Friday, October 3, 2014

The need to train the will

According to Roberto Assagiolo, M.D., "[a] man of strong and able will ... whose actions are not restrained by any moral law, by any sense of love and compassion can have a disastrous influence on a community or on an entire nation."[1] We are able to see disturbing evidence of this reality through a great many atrocities of the past and sadly through very recent occurrences of terrorism, tyranny, genocide and other instances of man’s grave cruelty towards his fellow man taking place on today's world stage.

Therefore, it is necessary both for the general welfare [of others], and our own, that our will should be ‘good’, as well as strong and skillful. Only this is the true, the whole will; a will that can give us both practical success and the highest inner satisfaction.  In it lies one of the secrets of the great men and women whom we most admire and revere.

The question that now arises: Is it possible to form and develop a will of this kind?  How should one set about embracing such a task?  It is possible to develop such a will; the past and the present give us many examples of men and women who have achieved it.  The means to this end do exist and have always been more or less known and used.

In order to know what will really is we must first discover it in ourselves.  It is [however] an inner condition difficult to describe or define.  It is one of those fundamental experiences which cannot in actuality be communicated by means of words, but which must be lived individually.[2]

Though I must admit that I do not know with any certainty, I am much inclined to believe that ‘will’ is at times  aligned with serendipitous actions, events, and the mystical.  For example, it has often been my personal experience that when facing a difficult challenge, coming up against a roadblock or while bending over ever so painfully towards a negative posturing or thought, to suddenly, and then with great surprise, vigorously regain the most upright and positive positioning.  On other occasions, delivered as if by a divine messenger, there comes a long awaited answer and solution to a problem.  Moreover, I can recall times when a door that had long remained locked miraculously opened--or a new friend, helper or mentor arrived just in the nick-of-time to restore previously lost hope, love, and joy. Let me not forget to also mention how after aimlessly browsing for hours in many a bookstore, more often than not, that just before leaving, I came across a book, to which I opened its pages only to find right there within, text that included the precise answer to a pressing question or the visual mapping that I sorely needed to be able to take a critically important next step, thereby effortlessly moving me further along and in the right direction.

The first time that I became aware of this unfathomable cause and effect relationship between the reordering of my life habits and the seemingly associated favorable outcomes, I was still a junior in college.  As I began looking beyond the horizon in search of my place in the world after graduation, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea for me to consider the best possible use of my time in the summer before my senior year by exploring a unique and memorable opportunity. 

Among the choices that became available to me were an opportunity to attend a six-week summer Career Discovery program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Cambridge, MA. This program welcomes people—from recent high school and college graduates to seasoned professionals who want to find out more about architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning and design. I had taken a course earlier that year in City Planning through the Department of Civil Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and considered the Career Discovery program to be a good possible next course. Another educational alternative entailed traveling abroad through the Pietrasantra (Italy) Summer Study Program sponsored by the Providence College Department of Studio Art and History.  Having the chance to travel abroad proved the more exciting of the two possibilities. This program would run for twenty years under the direction of Fr. Richard Mcalister, based at the studio of Dominician sculpter, Thomas McGlynn, O.P.

In early spring, I set about trying to obtain the financial resources necessary to make the trip. Previously a ward of the State of New Jersey and then a college financial aid recipient, I had no idea on how I would possibly make this dream a reality.  It occurred to me that the college's financial aid officer might be able to help me in finding grant money so I made an appointment to speak with him.  He asked me to give him a little time to do some investigating and told me that he would get back in contact with me in one week letting me know then what he was able to find.  Because I had to attend a meeting at Providence College in Rhode Island to learn more about the trip and meet the other students that would be going to Europe, I thought that it might also be a good idea to find out if Providence College might possibly be offering any scholarship money to its program participants.

Upon listening to the details pertaining to the previous summer trip and seeing the very colorful photographs I became convinced that this could well be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  During my visit at the college, I also learned that full payment for the trip was due in advance to ensure that all flights were booked on time, hotel reservations and other important arrangements were made without any problems or delays.

On the train ride back from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, MA and then on to Worcester, MA by bus, I began to worry over whether or not I was making the right decision considering my very meager financial circumstances.  That night, I began telling myself, "where there is the will there is a way." 

In his article, "The Training of the Will" Roberto Assagioli, M.D., points out that "the simplest and most frequent way in which we discover our will lies in determined action and struggle.  When we make a physical or mental effort, when we are actively wrestling with some obstacle or opposing forces, we feel a specific power rising up within us; we become animated by an inner energy and experience a sense of "willing".[3]

It is well to realize thoroughly the full meaning and the immense value of the discovery of the will. In whatever way it happens, either spontaneously or through conscious action, in a crisis or in the quiet of inner recollection, it constitutes a most important and decisive event in our lives. The will is the central power of our individuality, the innermost essence of ourself; therefore, in a certain sense, the discovery of the will means the discovery of our true being.[4]

After exploring every possible means available to me, I was eventually fortunate to be able to make the trip to Europe.  The finances that I needed arrived the day before the scheduled flight at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to London.  The following night, on the way to the airport there was heavy traffic causing us to run late.  The combination of the excitement, fear and stress led to my very first panic attack.  Although I did not know that is what it was at the time. I simply remember that the abdominal pain that developed was so intense that I could barely move a muscle and found it difficult to breath.

Once we arrived at JFK Airport, the muscle spasms begin to let up enough for me to be able to get my bags out of the car and proceed to the check-in counter. Upon joining everyone in the waiting area I managed to put on a good face and hide any signs of physical discomfort. About one hour into the flight I thought to myself, no one need ever know how close I came to giving up before the journey actually began.  I have come to believe that it is in these trying situations that we begin to formulate a strong will or alternatively to become habitual quitters with the potential to become our own worst enemies.

Assagioli presupposes that most people would like to possess a strong will, but few have the determination to acquire it. However, consciously or unconsciously they are deterred by the efforts and perseverance it entails. Yet this is hardly reasonable. Anyone who really wants to master a foreign language or to play a musical instrument is willing to devote all the time, energy and expense necessary to their study.  Why not then do the same for the development of the will? It is illogical to expect that strengthening will take place without the perseverance and the effort that is required for the development of any ability, either mental or physical or spiritual.

Therefore, the first indispensable condition for acquiring a strong will is the earnest resolve to devote to its attainment whatever time, energy and means are necessary. As Tame said, one must "will systematically and earnestly, every day, for a year, for two, for three years.... Man can-re-make himself, still more, he can make himself; it is a great power, a noble task for a lofty spirit and a generous heart." (Correspondence, Vol. II, p.251)

"...even the weakest, have at least a little will power and, although it may only exist in an embryonic state, still it is sufficient for beginning the work."[5]

The total duration of the trip abroad was eight weeks.  After the six-hour flight, we arrived in London. From there, we crossed the English Channel by ship docking in Paris, France.  A few days later we boarded a train and traveled from Paris to Rome, Italy. Without question, the entire excursion proved to be worth every bit of the effort and sacrifice that it required. It remains an unforgettable experience.

[1] Assagiolo, M.D., R. (N/A). The Training of the Will (
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.