Where Does Will Come From?

Einstein’s recipe for his success – curiosity, obsession, and stubbornness – might also be listed as curiosity, wilfulness, and headstrongness. He was self-willed, possessed a lot of willpower.

Coronation Chair for a King

Will occupies the seat of power in the psyche. But where is that seat? (Image: public domain.)

These days we say will or willpower does not work, pointing to those who fail to diet or quit smoking as proof. The trouble here is that the decision to diet or quit smoking is just that – a conscious decision – and not an act of will. What these folks will is to go on eating and smoking, so in truth, their “failures” are actually proof that willpower does work. To change something about oneself, or to accomplish some difficult thing, one must will that it be so – not decide – will.

Here lies the rub. The question, “What do I really want?” = “What do I will?” The will can and does take one where one wills to go. Conscious decisions that fly in the face of will do not work, although the clash between the shallow want and the deeper want can make one very unhappy. In addition, certain events in life can thwart one’s will so thoroughly that serious psychological difficulties may ensue.

Where does will come from? I believe it stems from the set of emotionally important ideas we all acquire as children. These form as our genes interact with our early environment. We build a collection of core ideas – each laden with some specific feeling tone – about how the world works, what its rules are, and how we feel about what happens to and around us. These emotionally important ideas become our worldview and our values. They are the driving force of our personality. Therefore, will is not a function of the reasoning mind. It is, in part, an emotional phenomenon. A stubborn fellow like Einstein refuses to swallow the uncertainty principle and the accepted precepts of quantum mechanics because he is emotionally committed to the conflicting ideas that “God does not play dice with the universe” and that the cosmos is a continuum.

Where does this leave the idea of free will? Out in the cold, I am afraid – at least in the modern sense of that term. Clearly, the emotionally important ideas laid down in the mind during childhood are the true guiding elements of one’s interests, attitudes, values – one’s life really. These “nuanced themes” (a creativity research term that refers to a set of related emotionally important ideas) act as a compass, or can, if one is aware of their existence. However, whether or not we are aware of their presence, our emotionally important ideas are at work within us. By going with them, by living according to the principles contained within the set, one not surprisingly gains a powerful sense of rightness and fulfilment. By going against them, by living according to other principles, one reaps the rewards of self-alienation and the feeling of spiritual emptiness that always accompanies that condition. One becomes emotionally unfulfilled and one’s life lacks meaning.

In short, to feel good one must follow the guidance of one’s emotionally important ideas. In a sense, it is like the Christian idea of free will. The religious types often claim that Man’s free will consists in being free to obey the will of God. They are mistaking part of their own psyches for God, but the idea is otherwise sound.

The problem, of course, lies in discovering what one’s emotionally important ideas are. This requires self-knowledge, but the question, “What do I really want?” asked over and over in every situation can reveal a great deal of what lies below the threshold of awareness. Moreover, consider what that question implies. By following or obeying the promptings of one’s emotionally important ideas one is not forced to do things or believe things one finds revolting or objectionable, one is, in fact, doing and believing what one’s most fundamental inner being wills. Obedience to one’s emotionally important ideas is the road to authenticity and emotional and spiritual fulfilment. Remember that when one speaks of happiness or of fulfilment one is not talking about big houses or fancy cars, one is referring to one’s emotional life.

Perhaps the above would read better for modern eyes if we replaced obedience to one’s emotionally important ideas with commitment to one’s emotionally important ideas. Since they are so essentially the very core of who we are, I suppose they and we are wedded to one another. I think one’s set of emotionally important ideas comprises what Jung would call the Self.

(Over the course of his career, Jung defined self in a number of ways. The most commonly accepted version is that self is the integrated sum total of the psyche. I believe this is too nebulous a concept to be useful. The unique set of emotionally important ideas we all possess is a definite understandable construct. With some effort, we can make the set conscious. It is our guide in life. It is the source of our will. This is my definition of self.)

The part of the psyche that needs to obey or be committed is the ego. We are describing the relationship between ego and the unconscious mind. However, the need for obedience is only there so long as one’s set of guiding emotionally important ideas remains unconscious. Once one has raised them into conscious awareness, the policy of following one’s own lights becomes a fully conscious process. Ego then manages the psyche. Those guiding emotionally important ideas are mostly unconscious because we acquired them when we were small children. The process was largely unknowing so, as one might expect, most adults are not truly aware of their genuine values and outlook on life. We have consciously to go looking for enlightenment. What we find may be troubling, which is why the process Jung called individuation is long and difficult.

