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Coronation Chair for a King

Will occupies the seat of power in the psyche. But where is that seat?

Einstein’s recipe for his success – curiosity, obsession, and stubbornness – might also be listed as curiosity, wilfulness, and headstrongness. He was self-willed, possessed a lot of willpower.

These days we say will or willpower does not work, pointing to those who fail to diet or quit smoking as proof. The trouble here is that the decision to diet or quit smoking is just that – a conscious decision – and not an act of will. What these folks will is to go on eating and smoking, so in truth, their “failures” are actually proof that willpower does work. To change something about oneself, or to accomplish some difficult thing, one must will that it be so – not decide – will.

Here lies the rub. The question, “What do I really want?” = “What do I will?” The will can and does take one where one wills to go. Conscious decisions that fly in the face of will do not work, although the clash between the shallow want and the deeper want can make one very unhappy. In addition, certain events in life can thwart one’s will so thoroughly that serious psychological difficulties may ensue.

Where does will come from? I believe it stems from the set of emotionally important ideas we all acquire as children. These form as our genes interact with our early environment. We build a collection of core ideas – each laden with some specific feeling tone – about how the world works, what its rules are, and how we feel about what happens to and around us. These emotionally important ideas become our worldview and our values. They are the driving force of our personality. Therefore, will is not a function of the reasoning mind. It is, in part, an emotional phenomenon. A stubborn fellow like Einstein refuses to swallow the uncertainty principle and the accepted precepts of quantum mechanics because he is emotionally committed to the conflicting ideas that “God does not play dice with the universe” and that the cosmos is a continuum.

Where does this leave the idea of free will? Out in the cold, I am afraid – at least in the modern sense of that term. Clearly, the emotionally important ideas laid down in the mind during childhood are the true guiding elements of one’s interests, attitudes, values – one’s life really. These “nuanced themes” (a creativity research term that refers to a set of related emotionally important ideas) act as a compass, or can, if one is aware of their existence. However, whether or not we are aware of their presence, our emotionally important ideas are at work within us. By going with them, by living according to the principles contained within the set, one not surprisingly gains a powerful sense of rightness and fulfilment. By going against them, by living according to other principles, one reaps the rewards of self-alienation and the feeling of spiritual emptiness that always accompanies that condition. One becomes emotionally unfulfilled and one’s life lacks meaning.

In short, to feel good one must follow the guidance of one’s emotionally important ideas. In a sense, it is like the Christian idea of free will. The religious types often claim that Man’s free will consists in being free to obey the will of God. They are mistaking part of their own psyches for God, but the idea is otherwise sound.

The problem, of course, lies in discovering what one’s emotionally important ideas are. This requires self-knowledge, but the question, “What do I really want?” asked over and over in every situation can reveal a great deal of what lies below the threshold of awareness. Moreover, consider what that question implies. By following or obeying the promptings of one’s emotionally important ideas one is not forced to do things or believe things one finds revolting or objectionable, one is, in fact, doing and believing what one’s most fundamental inner being wills. Obedience to one’s emotionally important ideas is the road to authenticity and emotional and spiritual fulfilment. Remember that when one speaks of happiness or of fulfilment one is not talking about big houses or fancy cars, one is referring to one’s emotional life.

Perhaps the above would read better for modern eyes if we replaced obedience to one’s emotionally important ideas with commitment to one’s emotionally important ideas. Since they are so essentially the very core of who we are, I suppose they and we are wedded to one another. I think one’s set of emotionally important ideas comprises what Jung would call the Self.

(Over the course of his career, Jung defined self in a number of ways. The most commonly accepted version is that self is the integrated sum total of the psyche. I believe this is too nebulous a concept to be useful. The unique set of emotionally important ideas we all possess is a definite understandable construct. With some effort, we can make the set conscious. It is our guide in life. It is the source of our will. This is my definition of self.)

The part of the psyche that needs to obey or be committed is the ego. We are describing the relationship between ego and the unconscious mind. However, the need for obedience is only there so long as one’s set of guiding emotionally important ideas remains unconscious. Once one has raised them into conscious awareness, the policy of following one’s own lights becomes a fully conscious process. Ego then manages the psyche. Those guiding emotionally important ideas are mostly unconscious because we acquired them when we were small children. The process was largely unknowing so, as one might expect, most adults are not truly aware of their genuine values and outlook on life. We have consciously to go looking for enlightenment. What we find may be troubling, which is why the process Jung called individuation is long and difficult.

The critical point here is this: since most people have not individuated, have not become full-fledged individuals, they are in the position of not knowing their authentic values. They do not know, or only partially know, what their emotionally important ideas are. This often means they are ignorant of what they really want, what they will. The situation leads to the illusion that ego can pick and choose a set of values from a “menu” and then try to live by those values. We read Western philosophy books, or religious texts like the Bible and the Quran, or spiritual works about the Tao or Buddhism. We arbitrarily select what seems appealing and off we go. It does not work out and we cannot fathom why. We seek some more, always thinking that if we can just find the right source of wisdom we will become enlightened and find meaning and emotional fulfilment in our lives.

None of this works because we are looking in the wrong direction. What we really need is to find what is already there, within us, nestled at the very core of our being. We need to unearth our own unique set of emotionally important ideas. Then we can stop driving ourselves half-crazy by endlessly trying to do things we do not truly want to do. We can stop tying ourselves in knots by continually trying to believe things that collide with what we genuinely believe.