Who needs willpower anyway?


I confess that I have a bit of an addictive personality — not in the sense of being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but more in terms of getting hooked on stimulation. A minor example is that I had a tin of mints in the car recently, and I would often find that as soon as one mint was gone, I’d reach for another. The mints are sugar-free and this form of addiction isn’t a big deal, but boy can I get through a tin of mints quickly!

Similarly I can overeat, particularly on unhealthy foods like potato chips or popcorn. Again, as soon as (or even before) one morsel has been swallowed my hand is delivering another to my waiting lips. This is a bit more serious because I’m maybe 12 to 15 pounds (roughly 5 to 7 Kg) overweight, and although I run and generally try to eat healthily my occasional binges make it hard for me to lose that excess.

You might say that I lack willpower. A lot of us would say that about ourselves. But what I’m finding successful in reducing these little addictions has nothing to do with willpower. Instead, I’ve been practicing being mindful of cessation — specifically of the way that flavors fade away in my mouth.

The flavor beginning to fade away is the trigger for my habit. My normal, unmindful, habit is to reflexly seek a new “hit” of flavor as soon as the previous one has started to fade. So the phenomenon of a flavor fading away is what I’m choosing to observe.

This is a really interesting practice! Watching a flavor decay, curving slowly down to non-existence, gives me an opportunity to practice equanimity and non-reactivity. As the flavor fades, I feel no desire to reach for another hit. Watching the old flavor disappear is actually way more satisfying, just as watching the fading away of a sunset is satisfying. And I’ve discovered that I can observe the fading away of a flavor for a long time. I’ve found that the flavor of a mint is still detectable in my mouth an hour and a half after eating it.

So far this is working very well.

Now, I can also get addicted to mental stimulation as well, and this often manifests as a restless desire to consume social media. If I get a bit bored I reach for my phone or open up a new tab in my browser so that I can check twitter.

I’ve been writing this article as I wait to renew my driver’s license at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Having written the previous paragraph I picked up my phone and my finger moved toward the Twitter icon. But before it got there I checked in with the feeling tone of my restlessness. And I just watched it as it faded away. The feeling itself is hard to describe. Fortunately I don’t need to describe it, but just observe it passing. Again I found that it was enjoyable to observe it passing away, and when it was gone I had no desire to read Twitter. Instead I just let myself connect compassionately with the other people waiting with me. That was enjoyable too.

I’ve found that the concept of willpower is overrated. We either strongly desire to do the “right” thing or we don’t, and the difference is often to do with strategies. If not eating a mint or not opening Twitter can be made enjoyable (making it enjoyable is a strategy), then that’s what we’ll do.

I’ve been finding that observing the process of cessation of an experience is fun. Maybe that’ll be true for you as well. Maybe not. I’m just suggesting this as an experiment that you might want to try.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • I have the same problem as you about the food and I tried running or others sports. I’m going to practice your advice. Thank you for the time you spent for us.

  • I just stopped buying chips and snacks like that a long time back. I really haven’t fallen off that wagon in quite a while. My weakness is chocolate. I definitely do need to more consciously eat it, ritualize it to some extent. One thing I did do that sounds similar was reduce the amount of Cherry preserve I put on my toast in the morning. I absolutely love the tart sweetness of it ( Bonne Maman ) but I realized that I needed the tiniest amount on the toast to get the “hit”. My taste buds are sensitive and don’t need to be drowned in sensation. I seem to have actually grown out of the craving almost completely now. Seems to be a bonus of getting older ( or maybe meditating ). Even the chocolate is under much more control now. I am conscious of having overdone it when I eat too much and I think that is down to being more in touch with my body. “Too much” is a lot less than it used to be.

    Cheers Bodhi!


    • I practiced the other day with hard candy, noticing the rise and fall of the flavor, in waves, almost moment by moment. It was fascinating, and with the two pieces I had there was no temptation to crunch on them, which I’d normally do. I just let the candy dissolve until it vanished.

    • Oh, Polaner’s cherry jam is excellent, and doesn’t have any added sugar.

  • Thanks for the idea. I’m going to give it a try–with food and with emotions and sensations. Happy Sunday.


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