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Mindfulness and Willpower

by Mindfulness

Do you have as much self-control as this dog?


Every day we are faced with decisions, choices… do we go to the gym or watch TV… eat the chocolate bar in the fridge or have a piece of fruit… do we spend money on the latest phone or make do with the one we have that is perfectly adequate? Making the best choice for our goals requires self-control.

The unconscious mind is strongly motivated towards instant pleasure.

The chocolate, the TV, the latest phone. All things that will very quickly create feelings of satisfaction, a desire that is fulfilled. The strength of that desire will often be determined by our relationship to certain types of food, money or ourselves. The unconscious mind does not recognise the long-term benefits such as feeling fitter, healthier and having those savings that mean you can go on that dream holiday. It’s drive towards these things is non-existent. Therefore, it is so much easier to be distracted by Facebook for half an hour than to spend 30 minutes writing your bestseller. Facebook equals instant gratification, whereas your novel could be a year or more away.

If your unconscious mind isn’t driving you towards pleasure then the chances are it driving you away from something it perceives as a threat, it’s protecting you from something. There can be many relationships or connections within the unconscious that make you feel that you have no control, no willpower. A therapist is ideally placed to help you address these limiting self-beliefs. In the meantime, mindfulness can help you become less attached to those things that once caused feelings of desire or fear and increase your level of self-control.

What is mindfulness?

The dictionary definition of mindful: “Actively attentive, or deliberately keeping something in mind.”

A helpful way to view being mindful is to think of it as a state where we simply observe, notice or place attention to something without judgement or attachment.

Mindfulness meditations often involve focusing on the breath as it moves in and out of the body. A gentle awareness of the feeling and sensation that occurs as we breath. What often happens next is we have thoughts, which distracts our attention from our breathing. Many people see these thoughts as a failure to be mindful, a failure to meditate. Actually, it is only the judgement attached to the fact that we had these thoughts that equates to a failure to be mindful. If we are mindful of the thought, we simply notice it and take our attention back to our breathing. This is the practice of mindfulness, noticing and not judging or attaching to what it is we notice, just observing the experience of it so that it becomes separate from our “self” by not being attached to the feelings and thoughts, we avoid creating a landslide of more feelings and thoughts.

External self-control vs. autonomous self-control

External self-control is where we fight to do or not do something, we are actively resisting all the urges presented by our internal environment. Research has shown that when we exert self-control in this way, we deplete our willpower, which is finite. When you use all that will to resist the new phone it becomes that much harder to resist the next gadget you find yourself wanting. You’ll probably have had the thought “Well I was good about not getting X so I’ll treat myself to Y” or “I was really good today and went to the gym, so go on have that bar of chocolate”.

Autonomous self-control takes out the fight.

If you are in the boxing ring then there’s a chance you could lose, get knocked out. If you are watching a boxing match, then you don’t need any energy. You are just the observer and being the observer requires no willpower, so you are not using up your finite resources. Mindfulness is a way to train yourself to practise autonomous self-control. The act of observing, noticing or paying attention to your experience, your internal environment. So, given the choice between a sweet-smelling cookie or an apple, we notice our reaction in a mindful way rather than participating in a fight between desire and goal. Observing and noticing allows us to recognise that the current internal feeling is impermanent, just like the thought that we observed in our mindfulness meditation. We don’t have to be attached to the thought or beat ourselves up because we had it, just notice it and then bring our attention back to our breathing. In the example of the cookie vs. the apple, we notice the internal response and bring our attention back to our goal, in this case, to make a healthier choice.

The same is true of habits and addictions, you may observe the craving and its impermanence or fight against it.

External self-control – causes an internal struggle, depleting our energy and our ability to resist temptation.

Autonomous self-control – increases our energy and our vitality, making the need for willpower obsolete.

Mindfulness exercises

  1. Spend 10 – 20 minutes a day observing your breath moving in and out of your body. Notice any thoughts that come in and then bring your attention back to your breathing. You don’t have to breathe deeply just find a rhythm that is comfortable and natural for you and focus your attention on it. To begin with, the thoughts may occur quite often this is a good opportunity to practise noticing and bring your attention back.
  2. You can apply the same idea as with no.1 except rather than focusing on your breathing you can focus on a point where your fingers touch, for example, if you have your hands in prayer position notice the contact between your middle fingers. When you notice a thought, squeeze those fingers gently together to help bring your attention back to the contact between them.
  3. Mindful doing… practise the art of noticing or observing when you carry out tasks such as eating or drinking. Notice the sensations and feelings as you eat a meal, the textures, flavours and smell. The added benefit of mindful eating is that your observation of the experience often leaves you feeling fuller and more satisfied.

Practising mindfulness is a skill and like most skills, a little practise on a regular basis makes a big difference.

So why not give it a go and surprise your friends with your amazing self-control.


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