The bestselling psychotherapist and author of The Power of Kindness offers a concrete program for developing the will—a faculty we greatly need to face life’s hurdles and to embark on our most meaningful projects
All of us experience periods of gloom, fear, and uncertainty. But we each possess deep reserves of inner strength and wisdom for dealing with such setbacks. Indeed, it is the very arrival of darkened circumstances that can summon our untapped energies.
In Your Inner Will, therapist and philosopher Piero Ferrucci explores how to play on the iron chords of our interior selves. In this stirring and deeply practical work, Ferrucci provides a full program for the cultivation of the will by employing insights from classical mythology and wisdom teachings, neuroscience research, case studies, and psychological exercises.
Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of will and is followed by exercises that guide the reader in its development. Chapters include: Mastery, Autonomy, Freedom, Courage, Integrity, and Resilience. Ferrucci describes the pitfalls we face when our inner strength is lacking, and shows us what we can expect when it is healthfully developed. An effective will can guide us in our search for inner freedom; it helps us to take risks and to renew ourselves; it makes us feel strong and confident.
Your Inner Will is an immensely practical study that helps readers navigate crises and pursue more purposeful lives.
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Piero Ferrucci is a psychotherapist and philosopher. He has been a student and collaborator with Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis. He is the author of several books, including The Power of Kindness, Beauty and the Soul, What We May Be, Inevitable Grace, and What Our Children Teach Us, as well as the editor of The Human Situation, a book of Aldous Huxley’s lectures. He lives near Florence, Italy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
One day a huge, rusty gate collapsed on a four-year-old child. He was trapped under its heavy bulk. His mother ran to him. She was a small, gentle woman, and her specialty was homemade ravioli, not weight lifting. But at that moment her son was crying with pain and fear: perhaps his life was in danger. She looked about. She was alone. After a moment of dismay, she seized the enormous gate, and with all the force of desperation, and with sudden, amazing strength, lifted it. The child managed to scramble out from underneath and get free. Later, to move that dangerous gate away, it took four strong men.
That child would one day be my father; his mother, my grandmother. In this family legend, who knows how much is true or hyperbole? Yet stories of great strength manifesting in extreme circumstances are well known and have been documented. In emergency situations, our notions of what we can or cannot do are reset to zero, as powers otherwise dormant are unleashed. I believe this to be true not only for physical strength, but also for inner strength. It is an essential resource. We may lose touch with it, yet we can find it again. It is right there, accessible to us if we want it.
I see this often in the workshops I lead. I ask participants in a group to relive a time when they felt their own inner strength. All kinds of memories surface from the past: parents who, having been abandoned with children by their partner, found the energy and spirit to bring up a family; people who had a financial crisis, suffered failure or betrayal; who became unemployed at a late age; who had a serious illness; who discovered their son or daughter was alcoholic or addicted to gambling; who faced the plight of emigration, or the loss of a loved one. In short, people who, as we say in Tuscany, had felt the wolf’s bite—those times when a merciless destiny assails us and we feel bewildered and frightened and alone in an endless cold. And we believe we are not going to make it.
Yet it was precisely in such dire situations that these people brought out their best: their resilience and courage, their practical intelligence, and above all their inner strength. They felt a flow of warm, powerful energy that allowed them to emerge from the crisis stronger and more alive. As the Latin saying tells us, Per aspera ad astra. Through hardship we reach the stars.
For others it was perhaps a situation less dramatic, but one that forced them to develop a previously unknown tenacity. For instance, sticking to a course of study under difficult conditions; carrying out a project no one else believed in; saving up to buy a house; standing their ground against a hostile person; defending themselves against injustice or bullying. Reliving these experiences, they often are surprised to realize that their strength has never left them. It is still there, albeit dormant and forgotten—a force for which they are proud and grateful. Just remembering it, they are moved.
To be strong—that is, competent, centered, resolute, able to face difficulties—is a good feeling. To be weak—distractible, fearful, apathetic—is not. This is obvious. Yet who teaches us to be strong? Very often I see the opposite. I see people who do not feel up to their task, who are overcome by anxiety, insecure, even torn inside. Perhaps they are endowed with wonderful creative talents, a great capacity for love, or superior intelligence. But they do not express them—for lack of inner strength. They are like a small boat at the mercy of waves, like a man moving slowly and tremulously and making big efforts just trudging along, a shadow of himself. They seem to have lost their way, and know not even where they want to go.
