The colonizing nature of the will

by Frank Bosboom | Mar 31, 2022 |

Artwork by Rothko - Black in deep red

The colonizing nature of the will; tools for essential connection

We use “will” fre­quently in our lan­guage. And often with lit­tle pre­ci­sion, because what is actu­ally said in the expres­sion “I want.…” And does it work? What is its operation?

Different kinds of understanding of “the will”

In the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion, the will is themed at a num­ber of moments. In Hobbes, for exam­ple, free will is defined as the abil­ity of ratio­nally act­ing per­sons to exer­cise con­trol over their own actions and deci­sions. In the exam­ple, “I want to make tea” would fit in well with this. Mak­ing tea is a clear, orderly action for which I can choose to per­form those actions and the end result is tea. Other exam­ples are already a lot more com­plex because it raises ques­tions such as: does the other per­son want to do that (do your home­work), or how to do that (become a foot­ball player).

In the exam­ple of doing home­work, the will focuses on the move­ment of the other per­son. Sud­denly, inten­tions and def­i­n­i­tions of real­ity come into play (does the other per­son also find impor­tant what I find impor­tant, and what I think is good home­work, the other per­son also thinks). In the phi­los­o­phy of a.o. Lev­inas and Hei­deg­ger, by intro­duc­ing “the other” and “being”, is intro­duced to a world that goes beyond the pri­vate of the “I”. That which I want can be grounded in me (and is then con­nected to the ratio­nal, the desire to take con­trol) or in a ges­ture, a light from the other or the being. In this last descrip­tion, the will is no longer pri­vate (ratio­nally act­ing per­sons) but comes about in con­nec­tion with a larger whole. Me and she or I and it are lifted up in it or coin­cide. In the con­text of this col­lec­tion of blogs, we refer to this con­nec­tion with the “other” or the “being” as the con­nec­tion with the future.

An order of the will

It is impor­tant to under­stand the direc­tion of “want­ing” well in order to under­stand its nature and its inten­tion and to get clear in which field it can be effec­tive (and in which it cannot).

The will in acting

In act­ing, the will shows itself as an activ­ity. It is there­fore in rela­tion to the here and now: I per­ceive a con­crete sit­u­a­tion, a con­crete ques­tion or need and I act accord­ingly. I’m hun­gry and make myself a sand­wich, I run away from fire, I hang up a cupboard.

The will in knowing

In know­ing, the will shows itself as con­trol and power. It gives mean­ing through order­ing and that order becomes deci­sive for the other. If I declare the world by stat­ing that God exists, then any­one who does not go along with it is either a sin­ner or a mad­man (and those who do go along with it are my brothers).

The will in desire

In desire, the will shows itself in the rela­tional. The will focuses on what it longs for: the love, the atten­tion of the other, for exam­ple. An image is made of the other that can pro­vide for the desire. In this way, the will orga­nizes in desire and also reduces.

In the act­ing, the know­ing and the desire you could call the will indi­vid­ual. The inten­tion starts from the self and from there enters into a con­nec­tion with the world and thus puts that world (no mat­ter how small) to its hand.

The will in the invitation

In the invi­ta­tion, the direc­tion of inten­tion seems to be chang­ing. It is not the indi­vid­ual that wants, but the indi­vid­ual that is addressed from the whole and works from there. Actu­ally, it is there­fore strange to speak of “will” in a strict sense, because it is more about being addressed. In this address­ing, some­thing becomes clear that then trig­gers indi­vid­ual action, know­ing and desire. The line between want­ing and not want­ing is then very thin. For exam­ple, the artist who, after being touched by an essence, turns to paint­ing can both want and not want; does the energy run from the touch to the work of art or does the work of art itself become cen­tral? The will becomes “pos­ses­sive” again when this touch takes the form of state­ments such as “god”, “the truth” or “the Art” with large A and the energy is sent from there.

On the border of the individual will

The four forms of will described above are famil­iar to us, and they are also very help­ful in get­ting a grip on our daily lives. At the same time, in some cases, the will does not help at all.

My own expe­ri­ence is that I can make a sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion to the world by mak­ing use of this indi­vid­ual will, because the exist­ing, the already known is repro­duced. If that is the inten­tion, then want­ing is very effec­tive. But there are also sit­u­a­tions where some­thing else is needed.  It’s like the para­ble of the ele­phant being felt in the dark: it’s a snake, it’s a wall, it’s a tree.…  Wil is no longer a use­ful con­cept because  “the world” is too big to grasp. But then what? The clue is actu­ally in what is lit­er­ally obvi­ous, namely tak­ing seri­ously the obser­va­tion that it is unclear what I per­ceive, in stead of try­ing to explain what it is (as in the exam­ple of the ele­phant). To the four forms of will above, I add an obser­va­tion that gives an indi­ca­tion that the will is com­ing up against its lim­its and some­thing else is asked for.

