Sunday, July 12, 2015

Will Power and Me: Ego Depletion and Mindfulness Practice

We are all aware of those aspects of our life where we wish we could more skillfully navigate the challenging terrain we experience.  Examples include our relationship to food, people, work, and ourselves.  In areas, such as food, that carry an obvious object of our desire--such as a brownie or piece of pizza--it can seem like a battle is at play between ourselves (our will) and the object we are resisting.

An interesting area of research on willpower in psychology involves what has been termed "ego depletion."  The paradoxical notion is that the more we resist an object, like a brownie, the more depleted our ability to resist becomes, such that we are more inclined to end up "caving" on our impulse, either in the same domain or in another that pops up while we are in a depleted state.  Hence, a few hours later we each a bunch of brownies or are less adept at navigating another challenging situation, like being patient.

Interestingly, the theory's main proponent, Roy Baumeister, suggests that the depletion is the result of a drop in glucose levels in the brain--and its executive functioning that keeps the impasse at bay.  Accordingly, the loss of will power can be attenuated by consuming glucose which, the theory posits, essentially powers the brain's capacity to resist the tempting object.  While neuroscientists debate this, there is a great deal of research supporting the theory and it is in the mainstream.

In this blog, I share how mindfulness practice may well offer us another vehicle to skillfully navigate through this terrain by shifting the tension between who is resisting (i.e., "ME") and what is being resisted (i.e., the "Brownie").  This battle--which most of us regard as THE battle--may not in fact be the true battle.  Seeing more clearly the battle at play (if it even is a battle) offers an avenue of response to those challenging moments of "will" that can not only attenuate the impulse/urge but transform our relationship to the object.

Mindfulness practice offers greater insight into the resistance arising in those moments.  Rather than a battle between ME and the Brownie, rather than a lawsuit titled "Me v. Brownie," we more clearly appreciate that it is "Me" (and perhaps not even that) relating to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations arising when we are in the midst (physical or imagined) of the brownie.  After all, it brownies are your "weakness" the fact that many are not the least bit challenged by a brownie suggests it has more to do with something you are experiencing than it does the object being experienced.

So, what is the true nature of resistance arising in those moments, if not the brownie or the pizza?  Mindfulness practices offers us a greater glimpse into this reality, and that glimpse, over time, blossoms into a deeper insight, which now or in time offers us a greater facility in working with this resistance.

What we are resisting, if not the quite visible and apparent cooked amalgam of cacao, dairy, sugar, and and flour, is an invisible collection of thoughts, feelings, and sensations arising alongside the brownie.  The desire is, for example, manifests as a shift in our physiology.  We begin to salivate, our eyes lock onto the object, we sense the potential release of a chronic angst, we imagine the "happy" and satisfied state that will follow from eating the brownie.  They may be a subtle inclination of our body toward the brownie; our arms and hands poised and inspired toward the sweet.  The mind posits with great confidence, "That looks so good," and "Don't I deserve a little treat now and again."

All these interior experience are the data that inclines us toward the brownie.  The brownie is, after all, inert and mindless.  It has no agenda and nothing to gain one way or the other.

So, the mindfulness opportunity is to pay attention to the true source of our desire, and not have the majesty and richness of our interior experience collapse into and be projected on a dark clump.  This leaves us lost and confused.  When that happens, AND THIS IS THE KEY INSIGHT, we begin fighting a foe that doesn't even exist.  Hence, we deplete ourselves in the process because we wild have to fight that fight forever and not get very far.

In contrast, our capacity to notice and attend to our inner experience, especially if we can notice the arising sooner than later (i.e. before it builds within us so much that it is almost too difficult to see and experience clearly) is something that gets us somewhere.  Noticing the arising of the sensations of salivation--and not getting lost in the brownie itself--offers the opportunity to meet the impulse in a more even playing field and make decisions more in keeping with our intentions.

It may well be that the brownie is ripe for the taking and enjoying it is a mindful and meaningful response.  And oh what a difference it is to be able to tell the difference.

Mindfulness offers a path to navigate these life experiences with wisdom and compassion--and the practice of mindfulness offers the the capacity to do so with increasing ease and acumen as we journey through life.