Another lockdown and the chances are your willpower is being sorely tested. You know the answers to monotony, anxiety or frustration do not lie in the fridge or bingeing on Netflix. You know that work deadlines still matter but so does home schooling the kids and trying to balance the two takes strong boundaries. You know a healthy routine of getting up at the same time each day, eating well and making sure you take exercise each day, as well as regular breaks from screens and Zoom calls is good for you.

Yet, of course we struggle. In this post, I want to focus on willpower. The idea that if you never make the effort, you will never know how great you could be and what wonderful things you could achieve. But willpower is not enough. At least not how we normally define it.

Let’s look at a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. A poet, politician, and an important moral force in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

Don’t Quit – John Greenleaf Whittier

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don't you quit.

Life is strange with its twists and turns
As every one of us sometimes learns
And many a failure comes about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don't give up though the pace seems slow—
You may succeed with another blow.

Success is failure turned inside out—
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell just how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit—
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit.

For all the sad words of tongue or pen
the saddest are these, “It might have been!”

Psychologists describe willpower as the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. Delaying gratification is important but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I subscribe to Roberto Assagioli’s description of will, the capacity to choose to do something. Dr. Assagioli, is the founding father of psychosynthesis psychology, a psychology of the soul which stresses the importance of the human ‘impulse towards wholeness’ and of the longing for a more authentic and truer experience of Self or soul.

Assagioli describes the will, as opposed to willpower, as a meta-force which springs from the very core of ourselves without being contaminated or deviated by other chaotic and destructive forces of the psyche.  In this context, willpower is not about Victorian self-denial or steely gritted teeth restraint. This leads to exhaustion of overachievement and even illness. Been there any of the high achievers among us? By the time I left university at 21, I weighed just over 8 stone (I am 5’ 8”) A skeletal wraith having bashed my way through a four year chemical engineering degree driven by will power and a fear of failure. Not a good story. Yes, I have discipline, work ethic, drive, and ambition but none of it was harnessed properly. Deprivation or self-loathing are not healthy motivations. Often, we find shame is mixed up in there too.

Assagiolo’s description of will, implies a question, are we truly at choice? Or are we subject to unconscious forces in the depths of our psyche and mostly ignorant of why we do that which we do? Every psychotherapist, spiritual teacher or shaman knows the great depths of the human mind and our capacity for blindness of motive. Swayed by unseen forces within the unconscious, we are slaves to our impulses yet believe we are so conscious, rational and intelligent.

The best way to offset 'trying too hard' is to remember we can truly will only from the centre of our being, the Self or the soul if you prefer. This is in alignment with the Buddhist teaching of ‘right effort’. “Right Effort” involves staying on the “Middle Way” and not overdoing anything. It means exerting oneself in order to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities. Simple right? But not easy to achieve in practice. So how do we distinguish between healthy use of will and over use of willpower.

Imagine the huge effort in rowing a boat on a stormy sea compared to the effort of harnessing the wind in a sail boat. Harnessing the wind is proper use of the will in alignment with your core (the wind), while gritted teeth rowing is the hard, relentless use of willpower. If we define will in this way, we can discover or intensify our will by using it consciously and properly. Life then becomes a laboratory for experimenting with and developing our will. In my coaching work, I often set behavioural experiments for my clients since it is the best way to learn and grow.  It is experiential learning that becomes embedded in our bones.

Roberto Assagioli, described seven qualities displayed by the will in action: energy, mastery, one-pointedness, determination, persistence, courage and organisation.

To strengthen will, begin simply. For example:

  • Do something extremely slowly e.g. eating your breakfast
  • Refrain from saying something you are tempted to say
  • Postpone an action you would prefer to begin right now
  • Eliminate something superfluous from your life
  • Break a habit

Any of these can be an exercise of the will as long as they are not done out of duty or habit.

Which leads us to the subject of purpose and good habits

With so much change and uncertainty, many will be asking bigger existential questions of themselves, their lives and careers. Many of you will come out of this with different perspective and want more from life, not on a material level but a spiritual dimension. You may have been furloughed and perhaps questioning whether you even want to return to the job you had. Maybe it’s time to find something more meaningful? Simon Sineks work ‘Start with why’ is the current corporate favourite on purpose.  The premise goes, that if you lack motivation you lack a strong enough why. But this methodology has to go deeper. ‘Why’ has to be harnessed to your soul or Self, not your ego.

