The will to become free from addiction

Deepening his understanding of the will from a psychosynthesis perspective has given Paul Henry a clearer insight into his experience of being an alcoholic in recovery.

Finding work, initiating a new relationship, asking for a loan, and introducing ourselves to someone who can help us, are all examples of the will at work.(1) The will is an affirmation of our self employed in many everyday activities and in each of these activities a different aspect of will may be utilised. Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, describes these aspects of will as: strong will, skillful will, good will and transpersonal will. He says, in order to gain a complete picture of the will, and a grasp on how to train it, we first need to understand these aspects and qualities of the will.(2)

Four qualities of will

When we make a determined physical or mental effort to withstand a force or overcome a hurdle, we experience ourselves ‘willing’.(1) In this instance, we use strong will. Misunderstandings about the will arise from the misconception that strong will represents the whole will.(2) However, will requires reflection, observation and discernment in its expression.(3)

Erikson describes a more subtle aspect of will when he says: ‘To will does not mean to be willful but rather to gain gradually the power of increased judgement and decision in the application of drive.’ (4) Assagioli calls this skillful will, which relies more on aptitude to obtain the desired result, with least possible expenditure of energy.(2) These two aspects of the will can be illustrated in different approaches to the simple task of moving a car from point A to B. Using strong will, the car might be pushed from one point to the other. However, using skillful will, the ignition key may be located and the car driven.

To extend the analogy further, if, on the journey, a hitchhiker is picked up, this could be considered an illustration of good will. Good will is endowed with strength and skill and characterised by qualities like compassion, selflessness, surrender and service to others.(2) Good will draws on a palette of psychological resources to achieve a chosen and balanced outcome, in a similar way to the way in which a film director pools the diverse individual characters and resources available in a production team. In both cases, to achieve the desired outcome, a directive energy, with the qualities of humanity, strength and skill, guides the process, using effective, healthy communication. Some directors rule through fear and achieve their end using a dictatorial approach, imposing their strong will through force and manipulation. Perhaps this is what Assagioli alludes to when he cautions: ‘…learning to choose the right goals is an essential aspect of training the will’.(2)

Strong, skillful and good will all concern personal self. Transpersonal will is different because it’s an expression of the higher or transpersonal self. Experiences of transpersonal will are widely reported in the psychotherapy community. Carl Jung, Maurice Bucke and William James all refer to religious experiences involving a ‘call’ from God or a ‘pull’ from some Higher Power.2 A central theme in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step programme is this connection with a Higher Power: ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’(5)

Love and will

The various aspects of will have different qualities and characteristics that can be placed along a spectrum between two polarities: love and will. These qualities exist in us all, although they’re not necessarily obvious to others. The quality expressed in the AA quote above is surrender, one of the qualities of good will: compassion, selflessness and surrender. These qualities appear at the love polarity,(2) whereas energy, mastery and determination appear at the will end.

People often develop one quality of the will at the expense of another. This can lead to certain qualities always being called upon and others overlooked, causing an imbalance to develop and leading to distortion. Assagioli advocates a healthy balance of love and will, and observes that ‘one of the principal causes of today’s disorders is the lack of love on the part of those who have will and the lack of will in those who are good and loving’.(2)

Stages of will

Evolution of will is experienced in a cycle of stages: ‘no will’, ‘will exists’, ‘I have will’, and ‘I am will’. Whenever our will is suppressed, violated or ignored, pain and illness arise, and the hurt goes all the way to the core, causing the connection between I and self to become fractured.6 Ferrucci tells us will is the faculty closest to the self,(6) and the absence of will, or no will, ‘makes our life tiring, bitter, sometimes impossible’.(1) At any stage you can go back to no will in a cycle that begins again.(3)

