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Why Mindfulness Makes Willpower Obsolete

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“Mindfulness allows us to wake up and observe ourselves. It creates the space to choose, rather than to feel trapped by our circumstances. This is the path to our ‘true north’ in a sea of ‘shoulds.'”

Have you ever felt so frustrated with someone that the image of harming them flashed through your mind? Even just for a second?

In the early 1990’s there was a study where multiple classes of students were asked if they ever had a fantasy about murdering someone. About 75% of men said yes and 60% of women said yes.

And these are only the ones who admitted to it or remembered having these thoughts!

Despite the high number of people who admit to thinking about it, only a tiny fraction of people have ever done such a gruesome thing. Why is that?

A lot of reasons, right?! Maybe your answer is “self control,” “will power” or a “conscience.” And, yes you would be right in most cases however, can you recall what it feels like to want to do something you know is wrong?

Or vice versa take yourself back to a moment where you were pressured to do something you felt was unhealthy. Even a moment where you knew you should not eat that chocolate or the rest of that dessert but you could not resist the urge.

What was that experience like? What did it feel like to have those competing forces in your body and mind; should, need and want?

What are those competing forces and why could you make a choice you felt good about in some circumstances to get up and exercise and eat a salad and in other situations you were helpless to the moment and regretted it later?

When meeting with clients they often ask a question like, “why do I feel X when I know I should feel Y?” or, “I know it is totally illogical that I feel X but I cannot help it.”

Here is my brief hypothesis on why this is such a common phenomenon and why Mindfulness is such a key factor in aligning our mind, our heart and our lives.

Where id was, there ego shall be


I think that Freud’s whole Id, Ego and Super Ego thing is a bit too crude. Freud’s Idea was that we have these base animal impulses (Id), then societal norms or “shoulds” (Super Ego) and it is the Ego’s job to balance these and function in the world.

For me that feels like you are still trapped in this eternal back and forth between the animal impulses and the “shoulds” of society.

The difference between Freud and my perspective is I instead break it down in terms of our evolutionary default mode, our cultural default mode and our mindfully chosen intentional values which can also become a new intentional default mode after years of intentional and mindfully curated choices in our lives.


“They can’t help it. It’s just biology”


Our evolutionary default mode was developed in a span of history – from millions of years ago up to about 10,000 years ago when we stopped living in nomadic herds. Over that vast time of development we lived in hunter gatherer tribes or groups of 50 to 200 other human beings in a culture of survival.

Our nervous systems and emotional systems developed overtime to ensure survival and reproduction. Behaviors like running from loud noises or perceived threats (modern day avoiding conflict), aggressively defending those that look like us (modern day descrimination and racism), craving for sugars, fats and salts (modern metabolic health conditions), a need for attention and sense of community (status symbols, politics) and even the honeymoon phase at the start of a relationship, to name a few, were all essential drives that evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists identify as supportive of the continuation of the species.

These were nature’s fail safe mechanisms to keep us alive. Nowadays, we are alive as a species but are we all happy, peaceful and content?

No, we are horney, hungry, tired, and unsatisfied; always feeling like things could be just a bit better. This is evolution’s value set.

These drives often directly compete with what our higher self knows to be the right behavior for the higher happiness of our community and our own self development and self actualization.


Shame, shoulds, and shelter


The second layer of values that we compete with on a regular basis is culture. This can be culture that is preached like religion or it can be family tradition, company policy or just the pressure of public perceptions of what it means to be a good friend, spouse, daughter, doctor, teacher…you can fill in the blank.

As a result of our being herd animals we have the continual pressure to be accepted by the herd. Our ancestors pack mentality determined who had the protection and shelter within the tribe. If you became an outcast it was almost certain death.

As evidenced by the peer pressure we felt in middle school, the way we compromise our personal beliefs to be accepted by a clique, or the fact that even though we are given vacation days we feel guilty taking them or that we “shouldn’t” stay home from work because we feel the innate pressure that we owe something to the herd. The motivational feeling that keeps us in line with the culture or people around us is shame.

The two clearest examples of these are the ones I often run into with my clients. Thomas, for example, constantly feels the urge to strike out on his own in some way and create his own personal culture which is at odds with his parent’s picture of well-being. Thomas can look back and see himself second guess his own inner truth and authentic voice since childhood because the culture of the family, religion is so strong.

