses: they no longer exist for me, I am now outside all that.” This is the true order, the order that is effective. First, not to do it.  And then you will no longer desire and after that it will go out of your consciousness completely.” [1]

Lets take the example of the currently widespread addiction to Internet browsing which hinders any type of deeper contemplation.   The screen images inundate the brain, draining its energy and sinking the mind into a stupor which hinders any other innovative train of thought.   If one had to combat this addiction problem using the outside-in process, one could conceivably work in the following stages:

  1. In the first stage, one could reconfigure the environment to keep the computer as far away as possible.  Introduce some annoyance that disrupts the cycle of desire satisfaction and forces one to take cognizance of  the turbulence within one’s consciousness.
  2. In the next stage, one would observe (and gradually lengthen) the gap between the desire to access the computer and the actual instance of usage.  It should be possible to sit in front of the computer and then walk away from it without using it.   The ability to achieve such a stupendous degree of control can be regarded as the hallmark of a successful modern-day Yogi!   One should even be able to control the time one uses the computer. (” I am getting off… enough is enough“)
  3. In more advanced stages, the granularity of self-control has to increase.  One should be able to watch one’s mind as one makes decisions at the computer.  Why am I clicking on this link?  Why am I visiting this webpage? Is it because I like to read gossip on the lives of celebrities?   Is it because I am so bored that I’d rather sit at the computer than do something productive?

See also

This article was adapted from the Question of the Month, May 2000 appearing in the NextFuture magazine published by the Sri Aurobindo Society.  For the archives of the Question of the Month section, click here.

References

  1. Collected Works of the Mother,  Vol 5, Question and Answers, 5 Aug 1963.
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14 thoughts on “How to increase will-power

  1. chaitanya

    Thanks for the post.

    I agree with points 2,3 that Observation holds the key. Observation (Mindfulness) introduces a gap between the stimulus (desire or emotion) and the response (action).

    Three points i’d like to make:

    1. Observation is a trainable skill and can be *migrated*. What i mean is that if we train in observation of in-out breath, the power of concentration increases, and will power also increases. Because, in doing in-out breath, we are exercising our will power not to let attention scattered with various thoughts.

    This general purpose will power, i believe, will be useful in real life situations where there is a need to introduce will power between stimulus and response.

    2. Couple of years back i read book “Mind and Brain” by Jeffrey Schwartz. In it, schwartz uses mindfulness techniques to treat people with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), which is characterized by compulsive need to do a certain action like washing hands. Mindfulness is introduced between the stimulus of wanting to wash hands and the action of actual washing. Gradually, he says, there is improvement in the person’s ability to control.

    Schwartz also said that this power of observation does actually alter some brain circuitry associated with OCD. Thus, there are *physical* changes happening in the brain simply through the exercise of mindful control.

    A lot of scientific research is happening in this field now (Mindfulness + neuroscience + psychology ).

    3. Most addictions (which are basically pursuit of pleasure) are an escape from pain and boredom. The more stressful/bored one is, the more one seeks to escape into some pleasure. So, alternative ways to reduce stress or reduce boredom might help. Exercise, Mindfulness (See MBSR), developing an interesting hobby etc.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      > i read book “Mind and Brain” by Jeffrey Schwartz

      Chaitanya, thanks for the comment. I will check that book out.

      Reply
  2. Jeanique

    Hello, you really have a nice blog.
    I’ve been coming through it through your article in NAMAH

    I’dd like to add something on this article (clicking form the main to this one)
    Working as a psychologist I observed some kind of ‘distance’ and learning to endure whatever is underneath (stress, fear, boredom) is usefull in OCD, but also all types of mental problems and addiction (mindfulness is a powerfull techniek but there are others, depending on what suits the person).
    However, also important is that there is the possibility of some form of ‘vicious circle’ which is reinforcing powerlessness instead of willpower. Usually it helps to get insight in this (at least for me personal as well )
    Having been raised in a hedonistic culture, the conditioning has been to ‘allow’ pleasure as much as possible within the social acceptable range. So that’s the collective field which is having it’s influence. With any form of addiction (or compusion), the short term ‘reward’ is immediate and the retribution (disappointment, shame, sense of lack of self control) comes later. So in cutting an addiction, one can (gradually) postpone to fullfill the desired action but in the beginning in most cases this will not be the last time “once and forever” . After relapse, the sense of “lack of willpower” is reeinforced which is sometimes leading to give up trying. Best is to consider these relapses as ‘normal’ and give some understanding of short and longerterm effects and not reinforce it as a “proof of ‘lack of willpower’. Stopping it to label it as such is important to break the pattern, I believe.
    Of course it’s best to ‘stand as a rock’ without relapse all together (in action) but for the group that isn’t very strong in willpower by nature, it helps to at least not reinforce the sense of ‘lack of willpower’ even more if the relapse occurs anyway.
    So not only the distance is needed but also a mild attitude to help not to give up (entirely).

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Jeanique,

      Thanks for the comment. As a practicing psychologist, you may know more about this problem of relapse than I do. Even in the path of Yoga, one suffers from relapses and one fluctuates through an ascending spiral of development rather than running fast in straight line.

      In the Letters on Yoga, Sri Aurobindo has commented on this debilitating “vicious circle of powerlessness” that you speak of. Here are a couple of excerpts.

