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Forces of Creation: Wishing and Willing

I haven’t found starting the year with a chastising list of “don’ts” very inspiring in the past, even if they are couched in quasi-positive terms like more exercise or healthier eating. I suspect I am not alone, given how much the gym clears out by the end of January each year! I don’t know about you, but my rebelliousness comes out in full force when presented with a laundry list of what I can, cannot, should or ought to do, even if it is self-determined! Far better for me to collude with myself and create delicious intentions based on what I value; something that all of me can get excited about!

For me, the first task of the New Year is to clarify and define my values, and ranking them provides my top priority, giving me a defining word for the year. Values clarification is the vital first step as I set my positive intentions for the year.


Do you clearly know what you value?


If I asked you to name your top ten values, and to identify the most important one, could you?


Creating this list makes it possible to engage our unconscious will to support us in the execution of our dreams. It is a given that our values will all be things that we want more of in our lives, which makes them the perfect starting point for creating inspiring intentions. Our values allow us to tap into our imaginative wishing well, triggering our unconscious to conspire with us, rather than derailing our conscious efforts and sucking up every ounce of willpower we have.


Intentions are descriptions of wishes for our future. Driven by the pilot light of our authentic selves, they are quietly burning, waiting for fuel and oxygen to ignite our flame.


Trying to change can be challenging, mostly because we humans love our habits. We like familiarity, and our habits provide predictable stability, even when we are dissatisfied with what our familiar predictable stability offers us. This is why it is often easier to make changes at transition points in our lives; our familiar habits and stability have already been disturbed. To create lasting change, both our conscious and unconscious selves need to be on board.


Think of it like this: I want to sleep. My conscious mind guides me through all that I do on the way to my bed. Once I am there tucked under my covers, if my unconscious isn’t interested in going to sleep it won’t matter how nicely I brushed my teeth or arranged my pillows. The more I try to will myself to sleep, the less likely it is to happen. Similarly, I can practise my activities for relaxation (meditation or tai chi for me) but my experience of relaxing into deep faith at the wonder of this world? That one emanates from deeper than my daily routines, even as those daily routines increase the possibility of it occurring.


Modern day self-help (time management, strategies for work/life balance) is often focused on the conscious realm of our will, while ignoring the deeper currents of our unconscious. We are swimming very productively in one direction on the surface, while a deep and powerful tide pulls us in a different direction. Often, we don’t even notice that we aren’t getting anywhere because we are so focused on our swimming!


The change process requires something different. It begins with accepting our responsibility and capacity of choice, followed by the identification of our desires and the initiation of our will. Our thoughts are the wish, our actions are the will. The process of change requires both wishing and willing.


Thought alone is not usually sufficient, although mental imagery and rehearsal have been proven very useful. Since the 1990’s, we’ve known that using mental practice (visualization) improves performance. No surprise that the combo of mental practice and physical practice provided the highest return (Hardwick et al., 2018; Sobierajewicz et al., 2017; Toth et al., 2020). This knowledge has been used to increase performance in sport and music and skill in surgeons, among other things. More recent studies show that recovery from stroke is improved by utilizing both mental practice and physical practice (Chowdhury et al., 2018). Wishing and willing combined are the forces of change.


What does it mean to live authentically?


Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), French existential philosopher, would have us believe that our lives are the accumulation of our choices, moment by moment, till the moment of our death. If that idea scares the heck out of us, we can choose Option B; we deaden our experience of desire and longing, or Option C; we abdicate choice and give up the idea that we have any say in the matter, or Option D; we transfer our choice to our partner, children, employer, supervisor, society, country, culture, circumstances or higher power.


Maturity and courage are required to make authentic decisions. We must acknowledge the loss of what was not chosen. Each time we say yes to something, there is an inherent no to something else included.

Existential guilt arises from the recognition of one’s potential, and if it includes regret or remorse, it is the guilt of omission; what has not been done, our unlived desires. While most people prefer to avoid the feelings generated by these thoughts, they are an unmistakable message from your authentic self, and provide excellent guideposts for intentions. Similarly, existential anxiety provides clear direction to what you deeply care about, as there would be no anxiety if it didn’t matter to you.


“To know and not act, is to not know at all.” Japanese proverb


Otto Rank, Austrian psychoanalyst, describes will as a positive, creative guiding force with three distinct stages, worked through as we (hopefully) develop and mature. Reflecting on my own life, I have spent a great deal of time in the first two stages and have only recently landed solidly in creative will. Which realm are you living in?


1. Counter Will: expressed in opposition, willful rebellion

2. Positive Will: willing what one must, fulfilling family, societal and cultural expectations

3. Creative Will: willing what one wants


Additionally, there are two kinds of will: conscious and unconscious. Conscious will is direct and utilizes will power, determination and motivation; “I do this to get that” - weight loss, a degree, a job interview, communication skills. Setting goals, especially SMART ones (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound) is great when we are working with our conscious will. Curiously, unconscious will is a subterranean life force that provides propulsion, is often only inferred after the fact, and doesn’t give a hoot about our sensible SMART goals!


Rollo May, American existential psychologist, incorporates the act of wishing into the equation. There is “no meaningful action without a prior wish”. May understands will as the potential impetus hidden within a wish for our future; our longing for our future to be a particular way. These wishes are not about our basic drives or needs: food, shelter, sleep, money. In this context, our wishes are saturated with deep meaning, and each of us will have a completely individual vision. May describes this wish as “the imaginative playing with the possibility of some act or state occurring”, and this must precede the act of will, the initiation of choice and commitment.

