you ever set out to accomplish a particular task, and found
yourself distracted or sidetracked, having forgotten your original
intention? For some people it happens many times each day. Is
this just a memory problem, or is there something deeper going
How many projects have you started and not completed? Most people
can make a long list of tasks that were started but then abandoned,
books begun but then left unread, art projects started but left
unfinished, and a large pile of objects taken out to be used
but not put away. Is it just that our lives are too busy, or
is something mysterious going on inside us?
Have you started a diet or made a decision to stop eating something
that is bad for you, and found yourself eating the forbidden
food without thinking -- only days, or merely hours after making
the commitment? Did you forget? Do you lack willpower? Did your
desires overwhelm your original intention?
These are common and frustrating human experiences. By understanding
the nature of the will, we can begin to understand our seemingly
Our willpower seems to switch “On” for some tasks,
which we accomplish easily, and “Off (or “Out to
Lunch”) for others. Like an unreliable friend, we can’t
seem to count on our own will to keep us on track. In certain
areas of our lives, such as getting to work or taking care of
the children, we can feel our inner fortitude kick in. We focus
our attention and energy on getting things done. We do whatever
it takes to get it done. We stick to a plan, keep our commitments,
and make progress step-by-step. In other situations, we lose
focus, and can feel like a victim of our own subconscious whims
As children, we were told by our parents and teachers that if
we simply applied ourselves, and used our willpower, we could
accomplish anything. Pointing to famous people, our parents
and teachers admonished us with, “If you just applied
yourself, and paid attention, you could get good grades, make
lots of money, accomplish great things, and become famous. You
could even become President of the United States.”
They were partially right. A strong will allows us to continue
our movement forward without being slowed, deterred, or stopped
by outside forces or influences. But for most people, a strong
will doesn’t come naturally. Our will began to express
itself in early childhood (during the “terrible twos,”
when the will constantly tests parents’ patience), but
for most of us, it was beaten into submission until you were
properly “socialized,” until you began to “behave
yourself.” Your will was subjugated – made subservient
to the will of your parents, teachers, religious authorities,
Some people demonstrate great willpower. Mary decides not to
eat chocolate, and she simply stops eating it, with no apparent
effort or struggle. Mark decides to exercise every day, and
he’s off to the gym every morning. We admire these people,
and we know that we are somehow not like them. Perhaps it is
something we are missing – a fatal flaw that prevents
us from getting things done.
Where does this mysterious force of will come from, and where
does it reside? Can it be strengthened, like a muscle? Or are
we given a limited amount of will at birth, and are thus subject
to permanent limitations for the rest of our lives?
The will is not a part of the body that can be dissected and
examined under a microscope. It is not a thing or an object.
The will is a function -- a process -- of “Being”
itself. It is a built-in ability that all animals possess that
allows us to get what we need and want. (There are exceptions
and limitations, of course – think of a person in a coma
or an animal in a cage.) The will is the power a being has to
view its options, make decisions, and control its actions. A
being wills. It comes with the territory of life. If you have
a body, you have a will.
The most important function of the will is to decide. The word
“decide” comes from the Latin roots de + caedere,
meaning “to cut off.” To decide means to cut off
all other options but one. When you choose to turn left, you
cut off the opportunity to turn right. A person (or any being)
makes a decision and then engages in action by using the will:
“I will move forward. I will turn toward the light. I
will back away. I will smell this. I will eat this.” If
you are not willing to cut possibilities out of your life, you
won’t be able to make decisions. You’ll be left
with too many possibilities, and no ability to move forward.
All living beings have the ability to decide – at some
level of consciousness. In lower animals, such as bacteria,
viruses, and insects, the will appears to be an automatic or
robotic process. It is machine-like, engaged in without any
apparent conscious choice. A mosquito flies in the direction
of something warm, lands, and injects its proboscis into your
arm. Did it choose you, and your arm, and your forearm in particular?