      First excerpt:
      The habit of strong recurrence of the same things in our physical consciousness, so that it is difficult to get rid of its habits, is largely due to a subconscient support. The subconscient is full of irrational habits. When things are rejected from all other parts of the nature, they go either into the environmental consciousness around us through which we communicate with others and with universal Nature and try to return from there or they sink into the subconscient and can come up from there even after lying long quiescent so that we think they are gone. When the physical consciousness is being changed, the chief resistance comes from the subconscient. It is constantly maintaining or bringing back the inertia, weakness, obscurity, lack of intelligence which afflict the physical mind and vital or the obscure fears, desires, angers, lusts of the physical vital, or the illnesses, dullnesses, pains, incapabilities to which the body-nature is prone. If light, strength, the Mother’s Consciousness is brought down into the body, it can penetrate the subconscient also and convert its obscurity and resistance. When something is erased from the subconscient so completely that it leaves no seed and thrown out of the circumconscient so completely that it can return no more, then only can we be sure that we have finished with it for ever.

      (Letters on Yoga, SABCL, vol. 22, Planes and Parts of the Being, page 356)

      Second excerpt:
      When the soul draws towards the Divine,
      (a) there may be a resistance in the mind and the common form of that is denial and doubt − which may create mental and vital suffering.
      (b) There may again be a resistance in the vital nature whose principal character is desire and the attachment to the objects of desire, and if in this field there is conflict between the soul and the vital nature, between the Divine Attraction and the pull of the Ignorance, then obviously there may be much suffering of the mind and vital parts.
      (c) The physical consciousness also may offer a resistance which is usually that of a fundamental inertia, an obscurity in the very stuff of the physical, an incomprehension, an inability to respond to the higher consciousness, a habit of helplessly responding to the lower mechanically, even when it does not want to do so; both vital and physical suffering may be the consequence.
      (d) There is, moreover, the resistance of the Universal Nature which does not want the being to escape from the Ignorance into the Light. This may take the form of a vehement insistence in the continuation of the old movements, waves of them thrown on the mind and vital and body so that old ideas, impulses, desires, feelings, responses continue even after they are thrown out and rejected, and can return like an invading army from outside, until the whole nature, given to the Divine, refuses to admit them. This is the subjective form of the universal resistance, but it may also take an objective form, − opposition, calumny, attacks, persecution, misfortunes of many kinds, adverse conditions and circumstances, pain, illness, assaults from men or forces. There too the possibility of suffering is evident.

      There are two ways to meet all that −
      (1) first that of the Self, calm, equality, a spirit, a will, a mind, a vital, a physical consciousness that remain resolutely turned towards the Divine and unshaken by all suggestion of doubt, desire, attachment, depression, sorrow, pain, inertia. This is possible when the inner being awakens, when one becomes conscious of the Self, of the inner Mind, the inner Vital, the inner Physical, for that can more easily attune itself to the divine Will, and then there is a division in the being as if there were two beings, one within, calm, strong, equal, unperturbed, a channel of the Divine Consciousness and Force, one without still encroached on by the lower Nature; but then the disturbances of the latter become something superficial which are no more than an outer ripple, − until these under the inner pressure fade and sink away and the outer being too remains calm, concentrated, unattackable.
      (2) There is also the way of the psychic, − when the psychic being comes out in its inherent power, its consecration, adoration, love of the Divine, self-giving, surrender and imposes these on the mind, vital and physical consciousness and compels them to turn all their movements Godward. If the psychic is strong and master throughout, then there is no or little subjective suffering and the objective cannot affect either the soul or the other parts of the consciousness − the way is sunlit and a great joy and sweetness are the note of the whole sadhana.

      (Letters on Yoga, SABCL, vol. 24, Difficulties on the Path, page 1616)

      Reply
  3. Bob

    The above mention of developing will power to resist an uncontrolled addiction to the internet raises a plethora of interesting issues. It seems that there has been an increase in addictive personalities…perhaps because of the varied and often successful attempts of entrepreneurs to use this inherent weakness in others for their own purposes. Technology, in all its forms, gives rise both to blatant and subtle dangers, requiring awareness and reflection as opposed to the more customary total embrace. These are strange times, when one can sit at a bar, swill their beverage of choice, munch on fried cheese balls and watch a war LIVE on HD television (while continuously checking your smart phone…on an average of 70 times a day.). A book I read many years ago left an indelible impression on me of the possible lurking harm in much of the technology we take for granted and become dependent upon. The book was FOUR ARGUMENTS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF TELEVISION by Jerry Mander. I’m not certain that the author’s name is legit, but his arguments are. He purports to have had a career in advertising, giving rise to the use of television as a device to manipulate minds. His argument, inter alia, is that the dangers he writes of are inherent in the medium and cannot be reformed or removed. The book promotes a “solution” that we all know could never be implemented. Yet it is still helpful, in that I’ve always found that a thorough understanding of my own dysfunctional and errant ways provides the best environment for me to detach from them. I doubt that mere coincidence can explain the fact that the few people I know who watch little or no tv seem to manifest more extensive and successful authority over their own lives.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      The author of the book is indeed Jerry Mander. I have added a link to the Amazon webpage in your comment. I also found a wikipedia page — “Four arguments for the elimination of Television“.

      I doubt that mere coincidence can explain the fact that the few people I know who watch little or no tv seem to manifest more extensive and successful authority over their own lives.

      I emphatically agree with everything you have said. Television is an immersive medium. The incessant play of swirling images tends to overwhelm the mind and weakens willpower. I have covered the topic in another article: Ill-effects of television on Yoga.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: Why does depression last longer than pleasure? | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  5. ipi

    Words of the Mother- Letters to a Sadhak

    Should one always avoid a circumstance which is conducive to undesirable impulses? Or should one rather accept the circumstance and try to be its master?

    It is always better to avoid the temptation.

    *One has only to persist with a calm confidence and the vital will stop going on strike.

    *Depression is always unreasonable and leads nowhere. It is the most subtle enemy of yoga.

    source:
    Mother’s Agenda

    Reply
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