Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

Building the Will

By Eknath Easwaran

When we hear about the transformation of consciousness, we may feel tempted to object, “You don’t know me. You don’t know how unpleasant I can be, how incorrigible I am. If you did, you wouldn’t be so optimistic. I have made many mistakes, and I am likely to keep on making those mistakes too, because I don’t know how to change. In fact, I don’t believe it is possible for anyone to change.”

This is where the testimony of great spiritual figures down the ages comes in. Again and again they will assure us that they too have made mistakes, sometimes worse than any we may have made. They too have caused trouble to themselves and others. When they tell us that we can remake our personality, they know it is possible because they have done it. By drawing on the power released in meditation, we can gradually remove all the blemishes of self-centered thought and behavior that hide our real Self from view.

In order to do this, however, we must put forth a lot of effort.

Some time ago I was watching a woodpecker, a creature I hadn’t seen since I left India. This woodpecker had a red turban, and while I watched he came and alighted on a huge tree. He was quite a small creature, and the trunk of the tree was enormous. If he had been able to understand me, I would have gone up to him and said, “What, make a hole in that trunk with your tiny little beak? Impossible.  Preposterous!”

But this little woodpecker was not intimidated by the size of the trunk. He did not throw up his legs in despair; he settled onto a limb and went about looking for the right spot to begin operations. It is the same way with transforming consciousness; you have to look for the right spot. In some people it is a particular compulsive craving; in some it is jealousy; in some, blind fury; and in some lucky characters, all three. Each person has to look for that spot where urgent work is most needed.

After his reconnaissance, this intrepid creature chose what seemed to me the most solid, unyielding spot and started pecking away rhythmically. He didn’t just give a peck or two and then fly off in search of a worm and come back in half an hour; he went on pecking until he was done. I was amazed at his skill. When he had finished, there was such a large hole that if he had gone on, I have no doubt that the entire tree would have fallen. That is the kind of sustained, enthusiastic effort that is required to transform personality.

Unfortunately, this is far from a pleasant process. For a long, long time in meditation, all we are doing is pecking away at what we want to change in ourselves, and there is not much satisfaction in pecking away. At best it is tedious work, and often it is downright painful. As Meister Eckhart puts it, the pauper has to die before the prince can be born. The problem is that all of us identify ourselves with the pauper – the accumulation of habits and opinions, likes and dislikes, which we have developed over the years – and we are not prepared to let him die. We all say, “This is how I am. This is me, for better or for worse.”

Here the mystics reply, “This is not you. All these quirks are extraneous.”

In the language of Sufi mysticism, these are the veils hiding the face of the Beloved. We have mistaken the veils for the face, the layers of conditioning for our real Self. Our whole job in life is to remove these veils, to overcome all the compulsive aspects of our surface personality. One of the most crucial of weapons in the war within is the human will.

Everything in life, everything in spiritual growth, comes ultimately to strengthening the will until no setback can stop you, no trial or temptation deflect your course.

One of the difficulties that most of us face is that we know where we want to go in life, but we lack the will to take the steps that will get us there. I saw an interesting illustration of this the other day in a rather unlikely place: an article on one of the most spectacular advances in modern medicine, microsurgery. Surgeons are now able to magnify nerves and other tissues forty or fifty times, work on them with diminutive forceps, scalpels, and the like, and sew everything up with invisible thread when they are done, watching their work not directly but on video screens mounted around the surgical theater. They have accomplished miracles. One teenage girl, a promising flautist, had her hand severed in a tragic accident. She was rushed to the hospital where a specially assembled team of micro- surgeons actually managed to reattach her hand. She was discharged within a few months, with every indication that she will be able to continue her musical career.

In us it is often the will that has been severed, cut off from our understanding. This is particularly true in cases of severe addiction, such as to alcohol or drugs. “I don’t want to do this,” we say, “but I just don’t have the willpower to stop.” This is not quite true. The will is intact, but it is lying there lifeless. We need a special surgeon to attach it so it can function again.

Unfortunately, no outside specialists are available for this delicate task; we have to do it ourselves. We begin by connecting the will with the tiniest of threads. One way is to say no to some of those innumerable little things that benefit no one: a second piece of pie, a midnight snack, a TV show you are watching just because it is on. If, on top of this, you can cheerfully give that time to others, your will is strengthened doubly. Not only that, you will have added to your capacity to love.

I am not much of an admirer of those who develop a strong will just so they can get what they want out of life. The whole purpose of strengthening the will is to deepen your love. This precious human birth has been given to us not to grab from life but to give to it. When you understand that this is what life is for, you get continuing motivation to keep your body and mind at their best, as instruments of selfless service. As this motivation grows, compulsive habits begin to fall away.

Apart from other things, when we overeat or smoke or drink or indulge in drugs, it shows a lack of love. Everybody can respond to this idea. It is lack of love for others that blinds us and allows us to develop fierce physical and mental addictions. It is love that loosens the bonds of addiction and sets us free. 

This article is an excerpt from the Blue Mountain Journal archives.