This is a longer re-vision of an earlier text on the inner power of will and the discipline of willpower. The dream chronicled in the original post was actually a vision I had in a meditation (or more like a shamanic journey), which re-occurred a second time with some changes that allowed me to see further connections. This re-vision clarifies a few ideas that remained vague in the original post and also adds some new elements that deepen the reflection by linking it to the concept of the will in the hermetic tradition of magic that I wrote about in my most recent post, “The lost art of transmutation.” During a presentation in Berlin that was based on the transmutation text, I showed a well-known clip from The Empire Strikes Back – Luke Skywalker, when confronted with an extremely difficult challenge, mutters under his breath “Ok, I’ll give it a try,” and zen master Yoda replies “No! Try not. Do. Or do not! There is no try.” Yoda is speaking about the will from a magical perspective, which he links to the fact that we are “luminous beings” who can harness “the force.” But, on the contrary, I would say that in the ordinary perception that makes up the consensus trance we habitually call reality, there is a lot of “try” – trying is, in fact, what most people do best (and sometimes they manage to succeed, in short bursts, to push themselves into fulfilling their attempts). But there is very little doing of the kind Yoda means, of setting an intention and then having the action – even an action of seemingly impossible proportions, like lifting a spaceship out of a swamp – flow smoothly and effortlessly, from an inner power, without resistance …
About a year and a half ago, I started meeting my six year old self in meditations. Which became visions or journeys. At first the images were quite gray and opaque, and I could barely glimpse her contours from photographs I remembered. But they became more vivid, taking place in familiar and strange landscapes, where we talked and played and laughed and sometimes cried together. It was only much later that I understood, by some unusual links that came on the wings of synchronicity, that this was a communion with what various new age theories call the lower self, or what the Kabbalah refers to as Nefesh (for a more detailed discussion of the triad of the self, see https://profanelight.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/the-lost-art-of-transmutation-introduction-to-mel). The lower self is what most people think of as the subconscious. It’s the part of the self that’s linked to the physical body and the processes that regulate its functions, to sensations, emotions, raw psychic energy, and, in a wider sense, to the cyclical (and often seemingly irrational) world of nature. Most theories see the lower self as simple and innocent, something like a naturally curious, playful, and quasi-animal-childlike self, which then becomes burdened by complexes and neuroses that are passed down by the middle self, or the conscious personality, as it experiences traumas and tries to protect itself by habitual defensive responses, which tend to constrict and block the natural energy flows of the body-psyche nexus. In this way the lower self is transformed into something that is no longer so innocent or playful, it fragments into noisy, chaotic subpersonalities that push and pull in different directions. This is a first kind of loss. The second loss is that the sense of playfulness and curiosity and enchanted perception of the world – which many children possess because up to a certain age there is a very fluid boundary between the lower and middle self – is eventually pushed into the background as parents and educators demand that the child be serious and responsible and conform to the common-sensical standards of the world. This inner child, which is the repository of sparks of innocence, enchanted awe, and a magical perception of the world, becomes a kind of shadow – not a dark being of rage that threatens to explode (although those are often buried in the subconscious as well), but a golden shadow full of hidden gifts and miraculous potentials that are repressed and only emerge in brief flashes of illumination.
What follows is a description of a communion with both my lower and higher selves during a meditation, or a trance journey, and the subsequent reworking or integration of the experience as it was filtered through journaling, analysis, interpretation and making associative links – everything that we think of as the faculties of reason that belong to our middle, conscious self, which is also the seat of our will, decision-making and interactions with the world. I would agree with many anti-anti-intellectualists who claim that it is necessary to integrate the mystical experiences we have in visions and trances and psychedelic trips, by using reason and the will, in order to expand our previous limits and go through a process of transformation that is spiritual, as well as ethical, practical, material, and in many other ways, quite profane.
Light flickers before my eyes, like the wings of a butterfly beating against the darkened sunglasses of reason. I open a heavy, red mahogany door and enter the foyer of an old Victorian house. There is a marble floor that looks like an enormous chessboard and a grand circular staircase on the left. To the right is a small, wooden door that looks run-down and like it’s not hanging straight on its hinges. I open the door and go down 20 stairs to the cellar. From the top I can see an oval door at the bottom that looks like a mirror, and as I descend down the stairs the reflection of my face becomes increasingly clearer in the mirror. On the last step of the 20 stairs, my image fades and I see a forest on the other side. I approach the glass and touch it, but my hand cannot pass through. I see my 6 year old self on the other side of the mirror playing near a pond. She walks towards me, extends a hand through the liquid glass, and pulls me into her world.
We go into the dark green forest and sit down near a weeping willow tree, with branches hanging like curtains over a pond with bright orange fish. She turns to me with sad eyes and says, stop pushing. And then I transform into a grandmother, not my own grandmother, who I barely remember, but an archetypal white-haired, old woman who speaks with the voice of Louise Hay. The child gives my grandmother-self a small round orb made of white light. I see two images in the orb – my father punishing me for getting a bad mark when I was in first grade, and my mother persuading me to clean my room by promising to buy me German chocolate – good chocolate was an extremely rare thing to find in the communist shops of my childhood. I understand what the the child means by pushing, and why she has transformed me into a grandmother. Parents sometimes threaten or cajole because they have a hidden agenda and 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 effort.
