September 6, 2021

Why Willpower is Just Not Enough.


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A mindful life, to me, is a life of continuously seeking awareness and truth. 

It does not ignore patterns and destructive behavior, nor is it about condemning oneself into changing. It seeks to understand it—to understand ourselves. Doing this is an ongoing process, one that will take us into many “wilderness” phases in our life. 

The wilderness phase represents the times in our life where we need to go within to discover our truth. It’s a process of self-discovery to uproot inner pain and trauma. It can also be a season where we confront certain aspects of ourselves and ask, “What are my motivations?” or “Why do I keep repeating this habit at the cost of my wellbeing or happiness?”

It’s also an opportunity to listen to our soul and discover what we need to do in order to heal—and transform. In a world where we can find the answers online, from others, and “out there,” it can be challenging going within. It may feel strange especially when we are used to forging ahead, seeking external solutions or using “will power” to change our habits.

In my experience, taking a step back has been the key to two steps forward. 

And not just outward change. An inner transformation has led to the freedom of things that once kept me fearful, bound, and addicted to certain behaviors. 

In our society, we glamourize change, transformation, and growth without revealing the whole picture. We obtain fast results but find it difficult to retain them. People start over, and over, and over—and wonder—why do I end up in the same place? In the same situations? Why do I feel trapped or repeat things even though it does not satisfy, or bring fulfillment?

When we think of addiction, generally, substance use, alcoholism, and pornography are at the forefront of our minds. To me, addiction is unconscious behavior. It’s habitual and it resembles a rat on the wheel. It feels like we are going somewhere but we continuously end up in the same place.

Stepping off the wheel, especially if we are used to going around and around, feels weird. It’s often why people find themselves jumping back on, and continuing cycles and habits detrimental to well-being. 

Changing deeply ingrained habits requires seasons of silence, introspection, and inner reflection. It can be difficult to embrace this concept when we live in a world that demands action and forging ahead.

We often think force, action, and external motivations will lead us to fulfillment and success. While we may experience some form of “success” or growth, we may find ourselves unfulfilled on a deep level. We may find that externally things have changed, but our inner battles remain the same.

This can be our downfall, leading us back to where we started.

In a sense, getting off the rat wheel requires us to face the truth. To go against the grain and listen to our own soul

The problem we face is the mind (and brain) will go to battle to keep us where we are. To keep us the same—unchanged, unconscious, a victim to ourselves and our own mental patterns. 

When I used to train clients, I found a correlation between them: they were eager to make a change but many times, they found themselves binging, quitting, or feeling like failures after a few weeks. Prior to training with me, they had tried every program, fitness trend, and diet. While their intentions were good and they truly wanted to evolve, they couldn’t understand why the yoyo-cycles continued. 

Women would break down in tears as they confessed how badly they felt about themselves for eating something unhealthy or missing a workout session. They lacked grace toward themselves for not being perfect. They worked hard but would soon burn out, tire, and feel helpless. 

Unfortunately, this would derail any progress they made. One “slip up” in their eyes meant quitting.

I changed my approach to training clients early on because I realized they didn’t need someone telling them to keep going. We’re all used to hearing this message in society. They needed to be encouraged to slow down, listen to their body and soul, and approach the journey mindfully. 

For those who adhered to this guidance, they found their own unique path and way of implementing habits that resulted in long-term success. They developed an understanding of themselves on a deep level leading to an intuitive way of eating, training, and living a healthy, wholesome lifestyle. They were also happier on the journey rather than stressed out, worried, or feeling like failures when faced with challenges.

Through my own experiences and training others, my lifelong quest thus far, is to understand the hard and fast lane versus the slow and steady. 

This has meant confronting cycles and addictive behaviors, some of which are often seen as “acceptable” or “normal” in today’s society. It has also meant putting blinkers on to trends, societal “norms,” and everyone else’s opinion in order to listen to my own soul. 

This can be referred to as discovering intrinsic motivation. 

In Sports Psychology, and when working with fitness clients, the goal is to educate people on the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. It’s important to understand how each works because it can be the distinguishing factor between someone who shows up consistently regardless of the battles that lie ahead, and someone who quits when the going gets tough. It can also show us that motivation has nothing to do with worth (someone being better than someone else) but about a mindset and a willingness to dig deep into the soul to discover one’s own answers and solutions.

