Saturday, November 3, 2007

Willpower and Habit

In my last post I tried to illustrate some of the complexities that surround the concept of “freedom”, primarily from a Daoist perspective. I thought that this time I'd raise some further complexities with regard to what we call “willpower”.

Daoism is full of what people call “disciplines”. Martial arts, neidan, meditation, calligraphy---all the “kungfus”---involve strenuous effort over a long period of time. The fundamental issue is how to get someone to actually do these things. This was less of an important issue in times past, because people didn't have as many distractions and many monks and nuns lived in very structured, hierarchical environments where they were forced to follow the rules “or else”. But in modern North America there aren't any proctors standing around with sticks to force people to work harder. Indeed, one of the reasons why I gave up trying to teach taijiquan was I could never get students to actually practice between lessons, which made the whole process of teaching fundamentally worthless.

I think that the fundamental issues involved in willpower are best illustrated with regard to someone trying to overcome a drug addiction. I can speak from personal experience on this because I went through a very difficult process when I gave up smoking (which experts tell us is as hard to give up as heroin.) What I remember most clearly was that I would backslide whenever I became depressed about my future. As long as I thought that I could accomplish something in my life, the effort needed to become healthier was worth the investment. But as soon as I despaired for one reason or another, I would tell myself “why bother?”, and I'd be smoking again.

No matter how hard I tried, I could never gain the willpower to constantly be “on guard” against depression and despair, and I would eventually backslide. But I learned a few things from this. First of all, I read a government study that stated that the more times a person tries to quit smoking, the greater the chance that they actually will. The great value of learning this fact is that it derails the idea that a person is too “weak” to quit. People sometimes think that because they failed once or twice, they will inevitably fail again. This study said the exact opposite: because they tried and failed once or twice, they have a greater chance of succeeding this time!

The second thing I learned was that people do things because of habit and association. People who have quit often go out to bars and start again because they are surrounded by people who are still smoking. I had the same thing happen to me, so I simply started going to bars that didn't allow smoking at all. (At that time there were a few in my town---now it is against the law to smoke in any public place in my entire province.) The result was very little interest in smoking even though I had a beer in my hand.

A final issue I learned is that we are creatures of habit. Some folks treat this as a terrible problem and argue that we need to be more spontaneous. But my experience is that it is simply impossible to be spontaneous more than once in a while, and if one attempts to do this more often, it simply becomes forced and its own sort of stale routine. Instead, I realized that our habits are a method that the human being uses to solidify our lives and turn our hopes into reality. The point is that if we want to change the way we are, we need to craft some sort of routine habit and stick to it long enough (usually about a month) that it becomes second nature. At that point, it requires an effort to stop doing it. If it is a healthy habit, then we are on the way to a better life.

Another point to realize is that if we are going to take on a new discipline, we need to make room for it in our lives. People often think that they can keep piling on new responsibilities and projects without subtracting something else. But if you make unrealistic demands on your time, you will be constantly finding that you simply do not have time to do it, or you will feel so harried that you no longer enjoy the project that you have taken on. Even if that doesn't happen, being exhausted all the time because of over-commitment can lead to depression, which will short-circuit all your good intentions.

These issues are all important for modern Daoists to consider because internal alchemy is much more that vague statements of “cosmic qi” and “flowing with the Dao”. It is learning to really understand what it is to be a human being and what general rules and principles govern our lives. Indeed, I would argue that most of the time this high-blown language is just a metaphorical way of talking about the issues that I've been dealing with in this post.