The critical point here is this: since most people have not individuated, have not become full-fledged individuals, they are in the position of not knowing their authentic values. They do not know, or only partially know, what their emotionally important ideas are. This often means they are ignorant of what they really want, what they will. The situation leads to the illusion that ego can pick and choose a set of values from a “menu” and then try to live by those values. We read Western philosophy books, or religious texts like the Bible and the Quran, or spiritual works about the Tao or Buddhism. We arbitrarily select what seems appealing and off we go. It does not work out and we cannot fathom why. We seek some more, always thinking that if we can just find the right source of wisdom we will become enlightened and find meaning and emotional fulfilment in our lives.

None of this works because we are looking in the wrong direction. What we really need is to find what is already there, within us, nestled at the very core of our being. We need to unearth our own unique set of emotionally important ideas. Then we can stop driving ourselves half-crazy by endlessly trying to do things we do not truly want to do. We can stop tying ourselves in knots by continually trying to believe things that collide with what we genuinely believe.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “Where Does Will Come From?”

  1. Ok, an interesting piece. What it doesn’t seem to deal with, however, is the concept of change. If we act upon ourselves, the fruits of our actions becoming part of that emotional psyche, then the question poses itself – “where does the will come from to change our will?” According to the post, the answer is our will. But this wouldn’t make sense as all it would be would be an infinite loop – the source of our will is its source itself. Subscribing to the theory that energy must pre-exist and cannot come from nowhere this wouldn’t make sense. Also, we have the ability to change. If it can’t come from our background (emotional etc.), then the source of our “energy” must come from somewhere else. Where?

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Joseph. Will is a confusing issue for many people. In fact, I spent years working out the ideas presented in this post. You seem as bewildered as I was at the start so I will do my best to untangle things for you! Other readers may find this useful, as well.

    Your question, “where does the will come from to change our will?” is nonsensical. What you will is what you will. To say you want to change what you will is to say that you will something else instead – a clear contradiction. The confusion here comes from our ego wanting something that we do not genuinely will. You must always remember that there are two perspectives in the psyche: that of the conscious mind and that of the unconscious mind. They do not always agree. Getting them to agree is the path to enlightenment. The largely unconscious self is always the true source of will so, like it or not, ego must bend. Most people do not like this and fruitlessly spend their lives fighting with themselves.

    If ego will get out of the way, change in life and in the psyche comes about naturally. Jung called the process self-realization or self-actualization. It is all about personal growth, maturation, and development over the course of a lifetime. The energy for this comes from the emotional component of the emotionally important ideas that make up the self. The nature of the growth comes from the ideas component of those same emotionally important ideas. The self, by its very nature, wills to manifest itself in the world to the fullest extent possible. Wholeheartedly accepting who we really are and what we really want is the attainment of enlightenment.

    However, setting aside ego is not easy. Anyone dominated by ego will find that the person they truly are and what they genuinely will bears little resemblance to the splendid false persona and unrealistically idealized values of the ego. The desire to cling to ego’s version of events is responsible for most psychological difficulties. It is why we declare certain thoughts, ideas, feelings, and perceptions unacceptable and then repress them. Letting go of ego’s wishes seems like a loss of control. We like to think we can change simply by making decisions and then deciding to back those decisions with “willpower.”

    You dismiss “background” as a source of energy, yet that is precisely where will’s energy comes from. As children, our genes (which largely determine character), interact with our environment (culture, social milieu) and a powerful set of subjectively formed guiding principles is laid down. These principles are among those emotionally important ideas that make up the self. They determine our personal sense of right and wrong and colour the way we see the world. By providing a conscience, they strongly affect our behaviour.

    Along the way, we are attracted to certain things that go on to become lifelong interests or even our vocation. Creativity research has shown that the driving force here is feeling tone or mood. We are motivated to get, do, or create things that will bring back the magical feeling tones or moods that seemed so enchanting or delightful when we were very young. For example, as a small child, I adored those glossy colourful storybooks filled with charming pictures. I have never lost my love of books. They always seem incredibly desirable to me. When I was a bit older, the (then new) pop music on the radio delighted me. At 63, I still play my old CDs (which replaced even older vinyl LPs) and explore new music on CBC Radio 3, Last-FM, etc. You undoubtedly have your own list of such things.

    Joseph, I hope this helps you sort things out a bit!

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: