Light & Sound Therapy

The Myth of Willpower
by Charles E. Henderson, Ph.D.

The concept of "willpower" pits the conscious mind against the subconscious mind. In any conflict the subconscious will always triumph, therefore the concept of willpower is largely meaningless. Any notion of overcoming subconscious resistance with conscious will is a myth. Bicameral resonance is a much more accurate and useful concept.

The notion of "willpower" has caused a lot of anguish in modern times.

We would all like to think that our conscious will is the master of our destiny but it takes only a brief introduction to the facts of life to realize that the truth is otherwise. No one who has ever eaten something they had already made up their mind ("willed") they would not eat—said something they had made up their mind not to say—smoked again after quitting for the umpteenth time—or experienced any of the thousands of other failures of will could possibly say they are in total, conscious control of their lives. Not seriously.

Even if we put common experience aside, the findings from modern genetics and psychology research leave no doubt that it is time to trash this outmoded concept. It should be consigned to the semantic rubbish heap along with concepts like a flat earth, spiritual possession, ghosts, and the Easter Bunny. None of these things, including willpower, exists. (Well, okay, the Easter Bunny is a possible exception.)

Let's think about what we generally mean by the term "willpower." First of all, for such a commonly used word (compound term) it is hard to find in most English dictionaries. When you do find it in the big ones, like the unabridged Webster's, what you usually see is, "see will." Then if you actually do look up will you are really in for it! Uses and meanings vary all over the map and if you thought you knew what the word meant before you looked it up, you might change your mind. If you really want to bury yourself in semantic esoterica, look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary where you will find page after page devoted to "will".

None of which will help you actually develop anything resembling better willpower. If you are really tenacious you might head for the psychology literature. And if you thought the dictionaries were confusing, you ain't seen nothin' yet. You would discover that different schools of psychology have different notions of what will is, and that for the most part none of them agree with one another. If you were really astute in your reading you would probably come to the conclusion that much of psychology doesn't really have a clue about what will really is.

The truth is, we could spend a lot of boring time and space trying to grapple with the concept of "will" with all its complexities and perplexities. But that would not move us forward on the practical side of things, and that is where we want to be.

However, having said that, I hasten to add that just a teensy bit of theory is helpful. You need at least some basic knowledge about how your subconscious mind works relative to this concept we are calling "willpower." Otherwise you might end up willing yourself to do something your subconscious is unwilling to do and you will fail.

The Cogito and Willpower
Just to put this into a brief historical perspective, the ancient Greeks, especially Socrates (circa 500 BC, give or take), had something to say about "will." (Didn't they have something to say about everything?) But as far as I can ascertain, they stuck pretty much to the concept of willful intent without getting into the thornier issues of what we now think of as will power. Almost a millennium later St. Augustine (Catholic guy, 354-430 AD) sort of warmed up to the concept of inner conflict with the will. But it was René Descartes (1596-1650) who really got the ball rolling with his Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").

It is Descartes who generally gets the blame/credit for starting the whole idea of the separation of mind and body. What Descartes really did was convert what had until then been a dichotomy—body and soul—into a trichotomy of soul, body and mind. That had immense appeal to the 17th century Western intellect because of the Christian trichotomy of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But it led to a division within the concept of self that has been troublesome ever since.

One of the troubles was the eventual development of the concept, willpower. What had been a schism between body and soul ("The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," for example) became a somewhat confused conflict between body and mind. That in itself was unacceptable to 19th and 20th century scientific thinking but attempts to clarify concepts like will, body, and mind (and get rid of soul) served only to make an even bigger muddle of it all.

When we try to apply this concept to practical situations it becomes obvious just how muddled is our ordinary concept of willpower. A good one to start with is weight control because approximately 70 percent of the American population is overweight. Most people who are overweight know they weigh too much—or, more accurately, there is too much fat on their bodies—and they know the solution to their problem would be to simply eat less and exercise more. So why don't they do that?

Why is there such a conflict, a fight between a conviction to do (or not do) something and the compulsion that dooms the conviction to failure? Let's distill this down to a concrete situation and let donuts stand in for whatever is a person's weakness. Imagine that just yesterday John bought a dozen donuts and ate every one of them. He was so disgusted with himself he pledged never again to eat donuts. Yet someone left a donut on the table today and he is wrestling with himself over whether or not to eat it. Part of him wants the donut, another part of him wants not to eat it. Which is which? Whence comes the desire? The resistance?

The usual argument is that his body wants the donut and his mind wants to resist it. (Roll over, Descartes!) But if we have separated mind from body, how does the body "want" anything? Is it the kind of need that comes from, say, addictions? If so, how do we know what the body needs? All knowledge is mental, right? So how did we come up with something mental from the non-mental body? As you can see we are already having trouble with the distinction between mind and body. Some have tried to overcome this difficulty by saying that we think with our bodies. That is nonsense. We don't think with our bodies, we think with our minds.

So there are two "thinkings" going on here: One for the donut, one against the donut. And if we posit both ideas, these conflicting ideas, as residing in the same part of the same mind, then we destroy all semblance of mental stability. Thus we need either two minds or two distinct divisions within the same mind. By this argument we arrive at the conscious-subconscious dichotomy of the mind. More about this later.

