I recognized the strength of willpower when I was little. As children, my brother and I decided to play a game to see who could grab an ear of corn 🌽 from a boiling pot of water 💦 . Looking back, it seems like quite a pointless and potentially hazardous game that I hope my kids never play. Anyhow, we both took turns and reached in the pot and jabbed at the corn, but it was hard to get a grip on a piece without really submerging your hand in the water. Finally, I made up my mind that I would win the game and just went ahead and reached straight in and plucked out a piece of corn from the big pot of boiling water. It was painful, but I was okay. That memory has stuck with me all these years because I remember thinking how once I made my mind up, all the fear and doubt vanished. I guess you could say that was my first Sankalpa. 😊
A Sankalpa is a promise you make to yourself and a contract with the universe. You state that you will do something over a set period. It’s a resolve set with intention. For instance, you may commit to meditating for 15 minutes every day for the next 40 days to build your mindfulness. After completing that Sankalpa, you feel good, and there is a sense of victory and completion. You can then up the ante and go for more extended periods of meditation or apply the same to other areas of life; working out, eating healthy, etc. Tyaga or letting go is the complementary practice that will strengthen your willpower and enable you to better stick to your vows. In one of Swamiji’s zoom videos, he asked us to give something up until we see Him again. That is Tyaga. We’ve built up our willpower, and now we will go shopping and choose where to expend that energy. At the beginning of my spiritual journey, one of my first sankalpas was not to eat any concentrated sweets for 40 days. It was somewhat challenging in that I failed once and had to restart the ⏰.
I’ve joked around in a previous post about eating donuts and trying to find out which chakra or kriya can help me stop this habit. I love donuts! They are divine pillows of fried dough, covered in deliciously sweet icing and maybe even filled with pastry cream. I don’t eat them often, but I use them as a treat, sort of a mental carrot 🥕 to keep me motivated. They are also quite the feat of gastronomic creations. The donut is the most perfectly unhealthy food ever created. Fried? Check. Refined carbs? Check. Extra sugar? Check. There are other, healthier ways I could treat myself, but none as delicious as the 🍩.
If I wanted to stop eating donuts forever, that would be quite hard for me, and I’d have to use a lot of willpower. And that is the resource I hold most dear. I spend much of mine walking along the beautiful though arduous spiritual path. The path is tiring, sometimes dull, extremely difficult, filled with hazards, and all-consuming. Sadhana will test your mettle on all levels, be it physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. The various hurdles on the path all have one thing in common. You can conquer them. Either smash them to bits, jump over them, or go around. All three will get you to the other side, where you will continue on your merry way. But, to do any of these, you need one thing. You need that fuel for your mind to push your body even if your physical energy is low. That extra oomph to go through that workout or meditation even when your mind screams that it just wants a dooooonuuuuut! Swamiji has said, “the more willpower we have, the more control we have over our destiny in this lifetime and the next.”
And this precious resource has its limits. Swamiji’s Youtube video from May 3, 2019, titled, “Will Power in Handling Desires,” states: “Remember one thing about willpower: if you waste your willpower on meaningless things, you won’t have more to spend on valuable items.” But, of course, you can also build up your store of willpower so that you can do more and bigger things. That’s the art of the Sankalpa.
With pure intention and razor focus, each Sankalpa you take becomes a part of your path leading to your desired goal. Imagine holding that Sankalpa in your hands; it’s the next piece of the track on the way to your destination. It is the next 40 days (or more as you progress) of your life. You know exactly where you want to go and that this is the path to get you there. Announcing your intention to the universe, you set the wheel in motion and cast the track down in front of you. Next, all you have to do is walk the path by following through with what you committed to doing. As you string more of these together, one day, you will look behind you and see a beautiful vista; you will surprise yourself at how far you have traveled. Forty days of travel at a time can get you anywhere in the universe.
Paramahansa Yogananda said: “Proper visualization by the exercise of concentration and willpower enables us to materialize thoughts, not only as dreams or visions in the mental realm but also as experiences in the material realm.”
It is a delicate balance, though. Push too hard, and your mind will break; go too easy, and we become lazy. In the late 1990s, the scientist Roy Baumeister termed this mental burnout “ego depletion.” The gist of his study was that willpower is a depletable resource that has a limited supply. To test the theory, they put out two plates of food, cookies, and radishes. Each group of study participants was only allowed to eat from one plate of food. The group that was only allowed to eat radishes had to expend more willpower to resist eating the cookies. After the snack, the researchers had each group work on a puzzle (which the participants did not know was unsolvable) to see which group stuck with the puzzle longer. The group allowed to eat the cookies had more willpower and tried longer to solve the puzzle (19 minutes vs. 8 minutes).
The analysis became clear to me; I love donuts too much, and the amount of willpower I would have to expend to stop eating them is not worth the price. The flip side also holds; if I eat donuts recklessly, I will have to spend considerable willpower working out more not to suffer undue health repercussions. I choose the middle path; donuts every few weeks.
I have noticed that my consumption of donuts and all sweets has gone down considerably over the last couple of years. And this is not due to any Sankalpa but just a natural process. So, to be clear, I am not encouraging you to eat more donuts 😊 A healthy diet is vital for so many reasons, such as having enough energy for sadhana. But, I am saying that we cannot give up too much too fast, or your mind will revolt. We have to coax the mind like trying to tame a wild horse. Use a soft, gentle voice. Only then can you ride the horse (mind) and experience its immense power. If you are too firm or rough, the horse will buck and knock you on your butt!
Maybe your favorite way to treat yourself is not with sweets, or maybe not with food at all. Instead, perhaps you let yourself watch a little more Netflix or go out to see a movie. Whatever your way of treating yourself, it’s vital to indulge your mind a bit and let it enjoy what it likes sometimes. We can sometimes say “yes” to a treat as we gently cajole and tame our minds.
Go on, eat some donuts & grab the corn!