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.
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.