As I wrote in the last blog, strong will is not about how well you can dominate others. It is about how much power or energy you have to drive your own life forward. Imagine your strong will as a horse. Horses are huge, strong beasts with tremendous power. But if you don’t know how to ride a horse, or how to be in relationship with them, they will take advantage of your ignorance. They might gallop away with you hanging on for dear life, or they might just stand there and not take a single step, no matter how much you try to coax them.
If we think of our strong will as a horse, then we quickly see the great need to have skillful will. Without the skills necessary to ride a horse, we might never leave the meadow. Or worse! We might end up running around the meadow chasing the horse. Skillful will is, in fact, our ability to obtain what we want with the least amount of energy. We all know people who can ride horses almost magically, easing these huge, powerful animals right or left with just a miniscule pull of the reigns. This how we want to move through our lives, skillfully, with minimal effort, going in the direction we desire.
Strong Will Can Work Against You
Let’s look at one example of how the strong will can actually work against you and the skillful will is more effective. I knew a woman from Romania named Olga. She needed to support her son through university, so she left her own job as school headmistress and moved to London where she could earn more money working as a nanny and also improve her English. Suddenly, after 20 years of running a high school and two university degrees—one in mathematics and the other in engineering—she was taking care of three children, ironing, and cleaning house for someone else.
This was difficult enough, but her new boss, the mother of the three children, was challenging to work for. She did not trust Olga and was not skilled at giving instructions, even without their language barrier to cope with. The woman was not well educated yet acted as if Olga were even less so because of her weak English skills. Olga became despondent and depressed. Every night when she came home, she replayed in her head every annoying and unkind thing the boss had said to her. She spent hours lying in bed, unable to sleep, imagining entire conversations where she was telling that woman a thing or two!
Olga described a part of herself as Iron Woman (see “Subperonsalities – The Roles We Play”). She was used to forcing her way through many of life’s difficulties. But this time life was overwhelming, even for Iron Woman. Trying to survive in a new culture, without her family, so far from home, under these working conditions was breaking her.
Skillful Will Redirects Your Energy
I suggested that she disidentify from Iron Woman, who was very good at evoking strong will, and use a skillful will technique that would actually serve her better. When you pay mental and emotional attention to anything, you give it energy. The more energy this thought or person receives from you, the more it holds your interest, and the stronger it becomes. This is fine when it is a positive quality like courage or patience. But when it is negative and you try to combat it with strong will, it becomes more vivid and more negative leaving you more vulnerable to the situation.
I suggested that Olga, instead of directing her energy towards the negative events that happened during the day, use her skillful will to redirect her attention to something more positive. Something that was life affirming. We decided that whenever these thoughts entered her mind and started to go around and around, that she would think of her son, whom she loved dearly and for whom she was making this sacrifice.
Simple Skillful Will Exercise
You can do the same. The new positive thought can be the simplest thing. Your child’s smile that morning, the smell of toast at breakfast, the pattern of clouds and evening light on your way home. The important thing is that you deliberately withdraw your attention and energy from what Assagioli described as “psychic poisons” and focus it elsewhere, where it will do more good and give you more peace.
This sounds easier than it is. Try it when your mind is going around in circles. Try and redirect your thoughts to something positive that happened on the same day. How quickly those negative conversations and events jump back in! But every time you do this, you are developing your skillful will.
Know that Everything Changes All the Time
When I saw Olga two months later, she had changed. Her eyes were brighter and she had gained some weight. She was more at peace with her choice to live and work in London. Her English had greatly improved. She was even able to relate better with her boss. Something between them had shifted. They had become more accustomed to one another and a trust had developed between them. All these things take time and sometimes we are in circumstances beyond our control that need to be experienced. Everything changes all the time. Sometimes it is a matter of skillfully holding onto the right attitude until it does.
Learn How to Collaborate with the Inevitable
In 1938, Assagioli was jailed by the fascists for his antiwar views. He wrote about how he was free to take one of many attitudes towards being put in jail. He could become angry, feel like a scapegoat or martyr, look at it as an interesting experience, use it as a rest cure or a place for intense thinking over personal matters, or treat it as a spiritual retreat. He called this freedom to choose and the responsibility it brings “the ability to collaborate with the inevitable.” This requires skillful as well as strong will. When we keep redirecting our thoughts and withdrawing attention from the negative aspects of our lives, we are choosing a positive, dynamic attitude of acceptance and are definitely moving towards Joy.