Saturday, 13 September 2008


Will is the ability to direct and control one’s body and mind. Each of those underlined words is important. Will power is the strength with which one focuses the mind or controls the body. Normally we all have control and direction over some parts of our bodies and minds. This however, is not absolute. It is limited because we simply cannot control every part of our bodies or minds.

Take the functions of our bowels, normal adults have a good degree of control. Or take sleep – you can’t just will yourself to fall asleep instantly.

What about our thoughts and emotions? In everyday practice we can discipline ourselves sufficiently to organise our thoughts, for example if we had a certain amount of planning to do. Or we could direct our attention at task we must complete, ignoring distractions around us. We can delay laughing about certain things until after work. Of course, this is never perfect but we can exercise some control. Or if someone made us angry, we could control our expression of our emotions in response to that person.

What things affect the will? For starters, physical or mental illness can weaken our sense of control and direction. The more powerful the emotion the less control we might have. Fatigue and stress are in there too. The list is perhaps longer than I first imagined.

Our basic needs when heightened can sharpen or weaken the degree of control we might exert. Hunger, thirst, and sex-drive are examples of things that can alter the balance of control. Of course non-basic needs such as thirst for power, fame and fortune can cause similarly direct our will. It depends very much on the balance of these ‘forces’. However, basic needs have survival advantage and when heightened are especially powerful. The need for self-preservation or survival is also a powerful basic need, which when seriously threatened can either weaken or enhance our will.

The avoidance of pain, suffering or stress are also things that affect how we direct our will.

Some glossaries will say that will is a 'mental faculty'. This is true but not the whole truth. Will may be largely an ability that is produced by the mind. However, it is possible to direct one's actions unconsciously. When a badminton or table tennis player reacts to the shuttle or ball moving at high speed, and returns the shot that appeared impossible - how does that work? Is the player fully aware of all 'calculations' that effect the right force, angle and speed of return? I assert - no! This kind of wilful reaction is the result of a body and mind working as one. The whole thing directs itself. Thinking too much in tennis, badminton, cricket - almost any sport can actually impair performance.

I'm spitting out these words on this screen with minimal effort. Do I know how my fingers reach for the letters on the keyboard as I touch type at 80 wpm? No. I don't know where the keys are. If I think about it too much I slow down and lose accuracy. By some mysterious process my thoughts are connected to my finger tips. That I activate my fingers is undoubtedly the product of my will. But my point here is that will is not simply conscious intention.

Or take driving. I sometimes drive hundreds of miles in one day. Yes I'm conscious while I'm driving, but do consciously will every turn of the steering wheel or every shift of the gear lever? On one occasion my car picked up a skid on ice. Only after I came out of it, I realised that I reacted correctly. How did I do that? There is an autopilot sitting in the background some where - I suspect. Sometimes it takes over when my conscious mind or will is too slow or inefficient.

I do not set out above to make an exhaustive list of things that can affect 'will'. I only wanted to put this in a space that I can look upon it - reflect on it - refine it. I thought it was important to do this because increasingly over the years I've wondered how 'free' I am to direct myself.

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