The child gets up, kisses my cheek and says goodbye. I extend the white orb of light over my head and use it to swim upwards through the sky and stars, until I reach a glowing doorway without a door that is anchored in the dark firmament. I step through the threshold and walk into a icy white forest with trees covered in snow that look like immense white coral reefs. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the white orb, and notice that I have changed back from the grandmother to my own self. I walk along a path and come to a crossroad where I see an old king wearing a golden crown. He takes my white ball and in exchange gives me his crown. As he takes it off, it changes from a firm, metal object into a circle of spinning yellow light, which he places above my head. I feel it being absorbed into my skull and sliding down my spine, until it spins into a pulsating ball and emerges as a wand of light out of my upper stomach. The king says to me, misquoting a line from Faulkner, I give you the spark of all hope and desire, and then walks away. I swim back down through the sea of stars and fall gently through the atmosphere into the green forest again. The child is playing, making circular movements with her hands in the pond with orange fish. She turns around to face me, and I open my cloak and hand her a small double pointed wand made of red, mahogany wood. She examines it carefully and says, I don’t know what to do with this. And I reply, you will.
Contemplating this vision, I grasped the difference between will and willpower. Willpower is overpowering, directed inward. It is an external power of domination by the discipline of reward or punishment, even though it appears to be an internal relation between the I and I. The two I’s are not the same – it’s a battle between our conscious I or the seat of our personality and the lower self or the subconscious. Willpower is an attempt by our conscious self, which sets intentions and makes plans, to overpower the lower self, symbolized by the 6 year old child, into doing something she does not want to do or does not feel ready for. Willpower is haunted by a feeling of being divided, torn apart in contradictory directions, in an uncomfortable precipice between conscious intention and subconscious impulses. We are trying to subdue those impulses, and to discipline our lower self, like a parent trying to discipline a child, into complying with strict, external demands. Willpower sometimes seems to work for a short time, for a few days or weeks, 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 it does work for brief bursts of time, when it succeeds in temporarily subduing the split parts of our psyche, it doesn’t feel good – it feels like pushing, exerting effort, repressing. Like something we don’t enjoy doing but are biting down and clenching our teeth on, continuing to struggle, but determined to 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 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 all parts of ourselves – including the inner child. Will is this unfolding inner power, directed outward. It is what happens when we make a resolution and are in harmony with ourselves, when our desires conspire together, when conscious intentions and subconscious impulses agree, when our middle and lower selves act in unison. And then there is no forceful pushing, but only a patient, irresistible, gravitational pull. Will is a mysterious power that arises from achieving self-mastery or sovereignty, which has nothing to do with controlling, overpowering, disciplining or repressing the “bad” desires of the lower self. Most systems of self-transformation – from Gurdjieff’s self-remembering, to Western hermeticism and Kabbalah, eastern classical yoga and tantra – seek to achieve sovereignty, although the routes they prescribe may differ. Their aim is not attaining states of altered consciousness through meditation, trance or excitation, but developing the secret alchemy of the will, so that one’s entire existence becomes a state of altered consciousness.
The image of the wand of light emerging out of my belly made me think of the metaphor Castaneda uses for the will. Or since Castaneda was already on my mind, perhaps his image influenced the vision in my journey. Castaneda writes that will is not the same as wanting to do something and then exerting effort, but more like a mysterious inner power that develops in its own time. That does not mean sitting back 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 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 emerge. Then, one day, a fire starts burning in the belly and a gap suddenly opens up between two dimensions of reality. 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 like a lover’s caress that gently attaches itself to the world. When this mysterious will ripens, the warrior has become a sorcerer.
What was new in this vision, compared to the first time I had it, was the image of power as something given to me by my higher self, in the guise of an old magician-king. The crown represents sovereignty, achieving mastery, balancing inner forces, which includes the coming into alignment of the lower and middle selves. Although I have been doing a lot of visualizing that pulls up energy from the earth through the root chakra in order to heal some imbalances I feel quite strongly, my visions have recently shifted and they are all images of energy passing down through my crown (literally) and being absorbed into the solar plexus. And the image of my animus or higher self has also changed in these visions, from a young, long-haired warrior to an old, long-haired magician-king (to invoke some popular references, he no longer resembles Aragorn, but Gandalf). The direction of the flow of the energy is also reversed. I am still deciphering what to make of all these changes, and how to connect this to my understanding of the will, which is the most dominant idea invoked in all the visions. Perhaps it means that will is not something to be formed and banged into shape through work and discipline but something that needs to be cultivated and allowed to grow, patiently, and that it arrives as a kind of gift. And that it is not a material force from below that rises up through legs that are strong and well grounded, but a divine power that flows downward from the cosmos – even if there are inextricable links or correspondences between them.
I confess, I’ve never been zen enough to simply be and cultivate the virtue of patience while waiting, so it’s a difficult challenge. The way I think these visions translate, practically, in terms of my daily life, is that I have come to recognize how much my life has been defined by moments that felt like pushing and exerting willpower. In the past, perhaps I even thought it was a sign of strength and valor – the lengths to which I could go in conquering and overpowering the weaker parts of myself. But now it’s clear to me that when I invoke this kind of willpower as a form of domination, turned inward, I am hurting this beautiful child that lives within me, and the thought of causing her the slightest pain is unbearable. The fact remains, however, that there are some rooms in the house that need cleaning. So the question is how to interact with myself, with that other me in myself, so that I am not issuing demands that are then punished or rewarded, but that I learn to speak the grandmotherly language of gently persuading the lower self to come to an understanding that cleaning her room is not a painful ordeal she has to suffer but a joyful experience that is for her own benefit, and that she will feel a sense of vastness when she can breathe and move about more freely in an uncluttered space. A space … in which it will also be easier to find all her favorite toys.