Intention To Realisation: Working With Will
How to help clients stick to their new year goals and aspirations.
The holidays are finished, the relatives have gone home, and your clients are trickling back in, many of them armed with an awesome set of resolutions for what they plan to accomplish. A brand new year is like a clean slate: hopeful, invigorating and full of promise. But the road to realisation of goals is littered with the carcasses of broken dreams, unfulfilled promises, and intentions that died stillborn because they did not receive the “oxygen” of the client’s will to sustain them. How can you help the client make that different this year?
Will: what is it?
Sadly, most of us are no strangers to the situation of New Year’s resolutions falling flat: sometimes before the end of January! Many will exclaim in despair, “I just have no will power!” Yet, if we look at this elusive phenomenon of will from the paradigm of Psychosynthesis, a transpersonal psychology, we see that this statement is always incorrect. If we got out of bed this morning, we used our will to accomplish that act.
And while our will may not have all the “power” that we would like it to have, our will is always present with us, somewhere. Psychosynthesis counsellors, especially trained to be observant about will, acknowledge that one of their sacred duties with clients is to track their will, but all mental health helpers can tune more into the willing function of self, for the ultimate good of the client. What do we need to know to do that?
First, will isn’t just desire energy. It is not synonymous with control, it is not about “strong-arming” someone, and it isn’t merely about repressing undesirable material.
Personal and transpersonal will
At a personal level, will can be understood as an essential impulse toward our own wholeness. It is that drive within us which coordinates the often-conflicting parts of our personalities into self-expression. As the function closest to the self, it regulates and directs other functions, such as imagination, intuition, impulses, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. It is will which guides us toward personal integration. As we align our lives with a broader vision for what we may be, we go beyond personal will, receiving guidance from transpersonal will: the will of Self (as opposed to “self”).
Along that journey, however, we – and certainly our clients – can fail to execute our will in a way which allows our goals to be realised. This post looks at the aspects of will, which, if they are not employed or are employed badly, can stunt the client’s intentions, keeping their goals from ever realising.
Aspects of will: strong, skilful, good
When people make statements like we noted above, decrying their lack of “will power”, they are probably referring to the most well-known aspect of will: that is, strong will. As we begin life, we are – we are told – unaware that we are separate from Mum. The beginning of individuation, the “terrible twos”, is the beginning of recognising that will exists. We are not only separate from Mum; we actually want something different from what Mum seems to be giving us. We come to see that we have a will, so we use it; we cry for our nappy to be changed, or to be given food. It is the aspect of strong will that ensures that our willed act – say, crying for food – contains enough intensity or “fire” to carry out its purpose (getting us fed).
In other words, have you ever seen a really hungry baby stop crying after a very short time if it is not fed? It is possible that, if your client’s proposed new diet or exercise regime has failed, he may not have applied enough “fire” or intensity to the intention to exercise or to lose weight. In this case, he may be interested for you to explore with him what situations in his life are keeping him from applying greater intensity to the question. Maybe he doesn’t desire strongly to look or feel different, for example. Sometimes, however, clients fervently wish to make a change, but they continue to experience not being able to do so. In some cases, what is missing is a second aspect of will, equally important to the first: that of skilful will.
Several sayings are relevant here. One is that environment is stronger than will power. The other is that, when imagination and will power go up against one another, imagination wins every time. These axioms allude to the often unrecognised reality that we cannot generally achieve our goals through fiat, through strong will, alone. If we put our will into competition with other psychological forces – such as impulse or feeling – it becomes overwhelmed; we end up stressed without accomplishing our goal. What we are missing in this case is likely to be the capacity to develop strategy, approaching the goal skilfully rather than in a way that is more direct and obvious but less effective.
The client who wants to lose weight, for example, could think that they simply need to eat fewer calories and the extra avoirdupois will start dropping off. Maybe. But your role as strategist can be very helpful if you establish, for example, whether the client is often in situations where controlling food intake is difficult: say, when going out to eat or eating at private parties. Is the client eating balanced meals, with sufficient protein (for example) to sustain himself? Is he getting enough sleep to avoid overproduction of the hunger-inducing hormone ghrelin?
