Yogis know that our practices—spiritual, mental, or physical—are most effective when done every day. But how do we keep up such an exacting commitment? The answer: we must develop the desire and the power needed to succeed—willpower.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” You might have heard this proverb from your elders. It tells us how to succeed. And it applies universally, whether to spiritual or worldly pursuits. Willpower is especially needed on the path to enlightenment.
But what can we do if we’re lacking in this crucial quality? Some of us, even with the best intentions, are chronic procrastinators. Others never seem to finish anything that they start. Do we have a finite supply of willpower, or is there something we can do to increase it in ourselves?
A Master’s Advice
Paramahansa Yogananda addressed this subject more than seventy years ago. A transcript of his speech “Developing Dynamic Will” is found in his book Man’s Eternal Quest. The content is as relevant today as it was then. In it, Yogananda describes five stages of willpower. These stages are a road map to Self-realization, life’s ultimate goal. They help us develop and establish our yoga practices and may be used to meet any other goals in our lives. Yogananda refers to the five stages as:
- Physiological Will
- Mechanical Will (Habits)
- Thinking Will
- Dynamic Will
- Divine will
Let’s take a look at each of these and recognize how they work in our lives.
Stage #1: Physiological Will
This type of will is natural to all living beings. It doesn’t take any thought because it’s driven by basic needs of the body. Yogananda says that our physiological will begins with our first breath. Nature gives us the will to live—the survival instinct. We experience this every day when we feel hungry and head for the kitchen. Physiological will drives us to fulfill our physical needs without even thinking about them.
Stage #2: Mechanical Will (Habits)
The second stage of willpower is habit. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines habits as: “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” Yogananda calls this mechanical will because, effectively, we behave like robots when we’re impelled by habits. These actions are automatic, like driving to work every day, taking the exact same route.
As writer Edgar Rice Burroughs famously said, “We are, all of us, creatures of habit.” And habits can be very helpful. Indeed, nature has made our brains to work this way. Our neurons love repetitive tasks. Once set, a habit allows the brain’s energy to be spent on more interesting or complex pursuits.
Our habits might form through training received from our parents. Yogis also note that some habits are carried over from previous lifetimes. These seem to materialize as inborn character. For example, some of us are natural-born neatniks: we tidy up compulsively, wherever we are, not knowing what’s driving us.
But beware—not all habits are good. Certain habits promote laziness or drive us to distraction. Then we might fall short of our goals. This is especially damaging if the goal is spiritual perfection. Obviously, it’s important that we work to increase our good habits and overcome the bad ones. That’s where the next level of willpower comes in.
Stage #3: Thinking Will
Yogananda calls the next stage thinking will. As the name implies, the thinking will activates when we step out of ‘habit mode’ and pause to consider our options.
A small child learns to cross a city street safely by holding her mother’s hand. The mother says, “Stop! Look both ways. Are any cars coming?” Similarly, our lives often present us with the need to make conscious decisions.
For example, suppose a friend texts you during the day and invites you to an evening movie. It sounds like fun, but the time conflicts with your yoga routine. By choosing to defer the movie to another time, you’re using your thinking will.
Wisdom grows as we exercise this form of willpower. Yogananda encourages us: “Thinking will is the most marvelous instrument you can imagine. It is the way toward wisdom.” He explains that once we’ve strengthened our ability to use this power, we can direct it towards worthy ideals. We solve problems through willpower. We can create new habits and, most importantly, direct our willfulness towards God-realization. The thinking will leads us to the next stage: dynamic will.
Stage #4: Dynamic Will
According to Yogananda, dynamic will drives us to succeed. You’ve likely heard this before: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” In a word, this is the quality of persistence. It’s crucial to success in life.
If we’re to accomplish anything, whether it’s making lunch or forging a life well lived, we must call upon dynamic willpower. The commitment to persist drives us to complete what we’ve started. As we turn our thoughts to higher ideals, we use our thinking will to help us choose appropriate actions—until our goal is achieved.
Lacking persistence, our best intentions are like bubbles rising through the waters of a stream. The stream’s currents, like unexpected changes in our best-made plans, push the bubbles in many directions. Finally, when the bubbles reach the surface, they disappear—as if they’d never existed. This isn’t the fate we want for our good plans.
Focusing on the goal and following through on good choices is dynamic will. This quality eventually leads to success.
Stage #5: Divine Will
All yoga masters assert that the greatest happiness is found in spiritual enlightenment. It’s the ultimate purpose of human life.
Divine will, as defined by Yogananda, is the desire for God-realization. He encourages us to develop this desire: “If you continuously use your willpower, no matter what reverses come, it will produce success. You will have health and the power to help people. Above all, it will produce communion with God.”
Willpower is working in us all the time. It begins with prompting us to meet our basic physical needs. As our will develops to higher stages, we’re able to achieve success in many ways. And when we direct our energies to the highest goal, the reward is perfect peace and bliss.
In my next post, I’ll outline practical steps that you can take to develop your dynamic willpower. Meanwhile, you’ll benefit from reading Yogananda’s article “Developing Dynamic Will” from his book Man’s Eternal Quest (aff link).
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.