Applied Insight for Mindful Living
Helpful tips, stories, and research on applying mindfulness to your relationships, career, health, and spiritual practice.
Why Mindfulness Makes Willpower Obsolete
How to find your true north in a sea of “shoulds”
Like that time someone cut you in line in the grocery store and you imagined, just for an instant, slashing their tires in the parking lot.
In the early 1990’s, a study asked multiple classes of students if they had ever had a fantasy about harming someone. About 75% of men, and about 60% of women, responded yes.
And these are only the ones who admitted to it, or remembered having these thoughts!
Depending on who you are, these results might be shocking, or they might be entirely expected. But no matter your personal response, the fact remains: despite the high numbers of people who admit to thinking about violence, only a tiny fraction of them have ever done such a gruesome thing. Why is that?
A lot of reasons, right?! The answer varies, though there are probably a few common themes. Maybe yours is “self control,” “will power,” or a “conscience.” And, in most cases, that answer would probably approach the truth. But let’s dig even deeper: can you recall what it feels like to want — really 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. A moment when you knew you should not order another drink or finish that beer, but you couldn’t resist the urge.
What was that experience like? What did it feel like to hold 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, or eat a salad — while in other situations you were helpless in the moment and regretted it later?
Clients often raise concerns like, “Why do I feel X when I know I should feel Y?” or, “I know it’s totally illogical that I feel X, but I can’t help it.”
Here is my brief hypothesis on why this is such a common phenomenon and why Mindfulness is so helpful in aligning our minds, our hearts and our lives.
“Where id was, there ego shall be”
I think Freud’s whole “Id, Ego and Superego” thing is a bit too crude of a model for the human mind. Freud’s idea was that we’re caught between these base animal impulses (Id) on the one hand, and social norms or “shoulds” (Superego) on the other. Meanwhile, it’s the Ego’s job to balance these competing impulses and help us function in the world.
For me, that set of concepts suggests we’re all trapped in this eternal back-and-forth between our animal impulses and the “shoulds” of society.
The difference between Freud’s perspective and my own is that instead of focusing on the idea that we’re stuck, helpless, in a war between our Id, Ego, and Superego, I break down the competing parts of our mind in terms of their origins: there’s our evolutionary default mode, our cultural default mode, and our mindfully chosen intentional values.
The way I see it, these intentionally chosen values can become a new, more intentional “default mode” in our lives after years of intentional and mindfully curated choices. With long practice, we can actually sway the mental battle in our favor, in favor of the choices we actually, consciously want to make.
“They can’t help it. It’s just biology”
Our evolutionary default mode developed over an unimaginably vast stretch of history – from millions of years ago up to about 10,000 years ago, when we stopped living in nomadic herds. Until the very end of our long development as a species, people lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, groups of 50 to 200 other human beings whose cultures and behaviors were based on the harsh requirements of survival.
In other words, our nervous systems, and by extension our emotional systems, evolved over time to ensure that our ancestors could live long enough to reproduce. Behaviors like running from loud noises or perceived threats (modern-day avoidance of conflict), aggressively defending those who look like us (modern-day discrimination and racism), craving sugars, fats and salts (modern-day metabolic health conditions), pursuing attention and sense of community (modern-day status symbols and politics), and even the honeymoon phase at the start of a relationship (which probably hasn’t changed at all), to name a few, were all essential drives that evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists now identify as supporting the continuation of our species.
These cravings and impulses were nature’s mechanisms to keep us alive. Nowadays, we are still alive as a species (in fact, we have dominated our entire planet), but are we all happy, peaceful and content? Are most of us even happy, peaceful, and content?
No. We are horny, hungry, tired, and unsatisfied; always feeling like things could be just a bit better. This is evolution’s value set, developed to help us pull our species through ride-or-die conditions that, for most people, no longer exist. That’s why the more “developed” our society is, the further removed we are from a survivalist way of life, the worse we tend to feel.
In fact, these evolutionary drives often compete directly with what our higher self knows to be the right behavior for both the greater happiness of our community and our own personal growth and self-actualization.
Shame, shoulds, and shelter
The second set of “values” our higher selves have to compete with come from culture. This can be a culture that is preached, like religion, or it can be a culture based on family tradition, company policy, or even just the pressures resulting from public perceptions of what it means to be a good friend, spouse, daughter, doctor, teacher…you fill in the blank.
As a result of our being herd animals (our survival has always depended on inclusion in a larger group), we experience a sense of continual pressure to be accepted by the herd. This desire for collective approval is evidenced by the peer pressure we felt in middle school, the way we sometimes compromise our personal beliefs to be accepted by a clique, or the fact that even though we are given vacation days, we feel guilt taking them, or guilty staying home from work. In all of these instances, we are driven by the innate sense that we owe something – maybe even everything – to the herd.
