Willpower doesn't work?

This is where the willpower approach fails. The willpower approach doesn’t focus on changing the environment but instead on increasing personal efforts to overcome the current environment. What ends up happening? Eventually, you succumb to your environment despite your greatest efforts to resist.
The environment is more powerful than your internal resolve. As a human being, you always take on the form of the environments in which you continually place yourself.
Consequently, the best use of your choices is consciously designing environments that facilitate your commitments. Actually, if you’re really committed to something, this is exactly what you’ll do.
If you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol, you must stop being 1) around people who drink alcohol, and 2) at places that serve alcohol. Your willpower will fail if you don’t. You need to truly decide you’re done, to commit, and then to create an environment to make the success of your commitment inevitable.
If you want to become a professional rock climber, you need to surround yourself with professional rock climbers and orient your whole lifestyle to that goal.
This is how evolution works. We adapt to our environments. Thus, conscious evolution involves purposefully choosing or creating environments that mold us into the person we want to become.
Everything in life is a natural and organic process. We adapt and evolve based on the environments we select. You are who you are because of your environment. Want to change? Then change your environment. Stop the willpower madness already.


I see an interesting parallel between the above and what the Buddha teaches in suttas like the AN10.2, and of course the idea of a co-dependently originated spiritual path that flourishes in conditions of good spiritual friendship.

Let’s discuss. :anjal:


It is definitely a subject that is of interest to me. The portion about alcoholism resonated. In AA, we talk about willpower a lot and the wrongheaded interpretation most people have about it. Willpower when it comes to alcoholism is seen as another way in which alcoholics are obsessed with controlling their experience, while at the same time losing control over their ability to stop drinking without outside help. I wonder if this isn’t generalizable to many experiences. The more we try to grasp and hold onto things, the less control we actually have over them.


If one has to use willpower to stop a habit, one has just postponed a process for a while


Where does this leave Right Effort?

Hmm… I never understood right effort as willpower. Do you see these as synonyms? If so, could you explain how right effort relates to willpower?

This specific part of the article really resonated with what I understand and endeavour to practice as samma vayama, which I like more to phrase as right endeavour than right effort:

You need to truly decide you’re done, to commit, and then to create an environment to make the success of your commitment inevitable.

If you stop to think, in the eightfold path, right effort comes as a sixth factor, right after the “homework” or preliminary factors of perspective, resolve, speech, action and livelihood. This is not without a reason.

After one has, through the acquisition of the foundational truths and tasks right understanding or perspective is all about (and corresponding abandoning of wrong understanding or perspective), acquired the right sort of internal and external behaviours, he is naturally brought to the threshold of right endeavour: as one acknowledges the peace of mind and power brought about by the development of good things, he/she is left with no other option than only seek to grow even further the positive momentum he/she finds himself at.

And because the more fundamental aspects of a good and spiritual life had already been addressed, that right endeavour is then all about exploring what else unwholesome is to be abandoned within one’s heart so the next factors of right mindfulness and stillness get established and the path delivers its full liberating potential.

Does it make sense to you?



I think changing one’s environment is an act of willpower. It is a skillful one that uses willpower energy efficiently.

@Gabriel_L Right effort also applies to the factors that precede it according to at least one sutta:

They make an effort to give up wrong view and take up right view: that’s their right effort…

They make an effort to give up wrong thought and take up right thought: that’s their right effort…


MN 117

I think it’s pretty clear that there are more suttas that encourage persistence, striving, exertion, effort, self-control, willpower than there are suttas that talk about effortless progress. I don’t think these different kinds of suttas are necessarily in conflict though, but rather approaching the practice from different angles.

“Monks, I have known two qualities through experience: discontent with regard to skillful qualities and unrelenting exertion. Relentlessly I exerted myself, [thinking,] ‘Gladly would I let the flesh & blood in my body dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if I have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing my persistence.’ From this heedfulness of mine was attained Awakening. From this heedfulness of mine was attained the unexcelled freedom from bondage.
“You, too, monks, should relentlessly exert yourselves, [thinking,] ‘Gladly would we let the flesh & blood in our bodies dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if we have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing our persistence.’ You, too, in no long time will reach & remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.
“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will relentlessly exert ourselves, [thinking,] “Gladly would we let the flesh & blood in our bodies dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if we have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing our persistence."’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” - AN 2.5


Good points. And the way I make sense of the exertion-biased suttas is that they pertain exactly to that point in which you have to acknowledge that there’s still things left to be done within, there are still imperfections in our perspective that can be cleared with the insight that comes with mindfulness and stillness…

The willpower the article is suggesting does not help is equivalent to the act of volition that Buddha is telling us in AN10.2 is just not needed vis a vis the natural workings of things towards liberation. Maybe we have different perspectives on the term, and I really like the idea of seeking alignment in understanding of the term.

The right endeavour the Buddha is talking about in the suttas you highlighted, at least to me, relates to a context much further beyond the point the ‘homework’ has been done. It is a record of a call to further action he was making who those monks and nuns who have already checked all the items required for the endeavour to take place: the four enobbling truths and its respective tasks are known and acted upon, the behaviours are consistent and supported by a spiritual community, resulting in a right livelihood. Everything is ready for that final drop towards the sort of witnessing that kills any chance of future birth.

