The Fallacy of Willpower - Excerpt from Ch. 6 “The Yoga of Art”
Here is another excerpt from my upcoming book, “Soulforce Arts: The Vital New Role of Musicians & Artists in a World That’s Lost It’s Mind.”
In Chapter 6 “The Yoga of Art,” I try to help artists heal the deep divides we often have between what we want at the level of the body and soul, and what we actually end up doing as a part of our arts training and practices. Some of the lessons in this chapter draw on Charles Eisenstein’s work, especially his book “The Yoga of Eating.”
The whole chapter is probably too long to post and expect people to read it all, so here’s just a little excerpt. Let me know what you think!
The Fallacy of Willpower
“In a divided self, willpower is a puny thing.”
– Charles Eisenstein, The Yoga of Eating
The overuse of willpower can be seen everywhere in modern artistic practices. How do you achieve mastery of your craft? Well, you can’t just laze about all day – you have to practice, practice, practice! How do you make a living as an artist? You can’t just pick and choose which gigs you take – you have to take even the unsavory ones, or else how will you pay the bills? How do you get your students to progress with their own training? You can’t just let them do whatever they want – they need to learn self-discipline!
And, indeed, there is some truth to each of these claims. After all, you definitely won’t learn your repertoire if you don’t practice it at all. But is a heavy reliance on willpower the best way to get there? Is it really true that if – according to popular belief – you suddenly lost your willpower you would do nothing but lie in bed with a bucket of ice cream, watching old reruns of Dallas?
Well, maybe you would! But how long would that last? Maybe a few days? Then you’d get restless, and you’d want to eat something other than Rocky Road, and you’d probably realize there were a few things you really wanted to do that day, after all. And perhaps – having had that period of rest and self-care – you’d feel refreshed and realize that you really have been driving yourself too hard recently, and now that you’ve rested you can bring some new creative energy to the practice room.
But what if you were to deny yourself this period of rest and indolence, instead forcing yourself to practice just because you think you should? Does the prospect of taking a few days off from practicing open the door to troubling existential questions like, “Who am I, apart from my craft? Would I still have worth, even if I performed poorly?” Perhaps, in order to avoid such fears, you force yourself to practice instead, thus adding to the resentment, tension, and depression that’s been simmering inside you. And then, in order to avoid those feelings you end up doom scrolling on Twitter for the next hour instead, after which you castigate yourself for being such a lazy bum. Maybe your mother really was right that you’d never amount to anything!
Here’s the truth about willpower: each of us has very little of it. William Blake said, “Those who restrain their desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or Reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.” If you’ve ever used willpower to try to break a bad habit, you will have had first-hand experience of this. Ever failed at a diet? Tried to quit smoking? What about those New Year’s resolutions? It’s been how long since you’ve been to the gym? Gasp!
That you “failed” in any of these attempts is no sign of laziness – rather, you’re simply discovering that willpower is a crummy way to change yourself because it ignores the parts of you that aren’t willing to get on board with whatever agenda “Command and Control” has in mind. Willpower is like a monkey sitting on top of an elephant: the monkey – in the mistaken belief that the elephant will be up to no good without the monkey’s constant vigilance – can easily exhaust itself in trying to steer the elephant this way and that. What drives this dynamic is that the monkey doesn’t yet trust that the elephant is actually a pretty smart cookie.
A reliance on willpower reveals a profound distrust of oneself. We typically use self-discipline to tell the inner voices to shut up, not realizing that the inner voice has something useful to say. Our judgments towards our perceived “laziness” are like a cover on a kettle of steam; unchecked and under pressure, steam can hurt you, but channeled properly, steam can do amazing things. It could very well be that your “laziness” is just a cover story for precious gifts that have yet to be expressed, or else a warning sign that something in your life is off. We ignore such signals at our own peril.
The Yoga of Art suggests that, given the futility of willpower, that you fill your life with joyful, nourishing creative practices that feed the authentic desires of your soul. Becoming a Soulforce Artist is not about clamping down on unruly desires, locking yourself in the practice room, or using the rational mind to plot your path to stardom over the complaints of the “stupid” body and all its feelings and desires. This second-guessing is precisely what gets us into trouble in the first place, and we will not get out of this mess through new self-imposed rules and regimes – no matter how fancy or authoritative they may seem.
Willpower implies pitting mind against body, forcing yourself (or your students) to do things against the grain of your “unruly” desires. Often, the way we treat ourselves is like a master to a slave, forever denying ourselves what we really want, what our soul craves, all in order to fulfill some unexamined agenda. Instead, the Yoga of Art suggests that you develop greater sensitivity to your body and its desires, listening ever-more deeply to the inner voices.
The Yoga of Art does not sacrifice pleasure and fun – on the contrary, there will be even more of both! When you follow the genuine wishes of your heart, your creative endeavors will be rewarding and pleasurable to a degree that may now be difficult to imagine. However, the Yoga of Art also requires courage; letting go of the story of willpower takes us well beyond the familiar confines of our society’s ideas of how things are best done.
What can we rely on to navigate this unfamiliar territory? Let’s take a clue from Hermann Hesse in Siddartha:
‘I shall no longer be instructed by the Yoga Veda or the Aharva Veda, or the ascetics, or any other doctrine whatsoever. I shall learn from myself, be a pupil of myself; I shall get to know myself, the mystery of Siddhartha.’ He looked around as if he were seeing the world for the first time.
Instead of appealing to some outward authority, teacher, or sage (or even this book!), I invite you to follow the authority of your “inner audience member.”* What would it be like to begin to trust its wishes?
*The “inner audience member” is what I call the part of you that listens and responds in an embodied emotional and energetic way to the music or art that you take in, even if you’re the one producing the music or art in the moment. See my recent posts on Playing from the Heart for more.