Willpower

The Eyes Have It

Anyone who places his eyes on that which is not his is not given what he desires, and that which he had is taken from him.
— Talmud Sotah 9b

Out of sight, out of mind. Within our sights, within our minds. Self-discipline isn’t that simple, but it may not be as hard as we think. If we remove the visual temptation that gets in the way of a personal goal, we may be liberating ourselves to do better and be better.

Mark Twain once said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Not only do we depend on our eyes, our eyes can mislead us by pulling us in directions we really don’t want to go. Perhaps this explains the Talmudic saying: “The evil inclination controls only that which a person’s eye sees” [BT Sota 8a]. The failure to focus or the failure to turn away our gaze can cause deep emotional scarring. And it can create discipline fatigue. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney claim in their book, Willpower, that people spend about a quarter of their waking hours resisting desire - at least four hours per day.” That’s exhausting. Just reading it makes me want to take a nap.

One way to free ourselves of this tiring mess is to remove temptations that are visual from our line of sight. When we put temptation within our visual realm or don’t avoid it, it changes our focus, releases our imagination and then may alter even the best of intentions.

Many Jewish sacred texts focus on the problem of focus, namely what we look at may easily become what we do. Sight leads to action or inaction, depending on the circumstance. We can watch something gruesome that creates fear within us and possibly paralysis. We can look at food that we shouldn’t be eating or any physical object of desire - including people - and then become overwhelmed with temptation. We can look away from suffering and become emotionally hardened to the plight of others. What we look at or fail to look shapes us.

This may explain why our central prayer, the Shema, suggests rituals that shape our visual path. Tefillin is to be worn between the eyes so that it serves as a moral visor and a mezuza is to grace our doorposts: “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” Tzitzit are worn to give the wearer something to look at to avoidimmoral distraction,“...and you will not follow after your heart and after your eyes by which you go astray - so that you may remember and fulfill all My commandments and be holy to your God.”

Shaping our visual path helps us stick with good habits. Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit,describes habit as a three-step loop. “First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: The Habit Loop.” The habit loop starts with a cue, usually visual. Remove the visual temptation, change the habit.

In their book Switch - on creating and sustaining change -Dan and Chip Heath advise us not to view change as scaling a tall mountain ahead of us but by eliminating the obstacles so change looks more like a downhill slide. Part of that is removing the visual obstructions that provide temptations or push us off-course: “Tweaking the environment is about making the right behavior a little easier and the wrong behaviors a little harder. It’s that simple.” For anyone trying to make a change, it never feels that simple, but there is something wonderfully liberating about the clarity of forming better habits.  Make sure it’s hard to access what won’t be good for you and make good habits increasingly easier, not only through repetition, but through recognition and rewards.

This takes us back to the powerful quote above. When we set our eyes on what we cannot have, we endanger losing what we do have. Our jealousy or desire gets in the way of a sense of blessing for our own abundance.  Best to look only at what we have and be grateful.

Shabbat Shalom