The problem of willpower

One of the first things the Buddha is reported to have said was about finding the middle way. There are few occasions when operating at the extremes will serve us well. Similarly when it comes to our practice it’s helpful to approach it with an attitude of moderation and retain our balance. That being said our practice does require effort, we need to put some energy into our inquiry but with a steady determination rather than ‘surge and retreat’.

On the subject of retreats, I still smile when I think back to my first one. I wanted so badly to look spiritual in the eyes of the other people and the teacher, so I tried to maintain an air of serenity and peaceful acceptance, even against all of the resistance I was feeling inside. I even picked out clothes to wear that I thought would make me look like a ‘serious practitioner’, rather than my normal street clothes. When the retreat finished and I got back home, I had such a strong reaction against this false effort I ate a whole bar of chocolate washed down with half a bottle of wine! Not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the week but a lesson was learned. We need to be honest with where we are, and not try to appear as if we’ve arrived at where we want to be.

There’s a whole area of practice wrapped up with these issues: wanting to be spiritual, wanting to awaken, wanting to be free of this habit or that urge, wanting to be seen by others in a certain way; perhaps even wanting to escape from the way we’ve been seen in the past. But you are where you are. You can only start from here. Without getting big headed about it, perhaps here isn’t so bad when you look closely at it. If you’ve been practicing for a while ask yourself this, do you see a positive direction of travel? Has anything changed in a way which has lessened your suffering? If it has then take heart from that.


There’s no point getting so hung up on a destination or some high expectations that you miss the journey. You might be on this journey for a while so take your time, appreciate where you are and allow an attitude of ease to enter your practice. Trust yourself not to give up, but just keep moving steadily along what feels like the right path.

Sometimes we can get fixated on one aspect of our habits or desires that it feels like only a really strong determination will get rid of this annoying thing. But let’s stop for a moment and reflect. If you have to put so much effort into giving something up, what are you fighting against? Yourself, right? On another level some part of you really doesn’t want to give that thing up, so ask why. Don’t be too quick to judge the answer, take your time, receive it and accept it. There may be some very valid considerations to take into account. Let’s take an example, maybe you think you should stop drinking but you haven’t managed to. Now, I’m using this as an example for the moderate drinker so bear that in mind. Ask yourself what you gain from alcohol that benefits you. Perhaps you believe it helps you relax. Maybe it’s part and parcel of spending time with your friends. You might consider it an important aspect of some other occasion such as watching a match, celebrating a birthday or even eating a nice meal.

So then notice the attachment you have to these things, not the alcohol. Perhaps you’re scared of losing your friends on this journey and the emotional support they’ve given you over the years. Maybe you really don’t like to stand out or appear different or you’re scared of criticism for turning down something that’s seen as a social norm. Maybe you’re worried about how much stress you’re under and you don’t know how you’d cope without a drink to take the edge off.

Whatever is going on for you, whatever the reason for the resistance, take it seriously and accept it. Right now that’s your truth. On some level that’s how you see things. It might run counter to how you want to see things but that’s how it is, so don’t make it worse by judging it or yourself.

It’s only when we accept the reasons that we can start to make positive steps towards a work around. It might be that now’s the time to try and cultivate some new friends who will support you on this path. Is there a group or centre you can attend where you might get to know them and they you? Maybe you need to try meditation, exercise or something else that will help lower your stress levels in another way. And lastly you might just have to accept that not drinking is going to attract some comments from a few people but so what? That’s their problem, not yours.

Whatever is going on for you, when you explore it fully with compassion and acceptance, you’ll find that the annoying habit or tendency you were struggling with becomes much less of a challenge. In the end, when you see it all really clearly you’ll find it takes no willpower at all to give up unskilful habits when the time is right. You’ll just set them aside as part of the steady determination and effort I mentioned at the top. Willpower by contrast belongs firmly in the ‘surge and retreat’ camp, it most often results in a strong reaction against whatever we were trying to fight that can create problems rather than solving any.

So keep the middle way in mind. Slow and steady progress will bring the greatest benefit. Trust the wisdom of this 25 centuries old teaching and trust yourself.

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