Practical Myths of Willpower Of course the most common concept of willpower is that it is a force with which we get difficult things done. We use the term to refer to a certain strength of will which we interpret as self control. If a person has good willpower, we say, he can control himself and what he does. The major problem here is that willpower is posited as a generalized quality of mind that ranges from zero or none to some kind of super human self control. If it were that, then one's willpower would be applicable across every area of one's life. It would be like muscle. If you can lift 10 pounds of wood, you can also lift 10 pounds of steel or dirt or whatever.

So if a person had a given amount of willpower she would find it just as easy or difficult to quit smoking (or resist starting) as it would be to lose weight (or never gain it) or avoid bad habits like chewing nails or hitting her husband, and so on. Everything would be equally easy or difficult, depending upon the amount of willpower in that person's possession. She would be able to use that same willpower to never yield to pressure from friends to do something she did not want to do. She would have an equal amount of control across all areas, unvarying. Does this sound like anyone you know? Probably only in the negative; we all know at least one person who does not seem to have the slightest shred of willpower about anything. But the absence of anything that looks like willpower in one person is not evidence for its existence in others.

More often we hear about willpower from someone who has, say, quit smoking without much effort. "I just quit," he says. "Just used a little willpower and didn't smoke any more."

What he fails to mention is that all that so-called willpower of which he is so proud was nowhere to be found when it came to eating. He gained a ton of weight when he quit smoking and now he cannot get rid of it. Where is all that willpower? If it really were willpower he used to quit smoking, it would also be available to control his eating behavior and anything else he consciously wanted to achieve.

So willpower is a mythical conception. It is a quality of mind or personality that just does not exist. It is a phantasm. It is a cruel hoax because it makes those of us who don't seem to have it feel inadequate. Yet adequacy and inadequacy have nothing to do with it.

Bicameral Resonance as Willpower On the other hand we do need a concept to explain those times when we struggle and win, times when it is not easy for us to do something but we do it anyway. For this it is better to go back to the relatively ancient concept of "will." This is the original term from which the contaminated term "willpower" came.

Let's take a gander at the formal statement of the position I advocate, then I will elaborate on it. I think you will find it very useful.

Theorem: "Will" is bicameral resonance.

"Bicameral" simply means there are two governing parts of the mind. In other words, the conscious part and the unconscious, or subconscious, part. Mind is implicitly understood here. We want to keep the statement of the theorem as simple as possible so I am not going to launch into a semantic investigation of what we mean by "mind."

"Resonance" is a much richer concept than mere agreement, but that is close to its meaning. We would not be far off to say "bicameral agreement," but The Biocentrix store keeps site free. Would you consider a purchase? Click here to go to Biocentrix Store. that would be a gross over-simplification of how the two parts of the mind work together. As an analogy, imagine yourself pushing a child in a playground swing. Your actions must be in concert with the movements of the swing. Otherwise everything gets messed up. If your efforts are not finely coordinated to place your hands on the child at just the right moment and push with just the right amount of force, it does not work. When you are doing it right you could say that you and the swing+child are resonating together.

To tap into more of the richness of the concept of resonance, and to go further into the complexities of how the two parts of the mind work together, think of two musical instruments, say a horn and a guitar. If a note is played on the horn it will make the guitar strings vibrate the same note and some of its harmonics. That is resonance. The closer the horn's note is to the "key" of the string, the stronger the vibration.

Now consider two related qualities of resonance, consonance and dissonance.

Consonance is a good thing. It sounds good when two notes that are consonant are played simultaneously, and in the same way it is easy for us to do something when there is consonance between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind. The more consonant they are, the easier it is.

Dissonance is not such a good thing. Two notes that don't go together jangle our nerves; they are not harmonious. Same goes for ideas. If there is conscious-subconscious dissonance about something, it is the subconscious "note" that will come through. In other words, without conscious-subconscious agreement, the only thing that will happen will be what the subconscious wants.

What this theorem says, then, is that will is the product of agreement about a particular idea between the subconscious and conscious parts of the mind. Everything we do, we do with agreement from the subconscious mind. To suggest that we will consciously override the subconscious is ridiculous. The subconscious mind is far and away the dominant force and must be reckoned with for any achievement to occur. Conversely, without subconscious concurrence, you will not be able to do it. Not for very long, anyway.

This position has immense ramifications at every level of human study. It challenges conventional wisdom which is seemingly set in stone. It attracts a lot of controversy.

But evidence for the validity of the theorem resides in every one of us. None of us beyond the age of puberty considers ourselves perfect. We all do things we wish we did not do, and don't do things we wish we would. Our unfulfilled wishes and desires are clearly conscious. What we really do tells us our subconscious position on things.

Self hypnosis and suggestion are the way we go about bringing the subconscious mind into agreement with our conscious plans. It is the way we tune our intrapsychic or bicameral resonance.

To achieve your ends it is in fact essential that you cease thinking in adversarial terms and move toward the concept of harmony, coordination and resonance.

Reprinted with permission.

Copyright Charles E. Henderson, Ph.D. All rights reserved.


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