Tai Chi Y4D179: Willpower

Today I did a half-set: two iterations of the tai chi form, thirty push-ups, two iterations of the tai chi form, and the qi gong form called Eight Pieces of Silk. 

But really, this is above and beyond what is my basic set, which is one tai chi form, and one qi gong form. That’s the minimum, which I’ve been doing daily for three years, 179 days.  That’s 1277 days of continuous minimum practice, which I’ve been trying to amp up in various ways during this fourth year.  Maybe I’ll succeed, maybe I won’t. I’m certainly doing more than I used to. But I’m mindful of Sam’s issue a few weeks ago, that it’s easy to build up so much work in your magical or spiritual realms that it’s essentially impossible to carry out without making it a full time job.

And that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about today, which is willpower. There was a discussion on Facebook (in a closed group, or I’d link to it) about willpower (what many teachers now call “executive function” — your capacity to decide to do this rather than that, and then do it). We have a rising number of kids (and adults) with “executive function disorders”: they either don’t know how to make a decision, or how to carry out that decision once they’ve decided. And so there’s this essential truth that Willpower is actually a lot of different things.

Don’t Do Too Much 

Now, I don’t mean, don’t have too many projects.  I have a lot of projects going simultaneously, and there’s not much I can do about that.  I’m a full-time teacher, a part-time druid, an artist, a poet, and more.  No, I mean that your daily maintenance routine, the thing that exercises your minimum will, should be five to seven minutes of practice that you can maintain regardless of circumstances.  It should require no extra equipment, a minimum of space. I can do tai chi in about four square feet of room; and frankly I can even do it in a closet.

Teachers fall into this trap all the time. Compare and contrast the Seattle Teachers’ Union, which voted to strike rather than get pushed around again, with this town in Pennsylvania where the teachers voted to keep working even though they weren’t going to get paid. Two communities with very different wealth profiles, very similar expectations from their teachers — keep working even though it will cost you.  And one community said “no” while another said “yes”.  Teaching is a full-time job, yes, but there need to be limits on the heroic efforts we expect from them.  And the same should be true of our magic, shouldn’t it? We’re out to change our hearts and minds and our world when we do magic, but this needs to be a slow, almost alchemical process rather than a once-off transformation.  In the design world (and the military) they call it “mission creep.”

And the truth is that human beings are not gods of willpower.  We’re all wishy-washy to one degree or another.  We’re afraid of disappointing our superiors, or looking bad in front of our inferiors.  It’s easy to be lazy, or to do only what someone else asks of us.  It’s difficult to make decisions when we’re awash in information — and this has been a problem for centuries.  Clay Shirky calls this filter failure, and there’s an additional problem that it’s hard to determine what information to trust.

Practice Focus

But you see, I’m drifting from my topic, which is Willpower. And for me, developing willpower — to decide on a course of action, and then to do it — stemmed in part from developing a simple daily practice, which is what Peggy Freeh documents on her podcast. (Full disclosure: I was episode 30). For a long while it was writing. First it was short stories and a journal entry.  For a long time it was poetry.  Now it’s tai chi as it’s been for a while.  And smaller but still beautiful things result from that: make summer camp, for example, or seventeen things.  There’s both a short-term, and a long-term nature of focus.  Daily practice should be short in the individual experience, but long-term focused. Projects require large time investments, but last a relatively short period of time.

Find A Community

But willpower also comes from being part of a community — of being part of a group of people that you want to impress, that you want to be seen as a leader in.  I don’t mean ambition, exactly, though that’s part of it; but I do mean the sense of having a group of friends who take pride in their work, who do interesting things.  Now, my friend Topher sent me a link today about Austin Kleon’s point, which is that it’s important to find a “scenius” — the person who makes an artistic or literary scene happen around them.  Topher himself does this as an important bridge-link between several of Connecticut’s comedic improv groups. He’s much better at creating scenes and happenings than I am; when I was running druidic events at my house for the Eight Great Days, it was rare for me to get repeat visitors; Topher does that regularly.  I still hold druidic events at my house, but increasingly they’re solo — me doing my work, and then meeting friends or family afterward.  My coffee house helps make my scene; it’s where I met people like H who makes amazing cakes.  And it’s in part how Anne found me to be a fire-breathing squirrel in NightFall in Hartford a few years ago.  And it’s in part how I met Josh, through Dave Gray who invited me to meet a genius.  And then there’s Tony the amazing poet, who’s rocked my world with his words more times than I care to count.  I look up to these people, and (I hope) they look to me as someone genuinely invested in doing good things in the world.  If your community consists of similarly-unmotivated people across the board, you’ll rarely find it in yourself to become motivated.

And THIS is what I’m getting at.  Interesting things — creativity, art, beauty, music, intellectual and physical achievements — they all emerge from the decision to do something. From executive function from within ourselves, sometimes driven by an external desire to impress a group of talented and creative friends. And this is why exercises in willpower start small.  For me, it was a decision to do tai chi every day.  Not to do it well, or to do it beautifully, but to do it at all.  Because, at some level, I wanted to get more exercise in a way that I could sustain for thirty years. And because I wanted to be amazing.

Try Magical Thinking

When I worked through Learning Ritual Magic by John Michael Greer and others, a magical author who maintains two blogs, one of the willpower exercises was walking across the room every day to touch a specific spot on the wall ten times in a row — for three weeks.  Simple, right?  Easy.

Not so easy, as it turns out.  A million reasons would arise for why I couldn’t do that right now.  Walk across the room, touch the wall, walk back, sit down, wait, get up again, do it nine more times.  Sounds simple.  For three weeks?  Boring.  Dull. Annoying. Why take the time to do that when there are a million other things which are important to do.

Then I watched a clowning expert from Mexico do this.  He set two arbitrary marks on the floor, and explain how he was going to walk from here to there.  But it was going to take him an hour to do it.  And then he proceeded to do all sorts of interesting things in the meantime, that I completely forgot that he began by promising he was going to get over there eventuallyAnd eventually, he did. But his will — to arrive at that spot over there after an hour — was driven by practice at entertaining an audience for an hour, the time it took to get from here to there, a distance of only twelve or fifteen feet.

Who would have thought that touching a wall ten times a day was a magical act? I wouldn’t have.  But that twelve to fifteen feet between the chair and the wall suddenly became a powerful space. What could I do between here and there? A push-up? A dance? A skip? A few kicks? a few punches of the air? Recite a poem? There’s power in small acts, if we choose to make them magical.

So if you read this, then maybe it’s time to consider: Who’s in your scene? Who do you want to impress? What drives your decision to engage in a daily practice of a skill or a set of skills or talents that make you more effective, more able, and more wondered at? What is the small block of work that you do every day which helps move you toward long-term goals?  How does doing that drive your willpower?  How do you engage magically with the world in order to exercise your will?

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  1. ” … your daily maintenance routine, the thing that exercises your minimum will, should be five to seven minutes of practice that you can maintain regardless of circumstances. It should require no extra equipment, a minimum of space. ”

    This was a helpful reminder. So tempting to make it unsustainably epic.

    My tiny act of will is to take the stairs at work – the first time up if I’m working on the 13th floor, or every time if I’m at our home office on the 6th. 13 floors is about twice through the Indiana Jones theme, stopping to catch my breath on the 8th floor. I’m building out to stop on the 9th floor and to take the stairs down.

    There are a lot of good reasons to do it, but the compelling one is I start the day doing something for me, something a little challenging.

    • That’s a good one. It turns out that Flexibility, Endurance, Strength (with Balance emergent from the other three) are the keys to a successful exercise program, and two out of three isn’t good enough.

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