Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of October 3, 2011

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Developing Will: Introduction

Will is at the center of who we are. Will is who we are. I am my will. Both spiritual development and self-development, despite any distinction that might be made between them, entail the development of will. Indeed, everything we do is done by will. Usually we think of will in the active sense, of self-control, of working toward and attaining goals. But there are many natural modes of will: active, receptive, and a synergic combination of those two. And there are aberrant modes driven by self-centeredness, such as self-will and identification.

Because will enters all we do and because its many modes all spring from one will, developing our will provides benefits across all aspects of our life. So we can safely focus most of our will-development efforts on the active self-regulation and goal-setting aspects. Nevertheless, the receptive modes still need their own work, to refine and train our will in opening, equanimity, and letting go.

Will does not operate in a vacuum. To be effective, will must act through the medium of various inner energies, which provide an interface between our will and our functions, such as thoughts and physical actions. That is why our will can seem exhausted at times: the necessary energies get used up. For example, regardless of our best intentions, our ability to maintain a focus of attention is limited in time. Then we need a break to replenish the energies used in attention. But the more we exercise our attention, the greater our access to those energies, and the greater the duration of our powers of attention. And so it is also with other modes of will.

The fundamental way to develop our will involves setting a goal, working toward that goal, and monitoring our progress. Each of these steps requires skill and intelligence.

The first hurdle in setting a goal is to choose wisely. In most cases it should be unambiguous and attainable. Our goal needs to be defined clearly enough to enable us to monitor our progress and our attainment of it. Without that self-feedback we cannot truly exercise our will. Another major issue is the degree of difficulty. The goal or task should be something within our power and the right size. If the task is too big, we will fail. If too easy, it does not exercise our will. Our experimentation with this dimension of difficulty helps us understand our own capacities and limitations, helps us see why we need to develop our will. Also, the goal or task should not depend on any other person. We cannot control other people and making our will exercise contingent on their cooperation or action may well put us on a course toward failure.

We have the further choice of time scale. The goal or task may only be concerned with something immediate and brief: an ad hoc, short-term effort like maintaining self-awareness for the next ten steps while you are walking, maintaining your attention for the remainder of a lecture, or keeping your anger in check while dealing with a difficult person. We also work with goals and tasks lasting a day, a week, or some longer period. The biblical forty days is a typical time-period for more serious undertakings.

Finally, we set the goal and commit ourselves to carry it out. Without this step, it all remains too vague, leaving our will to languish in a kind of limbo. We often have thoughts such as Id like to that or I should do that. But random intentions do not rise to the level of organized, effective will. For that we need to choose consciously and then agree with ourselves that we will carry out what we have chosen to do. Without that inner assent, that agreement to commit ourselves to a particular course of action, our will is never set on the task. Since no decision has been made, we cannot count on fulfilling it.

After choosing and setting our task or goal, we work to achieve it. We do what we have set out to do. Otherwise we weaken ourselves. Self-confidence comes from knowing that you can set yourself to do something and then actually do it. Not following through with the will exercise, with working toward the goal or doing the task, breaks that self-confidence. So we do our very best to ensure that we do what we have set ourselves to do. Inevitably, though, failures come, usually by overextending ourselves, taking on something beyond our capacity. When that happens, we start over again with something easier, to rebuild our will and our confidence.

With a clear goal or task, we can bring self-awareness to bear on our activities related to it. We can monitor our progress and verify the accomplishment of the task. This self-feedback is an essential factor: it closes the loop and brings wholeness to our consciously-willed actions. This monitoring also allows us to adjust our efforts and get back on course when we stray. Implicit in self-monitoring is the more general self-awareness, which itself organizes our energies and rectifies our actions. Seeing changes what we see. When we see ourselves, we change ourselves for the better, even though the seeing may be uncomfortable.

Sometimes we may choose a goal that is not readily attainable, verifiable, or even clearly defined, but simply establishes a direction of effort, for example, when we commit ourselves to the spiritual path. We may couch that goal in terms of enlightenment or sainthood or stable presence or non-stop devotion. Despite the ambiguity, we know whether and to what degree we engage in the necessary efforts.

At other times, rather than choosing a goal, we may find that a goal has chosen us. We may come to realize that some inner imperative, perhaps coupled with our life circumstances, has fully committed us to a course of action. The decision was a gradual one, coming in increments. Yet here we are, pursuing that direction. Again, our will determines how far and how well we travel that road.

In the coming weeks, if you so choose, we will work on developing our will by exercising it in various ways related to our spiritual path:

    1. Habits: Self-Regulation
    2. Keeping Our Word
    3. Responsibility
    4. Attention
    5. Frequency of Presence
    6. Breadth of Presence
    7. Duration of Presence
    8. Delving Deep
    9. Equanimity and Non-Judging
    10. Purifying Will

For this week, please examine your own will, its strengths and qualities, as well as its shortcomings. Notice the limits of your ability to do what you wish to do.


        

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