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Will and the Competitors for Your Attention

William Dubin, Ph.D.

Preventing relapse requires effort because local conditions that promote relapse tend to be more salient than local conditions that promote responsible behavior. To exercise will you will often have to shift your attention from highly salient stimuli to less salient but more meaningful stimuli. Willpower refers to the strength that it takes to over-ride the pull of highly salient stimuli and aim your attention to stimuli that promote your intended actions.

two women meditatingThere are many benefits to developing the faculties required to exercise will, but the most important one is to avoid what will happen if your don't. One way to cope with the challenge presented by an enemy who can capture your attention with highly salient stimuli is to develop your faculty of selective attention. To complete the passage to self-determination you will have to develop the procedural skills required to stay cool and awake so that you can perform as intended during high-risk situations.

Resistance training metaphor  - The forces of nature pull the bio-psycho-social creature along the path of least resistance, and the power of your will pulls you in your intended direction. Just as you would strengthen your muscle power by lifting weights against the downward pull of gravity, so can you strengthen your willpower by aiming your attention to a particular target and keeping it there, despite the pull of distracting stimuli. This exercise is called meditation.

 

Thought Experiment: Counting Your Breaths. Tonight, when you go to bed, turn off the lights, and close your eyes, instead of going to sleep you can exercise your faculty to aim your attention. Visualize or sub-vocalize the number "1" during your first exhale, the number "2" during your second exhale, and so on. You will find that your attention tends to wander to more salient thoughts, images, or sensations. The exercise is to gently escort your attention back to the intended target. Sound easy? The PIG bets that you don't make it to "4"-your mind may drift so far away that you may forget what number you are up to (if you do, just begin again with "1"). Now that you have been tipped off, the PIG might raise his estimate-but not by much. This is an effortful task, which is why it is an exercise. The creature's attention is bound to be captured by the most salient stimulus at any given moment. The exercise is to use your will to re-direct your attention back to your intended target. Each repetition of returning your attention to the target is analogous to lifting a dumbbell. The goal is to exercise your ability to purposely aim your attention, so that when you encounter a highly salient stimulus that would evoke a pathogenic trance, you will have the strength to override its influence and direct your attention in the most advantageous way.

If meditation is analogous to lifting weights, then hypnosis is analogous to working out with a personal trainer. The high-risk situations you encounter are your sparring partners that give you the opportunity to practice responding to the challenges you seek to master.

Meditation: Training the Puppy

Meditation refers to thinking in a controlled manner. Through the practice of meditation, you can transcend the ways of thinking you learned as a child. By learning to respond mindfully to provocative events you can enhance your ability to resist the influence of urgent local conditions that would motivate you to relapse.

Meditation is like puppy training because repeated but gentle redirection is required for good outcome in each case (in both cases, harshness has unintended consequences). Just as the puppy is not born with a set of rules about where to pee, you are not born with a set of rules about how to react to stress and temptation. Just as it would be counterproductive to beat the puppy for a lapse in the learning process, beating yourself for a lapse in thinking would only slow your progress. In both cases, the creature learns as a result of the trainer noticing the lapse and gently correcting it. When you meditate, you notice when the mind has wandered and gently return your focus to the intended target.

Perception, motivation, and other subjective phenomena are continually present, and so we take them for granted. Typically, we experience them passively, rather than work to actively manipulate them. The meditation exercises described below will give you the opportunity to observe subjective phenomena from different, perhaps novel, perspectives. Working directly with experience is the first step in learning to utilize and modify subjective phenomena intentionally.

 

Thought Experiment: Meditating on a Mantra. A mantra is repeated over and over until you become habituated to it and no longer attend to it, which has the effect of clearing the mind of mundane thought, and thereby freeing it for transcendent experience. Some examples of a mantra: Whisper the word, "one," each time you exhale; whisper the phrase, "calm and tranquil" on each exhale; on alternating exhales whisper the sound, "mmmm" (a sound of coherence like, "Om") or the sound, "sssss" (the sound of chaos like white noise). As you continue repeating the mantra, you may notice some interesting transformations taking place. For example, as the mind quiets down, mental images become more vivid, and you may be able to hold them in mind for longer periods.

Thought Experiment: Tolerating Discomfort. Eat an amount of hot sauce or hot pepper that produces a slightly greater reaction than you are used to and focus on the sensation of pain. Simply investigate the experience of pain and how you react to it. Later, after the hotness recedes try it again and see if you can push your limits while maintaining a clear, focused mind. Important note: don't cause tissue damage or hurt yourself; be compassionate and only push the limits to the extent that you can do so without being self-punishing. You can also experiment with a cold shower, or alternate the shower temperature between a bit too hot and a bit too cold. A goal of these exercises is to experience the sensations while maintaining a clear and focused mind, and without tightening up mentally or physically.

The point of these exercises is to learn to accept thoughts, emotions, pleasure, and pain for what they are-passing subjective phenomena. You will discover that learning to tolerate whatever comes up is more important than attempting to control what comes up. While you often have little control over objective reality (the events you encounter), you can develop the ability to appreciate and accept what you do not control.

 

Thought Experiment: Tolerating Desire. When you encounter the experience of desire, label it by silently saying something like: "Ah yes, there's desire again." No need to judge the experience, analyze it, or try to change it. Just label it as soon as you've identified it-nimbleness is important. What does desire feel like? What are the mental and physical changes that are associated with desire? Notice how the experience changes with time. Does it seem to occur in a series of waves of greater or lesser intensity? Are there thoughts that suggest you give in to the desire? The key, of course, is to observe the experience of desire without being taken in by it. You may find it helpful to assume the perspective of an anthropologist observing the strange customs of a primitive society without taking their beliefs and experiences too seriously.

How long does desire last? When you are experiencing it, desire seems to last forever. Intellectually, you understand that desires and cravings, like all subjective phenomena, have finite, typically brief, life spans. In real time, however, it is difficult to detach from the immediate experience and recognize that your state-dependent perceptions, motivations, and response tendencies are temporarily biased by local conditions. Exercising will by shifting your perspective from "I want that" or "one won't hurt" to "Ah yes, there's desire again," can be eye-opening.