I often run into two clear examples of this issue with my clients. Thomas, for example, constantly feels pressure to strike out on his own in some way, to create his own personal culture that is at odds with his parent’s picture of well-being. When Thomas examines his memories, he sees himself second-guessing his own inner truth and authentic voice, time and time again, because the culture of his family and their religion is so strong.
In this first, very common scenario, Thomas’s ability to discern his own needs and intentionally choose his future – his ability to self-actualize – is stifled by his family and the culture in which he was raised. For example, he may know it’s not healthy to drink alcohol, but when he is stressed, the family encourages him to “have a beer, take a load off. You deserve it.’ Thomas often gives in to this cultural pressure, even though he knows, both scientifically and through personal experience, that it’s better (and ultimately more relaxing) for him to exercise, meditate, drink a green smoothie, and get a good night’s rest.
The second area in which cultural values cause problems for many of my clients is in their alignment with work. For example, Margie tends to align herself with the values of a company or profession, rather than her own personal well-being. Her company, of course, values hard work – work in the service of its own goals, not its workers’ goals. Her company values coming in early, staying late, and working on the weekends. Productivity, productivity, productivity.
Those values are good for the company; they create structure and discipline, which are helpful elements of a balanced life, but never synonymous with one’s personal well-being. Margie started to thrive more when she reclaimed her right to be happy, taking care of her own basic needs first, and then tending to the needs of work second.
Our cultural default mode is frequently at odds not only with our higher selves and values, but also with our evolutionary default needs for sleep, food and the like.
Finding Your True North
The third layer in this mix, our intentional value set, was born out of our brains’ most recent evolutionary development: the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex gave humans a miraculous new skill – the ability to observe our own behavior and predict its outcomes. But this new skill of predicting the future came with a serious down side, which I like to call “analysis paralysis.”
On the bright side, the prefrontal cortex allows us to learn from others’ behaviors and to choose more effective behaviors for ourselves in any given situation. This means we’re able to actually recognize a drive or impulse when we feel it, and then question whether it’s pushing us to act in a beneficial way, rather than just acting on animal instinct.
Unfortunately, we often overestimate our ability to regulate our behaviors effectively, and don’t recognize that the prefrontal cortex is only fully active when our nervous system is calm and we feel safe. As soon as our nervous system switches into “fight or flight’ mode (whenever we feel stressed out), 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 the sea of “shoulds” that is culture.
Meditation is the practice of mindfulness – it allows us to hone and exercise this uniquely human skill, until we can observe not only a moment of anxiety or a fleeting impulse, but the full timeline of how anxiety and impulse lives in our body and mind.
How does mindfulness affect our decision-making, and what triggers mindfulness in the moment of choice?
Well, the greater our understanding of how our own minds and bodies work, and the more clarity we have on our own individual evolutionary and cultural default modes, the greater our ability to make better decisions about our well-being. After all, well-being is really at the core of the small daily decisions that set the course for our life trajectory.
So how do we get there? As I mentioned earlier, research on the areas of our brain associated with mindful presence show that our ability to be intentional with our values, to make positive decisions in the moment, depends entirely on whether our bodies feel safe, present, and content.
This begs one of the biggest, most important questions you can ask yourself: what makes you feel safe, present and content?
Staying on Course
Research shows that for most people, the majority of our waking hours are spent in the first two modes discussed above; our evolutionary default mode and cultural values programming are running our lives, making decisions for us.
That way of living is fine, and will keep you alive and closer to the herd, but it 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 reduced to a medical intervention to rid patients of unwanted symptoms like depression and anxiety.
Instead, it can be a profoundly effective process for developing the ability to see that third, more intentional option you didn’t see before. To recognize the difference between situations we can influence, and those we can’t, so that we 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 intentional habits of being.
We also need to be clear about what our intentional (chosen) values are; in other words, what’s important to us, what we’re working toward in our lives. This, in turn, requires that we give ourselves permission to change our mind. Our intentional value set will constantly change and grow, as we ourselves change and grow.
This honing in on our intentional values comes from a systematic practice of meditation, one in which there’s a clear path to growth that is supported by science and tradition.
No Man (or Woman/Non-binary) is An Island
Finally, we need the support of a group. We need to connect with people who understand the importance of respecting each individual’s personal picture of well-being, and who are able to support our own process of waking up.
If you are interested in honing in on your own intentional value set so that you can move forward in an area of your life where you feel a lack of clarity, or where you feel stuck, then check out our Skillful Means’ Foundations Course.
And remember to take time to enjoy the journey!
Get involved in SkillfulMeans to finally meet, accept and nourish your most genuine self.