The Will to Survive Free Will | Emily Hightower

Issue# 39


Everything in nature is imbued with a natural will. Trees grow, birds migrate, lions hunt, zebras run. Nature doesn’t need will power programs or tools to ‘Survive the Holidays’ and set New Year’s Resolutions that ‘finally stick!’.

What is it about human will that requires so much effort? I think it lies in our relative comfort that disconnects us from nature’s realities. Somehow the very consciousness that allows us to create art, architecture, video games, and microwaves is the same part of us that has to summon will power to curate behaviors in our own best interest against these very forces of comfort we’ve created. If we don’t, we succumb to natural laws of obesity, addiction, and disease in a way no other species on earth demonstrates; unless we cage them in our zoos, or hook them on our garbage denying them access to their nature.

This makes me think of one of my favorite shows, Alone, where contestants are dropped in the wilderness to film themselves in a survival challenge where the last one standing wins a giant pot of money. I lounge fireside with a mouthful of steak watching people hunt, gather, build shelter, and starve for money. It’s a favorite of mine, so don’t get me wrong. I deeply respect these people who love the wilderness and have trained their survival skills. It’s just ironic that the entire time they have a satellite phone in their pocket for an instant bailout if they decide it’s not worth it. It is a ‘reality show’ that we watch to find some piece of missing reality that even the contestants aren’t really facing.

What usually gets them to tap out in the end is that they are struggling, alone. For hundreds of thousands of years we were pulled by an innate will to survive with similar skills, but we did it together, or we didn’t make it. You’re here because your own ancestors won that challenge. Now we recreate survival situations for entertainment, and the suffering gains money to spend on comforts in order to survive modern stress with more perceived ease. Often the monetary goals for contestants are tied to helping out a family, or building a survival school; something beautiful that can come from the suffering. Their will power is connected to bettering their lives and those they love. That can get people moving. But for most, no monetary reward is big enough to keep them from the companionship of others long enough to win.

What would it take for you to survive alone in the wilderness for 100 days, assuming you had the basic skills? Would your will power shift depending on what’s at stake? Despite the shit I talk from my living room, I would likely last a month tops before I convinced myself I was deeply needed back home (and oh how wrong I would be.) That is, unless you changed the rules to say stay for 100 days or someone I love back home would get badly hurt. Then I could summon some crazy will. I would figure it out or die trying.

In survival situations or when the stakes are high, will comes naturally to do hard things. When it comes to needing New Year’s Resolutions and tools to “Survive the Holidays”, we clearly struggle to find the will to act on behalf of our health in modern life. Like wild animals hooked on garbage at a landfill. Do we need sat phones in our pockets to bail us out of the family gathering? When the holiday spread is filled with too many temptations and a cousin pours another drink we planned to limit? “This is Emily. I can’t resist the alcohol and sugar. I’m tapping out.”

Who is going to bail us out when our will power for daily health fails? There’s no monetary reward if you follow your diet plan for the New Year. And if there were, statistics say that your eventual reward will be to yo-yo back to the weight you had before your plan was executed. Health come from steady behaviors over time, and these require something more than white knuckling it through workouts and past dessert tables.

So where does innate will come from? Often it springs forth after a health scare of some kind. We ignored the costs of unhealthy behavior until the bill came due, or we just drew a bad card. Now we’ll move mountains to get our health back. This is that slap in the face of reality that reminds us that nature does not in fact care about our goals, body image, and identities. If we don’t have the will to do things that give us health, nature plays out a consequence over time.

So, why can’t we just do what we know feels good in the long run without being rudely awakened to nature’s indifference? How can we find our will in a disconnected, comfortable society?

Disconnection is a comfort wild creatures know nothing about. For our coddled modern selves, reconnection requires time and attention that is hard to come by when you’re comfortably numb and distracted. And that’s just it. Maybe the next frontier of human evolution is facing the slow decays of comfort and disconnection to reclaim balance through the strange gift we have called Free Will.

Let’s regroup.

Innate Will: requires no tending. Driven by intrinsic forces like love or survival that drive behavior.
Will Power: requires curating. Implies we are fighting against something. Often found through discipline for external rewards. Often short-lived.
Free Will: the ability to choose.

Can Innate Will be stoked? If so, can we use our Free Will to stir it without the struggle and yo-yo effects of will power plays? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be moved by innate will to behave in ways that expand health, connection, and sustainable balance for ourselves and the planet without having to be scared awake to do it?

This is where Free Will meets another seemingly singular human gift: Voluntary Breath. When we become aware of our breath, we start to alter it. From there we can travel on a continuum of awareness to control and actually coax different states of consciousness in the process. We can slow or speed up our brain waves, connect to our physical body, participate with intention in our environment inside and out. When we combine our free will with the gift of voluntary breath, we now have something called a Practice. A breath practice reconnects us to presence and reality. From there we can be moved from innate forces that I trust are well guided when compared to following some external plan of determined will to get somewhere else. Why trust that? When we are present, we are connected to the same forces that tell geese to migrate south in the winter and crocus to burst through snow in spring. We just know. We are moved. If we force our will to power us out of where we are, we are driven instead of guided. That drive has caused each of us a lot of suffering.

In all of this, there’s a realization that the will to survive is innate, but can we survive the passive will to always be comfortable? Can we survive the knowledge that we have free will and are in choice? Can we meet that choice with practices to reconnect, drop the forceful idea that we need determination to get somewhere else, and instead breathe the reality of our temporary lives to be moved into right actions?

I have plenty of vices and addictions to study these concepts through. The wild species around us are acting on instinct, without judging themselves for their behaviors. For us, we have choices to make. Take it, or leave it. We’re only human, after all.