Until we begin our inner journey, the soul is covered in the grime of our selfish surface interests. It’s a long process to uncover it. We only gain psychic wholeness when we look at our imbalances and tend them rather than allowing them to fester deep underground, permeating our existence with rot. But unless we do the work of purification, we will never align with our soul, harness healthy will and discover our purpose. We are vulnerable to being controlled by other forces both without and within. And so, we make choices that take us away from our true potential and therefore our purpose. The answer lies in asking ourselves the right question. And that’s the job of a great coach and teacher.

For the past twenty years, I consciously chose to dive to the depths of my psyche, root out the rot, strengthen my will, and stand in my own spiritual authority.

The unconscious material in my psyche was complex and dark. I learned to assume responsibility for it and learned to direct it.  Discovering vipassana in 2012 was an enormous gift. Within 6 months, 3 separate incidents occurred that hammered home that the Universe was telling to get myself on a vipassana course. First, I was writing poetry on Iona, second working in Leeds, and third my hairdresser in York. Three women, independently of each other recommended vipassana. None of these women knew each other. I signed up for a course in November that year. In that first 10-day course, I worked at such a deep level that I re-wired my DNA to the extent that I lost any desire for alcohol or meat. This wasn’t apparent until a few weeks after I returned home. Three weeks had past before I realised that I hadn’t had a glass of wine or eaten any meat… and didn’t want any. Christmas was only a couple of weeks away and, in spite of my family’s insistence on turkey and alcohol, I just didn’t want any of it. I haven’t touched either for 8 years. Now, this is not the same as will power. This is the complete renunciation of desire for alcohol and meat. It wasn’t conscious, it happened naturally as part of my deep meditation practice on that first 10-day retreat.

Unfortunately, I wish I could say that the desire for sugar has gone too! I eat much less but the desire remains. So how do I manage it? Rituals. The key to a good ritual is that it removes the need to make a decision. I don’t buy biscuits, crisps or sweets. The cupboards hold no temptation. After a while, I just forget to think about it. But, I know the desire is still there. I’ve just created a structure to manage it. Perhaps one day, I will have renounced the desire for sugar too. But until then I help myself by using rituals.

Having a ritual takes the burden of choice off your shoulders for a while. A strong morning ritual is integral to any big life changes. My rituals are simple and yet powerful. Up at 6.30am, record my dreams, feed the cats, walk or run, shower, breakfast (always fruit, cereal, herbal tea, then later a decaf coffee) and at my desk by 9am. Main meal early afternoon not evening when I don’t need the energy. On-line yoga or another walk/run.  Meditate and then bed by 10pm. I don’t watch TV at all during the week. In lockdown, it’s a few episodes of a box set on a Friday night and a film on a Saturday night just to switch things up for a while. As you would expect, my energy levels are high and I feel fit and healthy.

Success is lots of small things done well each day. The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson– turning simple disciplines into massive success and happiness – is a good read on the power of simple every day habits. He talks about the power of compounding effort.  Change 3/10 of 1% every day:

one year = 100% improvement

two years = 200% improvement

three years = 400% improvement.

Small steps taken consistently and with courage and determination will get you there. Incidentally, enlightenment works the same way!  Awareness of every breath, every day.

So in sumary:

  • Have the courage to turn away from everything that doesn’t feed your soul. Every decision made from soul craving will gradually bring more and more life to you and your organisation.
  • Understand the difference between exercising will from the centre of your being and over exertion of willpower driven by ego. Read Roberto Assagioli’s work on psychosynthesis, ‘What we may be’
  • Your strongest muscle and worst enemy is your mind. Train it well. Create rituals and healthy habits. Learn to meditate. And of course, I would advocate vipassana!

if you harness a well-developed will and true purpose with healthy habits, you are  unconquerable, as poet William Henley describes in his ‘famous Invictus’ poem. You are captain of your soul. 

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