One of the biggest things that makes our willpower crash is relying on the brains promise of instant reward. We want immediate gratification. We want to feel better now and the ability to remember our long term goals gets foggy. Meditation helps us get real clear in the midst of these stressful situations.
So, we have this reward system in our brain that makes us think something is going to make us happy. When that part of the brain is activated it will tell us that chasing something down is the most important thing to do right now. It’s a primitive part of the brain that’s adapted to make sure we don’t starve, so it’s really susceptible to food temptations.
One of the reasons that we give into these cravings is that we confuse the experience of wanting something with actual happiness and satisfaction. We kind of get tricked when our brain is telling us to buy, eat, or do something that’s going to make us happy. We believe it so much that we’re not able to pay any attention to the regret we may feel afterward – and that’s where we loose sight of our long term goals. It’s really a biological response – and knowing it’s biological (i think) can help you with your long term willpower choices.
We believe the experience of wanting and craving so much that we stop paying attention to the possible disappointment and regret of our choice making.
The key to building willpower is understanding how you feel “in the moment” and that knowing there’s a huge difference between wanting and needing. I’ll often ask my son to ask himself – do I want that bag of chips or do I need that the chips? Ask your body. What does it feel like when I notice the experience? And then ask – is this going to make me happy in the long term? Does it align with our long term goals.
It turns out that focused meditation engages every part of the brain that deals with willpower. With willpower we have a goal. We pay attention to that goal. We drift away from the goal and we come back to the goal. (repeat many times)
In meditation were training the brain to lightly focus on our breath (or mantra). That’s the goal. As we focus on the breath, we start to notice what’s going on inside of us- how we feel. When we drift away from our breath we come back to the goal of focusing on the breath. (repeat many times)
It’s also training us to understand that the experience of wanting itself is actually producing the stress that makes you even more likely to give in it. It’s the wanting/craving that is stressful and it’s actually producing the pain and discomfort – that we makes us give in. Meditation helps us can sit with the wanting a little easier and we start to notice that it passes on it’s own.
For example, let’s say I have a problem with… blueberry cake donuts. When I think of donuts, my brain starts to produce the chemical dopamine. That makes me believe that the Blueberry cake donut is going to make me happy. But at the same time, if I start to resist the urge to eat the donut, it triggers stress hormones telling me to eat the donut or I’ll starve.
The stress response is a pain response in the brain that makes you feel like you really need the donut even more. Crazy, right?
When you pay attention, you start to notice that it’s the DONUT that is producing the entire experience itself. It’s not the solution to the problem… it created it.
Researchers now know that the process of paying attention in the moment to how you feel starts to shut down that craving response automatically. Meditation helps us disconnect with the wanting and we start to see the craving clearly as wanting and not really needing.
Both willpower and meditation are like our muscles. The more we train it the stronger it gets. So, it looks like, “It’s time to make the meditation”! 🙂
Great resources on the subject:
“Savor” by Thick Nhat Hanh
“Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal
“Willpower” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney