“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
That’s according to Mahatma Gandhi — one of many famous speakers on the amorphous concept of the human will. The notion that we have control over our mind and its actions may be intangible, but we’ve all had experiences that test it: finishing a marathon, studying for an exam, getting up each morning to go to work, saying no to a piece of cheesecake. If you’re anything like me, sometimes you probably feel you could use an extra helping of this inner strength. In his new book, Your Inner Will: Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times, author and psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci delves in to just that.
Ferrucci begins with a discussion of fate and predetermination versus free will and self-governance. “Not to acknowledge the will impoverishes and weakens us,” he writes. “To discover and cultivate it can offer huge advantages and produce great personal and social changes — with one caveat: The will is not a given. We do not start out strong and free.”
As he points out, we are the product of numerous factors: genes, history, and life circumstances, to name a few. Nonetheless, Ferrucci believes that we can all work to slowly and surely build up our will. “To cultivate inner strength is a goal basic to our mental health,” he writes. “And it is the work of a lifetime.”
To begin, Ferrucci explores the many ways we feel trapped, whether it be by passively accepting the direction of others or by being too fearful to make our own decisions. Sharing an observation from his practice as a psychotherapist, he remarks that imprisonment is a common metaphor for his clients — and it reveals more than they realize. Ferrucci often asks them to visualize where they are being held captive and to describe what it looks like.
While the details may vary, he writes — the size of the cell, the caliber of the bars, the degree of distress they feel — “the remarkable aspect of this visualization is that in almost every case the door is easily opened.”
Thus, while people may feel held captive by some aspect of their lives, Ferrucci writes, “deep down they know they are free.”
Wait! you might be thinking. I have lots of responsibilities: kids, job, monthly rent. I can’t exactly leave everything and run to find freedom. In fact, Ferrucci would likely agree with you. Rather than advocate for radical change, he argues for a more subtle inner shift that involves recognizing where our free choice exists and exercising it. He encourages us to “step back from everything inside us that is able to control, distract or oppress us.” This “return to one’s center” is the subject of the following chapter, which focuses on finding that needed inner tranquility amid life’s chaos — no easy task.
Further chapters explore our capacity to change ourselves, autonomy, mastery, and integrity, to name a few subjects, and each is rich with stories. In addition to personal narratives — both from the author’s life and the lives of his clients — Ferrucci includes mythology and folklore surrounding the idea of the will along with writings from philosophers and various religions. When he combines this with current research on the neuroscience of choice and will, it helps show how we have thought about this concept over the course of thousands of years.
For example, in his chapter on finding your center, Ferrucci includes both a twenty-five-century-old thought experiment created by Plato as well as recent studies by researchers at UCLA and Penn State. “For millennia we have exercised inner strength — struggling against all kinds of discomforts, enduring famine and risk of death, venturing into the unknown, risking our lives daily, attempting the impossible,” Ferrucci writes.
So, clearly we have been theorizing about will for a while. But can eons of theories help you get ready for a road race?
One important premise of the book is that your inner strength is indeed something that can be cultivated. As Ferrucci puts it, “No one is a static entity, and we can all develop potentialities we lacked before.” To this end, he offers exercises with each chapter. They include practices you’ve likely heard about before and may already be doing, such as breathing, mindfulness, and meditation, so if you are well versed in these concepts you may find them somewhat elementary. Still, I found them relevant and well constructed when paired with each chapter.
Plus, even Ferrucci acknowledges the limitations of this type of work. “You will not find quick and miraculous recipes here,” he writes.“We do not acquire a new strength overnight. This task needs patience, and the humility to acknowledge our own weak points.”
With that in mind, I am going to bed. The marathon training starts tomorrow.
Your Inner Will: Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times
Tarcher, September 2014
Hardcover, 288 pages