The Power of a Will

I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures
and knows how to turn to its advantage

- Friedrich Nietzsche

The previous chapters of this section describe strategies to train the mind to accept experience without judging it or trying to analyze it.  Paradoxically, the seemingly passive strategy of shifting from active Doing Mode to the non-reactive acceptance of Being Mode is the critical component of the exercise of will.

Predisposing and Precipitating Causes of Relapse

Failures of will occur when the resources required to cope with a high-risk situation are not sufficient for the challenge.  Just as there were predisposing and precipitating causes of World War I, there are predisposing and precipitating causes for each relapse. 

Hasselbring has been arguing with his ex-wife all week about how the kids will spend an upcoming holiday. He is planning to go out with his friend Bobby on Friday night. While they have a long history of drinking together, Hasselbring has remained abstinent even though Bobby continued to drink during their get-togethers. This time, however, Hasselbring lapsed.

The irreversible error of a first lapse is usually the result of a precipitating event meeting a depleted or distracted Psyche. Neurotic Traps are great at making people vulnerable to relapse. The negative emotional states of anxiety, depression, and anger distort state-dependent phenomena such as perception, motivation, and response tendencies, and deplete the dear resources required to exercise will. The first line of defense against relapse is protecting the Psyche from itself. Because of the recursive relationship between ruminative self-focus and the way things work out in the objective world, the mentality of childhood promotes pathogenic Self-Confirmatory Bias.

Escaping an addictive trap is a formidable challenge. You do hot have the luxury of squandering dear cognitive resources on Ruminative Self-Focus. The first line of defense against relapse is learning to dispassionately accept the things you cannot change rather than letting pathogenic emotional states such as frustration, anger, or demoralization determine your reaction. This valuable capability comes at a price.

Just as you would develop muscle strength and stamina by following a training regime, you can enhance your ability to non-reactively accept the things that happen by exercising it.  Lifting weights against the downward pull of gravity strengthens the muscles ability to lift weight.  Likewise, aiming your attention to a particular target, despite the pull of distracting stimuli strengthens your ability to maintain focus on a target despite local distractions. This exercise is called meditation.

Meditation: Training the Puppy

Counting Your Breaths Meditation

Tonight, when you go to bed, turn off the lights, and close your eyes, instead of going to sleep you can exercise your faculty of directing your attention.  Visualize or sub-vocalize the number “1” during your first exhale, the number “2” during your second exhale, and so on. You will find that your attention tends to wander to more salient thoughts, images, or sensations. The exercise is to gently escort your attention back to the intended target. Sound easy?  You probably won’t make it to "4"—in fact, your mind may drift so far away that you forget what number you are up to (if you do, just begin again with "1").  Now that you have been tipped off, perhaps you’ll do better than 4.  Have respect for this task; it is effortful, which is why it requires discipline.  The creature’s attention is bound to be captured by the most salient stimulus at any given moment.  The exercise is to use your will to re-direct your attention back to the intended target.  Each repetition of returning your attention to the target is analogous to lifting a dumbbell.  The goal is to exercise your ability to purposely aim your attention, so that when you encounter a highly salient stimulus that would evoke a pathogenic trance, you will have the strength to override its influence and direct your attention to a stimulus that will elicit a more resourceful trance.

Meditation refers to training your mind to respond in certain ways. Through the practice of meditation, you can over-ride the habitual ways of reacting that you have used since childhood.  For our purposes, the goal of working with these exercises is to strengthen and conserve the cognitive resources that enable you to successfully cope with people, places or things that influence you to relapse. 

Meditation is sometimes called puppy training to remind us of the importance of repeated but gentle redirection. Harshness with the puppy as well as with the self has unintended consequences.  Just as the puppy is not born with a set of rules about where to pee, you are not born with a set of rules about how to react during crises.  It would be counterproductive to beat the puppy for a lapse in the learning process, beating yourself for a lapse in thinking would only slow your progress.  In both cases, the creature learns as a result of the trainer noticing the lapse and gently correcting it.  When you meditate, you notice when the mind has wandered and gently return your focus to the intended target without frustration and self-criticism.

Covert Exercises (Being Mode)

Perception, motivation, and other subjective phenomena are continually present, and so we take them for granted.  Typically, we accept them as givens, rather than work to actively manipulate them.  The meditation exercises described below will give you the opportunity to observe subjective phenomena from different, perhaps novel, perspectives. These experiential invitations will give you the opportunity to become familiar with certain state-dependent phenomena, and learn how they arise and fade away. The goal is for you to become proficient at manipulating them, even during high-risk situations. 

Thought Experiment: Meditating on a Mantra.

A mantra is repeated over and over until you become habituated to it and no longer attend to it, which has the effect of clearing the mind of mundane thought, and thereby freeing it for transcendent experience.  Some examples of a mantra: Whisper the word, “one,” each time you exhale; whisper the phrase, “calm and tranquil” on each exhale; on alternating exhales whisper the sound, “mmmm” (a sound of coherence like, “Om”) or the sound, “sssss” (the sound of chaos like white noise). As you continue repeating the mantra, you may notice some interesting transformations taking place.  For example, as the mind quiets down, mental images become more vivid, and you may be able to hold them in mind for longer periods.

Thought Experiment: Tolerating Discomfort.

Eat an amount of hot sauce or hot pepper that produces a slightly greater reaction than you are used to and focus on the sensation of pain.  Simply investigate the experience of pain and how you react to it.  Later, after the hotness recedes try it again and see if you can push your limits while maintaining a clear, focused mind.  Important note: don’t cause tissue damage or hurt yourself; be compassionate and only push the limits to the extent that you can do so without being self-punishing. You can also experiment with a cold shower, or alternate the shower temperature between a bit too hot and a bit too cold.  A goal of these exercises is to experience the sensations while maintaining a clear and focused mind, and without tightening up mentally or physically.  

One goal of these exercises is to learn to accept thoughts, emotions, pleasure, and discomfort for what they are—passing subjective phenomena. You will discover that learning to tolerate whatever comes up is more important than attempting to control whatever comes up.  Though you often have little control over objective reality (the events you encounter), you can develop the ability to appreciate and accept what you do not control.

Thought Experiment: Tolerating Desire.

When you encounter the experience of desire, label it by silently saying something like: "Ah yes, there's desire again."  No need to judge the experience, analyze it, or try to change it.  Just label it as soon as you've identified it—nimbleness is important.  What does desire feel like?  What are the mental and physical changes that are associated with desire?  Notice how the experience changes with time. Does it seem to occur in a series of waves of greater or lesser intensity?  Are there thoughts that suggest you give in to the desire?  The goal of this exercise is to observe the experience of desire without being taken in by it.  You may find it helpful to assume the perspective of a psychologist collaborating with Dr. Dubin in the study of your creature’s experience.  We don’t want the creature to suffer unnecessarily, but our primary interest is bringing about a good outcome for this innocent creature you inhabit.  We understand that tolerating a little suffering up front will spare you great suffering later.

Remember, desire is a temporary experience that will pass; you do not have to act on it. Accepting the temporary discomfort of desire without having to evaluate it or fix it can be an eye opening experience, that is not without its own rewards.

The covert exercises described up to this point promote non-reactivity and acceptance. Some people associate such practices with Eastern Philosophy. Another set of covert exercises is often associated with Western Philosophy. Readers familiar with: "Think and Grow Rich" and similar audio programs designed to "pump up" athletes, salespeople, and network marketers appreciate how effective they can be at changing people's psychological state in a short time.


Doing at the Covert Level > >