There are myriad ways to be skilful around weight loss plans, and the client may need to consider adopting some of them for success. The point for right use of will is that, if we must merely strong-arm ourselves to achieve every end, we end up exhausted and discouraged, with few accomplishments. Skilful will allows us to use will not as a direct power or force, but as a function which stimulates, regulates and directs other functions of ourselves so that they lead to the goal. Imagination, for example, could lead the client to think of novel ways of dealing with meals in social situations. Coming into greater relationship with sensations could allow him to observe the sensation of true hunger pains as opposed to times when he eats because of boredom or needing comfort; he can then skilfully meet needs to be comforted or alleviate boredom in other ways.
Even with employing strong and skilful will, however, your client may not achieve his goal. A third aspect, equally important with the first two, also needs to be employed. It is good will.
We’ve been talking about your hypothetical client’s goal – say, a weight loss program – as something that he can achieve all by himself through prudent use of strong and skilful will. In fact, no one is an island; we all live in communities and interact with family, friends, co-workers, gym instructors, enemies, and others on a regular basis. Those willed acts that succeed in accomplishing the will-er’s goal do so because they have taken into account the need to choose goals that are consistent with the welfare of others and the common good of humanity. They also must be consistent with good will to ourselves.
The bottom line here is that many clients need to do serious work around having good will for themselves. Obviously, if the client is going for the example goal we’ve been talking about – weight loss – simply because they “hate” themselves like they are, the motivation for willing fails the good will test and is unlikely to succeed. Better you work with them to improve their self-esteem and sense of worth as a person, so that any weight loss and subsequent weight maintenance can be in the context of “something I do to value myself; I like myself as I am and want to enhance the health of that self”.
Accessing transpersonal will
According to Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, using our will doesn’t stop with developing strong, skilful, and good will: the three aspects of personal will. Assagioli claims that we can manifest all three of those and still be unhappy if we do not see how our personal goals align with something greater than ourselves. Having that solid sense of meaning and purpose to achieve something beyond the benefit of our little self helps us to reach beyond the limitations of ordinary consciousness to more expanded, intense states of awareness.
To yearn for that and not have it is what Viktor Frankl called “the abyss experience”: the opposite of Maslow’s peak experience (Boeree, 2006). Yet it is often in the abyss and despair of meaninglessness that we feel the pull of the superconscious, activating our transpersonal will and giving us access to another level of being. And then life becomes really interesting, as we try to balance the needs of material life (our immanence) and those of our higher levels of being (our transcendence), experienced as intentions arising from our transpersonal will.
Even our hypothetical client going for weight loss (seemingly a very personal goal) may be able to access transpersonal will. Let’s say he loses the weight, arriving at his goal weight. He may enjoy his slender new body for a while, but ultimately that may not be enough to sustain lasting happiness if looking good was the sole purpose of the original intention. If he can transform his goal, however, to a broader one – a goal more inclusive of potential good for humanity as a whole – he may find that his personal will is aligned with transpersonal will. Perhaps he realises the health- and life-affirming benefits of being at one’s right weight, and begins a consultancy to help others achieve it as he did. Or he discovers secrets associated with the whole process and begins to share them widely by writing about them.
If all aspects of his will are aligned, the client may move to a higher stage of use of will, in which he senses not that he has a will but that he is a will: a will and consciousness.
The body, the needs, and the will
Ultimately, our clients may benefit from being reminded that, as long as we inhabit a body, that body will have experiences that give rise to needs. Through right and effective use of will, clients can meet those needs, thus increasing their happiness. Through use of not only strong will, but also skilful and good will – and perhaps even transpersonal will – clients’ New Year’s resolutions will be far more likely to succeed, and they can experience willing as an act that leads to joy.
- Assagioli, R. (1973/1984). The act of will: A guide to self-actualization and self-realization. Wellingborough: Turnstone Press.
- Boeree, C. G. (2006). Viktor Frankl. Personality theories. Shippensburg University. Retrieved on 5 November, 2012, from: Website.
- Mental Health Academy. (n.d.). Understanding Will. Mental Health Academy, from: Website.