We call these basic behaviors “drives” or “instincts”
because the mosquito does not seem to have any choice but to
engage in its pre-programmed behaviors. An amoeba is not considered
to be a conscious creature, but you can watch it move with some
intention across the field under a microscope, extending its
pseudopods to check out its surroundings. Is it deciding where
to go or just reacting to its environment? Pavlov’s dogs
didn’t “decide” to salivate when they heard
the bell ring. Automatic responses are below the level of consciousness,
and as part of the sub-conscious, they are not considered willful.
After reading the instructions all the way through, stop all
of your movements and actions. Sit or stand quietly. Decide
what to do next, and state it, out loud. (This exercise is
best done in a private space. Otherwise people will look at
you strangely.) After stating it, take that action. For example:
“I am going to walk forward ten paces.” Then walk
forward ten paces. Then decide what you will do next, state
it out loud, then do it.
If you notice yourself doing things other than what you stated,
stop doing it, and state out loud that you are going to do
that. For example, if you notice yourself turning your head
and looking to the left while you are taking ten paces forward,
stop and say, “I am going to look to my left on the
third pace forward.” Then do that. Continue this exercise
for ten minutes. When you are done, take a few minutes and
check to see how you feel after having exercised your will.
A) This exercise is exciting and entertaining when practiced
with a friend or partner. Each person observes the other and
helps to identify automatic behaviors: “Did you notice
that you brushed your hair out of your face? Okay, decide
to do that, speak it, then do it consciously.” Have
fun with this.
B) When you wake up in the morning, spend the first five minutes
of your day doing this exercise. Do this for five days in
a row. At the end of the day, notice whether it shifted your
feelings during the day. Did it change your effectiveness?
humans are complex creatures, but many of our behaviors are
automatic. Breathing, blinking, swallowing, and scratching where
it itches are behaviors that we do automatically, without deciding
to do so in advance. (Some pundits extend this list to talking
on the phone, shopping, and scanning for potential mates, which
appear to be almost automatic, especially for teenagers.) These
behaviors are managed by our autonomic (automatic) nervous system.
Can these automatic behaviors be brought up to a conscious level?
For five minutes, observe your movements and notice which ones
appear to be automatic. Pay particular attention to your eye
movements, your heartbeat, and your breathing rate. At this
point, simply observe and do not attempt to change anything.
When you are ready, decide to change your breathing pattern.
Take control over it, expanding your inhale, or slowing your
exhale. Stop breathing in or out for one second, holding your
breath in briefly at the top of your inhale, and holding your
breath out at the bottom of your exhale. Observe your feelings
as you take control over a normally automatic function. Alternate
taking control, then letting your breath be automatic, back
and forth, for one minute each, for a total of ten minutes.
Expand this awareness of automaticity to other parts of your
life. For example, notice what you say when someone asks, “How
are you?” If your response is automatic, (I’m fine.
How are you?”) decide to change your response the next
five times it happens. Have some fun with this. Create a range
of possible answers, such as: “You’re fine, how
am I?” “Do you really want to know, or are you just
being polite?” “I just woke up, and I haven’t
figured that out yet.” Notice the response you get from
in India have demonstrated that autonomic functions –
even the heartbeat – can be brought under conscious control.
The entire field of biofeedback emerged from studies that showed
that if we are able to receive information back from any part
of our body, we can gain some conscious control over it. In
one experiment, the contraction of a single muscle unit, the
smallest bit of contracting muscle tissue, was amplified and
fed back to the experimental subjects as a clicking sound. Subjects
were able to very quickly bring this completely unconscious
muscle movement under conscious control. We can become conscious
and in control of anything – as long as we can direct
our attention to it and receive information from it.
