Planting Seeds of Soul: the Seed of Willpower

Planting Seeds of Soul: The Seed of Willpower

Rev. Anthony David

Dec. 13, 2009

“As soon as you trust yourself,” the great writer Goethe once said, “you will know how to live.” Again and again, we hear stories that testify to this truth.

Consider this one, coming from William James, pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who struggled with self-trust. As a young man William James was in the grip of the free will-determinism controversy: are humans mere machines, predetermined in everything they did, or is freedom of the will a reality? This ancient question only amplified the chronic instability that he experienced in his family of origin; it gnawed at him, tore at him; and then, after a series of health issues and the death of a beloved, free-spirited cousin, the bottom fell out. “Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects,” he wrote, “I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there, when suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin … who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them enclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.” James continues, “After this the universe was changed for me altogether, I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and though the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone. In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.” That’s William James’ horrible vision. Self-trust destroyed. Fear of his own existence, of his own body and mind potentially working against him, potentially becoming inert, mummified, non-human, green. The pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life, revealed. Self-trust completely stripped away, together with knowledge of how possibly to live.

Yet the story does not end there. Around fifteen years after the horrible vision of the green-skinned patient in the asylum, in 1884, William James would stand before Harvard Divinity students, Unitarian ministers-in-training all, and present a lecture entitled “The Dilemma of Determinism,” defending freedom of the will against determinism, commending self-trust, pointing out, among many other things, that the very existence of regret—the feeling we get when we do something which we wish we hadn’t—suggests that deep within we know we are not puppets whose strings are pulled by forces beyond us. Freedom is a reality we know deep within, said James, even if our intellects may be tangled up by the complexities of philosophical debate or paralyzed by the lack of indisputable evidence to decide the matter once and for all. Something happened to William James that gave him his life back. Something happened that gave him a voice, got him up there to speak before our Harvard spiritual ancestors, made him the pioneering psychologist and philosopher that we know him as today.

It was something he read, several weeks after the horrible vision. An essay by French philosopher Charles Renouvier, in which he defines free will as “the sustaining of a thought because I chose to when I might have had other thoughts”—in which he says that to recognize this capacity is itself a free act. This is what James seized on. This is what turned things around. In his journal he would write, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. For the remainder of the year, I will abstain from the mere speculation and [the brooding] in which my nature takes most delight and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it, as well as by acting.” Inspired by Charles Renouvier, William James planted a seed of soul, and he carefully cultivated it, and it grew into self-trust, and this self-trust taught him how to live.

That’s what we’re talking about today, in this third installment of the “Planting Seeds of Soul” series: building self-trust by encouraging and increasing the feeling of being free, of being able to summon inner forces to act. As meditation teacher Warren Lee Cohen puts it, “By building accomplishment onto accomplishment, you can cultivate this very capacity to do anything that you set your mind to, creating a new kind of ‘muscle’ in your soul.” That’s the goal.

And the achievement of this can’t be overestimated. To be able to say no when it would be easier to go along; to be able to say yes when it would be easier to stay safe; to be able to replace an unhealthy habit with one that is healthier; to be able to adjust the course one is on: without some sense of control over our lives, we fall into despair. Freedom undeveloped and unfulfilled festers. To ourselves, we become as fearsome and strange as the figure of William James’ horrible vision.

We’ve just got to have a sense of our freedom. Jonathan Haidt talks about this in our study book from last year, The Happiness Hypothesis. He cites a classic psychological study in which benefits were given to residents “on two floors of a nursing home—plants in their rooms, and a movie screening one night a week. But on one floor, these benefits came with a sense of control. The residents were allowed to choose which plants they wanted, and they were responsible for watering them. They were also allowed to choose as a group which night would be movie night. On the other floor, the same benefits were simply doled out: the nurses chose the plants and watered them; the nurses decided which night was movie night. This small arrangement had big results: On the floor with increased control, residents were happier, more active, and more alert (as rated by the nurses, not just the residents), and these benefits were still visible eighteen months later. Most amazingly, at the eighteen-month follow-up, residents of the floor given control had better health and half as many deaths (15 percent to 30 percent).” Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion? “Changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients, or other users was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.”

Even the smallest arrangements in the direction of expanding control have big results. Jonathan Haidt cites yet another classic study, in which people were exposed to loud bursts of random noise. “Subjects in one group were told they could terminate the noise by pressing a button, but they were asked not to do it unless absolutely necessary. None of them ended up pressing the button, yet the belief that they had some form of control made the noise less distressing. Later in the experiment, when they were given difficult puzzles to work on, they were far more persistent than the other subjects, who were exposed to the loud bursts of noise without any sense of control.” There’s just a Hanukkah subtext to all of this. Take from people a sense of control, and it is as if you have stormed their temple, ruined their religion of the spirit, banished them to the mountains; but give it back to them, or help them to rediscover it for themselves, even in the smallest ways, and the temple is restored, the temple is rededicated, and at the center of it all is the miracle of willpower, the miracle oil in the lamp, lighting up the dark.