Deepening my understanding of the will has given me a clearer insight into my alcoholism and the impact of this illness on the will. Alcoholism leads to a state of no will, where pain and illness, arising in the form of grave psychological and physical disturbances, go all the way to the core and erode human freedom and personal power.(6) And when will is missing, the psychological space it should occupy is taken over by anguish, depression, resentment and confusion.(6)

AA recognises that by the time the sufferer becomes aware of the grip of alcoholism and its compulsive nature, it’s too powerful to conquer with willpower alone: ‘Remember we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us.’(5) My will had been supplanted by survival needs. All I could think about was the next drink. I had an uncontrollable physical craving for alcohol, a mental obsession for oblivion, and a spiritual malady.(7)

Initially engaged in resisting the urge to drink, my will had distorted and was fully engaged in acquiring the next drink. For me, many will qualities became limited or unavailable: choice and freedom associated with mastery had distorted into inertia and procrastination; courage and daring associated with initiative had become fearfulness and introspection. Alcoholism also distorted my subpersonalities. The inner critic that may have formerly cautioned moderation, now continuously scolded me. And the inner judge, who once weighed the consequences, now constantly condemned me. These harsh taskmasters gave rise to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and failure, and brought me to my knees – to no will.

Positive desire or wish(8) had been supplanted by survival instinct and the I-Self connection had become weakened or fractured.6 Firman and Gila describe the I-Self connection as ‘ultimately a spiritual connection’,(9) which, if disturbed by nonempathic unifying centres, may result in splitting. The example that follows describes my alcoholic reasoning perfectly: ‘I use alcohol not only to overcome my feelings of anxiety and emptiness (lower unconcious) but in order to feel connected to other people (higher unconcious). This higher-lower splitting is largely repressed but has a profound and pervasive effect, causing painful inner conflicts.’(9)

The AA literature states that the sufferer ‘will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping off place. He will wish for the end.’(5) Here, the bridge between ‘desire and action’10 has been destroyed. There is no will ‘muscle’(11) to work with, and an absence of what Rollo May describes as ‘wish’: ‘Will gives the self-direction the maturity to “wish”… but without “wish”, “will” loses its life blood and tends to expire.’(8)

A higher power

The psychotherapy community and AA seem to largely agree that, at the point of no will, something significant must happen to help the will evolve – leading to recovery and rebuilding of the I-Self connection: ‘After hitting bottom and recognising the wounded layers in the recognition phase, we are ready to move into acceptance.’(9) Bonnie and Richard Schaub say that in this realisation, and in the act of surrender and acceptance, the sufferer becomes a recoverer: ‘…if the person accepts guidance he literally begins to build a new subpersonality – a “sober” person… he accepts that he must imitate the thinking and behaviours of a sober person in order to save his life.’(12)

Surrender enabled me to move away from no will and spiritually reconnect with others. My experience is echoed in the psychosynthesis concept of universal will: ‘…the relation between a drop of water and all the waters existing in our planet.’(2) The drop of water may not understand how it is related to ice, snow and steam, but it will inherently know it has the same chemical compound.

The process of cultivating will, beyond realising that ‘will exists’, appears to have Assagioli and Firman and Gila at odds. Assagioli claims ‘If it is weak, it can be trained by regular exercise, in the same way muscles are developed by gymnastics.’(11) Whereas Firman and Gila argue: ‘…just as “I” does not develop but rather emerges, so will does not develop but instead emerges.’(13)

This apparent difference of opinion may be more a question of chronology. Looking at the phases laid out in the psychosynthesis model, ‘Evolution of the Will’, may make it clearer. Pauline Hancock describes the evolution of will as ‘a cyclical process’; ‘no will’ leads to ‘will exists’, leads to ‘I have will’, leads to ‘I am will’.(3) My experience is that the will must emerge from ‘no will’ to ‘the will exists’ before it can be developed as Assagioli describes it.(2)

When I was at the stage of no will I had to undergo a spiritual awakening in order for my will to emerge. This happened through a process of complete surrender to a power greater than myself: a Higher Power.(2) In AA, this surrender is also to a Higher Power: ‘…may I do thy will always’.(5)

