THEOSOPHY, Vol. 88, Issue 3, March/April 2000
(Pages 119-125; Size: 14K)


[Article number (8) in this Department]

To develop spiritually, many sources say you must strengthen your will, but many also say that you have to surrender your will to a higher power. Which of these is correct?

Where is the defender of the defenseless? The grace of a god that provides deliverance? When we want something, particularly to change something or in the face of difficulties and distress, fundamental choices loom large in our path. At these times, many seek refuge or momentary respite. Advice to surrender or stand firm can be offered by anyone from a loved one to the nearest twelve-step program. Some of this advice tries to prod us from a perceived weakness or simply lets us know that we are not alone, whatever that may mean to us. Theosophy in particular emphasizes self-devised and self-induced progress and the responsibility of the individual to synthesize this knowledge internally and follow one's convictions. Knowing how or even whether this contradicts the sense of something bigger than ourselves is key to understanding the fundamental propositions theosophy fosters. The following voices offer some of their understanding of this advice -- of strengthening the will or giving it up -- along theosophical facets of inquiry.


The idea of turning one's will over to a higher power is found in the religious philosophies and holy books of both East and West. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to "Thy will be done" (Matthew 26.42) numerous times. In John 5.30, the Master says, "I can of my own self do nothing. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will, but the will of the Father who hath sent me." We find a similar spirit running throughout the Bhagavad Gita, sometimes referred to as the Hindu Bible. In the dialogue between Arjuna, the devotee, and Krishna, who stands for the Higher Self, as well as the highest power, Arjuna is admonished to sacrifice all actions unto Krishna. "He whose actions are for me alone, ... cometh to me." (Gita, ch. XI, p. 88.)

A seemingly contradictory line of thought runs through the teachings of East and West in these very same scriptures. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is within, and Krishna, after spending eighteen chapters in the Bhagavad Gita instructing Arjuna concerning the spiritual life, tells him, "Act as seemeth best unto thee." In other words, use your free will and find the source of action within yourself.

Theosophy sheds a unifying light on the above paradoxical points of view, first by pointing out that there is a higher power in life than can be discerned through the academic sciences, but that this power is within us as much as it is without. We have constant access to this higher power because it is our own spiritual nature and is not separate from the source of life, what in religious terms is usually called God. When we raise ourselves to a higher state of consciousness, we call forth the will, which by itself is colorless, and transform it into a conscious spiritual power. H. P. Blavatsky calls it the power of ideation. Second, the will cannot be cultivated except in one sense: we can develop the necessary conditions (within) for the dynamic use of the will.

The aphorism that behind will stands desire applies here. If we have a multitude of desires, the will is diffused. Singularity of purpose makes for a strong will. If we listen to our intuition and focus more on our spiritual inclinations, we will strengthen the will power to fulfill our aspirations. Also, through the development of mental concentration, we allow the will to be focused like a concentrated beam rather than a diffused light. And finally if our emotional (feeling) state is in harmony with our active ideation, the will is better brought forth. So we are advised to cultivate the conditions that will allow the will to be the activating engine of that higher power that is our own spiritual nature.


The general thrust, in the commonly accepted view pertaining to the will, is one of self-interest. This reflects the strong competitive mind of the age and has no bearing on the natural unfolding of the spiritual nature. What then should we know about the will in order to further express its action? In Notes on the Bhagavad-Gita, W. Q. Judge delineates the misconceptions as well as the major pitfalls resulting from this view:

It has been said in some Theosophical writings of the present day, that a "spiritualized will" ought to be cultivated. As terms are of the highest importance we ought to be careful how we use them, for in the inner life they represent either genuine, regulated forces, or useless and abortive things that lead to nothing but confusion. This term "spiritualized will" leads to error, because in fact it has no existence. The mistake has grown out of the constant dwelling on "will" and "forces" needed for the production of phenomena, as something the disciple should strive to obtain -- whether so confessed or not, while the real motive power is lost sight of. It is very essential that we should clearly understand this, for if we make the blunder of attributing to will or to any other faculty an action which it does not have, or of placing it in a plane to which it does not belong, we at once remove ourselves far from the real knowledge, since all action on this plane is by mind alone. (Notes, p. 35, 36.)
Searching through theosophical literature, we find very little mention of the will beyond the adage 'behind will stands desire.' In the same Gita passage, Judge describes will as "a pure, colorless force which is moved into action by desire. If desire does not give direction the will is motionless; and just as desire indicates, so the will proceeds to execute."

