I’ve sometimes noticed that the idea of “will power” is dismissed, as if it were some kind pseudo panacea—an old idea from pre-scientific times. In a serious discussion of the medical dangers of obesity, one speaker mocked the idea of will power as being useless. Obese people may be genetically disposed to being overweight; they need to be treated bio-genetically, she argued.
Supposing there is a genetic factor in obesity, it hardly follows that minding one’s diet would be of no value. Just remembering when to take one’s medicine requires the exercise of voluntary intelligence—an act of will. A modest supply of ‘will power’ seems a minimal requirement for daily life.
What about the term “will power?” It seems to suggest there is some exotic power associated with willing. But there isn’t and willing something, as William James said, is equivalent to holding one’s attention on something. If you were able to read the foregoing paragraph and grasp its meaning, you’ve a demonstration of the “power” of free will. Free will is no more than the capacity to focus, direct and redirect your attention on something, on anything.
If we observe the stream of our own mental life, we quickly discover how fragile is the hold we have on our attention. The closer we look the more evident the difficulties of being at one with ourselves. Disruptions abound from countless sources. The intrusions come from two dimensions of reality: the external world and our no less obtrusive internal world.
What to do? The philosophy and mythology of the ancient Greeks had an answer: they exalted the virtue of encrateia--self-mastery. In a world of dangers coming at you from all sides of reality, one has to keep one’s cool and the right stance of self-possession. I like a story in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus and his boat and men approach the zone of the Sirens and their enchanting music. So exquisite the sound it distracts sailors and sends them to their doom. Odysseus wants to enjoy the ecstatic sounds of the Sirens, but instructs his men to block up their ears so they can hear nothing and tie him to the mast of the ship so he can hear but not make some foolish move. In this way, even in the midst of grave danger we can form our lives as free spirits and single-minded agents. If all the sailors were unable to hear the magic music, they at least made it possible for Odysseus to share his experience with fellow voyagers.
One could say that this despised “will power,” this intentional consciousness, pushed to the hilt, is what drives the heroes, yogis, saints, shamans, and so forth. When Jeanne d’Arc heard her voices, she raised an army and ended the Hundred Year’s War. Joseph of Copertino held the image of heaven in his consciousness so relentlessly that gravity failed and he rose into the air heavenward. Martha Beraud, alias Eva C., an artist-medium would focus with intensity on images in her head until they became physically visible in space, long enough for the scientists to photograph them. Nada Brahmananda tested his “will power” when he spent one hundred and eight days and nights in a small underground room, essentially without food or drink, in order to master the paranormal skills of Nada Yoga. All these illustrate some of the lesser known effects of so called “will power.” Another term describing these effects is psychokinesis, also known as ‘mind over matter.’
Beginning with the small, somewhat despised notion of “will power,” we’re led to a fundamental property of consciousness that is by nature intentional, directed, and creative. The key to the trove of human potential may well lie in the Greek virtue of encrateia, the energy of self-mastery—the last thing you hear about in our dominant culture of economic materialism. An unfortunate omission.
Self-mastery isn’t just about the self; it’s as much about the other. If you’re in control of yourself, you’re not likely to let others control you.