We tend to romanticise willpower, believing that if we simply try harder, focus more intently, or exert ourselves a little more, then we will reach our goal. While this may sometimes be true, it remains an incomplete picture, and therefore, an untruth.

Exercising willpower will lead in two radically different directions:

  1. It can bring us closer to our goal
  2. It can take us further away from our goal

This is not as pedestrian as saying something either works or doesn’t. Rather, it is the (slightly less pedestrian, yet significantly more interesting) claim that willpower will construct or dismantle; not the difference between moving or remaining still, but the difference between going forwards or going backwards.

In the first class are practices such as (but not limited to) cookery, gymnastics, mathematics, construction, and martial arts. Assuming that people apply themselves, learn from their mistakes, and adapt to new information, then the very act cooking, exercising, calculating, constructing, and fighting inexorably lead to improvement in these practices. By applying ourselves, we inch closer towards our goals.

However, unlike the first, in the second class of practices, the more we believe we are moving ‘closer’ to our goal, the further away we are in fact going. Like chasing your own shadow, once you think you have it, you realise you don’t; it always managing to stay one step ahead of you, and running faster only means it moves even faster ahead.

In the second category are pursuits such as trying to remember a forgotten name, trying to fall asleep, trying to stay calm, trying to be happy, and trying to come up with a great idea. You are always trying; implicit in the grammar is a recognition that willing something does not always make it happen.

Sun In An Empty Room, 1963, Edward Hopper

To become a better cook, one cooks; to become a better gymnast, one attends the gym; to become a better painter, one paints. But the second category affords no such simple remedies. Trying to be happy will likely only aggravate and reinforce the realisation we are not happy; and try as we might, no amount of exertion – of strained nerves and burst blood vessels – will bring us to sleep. So, what is to be done? Well, to the extent that in the first category we must do something, in the second we must do nothing. (And, it is only in a culture ruled by the dictates of willpower that the imperative to do nothing will seem strange and unintelligible).

Much to the chagrin of the ego – which cannot fathom a world where things do not bend to its will – the imperative to do nothing is a radical call to relinquish control and allow the natural processes of body and mind to do what they do best, and to function without interruption. If, in the first category, what is required of us is effort; in the second, what is required is space.

It is a type of mental ‘making room’ for thought and feeling to appear, something akin to a virtuous silence. Cultivating space involves respecting that what we want to think or feel (an undoubtedly egotistical position) cannot be conjured or commanded into existence. All this hinges on a very basic assumption that we are not in direct control of our own thoughts and feelings. We are like surfers riding the wave. We cannot call forth the water, it was already there, and we cannot determine the shape of the wave, but we can allow the water to take us for a ride and do some fun things along the way.

Once we appreciate this monumentally significant idea, we can see the necessity of allowing certain phenomena to happen in their own time. We intuitively know that the more we try to remember someone’s name the further away it gets from us, and the harder we try to fall asleep the greater our chance of remaining awake. All that is required is for us to act upon the information we already know to be true, and to create a space for a new way of relating to ourselves.

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