A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

12. Chapter Twelve


1.         Physical Urges and Impulses


We all have natural bodily urges, which seemingly ‘force’ us to perform certain actions. But on closer analysis, they do not really leave us no choice at all, but present us with relatively little choice.

Our most manifest bodily urges relate to the digestive system. They are the urges to drink, to eat, to urinate and to defecate. Observing their course in detail, the following features are apparent in common to them all (at least in humans):

  1. We experience a set of physical sensations[1], which triggers the whole process. This may be called the stimulus. Thirst includes sensations of dry taste inside the mouth and throat. In hunger, the signal consists of distinctive pangs in the stomach (often with felt movements and audible sounds of the gastric juices). In urination, we have a recognizable feeling of liquid pressure in our sex organ. In defecation, feelings of bowel movement and overload inside the rectum are experienced. This sensation is normally a natural outcome of an objective state of affairs in the body: deficiency or excess of liquid or solid nourishment. However, it may also on occasion be aroused artificially, by mental images; for example, wondering whether one needs a pee before going to bed, one may begin to urgently feel like having one.
  2. We may moreover discern, more subtly, a sensation of sorts, occurring somewhere in our motor system, consisting of an impulse to act in a certain way. This secondary physical sensation is probably not a reflex, but an unconscious first reaction of the central nervous system. It signals that the appropriate (or usually requisite) organs of action are prepared to act in response to the stimulus. The muscles of our legs and arms are poised to grab drink or food, and our mouth is already salivating; or we are ready to run to the toilet. The impulse is thus a velleity to act (a natural reaction or one based on past behavior). However, in our present perspective, it serves as information rather than as action. It is perhaps what we may most closely identify with the ‘sense of having an impulse’.[2]
  3. When these sensations of stimulus and impulse come to our attention, they are evaluated by us in various respects:
    1. We assess a discomfort that needs to be gotten rid of. The more intense the discomfort felt, the stronger the urge.
    2. The degree of urgency involved is estimated, i.e. how quickly we must respond as urged to. The essence of ‘urging’ seems to be the time limitation it imposes on us; we are, as it were, under pressure of time. The stronger the urge, the less time it leaves us.
    3. We consider expedients, what might be done or not-done to deal with the matter at hand. Such evaluation depends not only on physiological considerations, but also on practical, psychological and social factors.

The practical issue might e.g. be: how easily or soon can we find nourishment, and what/where is it? Or how close is the nearest toilet? The psychological issue might, for instances, be: are we on a diet or a fast for some reason? Or: are the toilets here too smelly or dirty? The social issue might be: can we do it in public, is it ridiculous, approved, allowed or forbidden?

  1. Such various considerations in making a value judgment involve mental images – invoking memories, projecting possibilities, anticipating consequences. Finally, choices are sorted out and a decision is made by us. Our will is stirred into action, actualizing our present response.
    1. This may consist in retarding execution, by resisting our impulses – willfully not seeking nourishment or not going to the toilet.
    2. Or it may consist in responding, at the earliest or last possible opportunity, to obtain appropriate relief from the sensations, in a more or less convenient time, place and manner.
    3. Or we may hesitate or abdicate, letting nature eventually determine the course of events: progressively weakening us till we die of thirst or starve to death prematurely, or incontinently releasing our urine or feces in what may be the wrong time and place and eventually damaging some organ.

In the case of imminent danger to life, limb or health, we are instinctively extremely unlikely to do nothing about it: this improbability being what we commonly call ‘the will to live’.