It can help to understand the strength we already have, and that which we can develop. Inner strength is a subtle and intelligent quality: we learn to read reality in other ways, use new strategies, forge our character, retrain forgotten abilities, change the way we relate, and tap our own resources. More important still, each of us is faced with a basic dilemma: Are the events of my life the result of forces over which I have no say, or can I in some way mold my existence? If I can see that my life is not governed by factors extraneous to me, but is, at least in part, decided in my inner world, I will find a surprising new strength. And I will realize that this strength originates in a faculty that is too often forgotten—a central function, often confused with thinking or impulse or emotion, but having its own distinct existence. This function is the will.
Let us see how this is so. The will chooses between right and wrong—thus is born responsibility. The will allows us to risk and to renew ourselves; to hold a thought through time, and realize a project. The will enables us to face difficulties and hardships without giving up straightaway. It gives us discipline. It makes our relationships with others truer and stronger. And it leads us toward freedom.
But if we delve into this subject long enough, we meet a paradox: The will is invisible, and for this reason we have been arguing for centuries. Is it real or not? It is at the source of our efficacy and our every decision. It constitutes our identity. Yet we do not know if it exists! And, depending on our conclusions, we read the world around us in completely different ways.
If we believe the will is an illusory idea, then everything obeys a script already written: how we behave in each situation, how we live our life. The delinquent who has just snatched a bag has a faulty brain; the student with poor results has no future; how and when we get sick has nothing to do with us; the thoughts that run through our head are just electrochemical processes for which we are not responsible. In short, we are made this way, and that is the end of the story.
If we believe instead in free will, we have, to be sure, many limitations, but ultimately our life is in our own hands; the thief can decide not to steal; the student can learn to use the skills he has; our health will be, to a fair extent, the result of our choices; the thoughts in our head we can manage ourselves; our harmful dependencies and habits are perhaps not as inevitable as they seem. And if we are “made that way,” we can decide to change.
Not to acknowledge the will impoverishes and weakens us. To discover and cultivate it can offer huge advantages and produce great personal and social changes—with one caveat: The will is not a given. We do not start out strong and free. Countless factors condition us: our genetic makeup, our life circumstances, our history, other forces unknown to us, our own brain. The will is a conquest.
The will is for everybody. At certain times life may seem unfriendly to us. We may feel it has awarded others, and not us, with the most desirable gifts: health and wealth, talent and privilege; maybe contacts in high places. Mostly there is nothing we can do: what is, is, and what is not, is not. Yet one element surely depends on us, and it is the will. Even if we do not have it, we can generate it. We can learn to use it to our own and other people’s advantage, turn it into an effective and creative tool. What others seem to have received for nothing, we can gain for ourselves bit by bit—then we shall feel it truly ours: not a lucky gift, but our very own victory. Nothing can be more democratic. With the will, we give shape to our lives.
It makes sense to speak of the dangers as well. The idea of the will is often associated with clumsy effort, pedantic discipline, or bullying. Even with feelings of omnipotence. But those are caricatures. True, this is a risky business: like all effective tools, inner strength might be applied in vile ways or for foul purposes. Anything worthwhile carries dangers. Recovering one’s strength, however, is worth a try. In fact, it may be an impelling necessity for many. We need not remain passive, fearful, and confused. We need not be fragile. Inner strength simply means developing the resources needed for facing the hurdles and traps we are confronted with every day. From my forty years’ experience as a psychotherapist, from a great amount of research-based knowledge in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, as well as from the inspiration offered by the myths and stories of diverse civilizations, I feel ready to say that this urgent task is workable for everyone.
We understand what strength is when we lack it. A few years ago I wrote a book on kindness. At the time it seemed to me the basic human principle. For me, kindness is synonymous with love. Warmth, affection, empathy, generosity—all ingredients of kindness, together with several others—I believed to be the qualities capable of transforming our lives, bringing well-being and fulfillment to all. I have not changed my mind. But I have realized more and more the pitfalls of fragility—how impotent we feel, how overcome we are by difficulties, how confused and angry we get when we have lost touch with our inner strength. Without it, we are in a state of emergency. And then love becomes meager and hesitant. A balanced and harmonious personality is founded on the development of both love and will.
To cultivate inner strength is a goal basic to our mental health. And it is the work of a lifetime. You will not find quick and miraculous recipes here. We do not acquire a new strength overnight. This task needs patience, and the humility to acknowledge our own weak points. In this undertaking, inner work is the way to go. No one is a static entity, and we can all develop potentialities we lacked before. This is a central theme of Roberto Assagioli’s psychosynthesis: you will find references to him here and there, because various ideas expounded in this book originated from him. Ancient philosophies also talk of inner work: self-knowledge in the sense of reflection, exercise, and self-control. So do the Eastern traditions, which, as the way to self-transformation, recommend sadhana, that is, the daily practice of introspection and meditation.
