Use Your Will

Practice of the Week
Use Your Will
diligence (n.) mid-14c., from Old French diligence "attention, care; haste, speed," from Latin diligentia "attentiveness, carefulness," from diligentem (nominative diligens) "attentive, assiduous, careful," originally present participle of diligere "single out, value highly, esteem, prize, love; aspire to, be content with, appreciate," originally "to pick out, select," from dis- "apart" + legere "choose, gather." Sense evolved from "love" through "attentiveness" to "carefulness" to "steady effort."

Life has challenges. To meet them, you need to be able to push through difficulties, stretch for other people, restrain problematic desires while pursuing wholesome ones, and do the hard thing when you must.

This means using your will.

We commonly equate will with willpower -- the deliberate application of vigorous effort, such as lifting the last, strenuous rep of weight in a gym.

But will is a larger matter: it's a context of commitment, as for a mother devoted to the care of her family. Will is giving yourself over to your highest purposes, which lift you and carry you along. This kind of will feels like being pulled by inspiration rather than pushed by stubbornness. Surrendered rather than driven.


What does it actually mean, to make your highest purposes the engine of your life? As a framework for the answer, I'd like to draw on four qualities of a strongly dedicated person identified by the Buddha which have meant a lot to me personally: ardent, resolute, diligent, and mindful Please consider how each of these could help you be more willful in one or more key areas, such as being braver in intimate relationships, completing your education, doing your fair share of housework, or sticking with a diet.

Ardent (a variation on ardor) means wholehearted, enthusiastic, and eager. Not dry, mechanical, or merely dogged. For example, why do you care about what happens in this aspect of your life, why does it matter? Let yourself be heartfelt and passionate about your aims and activities here.

Resolute means you are wholly committed and unwavering. Bring to mind an experience of absolute determination, such as a time you protected a loved one. You may feel a firming in the chest, a sense of every bit of you pulling for the same thing. Explore this feeling as it might apply to a particular part of your life. Imagine yourself staying resolute here as you face temptations -- saying no, for example, to the donuts offered in a meeting -- and take in the ways this would feel good to you. Get in touch with your resolve each morning, surrender to it, and let it guide you through the day.

Diligent means you are conscientious and thorough. Not as a grind, not from guilt or compulsion, but because -- from the Latin root for "diligence" -- you "love, take delight in" the stepping stones toward your higher purposes. This is where ardency and resolution often break down, so to help yourself:
  • Keep in mind the reasons for your efforts; open to and try to feel their rewards, such as knowing that you are doing the best you can in the service of a good cause and deserve what's called "the bliss of blamelessness."
  • Translate big purposes into small, doable daily actions. Don't let yourself get overwhelmed.
  • Find the structures, routines, and allies that help you keep going.
  • Tell the truth to yourself about what's actually happening. Are you doing what you had intended to do? If you're not, admit it to yourself. Then start over: re-find your wholehearted commitment, see what there is to do, and do it.
Mindful means that you know if you're being willful or lackadaisical. You're aware of your inner world, of the mental factors that block the will (e.g., self-doubt, lethargy, distractibility) and those that fuel it (e.g., enthusiasm, strength, grit, tenacity). You recognize if you've grown willful to a fault, caught up in purposes that are outdated or not worth their cost. You're able to make skillful course corrections that keep you aligned with your highest purposes.

Last, enjoy your will. Exercising it can get kind of grim if you're not careful. But actually, a person can be both lighthearted and strong-willed. Take pleasure in the strength in your will, and the fruits it brings you.

For Journaling
  • Will is giving yourself over to your highest purposes, which lift you and carry you along. Make a list of your highest purposes.
  • Write about a time when you had strong determination. Where did it come from? What did you do? How did that feel?
  • Morning journaling: What small, doable actions that reflect your highest purpose do you set for yourself today?
  • Evening journaling: Realistically and honestly assess your day in terms whether you did what you intended.
  • Write about what was enjoyable and felt good about giving yourself over to your highest purposes.

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