If this is true, why do we have problems with our will? At times
we feel that we are at the effect of shifting winds. We run
this way and that, in pursuit of many things we believe we need
or want. We feel deep contradictions inside of us. We know we
have something important to accomplish, but we can’t seem
to get it done. We keep a “to do” list, but we find
ourselves doing things that bring us pleasure instead of focusing
on accomplishing our goals. We get distracted by phone calls,
interesting magazine articles, TV shows we have to watch, the
newest emails in our inbox, or multiple websites. Our original
intention is hazy at best, or lost completely. Something is
moving us from activity to activity, but it is not conscious
decision-making. We know where we should put our attention,
but we get sidetracked from our goals. Why does this happen?
As discussed in Chapter #N, we are not one “Self.”
We have multiple “selves,” And each self is attempting
to express its own will.
There are five broad categories into which our agents or sub-personalities
can be divided. They are called the Realms of Will:
1) Physical (Instinctual)
2) Emotional (Pleasure/Pain)
3) Social (Moral)
4) Self-Determined (Rational)
5) Spiritual (Transcendent)
Realms correspond to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy
of Needs.” Maslow pointed out that individuals seek to
fulfill their needs at each level, starting with the physiological
and survival needs for food, shelter, and sex. Once that level
of need is mostly filled, the individual can then begin seeking
ways of getting the next level of needs met. In practice, our
wide variety of needs and desires call to us simultaneously.
Each need motivates us in a different direction. Some of them
we hear as clear voices, others as urges, others as goals we
have set for ourselves, and others as intuitions or a deep knowing
that guides us in a particular direction.
The Physical Will is concerned with survival, and represents
those parts of us that protect us from danger and get our survival
needs fulfilled. The Physical Will expresses itself as instincts
to acquire food and shelter, to reproduce, and to avoid danger
and death. At this level, the motivations of Physical Will are
referred to as “drives.” All animals share the same
instincts. The will at this level is not “awakened,”
that is, animals are driven by their survival needs, they are
not conscious of their motivations, and cannot change them readily.
Unfortunately, this is true of much of human behavior, as well.
Many of our choices and behaviors are automatic, driven by needs
below the level of conscious choice. Although we believe we
are awake and deciding for ourselves, most of what we seek and
do is a result of unconscious needs and habitual behaviors intended
to fill those needs.
For one day, observe your Physical Will at work. Notice when
your behavior is being driven by physical needs. How many times
do you feel the urge to go to the bathroom? Do you go immediately,
or do you wait? How often do you eat? Did you experience a feeling
of hunger, or did you stand up and get a snack, cup of coffee,
or glass of water automatically?
If you are single, observe your hunting-for-a-mate behaviors
for a week. Observe how you look at people you are attracted
to, and what goes through your mind when you do so. Do you act
on your impulses, asking for phone numbers or being seductive?
Or do you sit back and hope that you will be noticed? Observe
your thinking about people around you. Do you judge them as
worthy or unworthy of your attention? Do you put them into categories,
or decide whether they’re right for you (even before you’ve
met them)? Experiment by changing your automatic behavior consciously,
acting instead like someone you admire.
If you are married, observe your sexual desire, and how and
when you get it fulfilled. Do you ask for what you want, or
just take it? Are you as seductive as before you were married,
or do you assume that your partner has an obligation to satisfy
you? For a week, act as if you are not yet married, but are
intent on attracting your partner into your life.
Emotional Will is the realm of our likes and dislikes, attractions
and repulsions, and is the basis for many of our addictions.
In this realm, our sub-personalities seek pleasure and avoid
pain. Behaviors and choices are driven primarily by what has
brought pain or pleasure in the past. Most of our core attitudes
and our moods are driven by these pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding
parts of ourselves. The emotional will also operates mostly
on automatic in the background, with little conscious intervention.
We judge people who are driven primarily by this level as selfish
egoists or as hedonists. Addictions to food, cigarettes, drugs,
or alcohol are driven partly by induced physical and biochemical
needs, but also as strategies to avoid or numb emotional pain.
When we see good people stuck in bad relationships that they
can’t seem to get out of, it is most likely that they
are being run by the needs of their Emotional Will.
