“What is the purpose of spiritual disciplines? To develop free will. The more one strengthens one’s willpower, the more one moves toward God. The Master used to say, ‘Awaken your inner power.’ Success does not come to souls who are weak-minded.

“The more one’s mind becomes pure, the more one’s willpower increases. Look at Buddha. Sitting under the Bo-tree he resolved, ‘Either my body will be dried up on this seat or I shall attain nirvana [liberation].’ And he attained it because he had tremendous willpower.” – Swami Brahmananda [1]


Strengthening our will is the key to spiritual growth. Once our will is strong, then we can apply that focused will to any endeavor or situation. A focused will exponentially expands the limits of what we can accomplish in our life.

“Will is from the Self [Atman]. Desires are from the mind.” – Swami Bhajanananda [2]

We often confuse will and desire. We tend to think that our desires express who we are and what we need. But, in truth, our desires are just the play of the mind which hankers after whatever the senses feed it. And in Western society the mind is fed to overflowing.

Society tells us what we should be and how we should act, feel and think. We swim in a sea of others’ desires in which our real identity is totally submerged.

The spiritual life is about getting in touch with our true nature. It is about knowing who we are and what we really want. It is about casting aside all the layers of desire that have built up inside us, so that our true Self can shine forth.

Meditation is the harnessing of the will to focus the mind inwardly. – Swami Bhajanananda [3]

We find our true Self by gathering our will and looking inward. Meditation is our primary tool for engaging in this spiritual task. Meditation takes us beyond the games of the mind to touch the pristine core of our Divinity. It awakens our higher nature and vitalizes the whole of our being. It fills us with the peace, strength and light.

When we harness our will, we activate the power of the Self. This is the central dynamic of the spiritual life. Meditation, spiritual disciplines, study and prayer are all just different methods to try and fulfill this goal.

Swami Sivananada of Rishikesh taught that the power of one-pointed concentration is not just a spiritual principle, it is a scientific fact:

“If you focus the rays of the sun through a lens, they can burn cotton or a piece of paper; but the scattered rays cannot do this. If you want to talk to a man at a distance, you make a funnel of your hand and speak; the sound waves are collected at one point and then directed towards the man. He can hear your speech very clearly. When water is converted into steam and the steam is concentrated at a point, the railway engine moves. The steam in the cooking vessels moves the lid and produces a put-put sound. All these are instances of concentrated waves.” [4]

The Baal Shem Tov spoke continually about the importance of employing our willpower in the practice of contemplative prayer. He told his Hasidim that the mere recital of the prayers is not enough. “One needs to put all of one’s strength and will into the words.” We need to put our heart and mind into our practice. We need to transform our prayers into a vibrant spiritual force.[5]

In another section, the Baal Shem describes each prayer as a “komah shlaimah” – a complete person or form. If we do not put the whole of ourselves into our prayers, he warns, we will create a being with missing limbs. [6]

Through our prayers, we build a thoughtform in mental matter. Our kavanah, our will or intention, is what imbues that thoughtform with life. If our intention is incomplete, if we are distracted or insincere when we pray, then our words will have no real spiritual power. They will not be charged with the necessary energy to create a komah shlaimah – a fully vitalized spiritual form.

The Baal Shem had great faith in the power of kavanat halev – the intention of the heart and will. In fact, he believed that a focused will is more useful during prayer than knowing all of the kavanot, all of the Kabbalistic formulations for the prayers. Kavanot, he explains, are energetic manipulations. Each kavanah adds additional potency to a prayer. However, since most of us do not know the majority of the kavannot, our capacity to generate spiritual force in this manner is very limited. If instead we direct all of our heart and will into our prayers, we bypass the kavanot and draw our spiritual power straight from God. Then the energy from all of the kavanot will naturally flow down into our prayers to animate and enliven them. [7]

 

How do we develop our will or kavanah?

We begin by going back to the words of Swami Brahmananda at the beginning of this teaching:

“The more one’s mind becomes pure, the more one’s willpower increases.”

Purity is crucial to developing a focused mind. Purity means removing all of our extraneous desires. It means clearing the mind of the fog which the emotions create. We need to substitute base yearnings with high aspirations. We need to become the one who is in control – the master of our lower self.

A second ingredient that will bolster this work is the practice of daily meditation and contemplative prayer. These spiritual disciplines build concentration and increase our willpower. In meditation, we focus the mind on one object to the exclusion of all others. We learn to push aside all distracting thoughts and images. We learn to hold the mind in a higher state of consciousness for an extended period of time.

Imagine that you are walking down the street on your way to an important meeting. There will be all manner of activity going on in the street along your path: people passing by, cars with their horns blaring, radios blasting out music. There might be street vendors or sidewalk musicians, perhaps a work crew digging in a manhole.

If you are in a hurry to get to your meeting, then you will let nothing distract you. You will turn your mind away from all the activity and continue on your way.

Even if you pass the scene of an accident with bystanders, police and ambulances all milling about, you won’t stop to ask what is happening. You will stick to your purpose and head toward your encounter, carefully sidestepping all obstacles, as you continue on your way.

This is how we should approach our spiritual practice. We attend to our inner life with rigor and one-pointed determination. We apply the strength of our will toward reaching our destination.

A third method of fortifying our will is learning how to renounce. We need to make renunciation an integral part of the way in which we live our life. I am not speaking about sweeping gestures where we give up everything we have and cut ourselves off from everyone that we know. Rather, I am talking about cultivating a certain state of mind, about learning to master our body, mind and emotions; learning to be in control of our own fate.

Begin with small gestures. When you eat, leave a little something on your plate. From time to time, don’t allow yourself to purchase something that you want. Wait to speak during an encounter. Hold yourself back from pushing your way to the front of the line.

This is the first step. Once this level of practice is established, then you can take your renunciation to the next level. Push yourself past your natural limits. Meditate and study longer than you feel you can. Eat less often. Jog a little further. Make do with less sleep.

Next, move on to renounce the pampering of your ego. Let go of an offense committed against you. Renounce a desire for one-upmanship or revenge. Let someone else take credit for your accomplishments. Let someone else shine in your place.

Finally, give away more than you want to. Give away a favorite article of yours. Give out love, though you really want to receive it. Do more for others than for yourself.

All these practices will strength your willpower. They will enhance the power of your heart, mind and soul.

 

During one of his instructions for prayer, the Baal Shem made the following statement: “kavanah is the neshama [the soul].” [8] When we act with kavanah, we are reaching into our innermost essence and touching our neshama. This is another way of saying that will is from the Self.

A focused will links us to the crown center – keter. Keter is the highest of all the sephirot or chakras. Keter embodies the energy of the Will of God. It connects our will with God’s Eternal Will. Then our actions become infused with the might of the heavens. And we become conduits for the boundless influx of the Absolute.

Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick

 


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Swami Chetananda, A Guide to Spiritual Life, p. 83-4
  2. Swami Bhajanananda, Concentration and Meditation, Part I
  3. Swami Bhajanananda, Concentration and Meditation, Part I
  4. Swami Sivananda, Bliss Divine, chapter entitled Concentration
  5. Shub, Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Amud Hatefilah # 16
  6. Shub, Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Amud Hatefilah # 25
  7. Shub, Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Amud Hatefilah # 26
  8. Shub, Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Amud Hatefilah # 88

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