Our wish provides the warmth, the colour, the imagination, and the creativity. Our will provides direction and maturity. Without wishing, will is dry and unimaginative. Without will, wishing is the fantasy of a child, incapable of execution. Both are equally required.


One begins with wishing, connecting with the deep currents of desire and longing first, then the trigger of will follows, calibrating the effort to flow from, and in support of, the wish. If our wishing includes determining the direction of the current, our swimming is supported by the current, as we steer gently, using the energy of the current to transport ourselves.


Every act, including to change something about ourselves, is preceded by the decision to want something different. Change is rarely one momentous event, more often a relentlessly cumulative outpouring of infinitesimal changes. Willing without wishing is just random busy work, buffeted about by the whims and demands of your life. And make no mistake, if the world sees that you lack direction, it will happily supply it.

We all know what we should do, ought to do, are expected to do…the question is do you know what you want to do? Without this clarity, you will lack clear boundaries, and others will be happy to provide you with opinions, inclinations, desires that suit their purposes. You might think that people will like your easy-going nature, your seeming co-operation and acquiescence, but eventually people will become either bored or exhausted with having to provide your wishes for you.


Another conundrum is that you might know what you want, but you have been successfully trained by friends and family to suppress it. Perhaps you have chosen to hide what you want to prevent feeling loss, disappointment, abandonment or rejection. If you ever find yourself saying, “You should know what I want” expecting your partner, your family or friends to be able to mindread, better to ask yourself when you decided that it wasn’t okay to be direct about what you want. Maybe you have grown silent for fear of being called needy, demanding, or high maintenance. Paradoxically, this name calling (aka projection) is exactly what controlling and selfish people do to get you to suppress your desires, as if your heart’s desires are irritations to be silenced, lest they be driven away because you ask ‘too much’.

A wish includes direction and time (hint: it is the future). Discernment is required because not all wishes can be fulfilled simultaneously. Impulsivity is a lack of wish discernment. Another challenge arises with conflicting wishes and desires, as these can cause paralysis and indecision, a polarity that results in anxiety. Because we care, we feel anxiety. Occasionally, one decision excludes all other possibilities. To say yes, one must also learn to say no. Sometimes we can ease this discomfort by deferring, and sometimes there is simply no going back. Choosing not to choose is also a decision, refusing to commit by ignoring the choice, and handing over the weight of responsibility to others, circumstances, or the universe.


If you feel overwhelmed by some big decisions and choices in front of you, set them aside for moment and drop the scale down a bit. We learn to act on our own behalf the same way we learned to walk; baby steps. Try this exercise in body awareness based on a technique of Fritz Perls, the German psychiatrist who founded Gestalt therapy.


Answer each of these three questions, focusing only on what is happening right now:


What are you doing?

What do you feel?

What do you want?


I am writing at my computer. I feel a band of cold across the backs of my shoulders, there is a dryness in my mouth (an after effect of my spicy lunch!), and I notice that my feet are cold.

So, a sweater over my shoulders, a cup of tea, and some warm slippers. All these needs were easy to satisfy, and once addressed have made it much more pleasant for me to continue writing this blog post. Ignored too often, our body will often go quiet…that is…until it isn’t (Dr. Gabor Maté has lots to say about this!). What do you feel in this moment? What do you want in this moment?


Paul Russel, a professor of philosophy at UBC, describes our situation beautifully. To paraphrase, we live in the ultimate double bind. We exist in the vulnerability of contingencies that are not of our own making, while we must simultaneously exercise free will in our lives. These very circumstances contribute to who we choose to be, who we are. Caught up in these external circumstances sometimes we do things that we cannot live with, or forgive ourselves for, even if it was not what we intended, and this is where philosophy meets psychology. What makes fate interesting, is what we do with it, and how we use it to shape our character, our agency, our resiliency. The cultivation of the invaluable human ability to freely will is not only possible but makes our lives more meaningful and purposeful.


What are you wishing and willing for yourself in 2023?


We were never meant to figure this out alone.

Join me for Calibrating True North January 6-8, 2023 in Courtenay, BC




References if you are interested in learning more:


Chowdhury, A. et al. (2018). Active physical practice followed by mental practice using BCI-Driven Hand Exoskeleton: A pilot trial for clinical effectiveness and usability. Journal of Biomedical and Health Informatics, 22(6), 1786-1795. DOI: 10.1109/JBHI.2018.2863212.


Hardwick, R. M., Caspers, S., Eickhoff, S.B., & Swinnen, S.P. (2018). Neural correlates, correlates of action: Comparing meta-analyses of imagery, observation, and execution. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 94, 31-44.


Maté, G. (2011). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Wiley.


Russell, P. (March 1, 2018). The best books on free will and responsibility recommended by Paul Russell. Interview by Nigel Warburton. https://fivebooks.com/best-books/free-will-responsibility-paul-russell/


Sobierajewicz, J., Przekoracka-Krawczyk, A. Jaskowski, W. et al. (2017). The influence of motor imagery on the learning of a fine hand motor skill. Experimental Brain Research 235, 305-320. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-016-4794-2


Toth, A. J., McNeill, E., Hayes, K., Moran, A. P. & Campbell, M. (2020). Does mental practice still enhance performance? A 24 year follow-up and meta-analytic replication and extension. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2020.101672


Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books.

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