Willing with Discomfort

Some people feel they are completely without discipline and will, mostly thrown about by the waves of life circumstance, craving, accident, emotion, or simply being screwed with by others. By “some people” I mean “most people at least every once in a while.” Will is the capacity to recommit and continue following one’s intention even with these conditions.

I recently committed to studying something new, a martial art, which brings up a lot for me around my body, athleticism, and conflict. As with all new habits, the first few sessions were quite fun and exhilarating. I wanted to go around telling everyone how cool it was and all the cool things I was learning.

Beware the person who has done something new for less than a month but tells you it changed their life. For it is inevitable that after newness wears off, the practice goes through a sour period. It starts to bring up feelings of boredom or frustration as we realize we’re not as far along as we hoped, or the work is not as glamorous as we’d imagined, and we have to keep showing up to gain the benefits.

Image of a person standing on a mountain ridge with a backpack and thick jacket.
An act of will. Photo by Danka & Peter.

Getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning doesn’t seem as rewarding as hitting snooze. Those vicissitudes of life come up again—emotions, discomfort, cravings, unexpected circumstances. Giving up the practice sounds tempting, especially since it didn’t immediately make your life better. You’re still the same person, growing slowly, but perhaps not as slowly as you were when you weren’t doing the practice.

In talking about mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn advises beginners to start the practice with a curious skepticism. Believing it’s going to perfect you and go so smoothly is a recipe for overwhelming discouragement when we hit the phase I’m writing about. Believing that it’s a waste of time and will do nothing for you is a guarantee that you will get no benefit.

I think his advice applies to all new habits or practices, including mental health treatment. We ought to commit to them for at least a month, ideally three months, and continue showing up so long as they are not actively causing us harm. But do the practice with curiosity, watching your experience as it happens with interest. Let it be an opportunity to learn about yourself in a new way. Perhaps you notice a tendency to give up at the first sign of frustration, or to fixate on the practice and ignore other matters such as self-care and relationships with other people. After we’ve been doing the new practice for three months, six months, a few years, through times of hardship and times of ease, then we can accurately evaluate the power of the practice and the gains it brings to life.

Underlying all of this is the cultivation of will, which offers so much more. If I am able to bike to work in the winter gloom, simply because I said I would do it, then I am able to start the hard conversation with my loved ones about something I know we need to discuss. If I can rearrange my schedule to go to that workout class then I can flexibly commit to my dreams and my life goals. If I can let myself be thrown to the ground and get back up to face my attacker, then I can call my congressperson about something that matters to me.

Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist who founded the theoretical orientation of Psychosynthesis, either drew upon or happened upon a concept contained in Western esoteric traditions: that will is a human faculty that expresses one’s Higher Self. In this respect, will is not the Victorian concept of muscling through all hardship, ignoring pain, controlling vulnerability, or somehow never facing problems and setbacks in life. Will is about experiencing all of that and still moving wisely in the direction of desire.

If that’s too esoteric for you, you might think of will as a psychological “muscle” that becomes stronger with exercise. We exercise it by committing to doing something and then doing it. Simple but not easy. Start with what’s achievable for you, and build from there. With practice, we gradually expand feeling that sense of agency and meaning in life.

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.

When Resolutions Meet Resistance

I woke up on the first day of 2017 feeling energetic and excited. I’d set my intention for the year and I felt eager to start threading it into my day. Making a new change always gives me a rush of possibility, a feeling of pride and competence! For the first few days, anyway!

A long time ago I stopped making formal resolutions of the type, “I will accomplish [this thing] this year.” These days my practice is to set an overall intention, or find a key word to which I can anchor. One year, for example, I chose the word “Sobriety.” I kept sobriety as the state I strove to keep up consciously, and to recognize when and how I fell away from it. Instead of saying “I won’t drink this year,” my goal was to keep my use of intoxicants below the threshold of becoming intoxicated.

I’m not saying this to suggest everyone should do this specific practice, but the approach helped me to use the intention as a practice of staying conscious while not setting myself up for failure. Failure, in fact, wasn’t failure, but rather information that helped me better understand my relationship with my intention.

What I’ve learned is that when I start a change or set an intention, initially I will enjoy the period I’m enjoying right now—”This is awesome! I feel so great!” This wears off. Sooner than I’d like, everything that resists this intention or change makes itself known. The river gets rockier and more rapid, harder to navigate. For many of us, our resolutions do not survive this period.

A white flag with the word
A white flag with the word “Explore” written on it, against a backdrop of dark wood. Image by Andrew Neel

What interferes with keeping intentions or resolutions, whatever they may be? Here are some:

  • Lack of knowledge or competence – We may set bold, inspiring goals that fill use with passion and enthusiasm, only to discover on the early steps that the actual work leaves us feeling confused, lost, humiliated, or in pain. We had no idea it would be this hard, or we had no idea all the things we had no idea about with regard to the process.
  • Trying to do too many things at once – This is related to the first bullet, in that we can get so eager to revolutionize that we take on way too much. Quitting smoking, taking up regular exercise, and cleaning the house weekly are all admirable goals, but trying to do all three at once is at best an exercise in self-torture and at worst a set-up. Better to pick one goal and hold one’s self to it with diligence, then take up the next once that first pattern is more or less set.
  • Life happening – After a few great weeks of staying consistent, little things crop up that seem like reasonable exceptions, then more reasonable exceptions, or maybe we reward ourselves for doing such a good job and take a break that starts to drag on.
  • Lack of support or encouragement – Maybe our friends and loved ones aren’t supportive of the changes we’re trying to make. When we change, it often pushes those close to us to change as well. If our loved ones aren’t willing to change, they may respond in ways that encourage us to go back to the old patterns. Even if they’re not actively interfering, sometimes the lack of encouragement undermines enthusiasm and follow through. It’s hard to keep eating salads and drinking water when everyone around you keeps getting burgers and beers.
  • Parts of self threatened by the change – This underlies everything. Perhaps the pattern we’re trying to change served a need we weren’t conscious of, like comfort or safety. Perhaps parts of us are afraid that if we’ll succeed life will change in uncomfortable ways. Maybe the old patterns are comfortable and we return to them in times of stress.

Whatever the reason, it’s almost a guarantee that any time you try to make a change something or someone will resist and try to stop the change. We have to contend with discomfort, conflict, unpleasant feelings, and doing things when we “don’t feel like it.” We might have to accept that the goal was too lofty, too far ahead on the path from where we’re at.

This year, instead of being discouraged when this happens, my hope is that we can approach this as life giving us the material we need to work with to truly make this change permanent and lasting. It is feedback, internal and external, showing us what in ourselves and the world caused us to keep to the old pattern in the first place.

Slipping up or making a mistake with our own intention does not have to be a sign of personal failure, a sign that the goal was wrong or we’re broken. It’s an opportunity for self-study, to look honestly at the obstacles and take stock of what other changes need to happen to sustain our intention.