  1. These different possibilities of response are, note well, all volitional. Whether we retard, preempt or abandon things to nature, we have made a choice, though one involving different effort inputs. Whatever it is, this is our response. However, any of these choices, and the above mentioned thought process leading to it, may be made with varying degrees of consciousness. It may be effectively ‘involuntary’ (i.e. involve a very minimum of consciousness) or more and more voluntary. Also note, the relevant events that preceded our volition, i.e. both (a) the cognitions of sensations and (b) the value judgments and the other considerations that went into them, are all influences on our will.
  2. An essential feature of these natural processes is that they are inertial, i.e. inevitable if not interfered with. If we do not respond appropriately to the signals our body sends us (thirst or hunger, or the urges to urinate or defecate), certain negative events eventually occur against our will: we may get sick and die, or soil ourselves. First, however, we may experience a mounting pressure of stimuli and impulses[3]. We may be able to prevent the natural event by application of will for quite a while. Then at some time, that choice is no longer given us, and we have to either promptly respond by an act of will that relieves the pressure, or face the inevitable natural event (whether weakness and death, or incontinence and sickness).
  3. It is the latter prospect of some untoward events that influences us to take preventive measures, at the first, or (at least) at the last, opportunity. That is, some mental images are the immediate cause of our eventual action, rather than the pure sensations that initially start the whole urge process. The closer the event feared gets, the more our mind is occupied by it, calling for relief. Although very physiologically centered, the essential theatre of such urge complexes is mental, and the action they result in is volitional. Moreover, note well, the categories of causality of causation, influence and volition are all involved.
  4. Furthermore, note, whether we obtain relief volitionally or against our will, sooner or later the same process starts all over again. We get thirsty, hungry; we drink, eat; we digest and fell the urge to dispose of the waste; we go to the toilet; pretty soon, we get thirsty and hungry again, and so forth. At least these digestive tract processes are cyclical (more or less daily), and go on throughout our lives to provide our body with energy and matter.

One further remark: it should be noted that the initial physical sensation is in some cases aroused by a prior thought (which in turn may have been brought about by some other sensation, and so on). For example: if before going to bed I ask myself whether I need to urinate, my attention goes down to my organ and this usually suffices to initiate a sensation of need that would probably have not been present or intense enough otherwise. Or again, I may feel no thirst till I see an advertisement for a drink. We shall return to this issue further on, when we consider mental urges.

Another powerful physical urge is the respiratory urge. Breathing (muscles pumping air rhythmically in and out of our lungs) is most of the time automatic. Occasionally, it becomes a more or less voluntary act. If air is lacking in the surrounds or our throat is blocked, one becomes aware of the difficulty of breathing and to some extent volitionally intensifies it. If stalked or stalking, one may find one’s breathing more marked and noisy, and perhaps try to control it so as to remain unheard by the enemy feared. In meditation, when one turns one’s attention to one’s breath, one’s initial tendency is to take over the function, as if obliged to breathe consciously; although after a while it is possible to observe the breath without affecting it. Also, it seems[4], one cannot willfully stop oneself breathing indefinitely: if one persists, one loses consciousness and the breathing mechanism takes over again.

The sex drive has two facets. Its basic function is reproductive. This is a milder, long-term urge, part of the general will to live, a will to survive in one’s descendants (as an individual[5], or a member of a certain family or race or species), perpetuating one’s genetic makeup. Here, the ‘discomfort’ to be removed may be the metaphysical fear of nonexistence, or the more conscious desire to obey an assumed Divine commandment. The time frame to fulfill that purpose is anytime after puberty and before natural loss of sexual potency or fertility, accidental organ damage or death – which is mostly understood to mean as soon as possible or convenient.

The sex drive also has a hedonistic component, which serves to promote the biologically primary reproductive function. This is a short-term urge, which can become very intense, not to say overwhelming. Here, the ‘discomfort’ to be removed is partly the pain of sexual tension, partly the hope of sexual pleasure. Sensations of physical lust arise in and around one’s sex organ at the sight of a potential sex partner, and the urge and excitement become more intense as the relation approaches consummation. The potential of reproduction is momentarily largely eclipsed by the immediate urge to engage in actual intercourse. One may control one’s timing (or even at the last minute for some reason disengage). Finally, one lets go and obtains relief in orgasm and ejaculation, until the next time around.

Among humans, the sex urge is strongest in adolescence and youth, and perhaps (apparently because of testosterone levels) more so in males than in females; these facts have biological utility. Of course, some older people and females seem considerably influenced by lustful feelings, but this may rather be a sign of emotional immaturity and gullibility towards media hype[6], than natural necessity.