Hancock also emphasises that the state of ‘no will’ may return again if the I-Self connection is disrupted by a non-empathic influence. For example, the ‘alcoholic self’ subpersonality may be in conflict with the newly formed ‘sober self’. However, if the individual can identify and experience the conflicting subpersonalities, this knowledge can change that person’s ‘self-awareness and his whole attitude to himself, other people and the world’.(2)

Working with subpersonalities and disidentification exercises, the will moves from shadow to purpose, from no will to recognition that the will exists. My first experience of this was losing the compulsion to drink, one day at a time. This experience was fragile at first, but as days were added together, my will was devloping and emerging. However, as Yalom says, ‘…awareness of responsibility in itself is not synonymous with change; it is only the first step in the process of change’.(10)

My experience in AA

In the second phase, the realisation of having a will, Assagioli talks about the will being like a muscle that requires constant exercise in order to become healthy and remain healthy.2 AA step work performs a similar function for the will. Ferrucci suggests ‘the simplest of all ways we can discover or intensify our will is by using it’.(6) He suggests the client completes rudimentary illustrative exercises, like undertaking a task that requires courage, making a plan and following it through, or doing something very slowly – all of these being expressions of will or wish.

This mirrors my AA experience. My will grew stronger by following simple suggestions: daily prayers, writing an evening journal, phoning another alcoholic daily, reading AA literature each morning, and getting to three meetings a week. I reached out and connected with other members of AA, which brought me a dimension of transpersonal will, and I embarked on the 12-step recovery programme, which is like an act of faith or universal will – constantly taking inventory of ourselves, good and bad, and ‘where we are wrong, promptly admitting it’.(5)

The fact we are able to apologise and make amends for our actions or words reflects Firman and Gila’s assertion that, as our will emerges and takes us away from our place of annihilation, it also means we are free to accept adversity when it arises.(9) The main purpose of phase two is forming a bridge between having a will and phase three: being a will.

Remaining clean and sober for 18 years has required continued and rigorous work. I see the willingness to do this as ‘being a will’. I will always be an alcoholic physically. However, remaining sober ‘is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition’.(5) Maintaining the will to do the work has been hardest when I don’t pray and I lose my transpersonal connection with my Higher Power. When I pray, I listen for my Higher Power’s will for me. Sharing experience with other alcoholics in AA meetings and helping newcomers to find courage, are examples of transpersonal and universal will at work.

Will work with clients

In clinical work, understanding the condition of the client’s will is central to any psychosynthesis strategy. Clients with addiction issues will often be driven by distorted will. One addictive behaviour will typically give way to another: bulimia may be followed by anorexic restriction, anorexic restriction by alcoholic bingeing when the ‘physical pain, distress and misery associated with starvation’(14) becomes too much. Contrasting extremes of distorted will succeed one another – absolute control following complete abandonment and vice versa. Understanding the nature of a client’s will is central to the long-term strategy for therapeutic work. For a client who appears positive about change, a simple act, such as making daily entries in an evening journal, might begin the process of rekindling healthy will, which may be developed and strengthened.

Beyond creating an empathic relationship with clients, acknowledging and exploring their subpersonalities using visualisation, guided imagery and chair work will help them get to know these parts of themselves and enable them to disidentify; understanding that they are more than these parts – allowing the rebuilding of the I-Self connection on which will depends. Long term, I will hold my client bifocally, mindful of will and listening for emerging purpose, week by week, and adjusting my strategy accordingly.

Paul Henry

With thirty years experience in creative businesses and twenty years of recovery from alcoholism and addiction, Paul’s work focuses on performance anxieties in creative, professional and parental roles, addiction and substance misuse, and the everyday sufferings of life in an increasingly frantic world. His practice is based at London Bridge, Clapham Junction and Pinewood Studios.


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