Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

7. Willpower

This post is already feeling a bit heavy, but maybe if I fill it with a bit of helium we can yet get a few laughs out of it.

What is this thing called ‘willpower’? Can you freely call it up, when needed?, or is it a thing that exists just because it does? Conventionally we think we can take deliberate action, do something – I’ll get to work on that project right after the news, but of course, right after the news something else grabs our attention and we find ourselves still in front of the TV an hour later, the project still waiting for us on our desks, or the garage still unswept. Willpower is also thought of as the opposite of dong something; as often, it is to decide not to do something – I don’t need that second piece of cake, well maybe just a small piece, that one with gobs of icing. 

I think there is a difference between willpower and motivation. Motivation comes from within, a positive force for action. It might be reinforced with some sort of incentive/reward but it is largely self-generated. Willpower on the other hand feels forced, an obligation, a cognitive demand on self. I think that’s why it often seems to fail – the mind gets no reward from feeling compelled to do something, against its will.

Willpower is closely related to ‘free will’, I suppose – there’s that word ‘will’ in it. Can you merely ‘will it’ and make it so? Can you force yourself to think, act and behave with free will? Is there even such a thing as free will? Do feelings cause or hijack free will?

All through August, my mensis horribilis, I struggled to rid myself of my melancholy. I knew that action is the best remedy for the blues. I tried to will myself to just ‘snap out of it,’ but self-flagellation is a failing method and finally I just gave in to ennui and angst; I ‘decided’ to just wait it out. September would come soon enough and I could regain some sense of productivity, if not actual control. 

But did I really have control of myself? Do any of us have conscious control of what we think and do? Or is it all an illusion? I’ve touched on the notion of consciousness a few times before in these blog posts, and free will is closely, perhaps inextricably, connected with consciousness.

Memorably, I had a rather challenging discussion with one of my dates during my match.com days: she took the point of view, rather conventional, that of course we have free will, whereas I took the opposite. She made the non-relevant argument that we have free will because we have to be responsible for the consequences of our actions, and while that is a desirable condition for right action it is not the cause. Post factum awareness is not argument for pre factum decisions and actions. My argument had more to do with the modern neuroscience view that the brain is an unconscious entity/organ programmed by experience to evaluate situations/external stimuli and react to them; and it [the brain] does so before we are ‘consciously’ aware of our decisions. The notion that ‘we’/our minds make the decision, begs the question, what is the mind? Our sense of self is a very compelling illusion, but illusion nevertheless. We aren’t actually aware of the decision we are about to make before we make it, though it is very hard for most of us to get our heads around that concept. Or even, if you think you are actually in control of your thoughts, what is happening just before you make your decision? when do you become aware of your decision? Just before you make it? Or a nanosecond after it’s already been made? And if that’s the case, who the devil actually made the decision?

The whole thing depends on how the mind works. Are we are conscious rational beings? Or are our brains mere organic machines. I’m with the new-age neuroscientists who claim we are not actually conscious, that our brains are just very fast processors creating the illusion that ‘we’ are consciously in control of ourselves. But it hurts your brain to think that one all the way through. 

Consider this: it’s a lovely September day, you are seated in a comfortable garden chair, possibly in non-consequential conversation with a companion, simply enjoying the tranquility of the moment. Your mind is only partially paying attention to the conversation, occupied instead with the overall pleasantness of the moment. Unbidden, a thought jumps into your mind – ‘did I turn off the burner for those boiled eggs?’; and then you retrace your memory and convince yourself you did, or if unconvinced you excuse yourself to go and check. Where did that thought come from? You return to the tranquil moment of the garden sanctuary and then you see a lovely liquid vision of a woman walking along the nearby garden path, your mind wanders from what your companion is saying to the possibilities of an encounter with the woman walking your way; you are not mindful of the consequences of starting up a conversation with this new presence, except maybe the probably of rejection. She passes by and you follow her furtively as she goes out of your vision. Suddenly a caterpillar drops out of the branch above you onto your arm. You startle and instantly knock the thing off your arm before you even know for sure what it is. What happened in your mind in the instant of that intruder entering your presence. What happened in your brain to react to the ‘threat’ as you instinctually swept the bug away? Were you conscious of your mental process in that moment? Did you have ‘free will’ in sweeping that caterpillar away? I submit that the illusion of processing and deciding is a function of the elapse of time. If you have enough to time for the unconscious emotional mind to interact with the ‘conscious’ rational mind, you may make a different decision. Some people might argue that this is the point of being ‘mindful’, to be ‘present’ in your own mind as it deals with the environment it is operating in. But I suspect, even in mindfulness, sudden unexpected events prompt immediate responses, the instinctive mind reacts, with no ‘conscious’ decision-making coming from ‘you’.

I think I lost her at that point; I get lost myself. Needless to say, after that discussion there wasn’t another date. I don’t blame her. It’s a very difficult thing to get your mind around, assuming you even have a mind.

Even Carl Jung, thinking and writing 100 years ago, without the benefit of neuro-scans, believed that our personality traits, learned or innate, largely influence our decisions and we are not fully conscious of all the factors our minds take into account in making the decision. When we decide to marry someone, are we fully aware of all the processes going on in our minds as to why this girl? Why now? Why at all? 

If we are not actually conscious of all the processes going on in our brains, how can we claim that our decisions really are the product of ‘free will’? that we consciously choose to do the things we do?, that we have control of our lives?