The will in action runs up against the uncertainty

One way to deal with uncer­tainty is to start doing some­thing, to choose prac­ti­cal solu­tions. Uncer­tainty is expe­ri­enced as unpleas­ant and not practical.

Being at ease with the uncer­tainty means that we feel com­fort­able with what the future has to offer us, when we con­nect with it. Whether it’s prac­ti­cal, beau­ti­ful, pure non­sense or the insight of the cen­tury, we won’t know for sure until we start explor­ing it. Being at ease with uncer­tainty means that I don’t mind that it’s not cer­tain, that there’s no cer­tainty and that I don’t put it in a cat­e­gory. I meet what I per­ceive with­out judg­ment and leave it for what it is.

The will in knowing encounters incomprehensible

Orga­niz­ing, struc­tur­ing are ways of tak­ing con­trol and not know­ing how to avoid it. If you try to imag­ine the future from know­ing, it will pro­duce self-affirm­ing images to jus­tify and even strengthen your beliefs. Beliefs are based on what you already know and have mas­tered, it is the learn­ing from the past that has led to how you do things now. It has no vision of the future, it can only pro­duce a long-term past-now. Not know­ing how is essen­tial to be able to come to new paths, lit­er­ally out­side of exist­ing images.

When you stop orga­niz­ing, you expe­ri­ence things to orga­nize them­selves. If I look for my keys where I think I put them, I won’t find them. If I search open-mind­edly, I will find them. Learn­ing from the future works in this case by being fear­less in not know­ing and by using hermeneu­tic research.

The will in the desire encounters the unexpected

The desire is directed at the other per­son to receive some­thing that is impor­tant to myself (affec­tion, pro­tec­tion, love). The extreme form of expec­ta­tions are arche­types (such as the hero, the mother), which makes it almost impos­si­ble to behave out­side of the pre­de­fined expec­ta­tions we have of each other.

To pre­pare for the unex­pected, we must be will­ing to enter a sit­u­a­tion with­out will, shame or con­di­tion and be open to being influ­enced by what­ever the sit­u­a­tion brings us, and to act accord­ingly. While it sounds sim­ple, our cul­tural val­ues make it dif­fi­cult to be open to the unex­pected. It asks to find ease in the fact that in these sit­u­a­tions vul­ner­a­bil­ity, sen­si­tiv­ity and emo­tion­al­ity are the reality.

The will in the touch encounters the unapprochable

There are sit­u­a­tions, events that lit­er­ally give “no sense”. We have learned through faith, magic and rit­u­als to cope with the world with which we can­not con­nect and that we have no con­trol over.

To pre­pare for the unap­proach­able, we must hold back and accept the exis­ten­tial fears as real­ity instead of see­ing these fears as a prob­lem that needs to be solved. This atti­tude towards the  inex­pe­ri­enced opens the way to see the beauty of things and to take care of the whole by con­tribut­ing to life to its essence. It requires a pre­pared­ness in which the ten­sion between the most extremes of being (exis­tence and non-exis­tence, indi­vid­u­al­ity and col­lec­tiv­ity) is accepted in its dual­ity. It accepts “what is” in being with­out feel­ing the need to con­trol it, it does not make a choice for any of the extremes.

In other words: The will distracts

If I really want to achieve a goal in an orga­ni­za­tion, I use power to let oth­ers con­form to it, my con­scious­ness is not focused on what is, but on what should be. If I want my part­ner to love me, then I’m not look­ing at some­thing that is, but I’m demand­ing some­thing that should be. These are two sim­ple exam­ples of how our “will” does not help if you are really try­ing to see real­ity. The will acts as a dis­rup­tive, dis­tort­ing fil­ter. It is an instru­ment of con­trol, of power. Usable, if you apply it in the right field. The field of repro­duc­ing, repeat­ing what we already know or can do. The above described sen­sa­tions of the uncer­tain, the not-know­ing, the over-guarded and the inex­pe­ri­enced, can­not be approached with the will. The will then dis­tracts, or to put it another way, back to what we already know instead of us investigating.

Beyond the will, in the connection

Let’s prac­tice using an exam­ple to bring the work­ings beyond the will a lit­tle more clearly to mind. Take an orga­ni­za­tion for pri­mary edu­ca­tion. The teach­ers observe that for a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of stu­dents there is inequal­ity of oppor­tu­nity: they come to school with­out break­fast, they learn less eas­ily, they struc­turally reach lower lev­els of edu­ca­tion. These teach­ers use all kinds of tools to do some­thing about this inequal­ity of oppor­tu­nity: teach­ers go to train­ing, extra lessons are given, a healthy eat­ing pro­gram is started. It does­n’t change much about the direc­tions of out­flows. You could say that the mea­sures they take are based on the obser­va­tion of out­flow fig­ures and are then con­verted into action on their will (no inequal­ity). This in itself is a good inten­tion and it has been clearly thought about. In any case, these teach­ers show a touch by the depri­va­tion and they turn that into action. A pro­gram is cre­ated. When I ask if they have taken the oppor­tu­nity to talk to the chil­dren and the par­ents, their reac­tion is: occa­sion­ally, but we don’t have enough time for that. And there might be an alter­na­tive route here. Instead of a gen­eral solu­tion (a pro­gram), an indi­vid­ual approach that looks at what is there per fam­ily and sit­u­a­tion and asks par­ents what is going on and what could help.