In this book you will find an exercise at the end of each chapter. These exercises are based on introspection, visualization, breathing, reflection, writing, or concrete action. They are tools that, over years of work by my colleagues and me, have proved to be remarkably efficacious. The text and exercises together may be considered a course for activating the will. Familiarizing yourself with these exercises, and practicing them regularly, can bring insights, changes in perspective, and sometimes profound transformations.
The will is multiform. Each of its aspects empowers others. I have described them one by one in the various chapters of this book, and would like to illustrate them briefly.1. Freedom
Feeling free is the number one prerequisite for health and happiness. We may feel captive to our own automatisms, obligations, and fears. Pressure from others may also oppress us. Freedom—or lack of freedom—colors every aspect of our existence.
In principle each of us is free. What we decide is our own choice. Our freedom is not a given, however, but must be won day after day. We can choose to embrace new ideas and new values, cultivate different interests, begin new activities, and develop new relationships. In other words, enlarge our range of choices or even radically change them. Are we up to the task?2. Center
We cannot feel strong without finding in ourselves the place where tranquillity reigns, where we feel truly ourselves. When our emotions threaten to overwhelm and devastate us, we can find the center of our being. When we are subjected to intolerable pressures, in the midst of stress, in a nightmare predicament, we can retreat to an inner sanctuary where nothing disturbs, crushes, or distracts us. This discovery offers us a pristine feeling of freedom and serenity.3. Will
The will is the central theme of this book. The absence of will makes our life tiring, bitter, sometimes impossible. We become slaves to others or victims of our own inertia, incapable of realizing anything we deem worthwhile. To rediscover our will is like breathing oxygen after a long apnea. We feel reborn, life takes a new direction, our strength returns. We have the feeling of being at the helm. Some say they feel more focused; others feel galvanized. What we will equals what we are, because through our choices we build our life, express ourselves in the world, and are known by others.4. Plasticity
The capacity to give form to our existence is crucial, yet frequently underrated. We can illustrate it in this way: Imagine you are in a large, dark room. You have a torch that emits a strong beam of light. You direct it here and there, and from the darkness, various beings and shapes emerge—animals, people, machines, plants, statues, books, objects, and beings of every kind. Each time the light shines on one of these entities, it is illuminated, it exists; when the light shines elsewhere, that entity disappears. By directing our attention to aspects, interests, attitudes, and situations we have chosen, we give life to them, and thereby shape ourselves and our existence. Directing our attention like the light in the dark room, we call into being a new trait, interest, or activity. Or else we leave it in the dark.5. Autonomy
To some extent we are all dependent and interdependent. But some are too much so. It becomes a way of being, and therefore a serious liability. They depend on other people, on food, substances, habits, objects. By doing so, they place their happiness in the hands of others—or leave it to chance. They live in a state of need and fear. They can be victims of blackmail and manipulation. The moment they are more autonomous, they can live a life that is truly their own. They are not obliged to trade their soul for an ounce of security or happiness. Finding autonomy means fending for ourselves. It is to discover in ourselves the source of our interests, tastes, and motivations.6. Mastery
Our lifestyle in Western societies is based on immediate gratification. What I like, I want right now. This capricious impatience is typical of children, but also of adults who have never really grown up. We may let slip one word or gesture too many, we may act on an impulse and then regret it. It is hard to control ourselves and to wait. On the other hand, whatever we have no desire to do, we put off. A plethora of studies have shown that self-regulation is connected with self-confidence, health, and success.
To be at the mercy of impulses and whims is a dangerous state.
Self-mastery is a vital goal.7. Integrity
Coherence within ourselves allows us to feel more solid. In an age marked by a lowering of standards, sloppiness, and getting by as a philosophy of life, integrity is a formidable asset.
But it has a cost. We commonly find ourselves having to choose between what is easier and what is right. We can pretend it does not matter, and choose the easy way. Or we can opt for the harder path, the one consistent with our values. For instance, we may choose to help someone in difficulty, to look at a dark side of ourselves, to confront an unpleasant task, to face a truth we would rather ignore, to take an unpopular stance, to tackle a huge hassle head-on. Integrity is about honoring our own values.8. Depth
In the state of permanent distraction that pervades our contemporary life it is essential to learn anew the art of paying attention. Too often we flit from one interest (or activity, or relationship) to another, in the same way we surf the Web or change TV channels. We stay on the surface. We can learn instead to concentrate, persevere, and get to the substance. ...
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