The Social Will operates in two realms: the emotional-social
mind, where we seek to meet our needs for recognition, belonging,
and social status, and in the thinking-rational-moral mind,
where we are indoctrinated into believing that one thing is
right and another is wrong. In our distant evolutionary past,
belonging to a group (or troop) meant survival. We are social
creatures, so we need each other. Being cast out of the group
caused suffering from aloneness and almost certain death. The
Social Will accepts instructions and indoctrination easily,
because we are eager to please others in order to belong and
thus survive. Adults indoctrinate their children as they themselves
were indoctrinated: “This is right. This is wrong. Do
this. Don’t do this.” The reward for good behavior
is love, recognition, and acceptance. The consequence of going
against the social code includes punishment, isolation, and
pain. These simple methods of indoctrination are used very effectively
to align the Social Will with the group’s or community’s
rules of proper (moral) behavior. The Social Will is the source
of the Right/Wrong game and all manifestations of righteousness.
At its best, it creates a coherent civilization and a social
structure that works to benefit everyone in the society. At
its worst, it is the cause of most wars, injustice, and justified
The Self-Determined Will is the first level of Will that has
the potential to be driven by conscious decision rather than
by physiological or social needs. With a Self-Determined Will,
a person can make decisions outside his or her indoctrination.
A person becomes a true individual, separate from family, tribe,
or culture. A self-determined person can rebel against authority,
voluntarily leaving his or her parental home and community.
He or she can become untraditional, creative, and truly unique.
America is a shining example of Self-Determined Will in many
ways. For either good or bad, unrestricted self-directed will
can accomplish almost anything. Individuals can be challenged
to greatness and can overcome obstacles. A person can create
their own goals, decide what is best for their life, and strike
out on their own to accomplish it. On the other hand, greed,
anger, and frustration can warp the Self-Determined Will into
a force of destruction.
The Self-Determined Will at its best brings forth the fruits
of creativity and progress. The American culture admires achievement,
and our economic system supports the “rugged individual”
to succeed – or fail – on their own. The downside
of this complete self-determinism is that as separate individuals,
we have lost much of our sense of tribe and caring community.
Individuals who have less self-determinism, energy, resources
or education get left behind in the dust.
The Self-Determined Will begins to express itself during the
Terrible Twos – when we first say “No!” to
our parents. It grows as we grow, reaching its zenith in adolescence
when we rebel against all authority. As we grow into adulthood,
we train this will to serve all of our needs. We work hard at
a job in order to live a good life. We accumulate things as
evidence of our will to wealth and power. We can be richer than
the Kings and Queens of old, yet in some fundamental way, this
turns out to be less than completely fulfilling. And thus emerges
the Spiritual Will.
The Spiritual (Transcendent) Will awakens when a person realizes
that there is more to life than the accumulation of wealth and
power. A new chapter of the Will is opened with the realization
that we are all intimately connected, and that others around
us are suffering. This realization may come early in life, or
late. In some, it never awakens. With compassion for others,
and the desire to make a difference in the world, an individual
becomes motivated by something higher than the intellect or
emotions or ego-based goals and achievements. The Spiritual
Will comes from what some call the Higher Self. This is the
realm of life purpose, of the philanthropic urge we feel to
help others, or to solve social ills. It is the realm where
impossible promises are made: “I am committed to ending
world hunger… to the ending of homelessness in my city…
to peace in the Middle East… to healing the earth…
to saving the children.” When the Spiritual Will awakens,
a new life begins where our motivations seem to come from Pure
Being, or from Spirit. In Maslow’s terms, this is the
realm of self-actualization. In Buddhism, it is the realm of
compassionate action for the benefit of all living things.
Another aspect of Spiritual Will is surrender. This does not
refer to giving up, giving in, or succumbing in face of force,
but a transcendent act of will that goes beyond the will itself.
This comes from the recognition that God or Spirit may have
something in mind for us that is much larger and more glorious
than we could imagine for ourselves, and certainly more powerful
than anything the ego could generate. Some people feel a pull
or a drawing forward from that transcendent force. This is the
source of the saying “Thy Will, not my will, be done.”
In Islam, the statement “InshAllah” means “If
Allah wills it…” This statement, primarily used
to refer to situations in the future, is an acknowledgement
that our personal will is not the only force in the Universe.
It is a magical act that throws open the ego’s bounds
and transports us to a larger whole that we are merely part
Mastery of one’s will is the most important element of
success in any endeavor. Unfortunately, the exercise of the
will is rarely taught, except in certain mystery schools which
have as their intention the awakening of the “True Self.”
In the public school system, individuals are socialized and
controlled so they do not exercise “willfulness,”
which is equated with obstinacy. From lack of exercise, the
will becomes flaccid and easily controlled by others. We end
up preferring to rely on rules, customs, and directions from
others to guide our behavior, rather than performing the hard
work of conscientiously analyzing choices and making decisions.
Our attention is pulled this way and that way by the parts of
ourselves, like a plastic bag carried by the wind. With exercise,
the will can once again awaken, and take its rightful place
as a resource for you to achieve your goals.
order to be successful at anything, a person must be able to
control his or her attention and will. The will is the faculty
of Self which decides where to place attention, and then when
and where to move and remove attention. We live in a world full
of distractions, so only those people who can focus and hold
their attention on a goal are able to achieve it. If you are
not able to stick to a plan, or you lose sight of your goals,
or you have difficulty staying with one thing, your will could
use some exercise and training. The will is like a muscle –
it needs regular exercise to stay healthy. As in any gym, your
muscles get stronger only when you actually lift the weights.
Do you want results? Do the exercises. As in a gym, start with
smaller weights, and work your way up to bigger and bigger challenges.
Take a gradient approach. Eventually, your will can operate
at peak efficiency. Do these exercises again and again until
you’ve achieved mastery of your will.
For five minutes, observe your movements and continue to ask,
“What is moving me?” Notice whether or not you can
tell what your motivation is. At this point, simply observe,
and do not attempt to change your behavior. After doing this
exercise a few times, make a list of your motivations. Then,
use a chart like the one below that identifies each realm of
your will, and how often each realm and each motivation is in
control of your decisions and your behavior.
1. For five minutes, decide and declare what you are going to
do before you do it. Example: Start by sitting in your chair.
Decide what you are going to do next, then speak your intention
out loud: “I am going to stand up.” Then stand up.
Decide what you are going to do next, and say it out loud: “I
am going to turn and face the kitchen.” Then do it. Repeat,
deciding and speaking before making each move. If you notice
something happening that you didn’t decide to do (such
as scratching your nose), stop. Then, consciously decide to
do that action and speak it out loud before doing it. “I
am going to scratch my nose. (Scratches.) I am going to stop
scratching my nose.” Continue with the exercise for five
exercise is both exciting and entertaining to practice with
a friend or partner. Each person observes the other and helps
to identify automatic behaviors: “Did you notice that
you brushed your hair out of your face? Okay, decide to do that,
speak it, then do it consciously.” Have fun with this.
When you wake up each morning, spend the first five minutes
of your day doing this exercise. Notice how it changes your
feelings during the day. Does the exercise change your effectiveness
during the day?
2. Pick an inanimate object and focus all your attention on
it for one minute. Use your will to keep your attention on the
object. If you notice your attention wandering, bring it back
to the object. Start the count of time over from zero until
you are able to hold your attention on the object for the full
minute. It is handy to have a watch or clock within visual range,
or have another person keep track of the time.
Increase the time for your focus of attention by half-minute
intervals. Practice this each day, preferably as the first thing
you do when you begin your workday. Repeat this exercise whenever
you are feeling scattered or out of control.