And the sort of willpower that does not help is the one that sometimes drive people into pain and frustration as they force themselves into super intense and painful retreats, prematurely taking on robes, adopting spiritual labels and paths without proper preparation, to later on result in traumatic giving up, disrobing, misplaced disillusionment, etc. It is the same pointless willpower that leads people to keep taking on crazy diets and never to effectively learn how to eat healthily.


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This is part of what’s meditation does, it develops will power. Mindfulness is a kind of will power. It is the ability to observe oneself, in actions and motivations as well as discursive thinking and say, “this is not a beneficial direction.”

The difference is that it is not a stop everything and act thing in meditation but allowing whatever arises to be there and using skillful means of redirect the mind onto a wholesome conscious object or theme.

For alcoholics, as well as the rest of us, we must use the 5 precepts as absolute stop measures. There are things that are just plain harmful, the least immediately observable being Right Speech. However, in the case of the alcoholic, if they continue to use, they are lacking the reflective/mindfulness/will power in the moment to stop oneself from doing something that is going to harm oneself or others.

Mental health is at the root of alcoholism, anxiety and depression. These things must be held in check so they do not overpower one and trick one into doing something harmful. Counselling is required for alcoholics for sure.

I just got out of a 1 year relationship with an alcoholic so I have seen her process first hand. There was this extreme delusion and mania that would overtake her. When she’s followed my (the Buddha’s) advice and stayed with mindfulness of the body or breath she did so so much better.

It is easy to say that will power is not needed or not useful, but for someone who doesn’t have the a history of self control, restraint is an absolute must and yet restraint connot occur absent an incredibly firm moral commitment and foundation. The 5 precepts have to be be seen as truly protective from the worst outcomes for all those the person loves because often a user simply doesn’t love or respect themself at all and are seeking annihilation.

There are many things we all simply will not do. It doesn’t really take will power to not do these things because they are part of our deeply embedded moral code.

This is where meditation and mindfulness come in to help. If these harmful actions are not part of ones personal moral code, we need to practice bringing the mind back from delusional wandering. All unconscious mental wandering is delusional. As we do this again and again, we gain insight into the way the mind works amd mindfulness (will)power - the ability to stop the mind in its tracks and change course to a wholesome mental path.

Until this mindfulness habit is established and this embedded moral code is programmed , iron-fisted willpower may be needed. This will power is not oppressive, is is wise restraint based on compassion for others and can be seen as noble. The Buddha’s spoke often about restraint (samvara) and it’s usefulness in life and on the path to awakening.

Restraint is definitely a form of willpower.


This is something I have struggled with for a long time, there seem to be different approaches. The suttas seem to focus on efforts to change things, meanwhile some teachers advocate a complete acceptance and “letting go”, which looks like an attempt to “short-cut” to equanimity.

Isn’t any effort we make a choice, decision or “act of will”? I do agree that trying to do things using willpower alone is often problematic ( I think it is the method of last resort in the suttas ).


This is a little controversial, but I disagree with using the term ‘addiction’ or ‘alcoholic’. It is problematic because I think that it keeps a person locked into their ‘addiction’. If you think you are an addict, then you are going to act like an addict.

This is interesting because at one point I was a smoker (40 a day) and then the next day (about 15 years ago) I was a non-smoker. I still hang around with smokers and I still go to environments where smoking happens. I haven’t intentionally imbibed any nicotine since that day and I have not felt the urge to have any. Why is this? Prior to that day I had tried to ‘give up’ smoking (which sort of sounds like you’re loosing out already, so not great psychologically) and I always had urges to smoke again; it never lasted long.

Realising that the ‘gratification’ in smoking was very small and the ‘dangers’ in smoking were very big, expedited the ‘escape’.

Identifying with being an ‘addict’ seemed to keep me tied into being a smoker and the resulting will-power that I needed was just exhausting. When I realised that ‘addiction’ was not a thing, I could easily move from being a smoker one moment to being a non-smoker the next. But I needed to understand the gratification and dangers fully before taking that step of escape.

Having said that, many approaches, some involving will-power, do seem to work for some.

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This is something I have been pondering for some time now, as I try to abandon my old habits from lay life and forge a new monastic one.

What I’ve come to find is that for the most part, will power is very limited and frail. This is why you have 99.9% of all new years resolutions fail(I quit making them about 10 years ago).

What I’ve come to find more is that you need to make small micro acts of will, creating the groundwork for microroutines and microhabits, that will eventually lead to the change you seek, and this is how I have been doing it myself, slowly and in small baby steps, having compassion for myself if the “your moving too slow” and “your a horrible monk” mindsets chime in.

I think that will power works, but it needs to be heavily supported by habit, if you are mindful and aware you will be able to find times to apply your will.

For instance I was recently going through a fairly depressive and self destructive mindstate a few weeks back, and I had little ability to stop myself from being unskillful, all I could do was to observe and practice metta to myself, it was so strong and overpowering.

however, because I was being mindful and observing, after a few days I noticed that the oppressive feeling had lessened slightly, and I took that as my chance to apply my will and steer the ship in a better direction. You need to be wise and timely with your willpower for it to work to full effect.


Thanks for this post Bhante @Bhikkhu_Jayasara ,

And thanks @Gabriel_L, you both reminded me of an interesting video on this subject.

I’ll have to watch it now, because I remember it contains good stuff but what… I couldn’t safely state here :smiley: .

Happy watching!

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I think it says (right) effort, mindfulness and wisdom is required to affect change in MN118.