Crisis and Willpower

Say you find yourself in a crisis. No matter what you do, there just doesn’t seem to be a way out. What then?

Should you keep on fighting, rebel against it, struggle? Or should you give up, resign and accept that there is nothing you can do about it? Neither of these alternatives sounds appealing, and both are painful in their own way.

So what can you do when you can’t do anything?

Well, the covid situation brought its own wisdom, “when you can’t go outside, go inside”. I know, this sounds like one of those ambiguous spiritual advices but hear me out. I have a theory.

I believe that the reason one feels powerless has to do with projecting one’s power on external circumstances. That means, other people, God, situations, institutions.

When we were children, if something were to happen to us that left us feeling powerless, defeated and defenseless, our attention may have been displaced from our center and placed upon the external world for our need of empowerment. As a consequence, when something is challenging us, we may not look to ourselves and our willpower to find a solution, but instead wait on an external force to enable us to have the things we want and need.

So how does this tie into not finding a way out?

It has been my experience that crisis arrives when we are not willing to take responsibility because it feels like obligation and losing your freedom, basically because of the perception that if one were to do that thing that theoretically would get you out of the situation, it would mean losing something very important, that it would mean settling for a life devoid of joy.

Moreover, you feel like you have no choice in the matter, that you’ve been dealt a bad hand, that life is unfair and that there is no reasonable solution. But what makes it feel like obligation as opposed to something you need to do to get to where you want to be?

What makes it seem like a dead end as opposed to a stepping stone?

I believe it is the lack of self-identification when it comes to our willpower. When you are self-identified and you don’t feel at the mercy of a stronger force, your attitude is more open, you are centered around what you want, need, think, feel and your actions serve your purposes. In contrast, when you are not centered, you believe you are subjected to a stronger will, a stronger force, whether it be fate or another person, and you have to do what you don’t want to do. In this case, there is no link between what you want/need and the responsibility it entails. It’s much like in school when we read books because we had to, not because we found them necessary.

Image result for crisis art

As in the example above, the link between need and action was broken, or rather reversed. You start with the obligation to substitute for the need, as opposed to the need itself leading the way. That way the sense of self is interfered with and resistance is produced as a balancing act. Identity through opposition and rebellion.

Whether the choice is to submit to obligation or oppose it, the common denominator is still the fact that the center of our decision-making is the external force that we perceive to be invested with power. If we are in a position of relative safety, we can afford to submit or oppose this external force without feeling at a substantial loss, but crisis means we believe to have lost that sense of safety and balance and now our sense of control may has dissipated. So what else can we do, but hide, isolate, withdraw, or try to run away or escape?

I think the solution resides in understanding the problem itself, becoming aware of the misperceptions and then reorienting the soul forces towards one’s self, finding one’s center.

“When you can’t go outside, go inside.” Find out who you are.

The way I think of it is through this visual:

Say that’s your willpower and sense of self sprouting, emerging slowly. Then, you have some interfering forces, that may want you to go in the same direction even…

Objectively they may be right.

But you can’t help but feel smothered and out of control when that happens, even though you earlier tentatively acknowledged the necessity of it yourself.

Why is that?

I believe it is because your self-identification hasn’t established itself firmly, your vision, your want/need hasn’t taken sufficient root within your being for it to feel like your own voice. That’s why it makes you angry when others even mention it. The side effect seems to be that what was originally your idea, serving your interest, now feels like an imposition or like loss of freedom.

The perception changes from “I want” to “I have to” because the center of willpower is displaced once again. In other words, your attention is directed once again upon the external. You lose sight of your original intention and feel compelled to go into resistance.

It’s much like a vortex… you were taking purposeful action, and then you find yourself distracted into reaction. What a difficult place to be! If you want to get a sense of it, just watch Groundhog Day, Before I Fall and Russian Doll. That’ll give you a good idea of how it’s like, plus they’re all good cinema. You’re welcome!

Therefore, I think that what one can do when nothing can be done, is to connect to that center, find that sense of self. That’s something that meditation can help with. That’s something that body practices can help with, including Yoga, TRE, 5Rhythms. And that’s something that a sense of joy can show the way to. I believe that the true self is the happy self, the self that loves. So connect to that vision of how love and joy feel to you to get a sense of what you are about : )

I think that purpose and especially joyful purpose can energize a vision sufficiently to create a channel to that which you want. And then willpower is the loading bar that gets you there.

Lastly, this is a more recent discovery, Stoicism is amazing! I’ve been reading the Discourses of Epictetus and I’ve been struck by Epictetus’s indifference to someone potentially killing him if he didn’t obey their will. Back in the day powerful people could kill you at a whim for whatever transgression. Epictetus’s position was that others could kill him if it served them, but his duty was only to himself, to live by his principles and that others could choose to do what they saw fit. The purpose was the virtue he was living, not holding on to his life at all costs.

It may take some time to get it right, so patience is needed too, but I think that’s how it goes.

I think this shows the purpose of crisis, an opportunity to find the real self again.

Knowledge in Action

If as a child you were valued for your knowledge and intelligence at the detriment of other virtues, you may have decided that these traits were the most important ones to develop and pursue. Courage, kindness, patience may not have been given much attention in your environment which means they did not get a chance to grow in your field of awareness. Due to their apparent lack of applicability in building the life that you want, they were considered secondary or inessential. But while intelligence is a key virtue that helps unlock other virtues, it is lived virtues that are infused with life.

While the quest for knowledge may transition into the quest for wisdom and self-understanding in adulthood, the personality can still grow lopsided, because even though it pursues the wisdom of other virtues, it does not live or embody those virtues. Therefore, the proof of true understanding is action, changed behavior, not as a superficial superimposition, but as embodied knowledge. Knowledge in action. Movement. Otherwise you may find yourself, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, poeticizing on the peaks.

The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge at the detriment of action can also be a sign of a traumatized willpower. In childhood the personality may have been consistently met with negative feedback whenever displaying autonomous action which may have made it doubt its impulse for action.

The original need for self-expression and action is still there, but if the wrong conclusion is not made conscious, the personality may channel the urges of the soul for experience and growth into something else, into a substitute such as accumulating knowledge. Without the spontaneity of self-trust, the personality withdraws into fantasy or into the pursuit of knowledge in order to compensate for an unlived life.

Accustomed to distrust its natural instinct and inclination for action and choice, the call of the soul becomes more and more urgent, which causes more and more frustration, since the original need cannot be adequately fulfilled by compensatory mechanisms, especially if they are unconscious. If the need is made conscious, the longing is still there, but the urgency disappears.

That’s why I think it is important to orient towards living virtues, practicing them, as one may confuse the real thing for the description, like the anecdotal finger pointing to the moon. Otherwise virtues can become lofty ideals of an ethereal quality instead of lived realities.

This change does not happen instantaneously as habits take a long time to form, but it helps to know what kind of person you want to become, what virtues you wish to live and approach them daily through small actions.

While it is true that the quest for knowledge and wisdom does lead to other virtues, it helps to test yourself, to create a link between the intellectual knowledge you possess and your experience. Intellectual knowledge being what “is claimed to be” or “should be”, experience being “what currently is”.

In that way, you can see where you are in relation to where you want to be, not as a judgement, but as feedback of where you are with your progress.