In this first, very common scenario, Thomas’s ability to discern his own needs and intentionally choose his future and self actualize is stifled by his family and culture in which he was raised. For example, he may know it is not good to drink alcohol but the family encourages him when he is stressed to, “have a beer and take a load off. You deserve it.’ He feels a sense of shame when he acts at all different from his family or the way he was raised to be. Even when he knows scientifically and through personal experience it is better for him to exercise, meditate, drink a green smoothie and get a good night’s rest.

The second place our cultural values cause many of my clients problems is in their alignment with work. For example, Margie aligns herself with the values of a company or profession rather than their own personal well-being. The company might value hard work, coming in early, staying late and working on the weekends. Productivity, productivity, productivity.

That is good for the company and creates structure and discipline which is helpful but is never synonymous with one’s personal picture of well-being. Margie started to thrive more when she reclaimed her right to be happy and take care of basic needs first and then tend to the needs of work second. This cultural default mode is also often at odds with the evolutionary default needs of sleep, food and the like.

Man reading from open book

Finding Your True North

The third value set is our intentional value set. The ability to form our own personal values as born out of our brains’ evolution of the prefrontal cortex and development of a miraculous new skill – the ability to observe our own behavior and predict the outcome.

With this new skill of predicting the future, came with the down side of analysis paralysis. On the bright side, it allows us to learn from others’ behaviors and to choose more effective behaviors for any given situation. This allows us to recognize a drive or impulse and question whether this is a good action to take, rather than just acting on animal instinct.

However, we often overestimate our ability to do this effectively and don’t recognize that this part of our brain is only fully active when our nervous system is calm and safe. As soon as our nervous system switches into “fight or flight’ mode, we become subject to our evolutionary impulses.

And this is where mindfulness finally comes in.

Mindfulness allows us to wake up and observe ourselves. It creates the space to choose, rather than to feel trapped by our circumstances. This is our path to our “true north” in a sea of “shoulds.”

The more clarity you gain on your own intentional values, the more this increases internal or instrinsic motivation for all activities and choices that will most help you thrive in life.

Meditation allows us to hone and exercise this skill and for longer periods of time observe not just a moment of anxiety or an impulse but to watch the full life of how anxiety and impulse lives in our body and mind.

How does it affect our decision making and what triggers it for us specifically?

The greater our understanding of how our own minds and bodies work and our clarity on our unique personal evolutionary and cultural default modes in place, the greater our ability to make better decisions about our well-being which is really at the core of our daily decisions which are setting the course for our life trajectory.

Research on the areas of our brain associated with mindful presence, show that our mind’s ability to be intentional with our values only happens when our bodies feel safe, present and content.

This begs the biggest, most important questions to ask yourself.

What makes you feel safe, present and content?

Research shows that for most people, the majority of our waking hours are spent in the first two modes. Our evolutionary default mode and cultural value programming are running and making decisions for us.

That is fine and will keep us alive and closer to the herd but might not bring you a sense of satisfaction and contentment in your life.

Meditation does not have to be an abstract spiritual pursuit and it does not have to be simply reduced to a medical intervention to rid patients of unwanted symptoms of depression and anxiety.

It can be a profound process for developing the ability to see that third, more intentional option you didn’t see before. To recognize the difference between the situations we do have control over and influence upon and those we do not so we can feel more empowered to make choices that improve our well-being on a daily basis.

Our mind and body just need the appropriate structure and support for that skill to be nurtured. For new roads to be paved in our prefrontal cortex until they become so well-trodden they become new intentional habits of being.

We need to be clear about what our chosen intentional values are (i.e. what’s important to us and what we are working on in our lives). And give ourselves permission to change our mind — this intentional value set is constantly changing and growing as we change and grow.

This honing in on our intentional values comes from a systematic practice of meditation where there is a clear path to growth that is supported by science and tradition. Finally, we need the support of a group of other people that understand the importance of respecting each individual’s personal picture of well-being and can support this process of waking up.

If you have interest in honing in on your own intentional value set to help propel you forward in an area of your life where you feel lack of clarity or stuck, check out one of Skillful Means mindfulness courses or our upcoming in-person retreat.

William Jackson, PsyD, founder of SkillfulMeans and licensed clinical health psychologist

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