Cultivating Will

Sometimes I feel like a puppet, dangling from the moon, pulled by erratic moods and the needs and desires of others. Sometimes my intuition is profoundly helpful, and following it makes my life richer and more profound. Other times I wonder if what I am sensing is accurate intuition or something more misleading, my hopes and fears. As someone long drawn to the richness of the unconscious and the spiritual realms, I have learned to appreciate both the limitations and the necessity of reason.

A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.

A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.

The more we look inward and reflect on habits, compulsions, and automatic thoughts, the more we might begin to fear there is no underlying self. Perhaps we are simply a mess of competing drives and biological imperatives. Yet one wonders how we are capable of even recognizing this without the conscious capacity of self-reflection.

Yet apart from reason and intuition is the faculty of will: that ability to commit to and follow through on a course of action. This faculty is something we can grow through practice, starting with small steps and building upon successes. It is the faculty we draw upon when we have the thought, “I don’t feel like it,” but we go ahead and do “it” anyway.

Will has picked up unfortunate connotations from its widespread Victorian usage, in which it was used without an appreciation for compassion and used to shame people who struggle. We do not have to be wholly in control of our thoughts and feelings to exercise will effectively. Neither do we have to trample  vulnerability and pain and force an outcome. But cultivating will does require a bit of sternness, a certain nonattachment with the self.

Will is the faculty that says, “It is our duty to win,” and makes consistent effort toward winning. Hardship and defeat do not become invalidations of the duty; they become information and fuel to help continue the will’s journey toward victory.

By this time of year, most of us who have set New Year’s resolutions tend to realize that we’ve forgotten about them, or begun letting them slip. It’s easy to go into shame and feelings of failure. Both are awful, but they also let us off the hook. Thinking that I’m worthless means I don’t have to try again.

When I exercise will, reason and intuition are the wings that keep me steadily moving toward my goal. When the weather conditions change, as they do, reason and intuition help me to adapt. Without will, however—without a destination in mind—there is no reason to adapt, no particular place I’m trying to go, no need to coordinate these functions.

If you do not have a grand goal, or know what you desire, you still can begin developing will. Pick a small activity, something silly or unimportant, and commit to doing it regularly according to a schedule. Studies have shown improvement in will when people commit to brushing their teeth with their opposite hand for two weeks. The trick is to do what you say you’re going to do.

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