3. Pick something unimportant that you do often and automatically,
such as reading while you eat, or putting on the TV when you
are getting ready for bed. Choose to not do that activity for
a 24 hour period. Taking a gradient approach, working your way
up on more important automatic actions. Your aim is to do this
exercise with any addictions you may have – such as to
sugar, alcohol, coffee, chocolate, or your favorite food that
you “have to have” every day.
Commit to “one day at a time” without that substance
or activity, and take notice of your feelings, cravings, reactions,
and irritations which occur in the absence of that substance.
Note them in your journal. When you’ve accomplished one
day without it, decide to go without it for two days, then three.
If you are having trouble with even one day, go back to one
hour. If you are successful, build up hour-by-hour until you
can achieve one full day.
4. Pick something that you have to make a decision about. Start
with relatively unimportant decisions. Example: “Should
I go out to dinner or stay home and cook?” Make your decision,
then state, out loud, what you have decided in this form: “Shall
I stay home and cook tonight? Yes. Level One.” This is
conviction at the 10% level. Then repeat, with more conviction,
saying: “Shall I stay home and cook tonight? Yes! Level
Two.” Repeat again, eight more times, each time with more
conviction, until Level Ten, where you are completely certain
and have 100% conviction. After doing the exercise, sit and
feel how it feels to be 100% certain and completely committed
to the task. Taking a gradient approach, use this technique
with more and more important decisions.
5. When you wake up in the morning, before you start your day,
decide to accomplish one particular thing by noon. Let it be
your top priority that pushes all of your other priorities aside.
Let nothing get in the way of accomplishing that task first.
After you’ve accomplished it, take a moment and feel the
feelings you have. Can you bask in that feeling for awhile?
Does your mind immediately let you know what the next thing
to accomplish is? If this occurs, tell that part of yourself
to stand by, and return to basking in the delicious feeling
of accomplishment. Feel proud of yourself. Give yourself positive
feedback. Give yourself a reward that is good for you.
6. When you notice that you desire something, instead of going
to get it, ask yourself, “Where is that desire coming
from?” Often our desires are created by other unfulfilled
desires. If you notice that there is a deeper desire underneath,
ask the same question, “Where is that desire coming from?”
Keep following the answers backward until you reach the core
desire (you’ll recognize it by its not having another
desire underneath it). Sit with the core desire and feel its
strength, its pull, its need, and notice how you feel in its
Ask yourself, “What is it that I really need?” Often,
we will get an immediate answer. See if you can get that need
filled in a positive way by taking a walk in nature, taking
good care of your body, visiting with a loved one, getting touched
or massaged, etc.
Additional Resources for Awakening the Will
The best training for development of the Will is The Avatar®
Course, created by Harry Palmer. This nine-day course for self-development
is taught by a worldwide network of teachers. Visit the Avatar
website: www.avatarEPC.com. You can download the “Basic
Will Course” for free at http://avatarepc.com/html/mini-eng.html.
It contains many exercises which strengthen and awaken the will.
“The Proper use of will power is not conquest and subjugation,
but the disciplined control of one’s own attention.”
~ Harry Palmer, ReSurfacing: Techniques for Exploring Consciousness.
Another school of spiritual development that includes training
of the will is that of G.I. Gurdjieff (1877–1949), who’s
training is referred to as simply “The Work. The website
www.gurdjieff.org is a good place to start.
E.J. Gold is a teacher whose school in Grass Valley, California
(www.idhhb.com) trains the will through a wide variety of practices,
including the making of art. He has been called a “modern
day Gurdjieff” by some.
A more accessible school is the Diamond Approach of the Ridwhan
Foundation in California. Founded by teacher A.H. Almaas, it
combines ancient and modern techniques for awakening the will
and achieving self-realization. www.ridhwan.org.
Rudolph Steiner’s Waldorf Schools have a deep understanding
of the development of will in children. www.awsna.org.
"The point is never to pervert the willing by false means
into the wrong direction, but to secure the strengthening of
the will by artistic means."
~ Rudolf Steiner
contents © 2005 by Lion Goodman
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