This understanding can work in all fields and walks of life, not just sports.

Extrinsic motivation is based on external motivations. We may be motivated to hit the gym because we want to look like someone on social media. We may make a change based on what our partner wants of us (one of the reasons people may lack a commitment to rehabilitation). Our motivation is based on what others want of us or how we want to be perceived. We’re concerned with being validated, approved, or accepted by others—rather than ourselves. (Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R., 2015; Gould, D. & Weignberg, R. 2015)

This isn’t a bad thing—we may want good results on an exam, for example. Where it often fails us is when we put pressure on ourselves to achieve certain results and we lose satisfaction along the journey, or when the results don’t go as planned. We also become mindless to the present moment, forging ahead for the end result rather than enjoying the process of mastery. 

Extrinsically motivated actions can often be short-lived, exhausting, and can lead to burnout. While it may push us hard and fast at first, we may find our motivation dwindling because it hasn’t stemmed from within ourselves.

It almost feels forced.

It can also explain why people reach their goals yet feel dissatisfaction. This can lead to trying harder or pushing further at the cost of one’s well-being (becoming addictive). It can also mean quitting. 

Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is motivation from within ourselves.

It’s centered on our own being, our soul, and our desire to connect with our path, regardless of what anyone thinks or says about us. We don’t feel controlled or pushed by others, and we don’t feel the expectation to perform for other people. (Burton, L., et al. 2015; Gould, D. & Weignberg, R. 2015)

We dive into the process, the journey, the creation—we aren’t worried too much about whether it works or not. This is also a form of non-attachment.

Personally, it’s taken me a long time to tap into this kind of motivation. I’ll be frank—this motivation doesn’t give us an instant high or satisfaction. It takes time, pressing in, and commitment to the long haul to yield fulfillment and to see the fruits of our labor. But when we are driven with intrinsic motivation, we’re more likely to feel good about ourselves, our path, and our direction. We are less likely to burn out or give up. 

We are also able to ride through the valleys and the bleak moments because our motivation is from within—it’s an energy that is pure and ongoing, and draws us into new lengths and heights within ourselves. It is the energy that cultivates our character, resilience, and inner confidence. 

Studies show it is the slow and steady path, intrinsically motivated, which yields far greater, quality results over a long period. It is also sustainable, and it helps us move beyond yoyo-cycles and addictions. (Burton, L., et al. 2015; Gould, D. & Weignberg, R. 2015)

Finding this motivation is often discovered on the path less traveled or unfamiliar to us.

Taking a step back is not about giving up—it’s about listening in to our own soul to figure out what is truly best for us.

I grew up in a Christian home and I feel a lot of what we were taught in church was extreme and destructive to the evolution of human beings. People were motivated with fear—an external motivation—to change, and become better people.

The church life proposed a “moral, conscious way of living” via control and force. Rather than seeking to understand our addictions, our torments, our pains, we forcefully changed to adhere to what “man” said was good and holy.

It was a joyless, stressful life and anything but motivating.

People were found to return to old ways or do things they spoke against. The integrity they preached about lost to “temptation:” quick satisfaction of the body and mind, even at the cost of others; the derailing of the good path they were pursuing. 

Something was innately missing.

I was brought up with the notion that hell is somewhere I go when I die if I haven’t lived a God-fearing life here on earth. As a kid, I would be tucked in bed, ready to sleep, and see shadows on my wall that looked like the silhouette of Satan. Although there was nothing there, it was the fear I lived with on a daily basis. I was so afraid of this notion of heaven and hell that I lived in torment into my early 20s. My life revolved around trying to be a good, perfect person to avoid going to hell—and I believe it was the cause of chronic illness for many years. 

I wasn’t motivated to be better out of a loving, kind, energy. I was motivated by fear of dying and being doomed to a life in the fiery pits of hell.

The problem with being fearfully motivated is—it hardly lasts. Extrinsic motivation may work for a short while and feel progressive but it often wavers. It’s also a tormenting way to live. 

It’s hell on earth.

It keeps us trapped and bound by fear.

