Will I, Or Will I Not?

“All beings are owners of their Karma. Whatever volitional actions they do, good or evil, of those they shall become their heir.”
Gautama Buddha

“Volitional effort is effort of Attention.”
William James

Where shall I put my attention today? What shall I create? What shall I learn and remember? What habit shall I strengthen or weaken? These are questions of how I will direct my mental force. They are questions of how I will exert my will. The great psychologist, William James said, “Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will.” Where we place our attention determines what we hold in awareness. When we make a choice to attend to something, to hold it in our consciousness, we create a relationship to it in our mind. The more we attend to it the more we reinforce the brain activity that corresponds to that act of perception. As we choose between two options, we reinforce our mental connection with the option we pick.

What this means is that we have tremendous power over our minds and the outcomes of our lives through our faculty of attention. Let’s say you have a bad habit. You have the choice of performing the action of this habit or not, but you have been doing this thing for years. You’ve learned it so well that it doesn’t require any mental energy for you to do it. It seems like it is automatic. In fact it is, until you use your will to make another choice. At first this will be hard. You’ve always made the habitual choice. It felt good, perhaps, or it helped you avoid discomfort. But now you’ve noticed that there are some negative consequences to your habit. You think you need to choose differently.

If you are going to succeed in changing, you need to do something different with your attention than you have habitually done before. A first step might be to remove from your surroundings the things that trigger the behavior you are trying to change. If you drink too much, you get rid of the booze. If you smoke pot too much and you want to stop, you remove the bong. If reading the last sentence triggered you to think about your precious bong and stimulated the thought, “I should go take a hit right now,” then you need to refocus your attention on something that would be incompatible with taking that hit, going to a 12 step meeting for instance, calling your sponsor for another.

The more we choose the alternate behavior, the more we strengthen our brains’ capacity to choose the alternate behavior. The choice is an act of will. The act is facilitated by our intention to focus our attention on the alternative that we will ultimately choose.

Where we will place our attention in the next moment is a moral question. Where we place our attention suggests what we are likely to do, and since our actions generate effects, our karma, the choice of what to attend to has consequences for ourselves and for others. We are the heirs to the effects of our actions. So those who wish to reduce suffering, need to be conscious. We need to practice mindful attention, so that we may make choices that align with our deeper intentions. We need to be aware enough to know what our intentions are, and which of our intentions are more important when some of them are at cross purposes.

The big question is not, “Can I change?” The big question is, “Where shall I put my attention this moment?” Without practice of mindfulness, our minds are at the whim of external conditions, base instincts and associations from past experience. Meditation hones the capacity to direct attention with intention. Mindfulness practice enables us to be aware of our focus and to consciously choose where to place it. Linking right mental effort and conscious action, we develop the capacity to live well.

For an in depth discussion of the relationship between volitional effort and changes in the brain, see The Mind And The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD and Sharon Begley, ReganBooks, 2002.

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© 2010 Tom Barrett