It’s why town hall meetings and congregational meetings matter. Why volunteerism matters, and financial generosity. Each is an opportunity for people to increase their sense of engagement and energy, and here too science reveals big results. Studies show that if you participate regularly in congregational life, chances are you will be healthier and happier and live longer. Plant the willpower seed, and good things grow. It can happen institutionally, and it can happen personally. Practice the soul exercises I’m sharing with you on a monthly basis. Make a Happiness Pledge, or continue working on the one you committed to this past April, as I am: my pledge is refraining from eating beef and poultry and pork for all sorts of sustainability reasons—feeling good about this change in my diet, feeling better, although I have to admit, I fell off the wagon pretty badly during Thanksgiving, thanks to our music director Don Milton III and the amazingly deliciously tempting turkey he cooked…. But perfectionism is not the point. It never is. It just paralyzes the will, but what we want is to strengthen it, plant the seed and help it grow. What counts is effort. Show up, and keep on showing up. With every exercise of will, to increase the feeling of being free, of being able to summon inner forces to act.

Even and especially when we’re not really sure what it is we ultimately want, or what’s ultimately best. As Barbara Sher says in her fantastic book I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, “many of us get stopped. Every time we resolve to change our lives, every time we go to pick up the baton and get into the race [to pursue our unique destiny and potential], something happens. For some mysterious reason our determination melts. We look at the baton and think ‘This race isn’t it.’ And we put down the baton, uneasy because time is slipping away, frightened that we’ll never find ‘it.’”

Determination melts. Willpower drains away. We become the green-skinned horrible vision.  And it IS horrible, this sense of personal powerlessness which translates into doing nothing, because in this way we lose all sorts of precious opportunities. We lose our way. “Action,” says Barbara Sher, “is absolutely essential for people who don’t know what they want.” “I can give you four good reasons,” she says, and they are:

#1: Action helps you think. “By exposing you to real-life experiences and seeing how they feel to you, action will help you do much better thinking than you could ever hope to do sitting still and weighing all the theoretical factors. Even action in the wrong direction is informative.”

Reason #2: Action raises your self-esteem. “Most inaction,” says Barbara Sher, “isn’t solely about indecision—it’s because of fear. But every time you want to do something that scares you, and you dare to do it, your self-esteem goes up a few degrees. When you’re fearful but you step forward anyway, you do yourself a great service.”

Action helps you think, it raises your self-esteem, and now, reason #3: it brings good luck into your life. “Try it,” says Barbara Sher. “Set a goal, any goal, and start doing everything you can to achieve it. I guarantee you, your life will change. You might not get where you thought you were going, but you could easily wind up somewhere better. You’ll get breaks you never could have planned for because you never knew they existed.”

Finally, reason #4: Action builds self-trust. “Sometimes,” she says, “your wishes or your timing look a bit odd, but if they feel right, stick with them. You can trust your animal instincts. The animal inside us knows how fast to move and how much we can carry. And it tells us things that don’t always make sense—at first.” Like Jessie in our story from earlier—our forty-five-year-old lady in a straight skirt and sensible shoes—sometimes, to get to the point where you can make the big practical change in your life in Atlanta, Georgia, you have to go to Bear Grease, Minnesota first, and you have to race sled dogs. You just have to.

And there’s the four good reasons for action even when we’re not really sure what it is we ultimately want, or what’s ultimately best. It’s the quote from Goethe, exactly: “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

And now it’s time to introduce this month’s soul-raising exercise.

It’s extremely simple—deceptively so. Choose a simple task that you will do each and every day at exactly the same time, like turning a ring once around your finger at noon, or shifting a set of keys from one pocket to another right in the middle of your sermon. As meditation teacher Warren Cohen says, “The task is better if it serves no obvious or current purpose in your life—in other words, you do the task in and of itself, out of a certain dedication just to doing it.” This guarantees that the complete focus is on doing what William James did: voluntarily cultivating the feeling of freedom, without reference to anything beyond it.

Four basic steps:

Step one: Choose the task and the time you will do it every day. It’s best if the task is simple and can be done without making you look too weird. (NOT, for example, doing the American Bat Face on your daily MARTA trip… You all remember the American Bat Face, right?) Choose a good task and create a plan in which you do it along with the other two exercises—you don’t want to forget about the review of the day and the clear thinking assignment. Remember, each exercise complements and balances the others; practicing any one of them requires practicing them all.

That’s step one—step two is: do it, and keep track of how it goes, in your journal or with friends, or both. Be sure to celebrate your successes. If you forget, do the task as soon as you remember. It’s never too late.

Step one, step two, and now step three: As you get more proficient at performing one task, add another. “Work your way up to three simple tasks per day, each of which you aim to do at its own specific time. Try spreading them out through the day and thus also learning about which parts of the day are better times for you to engage your will and which pose the most challenges” (Warren Lee Cohen).

Finally, step four, which comes into play after some practice, and you notice a subtle feeling of inner confidence developing. When this happens, direct your attention to the feeling of freedom; try to become aware of where it is centered in your body; direct this feeling to well up into your head and then pour down, down your spinal cord. Let your confidence enliven the rest of your body. Light up like a miracle Hanukkah lamp.

It’s about rededicating the temple of yourself. Rebuilding, restoring, making things whole. Believing in freedom to be free. Going to Bear Grease, Minnesota to figure out what to do here in Atlanta, Georgia. Turning the ring once around your finger at noon, clapping three times at 3 o’clock, practicing faithfully whatever small task you end up choosing, following the increasing feeling of will force into the vibrant larger life that waits for you.