Strengthening Will

"We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, justice or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, individualized, unique. "
John Dewey

"In our era the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action."
Dag Hammarskjold

Do we have enough information yet? If you want to lead a good and healthy life, you can find abundant information about how to do it. You can read holy scripture. You can read self help books or listen to self-help tapes. You can search the Internet. You can go to lectures and workshops or read the lifestyle section of the newspaper. You can take classes. You can even hire a counselor or a personal trainer.

So many of us continue to do things that we shouldn’t or avoid doing things we should. Lack of information is not the problem. Often the missing ingredient is lack of will. We’d like to lose weight or exercise more. Maybe we’d like to meditate more regularly. We feel we should study more or spend more time talking with our loved ones. We may have some big and important project that we need to complete, but it just doesn’t happen.

Perhaps what we are lacking is sufficient will to act. Willing is the beginning of behavior. It is the act of setting attention on goals and taking action to meet them. It is different from wishing. We can wish for a lot of things, and hope that Santa brings them. Wishing doesn’t imply that we are going to do anything about it. Sometimes it works. Often it does not.

When we exert our will, we make choices. For instance, right now you are probably breathing naturally without thinking about it. You haven’t exercised will in the matter. Your natural instincts tell you to breathe in and then out. You could choose to stop, for a short time, through an act of will. Or you could will yourself to touch your nose or stand up and stretch. You would be making a conscious decision to perform a behavior, and then you would begin to do it. That’s will.

These are easy examples. What about the hard stuff? Let’s say your goal is to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. An admirable goal, and not so easy to attain for those living active lives. How would you attain this goal?

You’d have to start by deciding whether you really want to do it. What would you gain? Greater composure, relaxation, clarity of mind, spiritual depth, and mental expansion maybe. Are these gains worth giving up doing the things you would be doing instead? What would you lose by meeting your goal? You have to weigh the alternatives.

So lets say you decide you do want to meditate twice a day for twenty minutes each. You get started and do it for three days. Then you feel especially sleepy in the morning, or your favorite TV show comes on during the time you had set aside for meditating, or your friend wants to talk to you late into the night. You feel the impulse to not follow through with your goal. When your will is strong, you follow through with your goal by inhibiting competing impulses. You might decide to skip the TV show. You might decide to go ahead and talk to our friend, but stay up later to meditate. And you might decide that you need to start going to bed earlier so you aren’t too sleepy to meditate in the morning.

The phrase, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” is a cliché, but it suggests the truth that when we create our intention and direct our will, we must, as part of the process, seek alternate paths to accomplish our goals when obstacles appear. Will involves tenacity. It means we don’t give up at the first disappointment or difficulty. A strong will perseveres.

Strength of will allows us to accomplish things, to become the person we hope to be. However, it is only useful if it is guided by wisdom. A strong willed fool makes a wonderful obstacle to progress, but they don’t accomplish anything worthwhile with foolish goals and values. We must learn to know ourselves. We must learn to discern good from bad, truth from fiction, and develop values based on valid principles.

When we exert our will in action, we create karma. Each action has a consequence. We live in a world of action and reaction, cause and effect. The energy we create by our action will come back to us one way or the other. If our actions are rooted in greed, anger, or other forms of attachment they will create more of the same in our experience. If our actions are rooted in compassion and unselfishness, we will experience more love.


How do you assess the character of your will?
Would you say you are a strong willed person, or not?
When or where have you had a failure of will?
What might you have done differently?
Think about your values.
What is most important to you?
What are the standards of conduct that mean the most to you?
What do you most want to accomplish in this life?
What state of mind do you most treasure?
What do you most wish for?
Is it possible you could attain your wish?
What could you do to attain your wish or meet your goal?
What can you do right now to begin it?
What habits or impulses might get in the way of your goal?
What competing values or desires could be obstacles to attaining your goal?
What can you do to remind yourself to persevere in the face of obstacles and passing time?
How can you exert your will without becoming caught up in the trap of selfish attachment?

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© 1999-2002 Tom Barrett