The inner power of will and the discipline of willpower

I dreamt I met my 6 year old self. I was in an old Victorian house, in a large foyer with a marble floor that resembled an enormous chessboard and a grand circular staircase on the left. To the right was a small, wooden, run-down door. I entered it and went down the stairs to the cellar. At the bottom was an oval door, which I first thought was a mirror because it was made of glass, but as I came closer I saw that it was opaque and cloudy, and gave back no reflection. I knocked on the door and waited. She extended a hand through the liquid glass and pulled me into her world.

We went into a dark forest and sat down near a weeping willow tree, with branches hanging like curtains over a small pond with bright orange fish. She turned to me with melancholy eyes and said, stop pushing. And then I transformed into a grandmother, not my own grandmother, who I barely remember, but an archetypal white-haired, old woman who touched the child’s face softly and spoke to her with gentle words. I cannot remember what the I-who-was-not-I said.

In the morning, contemplating the dream, I felt a kind of flash in which I grasped the difference between will and willpower. Willpower is a power over, an external power of domination by reward or discipline, even though it appears to be an internal relation we have between the I and I. The two I’s are not the same. Willpower is an attempt by our conscious self, which sets intentions and makes plans, to overpower the subconscious, symbolized in the dream by the 6 year old child, into doing something she does not want to do or does not feel ready for. Sometimes willpower seems to work for a short time, for a few days, or perhaps a week or two, but it is always followed by a backlash of falling back into the old behavior we were trying to discipline out of ourselves, and then lapsing into feelings of guilt or shame. And even when willpower works for a short time, it does not feel good while it is working – it feels like pushing, like exerting effort while suspended in contradictory directions, like something we do not enjoy doing but are biting down and clenching our teeth, determined to finish and get through it all. But there are also other times when we make up our mind to do something new, to change one of our daily routines or habits that seems quite old and ingrained, and the action just flows smoothly. And then our will unfolds effortlessly, as if something has shifted internally and we’re finally in sync with ourselves – with the child inside. There is no forceful pushing, only a patient, irresistible, gravitational pull.

As adults who have taken care of children know, there’s a difference between yelling at a child to clean her room because it’s a disgusting, horrible mess (and, by implication, that the room is a reflection of her own identity), or promising a reward for the painful ordeal she has to suffer, like being able to watch a special film or finally getting the new toy she wants … and, on the other hand, gently persuading the child to come to an understanding that cleaning the room is for her own benefit and that she will feel good when she can breathe freely in an uncluttered space and when she will be able to easily find all her toys. Parents sometimes threaten or cajole because they have a hidden agenda, they want the child to comply with their demands, while grandmothers seem to know how to speak a secret language of love, patience and kindness that does not demand anything and is able to conjure cooperation without any fuss or effort.

Castaneda wrote somewhere that will is not the same as wanting or deciding to do something and then exerting effort, but more like an inner power that develops mysteriously, in its own time. That does not mean sitting on the couch and doing nothing while waiting for it to arrive. His warrior is someone who undergoes a rigorous training – of learning to dethrone self-importance, of stopping the internal dialogues running wild in the mind, of facing and overcoming fears … but most of all, of cultivating patience in all things. Also while waiting for the will to grow and mature until it is ready to emerge. Then, one day, a fire starts burning in the belly and a gap suddenly opens up between two dimensions. The will seeps out through that gap, like a luminous ray made of fibers of incandescent light. It does not leap out like a fist that clenches or seizes or overpowers, but gently attaches itself to the world. When this mysterious will ripens, the warrior has become a sorcerer.

I believe Castaneda’s warrior-sorcerer, if we peer behind the veil of appearances, has the face of a white-haired, old woman.

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