"Freedom of the will” is a misnomer; what man has is a "freedom of the won't!” Man can only block or impede or channel the radix flow, he cannot originate it.

Charles Kelley What is the Matter with Man


The Will and Will Power

First it is important to clarify the difference between choice, discipline, self-determination, and the will.

Choices are best made according to the agreeableness of the option. Of course with experience, people learn that choices that delay the gratification often lead to greater agreeableness in the long run. This is the reality principle at work, and it is often termed 'delayed gratification. Delayed gratification', however, only really works in the setting of intact ability for regular gratification.

Satisfying choices at times require a certain self-management that overcomes inertia and gets the activity started so that satisfaction or goals can be obtained by the end of the activity. Examples are 'cracking the books' to start studying before one then gets engrossed in the subject, or getting up early to go on an enjoyable hike. This is discipline. Absence of discipline results in too much time spent in activity that is not really satisfying but which requires no 'push' to get going, such as watching TV, or stopping into a bar after work. Discipline may require some formation, but unlike will power, discipline makes no sense in a setting of no satisfaction. That is why discipline is no help in situations where depression or desperation has taken hold.

Self-determination is the result of freedom, in one's life, to make choices, with conviction, according to one's feelings and abilities. These choices can be organized by goals if one's goals are aligned with feelings, desires and abilities. Self-determination incorporates the reality principle, but only in the service of providing agreeable options in the forseeable future. That is, simpler desires are at times overruled by more complex desires. Remember, desires are feelings, not mental decisions.

Self determination requires the ability to say no to what is not agreeable. It is very common to lack a strong no. There are two patterns of functioning that arise when ability to say "no" is lacking: 1) Never saying no. This is self-explanatory 2) Always saying no. This latter pattern arises because the person does not believe they can say no judiciously once participation begins in anything. This type of invariant "no" is really more withdrawal and non-participation than opposition. Without a "no" to what is disagreeable, there is no real assent to anything possible.

Will is a word that describes the ego's ability to overrule the body's feelings and desires, including, at times, the desire to do nothing. The will sets humans apart. The term strong-willed is a compliment, and perhaps it should be. When the will is used, it should have a decisive effect.

Now truly, modern adult life is beset with many coercions and bribes that can seem to dominate decision making, and distort greatly the idea of the innate agreeableness of an activity. It is realistic to recognize this. At times, it is simply wise to conform to strong social incentives, so that freedom may be even greater down the road. However, divorcing decision-making too much from natural satisfactions undermines feeling and purpose.

Overwhelmingly in modern life, the will is used to achieve an image that is deemed acceptable. However the will is by definition opposed to feelings, and this leads to misuse of the body. Life is no longer driven by love or the agreeable, but is driven by the task of suppressing the real self. When will is used chronically, the feelings and desires are permanently devitalized. The person may lose awareness of feelings and desires, or the person may be aware of them but not trust them, understand them, or be able to incorporate them into actions or principles. Pleasurelessness ensues. The power disappears from will-power. This is because the power in will power always came from the body, and the will, however meritoriously directed, squelches the life of the body.

Very basic survival behavior, such as actual fight or actual flight is instinctive and not use of the will. However, more complex survival behaviors, such as not fighting or fleeing when that is the feeling, or pretending one is not upset when one is, are uses of the will. Modern competitive living offers complex threats to which fight or flight is rarely successful. Instead complex maneuvering divorced from instinctual or straight-forward gratification comes to be seen as the essential task. This elevates will power into a societally-endorsed trait. The continuous use of will power is encouraged in our culture because it is believed to lead to the highest achievement, (and the highest achievement is believed to lead to the highest happiness.)

Unlike desire, the will is all or none. Even though the will is often applied to arbitrary mental targets, once it is set in motion there is a tendency not to recognize that the inciting goal is no longer really needed or helpful. The term 'willful' is applied to a person who cannot change goals dynamically as situations change. Willfulness always leads to a tendency to try to control others and situations, rather than respond to others and situations.

The all or none aspect of the will affects the nature of solutions that are sought. 'The fix' is a will based image of a solution that can be chosen instantly and which is powerful and obliterates the problem. The arena of human healing has been taken over by the fix. In general medicine, 'the fix' is the purportive power of one intervention to 'reverse' the problem. While this rarely actually happens, it somehow remains as the pattern expected for 'help.' The modality of the pill is an embodiment of 'the fix.' While even an effective pill may need to work in the body over time, the decision to take it is instant and unambiguous. Often people feel better just deciding to take or being prescribed a pill, but this is the reward pathways of the brain and is not an effect that can be built upon. Traditional healing strategies, on the other hand, support the life process, and are not conceivable as 'obliterators' of problems. They can be chosen, but they cannot operate as 'fixes' to bolster the ego's sense of control. They require on-going attention, and tolerance of ambiguity. All the practices in the Reich and Lowen tradition support the living process over time, none are 'fixes.'

Also, living by will leads to a continuous vigilance. The ego and the body are constantly on the alert for external circumstances that threaten plans. This vigilance leads to an exhaustion of body and spirit, and a sympathetic shift. It has been shown that will-power rises and falls with blood sugar level. It is an interesting question whether the explosion of diabetes in recent decades is tied to the increase of will-based living.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, and many popular motivational seminars, are attempts to get the will back into the driver seat using logic and direct encouragement. This can provide some elation for a while, but it is essentially fruitless because it does not address the underlying inability to experience satisfaction.