I no longer believe in the notion of hell, but I do believe we live in hell on earth when we live an unconscious life. Hell to me is the feeling of being trapped. A rat on a wheel, doing the same thing over and over, with the expectation of different results. It’s nonsense! 

The problem is, we live in denial. We may think of addiction as substance use, alcoholism, and pornography. We distance ourselves from the idea that we could be addicted to our patterns and unconscious ways just because society deems them “normal” parts of life. 

All in all—addictive, unconscious behavior results in a lifestyle that keeps us stuck. It’s the path that dulls our inner being.

But why do we avoid our inner voice?

We promote an addictive, distractive society in the things we do daily that are deemed “acceptable and normal,” and perhaps sometimes we don’t realize how this has led us to shut off the faint voice within. The noise can keep us from hearing ourselves and recognizing that our spirit is trying to communicate with us. 

But more so, I think we are afraid of the unknown and what it might say or call us to do.

In 11 studies conducted by researchers, they found participants preferred electric shocks rather than being alone with their own thoughts. They were offered wonderful ideas to think about (like hiking). But found that people do not enjoy contemplating and thinking, not even if it was a positive reflection, and would prefer something to do even if it was negative. Anything was better than nothing—even a shock to the system—just to avoid their thoughts. 

Numbing to the pain and noise seems like a better option than listening to it. It’s harder to hear the truth of what we feel and to confront the pain and the shame that may come up. 

It’s challenging to go through the wilderness.

The truth might be ugly to us, and denial seems like the safer option. In listening to ourselves, we may be called to an action that makes us feel uncomfortable. We may be prompted to let go of things, people, and ways that are familiar to us. 

Mostly, we are encouraged to let go of our comforts.

We, and our brain, would prefer easy—we like autopilot. But unfamiliarity is part of the process of change. Taking a step back to go within is key to everlasting transformation. We need to be willing to let go of our stubbornness and our ways to discover the oasis of truth that already exists within us.

The truth that will set us free. 

When we embark on a conscious life and allow ourselves to go through the transitional, wilderness phases (because they happen many times), we are in a sense stepping off the rat wheel to walk freely. Although freedom is often glamorized, it can be scary. The brain has to go through a process of adaptation and learning. But by avoiding contemplation and thinking, or going within to seek truth, we continue to engage in automatic processes and the dulling out of our inner being. And we deny joy and freedom.

To make pivotal change requires us to pay attention, to be present, and to listen to the right course of action from within ourselves.

It is about finding our intrinsic motivation in a sense.

How do we change with the same mind that is keeping us stuck?

I think of Jesus in the desert tempted by the serpent. He was alone, without food, without distraction, without anything to dull his pain of fasting and wandering the outdoors alone.

He was in the wilderness—the transitional phase. 

At his lowest point, weak and hungry, after 40 days of being led by the spirit into unknown territory—the devil tempts him“He showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” He calls him to the world of distraction and quick fixes to deny his spirit, his inner being, in favor of worldly, quick satisfaction. 

He tempted him to the familiar—to comfort.

To me, the devil represents our brain and mind, the automatic processes and the conditioning of the world calling us back to comfort to drown out our spirit, our truth.

JC, with authority, says no. He’s embarking on a mindful life.

When we are moving from unconscious ways to mindful living, the transition part is one of the most important aspects of this journey. We don’t need to rush it. It’s the refinery stage. It shows us what we are made of, and what we truly want—at our very core. We cannot skip past this phase. While it may be tempting to “shock ourselves” to avoid our thoughts, or the silence that comes, we’ll end up in the same place over and over. 

Not all action is action, sometimes it’s procrastination and avoidance of going within.

Sometimes the best way forward is a step backward.



Gould, D. & Weignberg, R. (2015). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Wilson, T., Reinhard, D., Westgate, E.,  Gilbert, D., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C., & Shaked, A. (2014). American Association for the Advancement of Science, vol.345(6192), 75-77.

Lomas, T., Etcoff, N., Van Gordon, W. & Shonin, E (2017). Zen and the Art of Living Mindfully: The Health-Enhancing Potential of Zen Aesthetics. New York: Springer. Journal of religion and health, vol.56(5), 1720-1739

Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2015). Psychology 4th Edition. Wiley.

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