The luminous will

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 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.



  1. Wonderful as always – as yes, quite dreamy. Silenced the inner chatter in such an easy, fluid way, and the amount of synchronicities in reading this right now is head-spinning.

    Thank you for sharing this journey.

  2. “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.”

    Thank you for this expansive and illuminating article Anna. I believe you make an important distinction between ‘willpower’ – which I see as the conscious expression of intense volition – and what you simply call ‘will’. The latter, as the quote I cite above indicates you know full well, is something that comes to us unbidden; and I would suggest, more as a given correlate of wisdom/knowledge (if that is not too vague an expression).

    Whether one needs to invoke levels of selves here I am not at all sure; though if that proves an effective epistemology, then why not? The pitfall though, as I see it, is that in doing so we make of these conceptions actual entities, just as we do with the ego; and this creates further obstacles that need transcending if we are to reach any extrinsic finality of our epistemology.

    I think it’s probably true that for many, ‘willpower’ acts as a precursor to the arrival of innate will – the ‘gift’ of which you speak. In practical terms, this involves using the mind to overcome the mind. One accepts during this process that the whole occurs within the ‘gearbox’ of cognitive functioning, whilst also accepting that just for now, there is little option to do otherwise. Actually, in analysing existence into various levels of supposed ‘selves’, this itself results from the exercise of willpower whilst also serving as another means of overcoming mind with mind. And so we come full circle.

    Wonderful writing Anna; many congratulations.


    1. Thank you for your long and thoughtful reply, dear Hariod. I tend to think that both will and willpower are the expression of conscious volition – will is what happens when there is no longer unconscious resistance and when you don’t have to impose a kind of dominating power on yourself by discipline, rewards and other forms of self-coercion.

      I don’t think it makes sense to cut and paste and reproduce here (as a comment) parts of the longer text, The lost art of Transmutation, which is where I discuss in detail the notion of the trinity of the self, and why splitting the self-identical “I” into a triad of lower, middle and higher selves allows a more profound level of knowledge and relation to oneself, and also why the communion with the lower and higher selves provides me with an inner radar and inner guidance that I previously found lacking.

      Many theories harbor a danger of reification, including psychoanalytic theories of “the unconscious.” Ultimately I believe it’s not a question of whether such reifications accurately reflect reality but how they work as an interpretive grid. I don’t think the idea of “the unconscious” – as a noun (rather than an adjective) that implies an entity harboring dark forces that can never be fully known – works well. I’d say the same about spiritual interpretations that not only reify the ego into an entity but portray it as some external enemy, nemesis or demon that gets us to do things we don’t want – because this creates a relation to ourselves based on hostility and self-loathing. To my mind, a better interpretative grid is considering many of our faults and foibles as belonging to a 6 year old child-like self, with whom we learn to speak in a loving voice – because it changes how we relate to ourselves. I don’t want to try to persuade anyone, especially since it came out of a very strong intuitive sense that I don’t see as demonstrable – so the only thing I can say is either it resonates, or it doesn’t.

      I do agree that willpower is a precursor to the “arrival” of the will, and that a process of self-observation – in which willpower is strengthened (through discipline) and the mind is used to overcome the mind – is a necessary first stage of self-transformation (also elaborated in the 7000+ word text).

      1. “I tend to think that both will and willpower are the expression of conscious volition” In what sense then, Anna, does will “arrive as a kind of gift”? Are you saying it is a gift that we, in effect, request, or that it can be, as you previously suggested, “cultivated”? If so, what is it that does the cultivation and how does it know how to go about realising its aim? I agree with your statement “will is what happens”, though am more inclined to leave it at that than to introduce conscious volition into the picture as any immediate causal agent. Willpower, we agree, is a precursor or forerunner to will itself, though I personally incline to think that the causal connection is somewhat loose, as perhaps you might agree, and rather think of will as ‘just happening’, arriving more as what you call “a gift”.

        It sounds as though I should read your detailed article The Lost Art of Transmutation to gain further insight into your thinking on levels of selves. I completely agree with you on your point regarding the need for what you call an “interpretative grid”. That is why I stated above that “. . . if that proves an effective epistemology, then why not?” Unless we have some template for experience, it is all too easy to succeed only in becoming swamped by preconceptions, innate biases, predilections and so forth. I by no means mean to criticise or question what works for any individual, less still yourself (or selves 😉 ) though was rather merely pointing out the pitfalls of mistaking the map for the territory, so to speak.

        With very best wishes to you dear Anna.


        1. Dear Hariod, I would like to thank you for provoking me to think more deeply about this. When I reused your term “conscious volition” perhaps I interpreted it slightly differently than you did and not as synonymous with will – I interpreted it as meaning to make a conscious decision, to set an intention, to say to myself, I want to make such and such come about. By itself, I think the phrase doesn’t say whether that decision or intention is actualized, whether it actually comes about through action – and the seed can be brought to fruition either through willpower, by trying to impose discipline on ourselves (or over the lower self), or through will. I confess, I am somewhat puzzled myself by how will arrives as a gift, and I chose to illustrate this through an allegorical story rather than a text of logical syllogisms because it is something I grasped intuitively that I feel I am not (yet) able to express in the form of an argument. I know from experience that sometimes I set an intention and the action follows with a lot of effort and resistance (when I use willpower) and other times it flows smoothly, without resistance, which is what I take as the manifestation of the will. As I said in the text, I think it comes about when we achieve sovereignty and are in sync with the different parts of ourselves (when the lower self is no longer in resistance). I do think there are a series of steps to be traversed, in a journey of transformation, until we are able to – not just once or twice, but consistently – create harmony between different parts of ourselves. This is part of the longer work that remains to be elaborated in the book The Magic of Everyday Life, which I can’t condense into an aside. But for me the work also involves dialoguing between the selves that very much resembles what I invoked in the story above about a grandmother gently persuading the 6 year old why cleaning the room is for her own benefit so that the resistance will vanish…

  3. I like your last paragraph about not dominating yet cleaning house. Similarly for me, it’s a blend of intention and compassion toward my inner selves. Thanks for a thoughtful post.
    blessings, Brad

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