I doubt that I have persuaded many of you of this view, that consciousness, and therefore free will, is very doubtful. You resist the notion that free will is an illusion. So do I! I think I have convinced myself of the neuroscientists’ argument that we are not conscious beings. And yet, and yet… 

So if we don’t really have free will, the conscious control of our lives, we shouldn’t be surprised that we often lack will power. In fact most of you are more likely to be persuaded of the tentativeness of willpower than whether or not we have free will, but you have to admit they seem to be connected somehow. (I say ‘often’ because of my argument over the effect of available time in making a decision, i.e., if you did not immediately react to the sudden new input and you have enough time to let your cognitive processes work, you may come to a different decision, or alter the first reaction. The caterpillar might have survived after all.) Even if we have plenty of time to decide what to do, or when we get into some sort of inertia reel and seem to have all the time in the world, we often fail to act. We stay stuck, even as we loathe ourselves for it.

Inertia is also the problem with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. We can martial up all the rational reasons for our fears or inaction and dispute them, but most times we still don’t ‘overcome the fear and do it anyway’. We stay stuck.

I mention all these metaphysics in this blog because I have been struggling with the problem of willpower for a while now, not the metaphysical problem but the actual problem of overcoming stuckness. Inertia rules my days, I’m a little short of ‘ertia’. I know what I want to do, but I have huge trouble urging myself on to actually do it. I even know that the starting is the hardest part, that once started the project takes on a life of its own and is relatively effortless after that. And I will have wrestled the funk to the ground and be happier for getting on with it.

I’ve been stuck for two months. In some ways I’ve been stuck for two years. I am fully aware that ruminating over life’s seemingly intractable problems sap my energies and emotions and draw me to unproductive spaces I somehow can’t ‘force myself’ to do anything about it. People in grief commonly comment on the advice well-meaning others give them – ‘just snap out of it’, ‘aren’t you over her yet?’ ‘you need to get on with your life!’ Oh, they usually don’t actually say the words but the body language speaks volumes, the eyebrows, the exasperated shrug. I do enough of my own self-talk without this ‘help’. 

I also rationalize that I’m doing the best I can, I am putting priorities in order and there are only so many hours in the day. But even so, I daily waste an awful lot of time. Or even the time I spend on ‘useful’ things may still not be the things I ‘should’ be doing. I walk Bonnie three times a day, partly because she insists, and partly so I can rationalize not going down to work out in my boxing gym. I Skype with Carmen 3 – 4 times a day, necessary social intercourse to keep a long-distance relationship going, and then try not to slump into depression from the powerlessness in the situation. I put in an hour or so every day (almost) doing my Tagalog lessons, but I wonder if even that is to distract me from my other ‘projects’. I force myself to put in a few hours every morning promoting my books, particularly the latest, Travels With Myself, but I feel it is having almost no effect, merely pouring money and time into the proverbial black hole.

If I truly had free will I would chuck all these obstacles – who cares besides me? – and do what I really want to do, my next project, The Treasure of Stella Bay. I am painfully aware (conscious??) of my rapidly diminishing window of competence to even do it, the sands of time seem to run both fast and slow at this stage of life. But even there I suffer from inertia. I want to visit Amherst Island and begin my research, but for lack of a companion I don’t make the trip.

As I argued in a past post, the purpose of life is excellence, and the means to excellence is projects. I suppose if your purpose in life is to be languorous then I guess excellence for you would be to be the most languorous self you can be. Somehow I don’t think human beings, physiologically or psychologically, are wired that way. Three weeks vacation with nothing to do is about 18 days too many for me. Even on my honeymoon at a secluded cottage on a remote Muskoka lake, I spent many days building a raft, complete with pontoons to prevent capsizing. I thought I was being very creative, and productive, contributing to the amenities for that rented cottage. Marlene thought I was crazy and was probably wondering if she had made a mistake. I must say I both admire and contemn those who seem content with a languorous life – comfortable whiling away the hours with long walks, a good book, or long naps. But to me we are more than human beings, we are human doings. How do you make a project out of languor? How do you do languor?

So why do I feel so stuck these days? And do I lack the willpower to urge myself out of this rut and get back to digging.

I recently dreamt about my book, The Treasure of Stella Bay. New chapters and details were emerging in my semi-awake brain as I slept. I haven’t had nights like this in months. Maybe that is the way with creativity in the mind. You can’t force it, not really. And many [imagined] obligations and competing goals distract the mind from its intended priority. (Reread that sentence – is the mind’s priority the same as your own? Who is competing with whom in there???) But after my dream I could hardly wait to get out of bed, have some breakfast, commune with Carmen and get to my computer. I wrote 1400 words that day, and ~1000 words each day thereafter last week. I’m up to 7400 words. At this rate I should see the end of the first draft in about 12 more weeks.

Maybe that’s the real key to free will – remove all the obstacles and let the mind do what it wants to do. It’s said our unconscious mind speaks to us in dreams. My dreaming mind seems ready to get on with it.

And with that, I will stop composing this [too long] blog and get back to my manuscript.

Doug Jordan, Reporting to you from Kanata Ontario.

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

1 thought on “7. Willpower”

  1. David Brown

    Doug,

    Self-examination is somewhat recursive, so suffers from an elusive perspective. I can understand the desire to make the process more rational.

    I continue to enjoy your writing!

    -David

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