The objec­tion is quickly: par­ents can’t, par­ents don’t want to, or that takes too much time.… What  if we saw these obser­va­tions as infor­ma­tion instead of orga­niz­ing around them. Instead of see­ing them as dis­rup­tion that we want to “orga­nize away” as what we have to work with? By stand­ing in the con­nec­tion and tak­ing these sig­nals seri­ously and work­ing with them, what would that bring? For exam­ple, doing noth­ing. Or, for exam­ple, work on improv­ing the sit­u­a­tion of a par­ent (not all par­ents) if it turns out that there is an issue there (being able to make a mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion, which is passed on to the children).

The dance with being

Per­haps this brief exam­ple feels unsat­is­fy­ing. I can well imag­ine that. Because what should I do now, could­n’t it be clearer? And does that make sense? Nev­er­the­less, in this exam­ple, I think it becomes clear that the action can actu­ally be very con­crete and at the same time has only a lim­ited dif­fer­ence. Both are on the agenda. I would call that feel­ing of con­crete­ness and dis­com­fort the dance with being because it has some­thing of “I get it, I’m there” and “I don’t get it, it escapes me”.

In the moment of “I get it” there is an under­stand­ing of the sit­u­a­tion, there is action pos­si­bil­ity at hand. In the moment that fol­lowed, the per­cep­tion that that’s not going to solve every­thing. And I think it’s also about both.

The violence of representation; solidified will

In the “I get it” lies as far as I’m con­cerned, the tragedy of being human. We are so incred­i­bly good at it and at the same time are entan­gled in it. If I take the “I get it” too seri­ously, then I will believe that I have under­stood what is needed, then I will make a pro­gram against equal­ity of oppor­tu­nity. And along the way, frame­works become facts, rules become strait­jack­ets and order becomes repres­sion. The lines are all too thin and that has also been described by many (includ­ing Han­nah Arendt). In the lan­guage of this paper, you could say that the will solid­i­fies and becomes unwa­ver­ing. We’ve come to the believe what we’re try­ing to grasp. The lib­er­at­ing move­ment in this seems to me that we  fun­da­men­tally rec­og­nize that get­ting a grip on is nec­es­sary and at the same time does not suc­ceed. Both. And that we train our­selves in that skill.

Didactics for the dance with being

What is clear to me in any case, that we are poorly trained in “not-want­ing”, in deal­ing with act­ing from the con­nec­tion. The crazy thing is: we do that every day, only our con­scious­ness seems to be focused on it to a lim­ited extent.

From the descrip­tions so far, I get a num­ber of clues as to how the will is effec­tive to use and where it is not. Learn­ing to deal with this bound­ary could look like this

  • There is an event
  • The event calls on me as a per­son to act, know how to use it etc
  • Does this appeal become con­scious, ask your­self the ques­tion: is there a rep­e­ti­tion of what we have already done before, what we already know etc or is some­thing else needed? I expe­ri­ence the uncer­tain, the not-know­ing, the unex­pected or the inexperienced
  • If that is the case, call your will to order and lit­er­ally give room for dis­cov­ery for research: leave the event and take the dis­com­fort and feel free about “the uncer­tain” “the unex­pected” “the unex­pected” “not know­ing” and the “not approach­able” by leav­ing it for what it is. And don’t let the bur­den come to your inward life. Do not sup­press these in itself poten­tially unpleas­ant expe­ri­ences but let it fuel your wakefulness
  • And then, fol­low the sit­u­a­tion and fol­low the impulses that the sit­u­a­tion gives you
  • In the mean­time, you will have brief moments of act­ing, of know­ing, of being touched; be aware of them, allow them and at the same time train in a wake­ful­ness that ensures that you don’t get stuck into the believe that you have “the solu­tion”, the “approach” or “the method” (hence the orig­i­nal title for this piece was: the piece that should not be writ­ten, because before you know this has become a method for everything).

It requires a wake­ful­ness or “pre­pared­ness” to be able to do this in every­day life. I call that the con­stant work on the hygiene of per­cep­tion. What I mean by that is that the per­cep­tion can have its effect unen­cum­bered, with­out pres­sure. In another way said: the body is “empty” to receive and process the sig­nals unin­hib­it­edly. Hon­estly, I’m not sure how that works. I can indi­cate what I do: if infor­ma­tion “occu­pies” me I choose to take a time out in order to bring bal­ance or hygiene back by walk­ing, lis­ten­ing to music or “hang­ing out”. At a cer­tain point I expe­ri­ence a peace from which I can lit­er­ally work with­out dif­fi­culty with what I have become aware of.