In a Path magazine article, "Answers to Questioners," Judge contrasts the worldly view with the occult view:

(1) The will as known to man is that force which he exerts for the accomplishment of his aims -- he uses it blindly and ignorantly -- and self is always the one for which he uses it. It is used as a brute force. As ordinarily used it has little tendency to lift the personality farther than the attainment of material results. ... The true will is a concentrated force working steadily yet gently, dominating both soul and person, having its source in the spirit and the highest elements of the soul. It is never used for the gratification of self, is inspired by the highest of motives, is never interposed to violate a law, but works in harmony with the unseen as well as the seen. It is manifested through the human will for things visible.

(2) It is more than a faculty of the soul, for it is the soul at work. The spirit is unmanifest except through the soul. The soul manifesting the spirit is the true will. The human will is the lowest form of this manifestation.

(3) As the true will is the manifestation of the spirit through the soul, it must be at one with the divine, inasmuch as the spirit is the divine in man. It is the God in man, a portion of the all-pervading. Asserting itself through the soul, the true will is brought forth and in truth we say, "It is the will of God." We may make our finite wills at one with the divine by elevating our aim, using it for good or in the search for God, ... By proper use in the right direction the human will becomes purified, elevated, and being exerted only in conformity with our highest ideal, eventually becomes at one with the highest in man.

In our ordinary material state we know only the human will. Through the human will we reach the divine will. We become aware of the true will through the ordinary will just as we become aware of the soul through the body. It is not instinctive of the soul. The soul is the father of the human will -- the spirit is father of the true will. (Judge Articles II, pp. 455-6.) [Note: For those who would like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to WQJ's "Answers to Questioners" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]

In the light of the foregoing remarks, the will is neither strengthened nor given up. We may access the will through our personal nature and more specifically through our desire nature. The highest expression of the will must be motivated by the highest altruistic desire. This then harmonizes it with the general will of nature, which is synonymous with the whole of life.


The key then lies in our dual nature. We have a higher, spiritual self (the individuality) that is immortal, that persists from life to life; and we have a lower, material self (the personality) that is mortal, that lasts but a single life. Each of these aspects of our nature has its own will. The will of the higher self is to love unconditionally, to sacrifice, to share, to help others, and to produce beauty. This will needs to be strengthened. The will of the lower self is to amass wealth, power and position; to hoard; to compete; and to harm others if they stand in our way. This will needs to surrender itself to a higher power -- surrender itself, that is, to the higher self, the higher will.

Each moment of our lives we face choices. For instance, as we are on our way to work one morning, we see an old man vainly struggling to cross the street. Do we hurry past him in order to get to work on time and to stay in the good graces of our superiors and maybe get a good raise at the end of the year? Or do we stop to help him and risk being late and possibly sacrifice job performance? That is, do we act for others (the higher will) or do we act for ourselves alone (the lower will)? Again and again we face these choices, and again and again karma brings us the result. Ultimately we face sorrow on the one hand, joy on the other.

As we evolve, we make less and less selfish choices and more and more selfless ones. As we do so, the lower will, by sacrificing itself, becomes one with the higher will, just as a grain of rice, by giving itself to be eaten, becomes one with the man eating it. And just as the man becomes stronger from the sacrifice of the grain, so the will becomes stronger from the sacrifice of its lower tendencies. Therefore, no contradiction inherently exists. The will is both surrendered and strengthened, only it is the lower will that is surrendered and the higher that is strengthened.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:

Reality is a flowing. This does not mean that everything moves, changes, becomes. Science and common experience tell us that. It means that movement, change, becoming is everything that there is. There is nothing else; everything is movement, is change. The time that we ordinarily think about is not real time, but a picture of space. 

--Henry-Louis Bergson

[Note: Here's the link to WQJ's article, entitled "Answers to Questioners", that was quoted from in the above article by one of the students. The entire article is on 28 pages of the book referred to, with answers compiled from many issues of The Path magazine, starting with the November, 1887 issue and running a few years up to the April, 1890 issue. The particular item that was quoted was in the second set of questions, from the December, 1887 issue.--Compiler]

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[Article number (9) in this Department]

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