The Only Real Power You Might Have (Or Not)
So, are we in control of our lives . . . or are our lives in control of us?
With the increasing popularity of pills being seen, all too often, as the ultimate cure for all of our problems, “willpower” seems to be a word that is slowly disappearing from popular use.
Conversation about the influence of genes, conditioning, and various environmental and psychological factors that are supposed to drive our behavior often seem to dominate public conversation, seeming to make the terms “willpower” almost obsolete.
Yet despite the popularity and glamorization of the influence of genetics, brain chemistry, hormones, the economy, and so on, the belief in “free will” and the ability of a person to “take charge of their own destiny” and act as the “captain of their soul” remains stubbornly persistent, as seen on the cover of truckloads of self-help books.
But is this all hype? Or is there something truly going on?
All too often, when a person tries to actually apply this “free will” of theirs in a certain way in the real world, they often meet with unexpected results: they try not to eat some candy, but eat it anyway . . . they make all kinds of resolutions, promises, and vows, and break them shortly after…
– it seems that even with all our talk of free will and being the captains of our souls, we can barely keep ourselves from being overpowered by a Twinkie. It seems that “willpower” and even “free will” is something that’s more spoken about than actually practiced.
Yet when a person tries to stick to a diet, or free themselves from an addiction, this becomes a concept well worth understanding.
So, what is real “willpower”?
We can start with this:
Human beings ordinarily live in a state of inner conflict. It’s something like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake.
Their instincts are in conflict with their reason, their heart is in conflict with their mind, their understanding is in conflict with their actions, their desires are in conflict with each other, and so on. Almost every person is, so to speak, a house divided against itself. People want adventure, yet also want security; they want drama and excitement, but they also want peace; they want to be spontaneous, yet the also want to be in control; they often secretly want to do all kinds of things they would never tell anyone about, yet they also want to be admired and respected; they want to be healthy, yet they also want to smoke, eat, and drink things that aren’t exactly the healthiest . . . and so on.
In this kind of situation, and in popular use, “willpower”, then, often means one part of a person overriding another part.
In dieting, for example – a person vows to give up sweets. Shortly after, they are tempted to eat a cookie.
One “part” of them wants to – (“Come on, eat the cookie!”)…
but another part doesn’t want to – (Don’t eat it! Resist! Be strong!)
This same scenario – the “devil in one ear, angel in the other” scenario – plays itself out over and over again, whether it is with food, alcohol, drugs, television, sex, or generally any area that a person considers wrong or tries to refrain from.
Sometimes one part – say, the “intellect” wins the battle, and the person doesn’t eat the cookie, and the “appetite” trudges away, plotting the next encounter. Sometimes another part – the “appetite” – wins, and the intellect gets a dash of guilt. The next encounter, either one might take the advantage.
Either way, whoever wins the battle, the inner war still rages.
In other words, most “willpower” is actually a state of inner conflict. In cases such as this, actually, it is simply one part of oneself overriding another part of oneself. In this case, the persons’ intellect – their conceptual understanding of what they “should” do – overrides their instinctive/emotional center, which wants nothing more than to eat the cookie, and more. “Willpower,” in cases like these, is commonly referred to as one part (the “angel”, or one’s intellectual concept of what they would like to do – “winning out” over another part – often one’s appetite, habit, indulgence, instincts, or “heart.”
But is this all there is?
It seems that real, true willpower is more than this. Instead of inner division and inner conflict, it seems that true will should be the result of a wholeness, of a lack of division and conflict, a congruency and completeness, where all of one’s being is working in harmony towards a single direction or purpose.
But is there any description of this higher kind of will?
Plato and Gurdjieff seem to give us a glimpse of this, both offering a parable about the human condition:
There is a carriage,
with a horse,
and a boss or (“Master”) who rides in the carriage.
Gurdjieff tells a story that goes something like this:
The Master has an important meeting in town.
But the driver of the carriage has abandoned and forgotten his duties, and is wasting his money getting drunk in a bar. The driver also is so drunk that he actually thinks he is the master or boss instead of the employee or servant. The horse, meanwhile, is unfed, wandering around freely, and weakening, and its reins are in disarray or lost. The carriage has fallen into poor condition and is slowly deteriorating. The master is away from the scene and will not return to ride in the carriage until the driver is back on the box of the carriage and everything is in order.
In this parable,
the carriage represents the human body,
the horse represents the emotions,
the driver represents the intellectual mind,
and the “Master” represents the “soul.”
In other words, three primarily faculties or functions of human nature – the body, emotion, and intellect, are not in right relationship to one another.
This, they say, is the typical state of the ordinary person.
The state of drunkenness of the driver reflects the typical condition of our intellectual minds. It stands for a kind of imagining based upon the past, the constant flow of mental images from our past with which we so easily identify. In our own “drunkenness” we mechanically shift from one identity or subpersonality to the next, reacting to influences from material life. We are under the illusion that we are masters of ourselves and our destiny, when in fact it’s not the case at all. We can barely keep ourselves from being overpowered by a cinnamon bun.
(This is also similar to the parable of The Matrix: you think you’re in control of your own life . . . but actually, you’re living in a pod covered with slime, imagining that you’re free.)
So, if this is the case . . . and assuming that a person does not wish to continue living in this type of state . . . what must happen?
First, keeping the parable, the driver must awaken, sober up a bit, and begin to understand his state. He must stop his drunken imaginings and momentarily dis-identify from his familiar state of mind long enough to recognize the condition into which he has fallen.
Once this is done the driver can lift himself up onto the box. Then, he can regain the reins and hold them firmly in hand. (Reins symbolize the connection or link between the emotions and thought.) He must also learn how to communicate with the horse (his emotional self, which speaks a different language than he does).
This is accomplished primarily through right meditation.
It is only at this point that the master – the “soul” – can return to the scene and occupy his position within the carriage.
(This entire process, which takes time, symbolizes fairly dramatic shifts in consciousness.)
At this point, the individual is relatively free from the state of inner conflict that plagues the ordinary human being, and has the rare ability to 1) make a decision, and 2) carry it out.
At this point, a person may be accurately described as having “character,” or, perhaps for the first time, truly have willpower.