People can, by willpower, altogether abstain from sex for years or even all their life[7]; this occurs under the influence of some common belief (e.g. Christian or Buddhist spiritual practice) or some personal peculiarity (e.g. a childhood trauma). A man may nevertheless have wet dreams. Some people temporarily or permanently ignore the reproductive aspect of sex, but are committed to its hedonistic aspect. Today, people may thanks to contraceptive pills and condoms engage in normal sexual intercourse without risk of conception, as promiscuously as they like. Some people satisfy their lust by masturbation. Some people go so far as to engage in child abuse, homosexual acts or even bestiality.[8]

A third aspect of the sex drive worth noting is more conventional than physical, being due to social pressure. This occurs in traditional society, based on the family; but also in modern society, which glorifies the appearance of sexual prowess. If one fails to fulfill social expectations, one may considerably lose face or be variously stigmatized. Such penalties are real enough, as one’s life-opportunities in society may be affected; so people generally comply. Exceptions may be granted, for instance to monks and nuns; indeed, in their case, the public regards any sexual interest as scandalous.

Any feeling of sickness urges us to identify the cause and find a cure, or at least to relieve the symptoms, or risk some untoward consequence(s). If we feel tired, our urge is to rest or sleep, till our energy returns, or risk collapse (e.g. at the wheel of our car). If we feel hot or cold, we have an urge to adjust the temperature of our body (e.g. by taking clothes off or opening a window, or putting a blanket on or turning the heater up); else, we start sweating or shaking, and lose energy, etc. If our skin surface is itching, we have the urge to scratch it, as if to remove the irritant; in some cases, the irritant (e.g. a biting insect) is in fact thus neutralized. In each such situation, our tendency is to avoid discomfort and eventual illness, and return to comfort and ensure health.

We may of course systematically preempt problems, rather than wait for them to arise and solve them – for example, by earning a living, and thus making sure in advance that one has enough money for basic needs such as nourishment, shelter, procreation or medical insurance. Clearly, such functioning goes beyond immediate physical urges, preparing longer-term responses to them. This is all an expression of the will to live. Some people care too little for the future, some too much.

So much for our analysis of the common bodily urges. Of course, much more can be said about such processes from a biological or medical point of view – for examples: digestive and respiratory urges relate to metabolism, temperature control relates to homeostasis, and so forth. While such knowledge is truly fascinating, and worth acquiring to obtain a fuller understanding, our approach here is simply phenomenological – how the individual directly experiences things and responds to them. In particular, we have tried to clarify in some detail the involvement of volition and influence in them.

The processes above described, despite some differences of detail, have largely similar features, so that we can propose a general definition of the concept of urge, at least with regard to humans (we may have to make adjustments with regard to animals). Our interesting finding is the extent to which what we call a bodily urge involves ‘mental’ components (presumably, these diminish ‘lower’ down the scale of animal life[9]). We are less driven by a physical force than by the prospect of some negative eventuality and the thought that the temporal window of opportunity to prevent it may close.

Moreover, although such urges relate to physical processes with eventual automatic outcomes, they allow for volitional interference, in the way of temporary resistance and some convenient preemptive measure.

The preemption may be positive or negative. In the case of urination and defecation, the event (call it X) that is minimally bound to occur if we do not interfere is incontinence, and its preemption consists in going to the toilet before that happens (i.e. it is also X). Likewise in breathing: the automatic and volitional acts have the same effect (bringing oxygen into lungs). In the case of thirst or hunger, the minimal event (X) is insufficient energy or matter, and its preemption consists in providing energy or matter soon enough (i.e. it is notX, the opposite). Likewise in reproductive sex: the danger faced is generational discontinuity, while the remedy is to procreate.

We might at this stage usefully distinguish between initial sensations emerging from natural bodily processes, like the digestive, respiratory and reproductive ones above described, and those due to some external physical stimulus. For instances: if a bright light flashes into our eyes, we blink, fearing damage to our retina; if someone is tortured, he may scream or cry, hoping to arouse pity in his torturer. It is useless to attempt an exhaustive list. Suffices to note that any sense organ(s) may be involved in the stimulus, and there are standard responses (though sometimes, creative responses may be called for).

A more radical distinction suggested by our above analysis is one between urges and mere impulses. Impulses, like urges, tend us on a certain course of action, and they can be resisted or indulged. However, whereas impulses can be resisted indefinitely without risking some untoward natural consequence, as we have seen this is not true of urges. Examples of impulses will serve to illustrate this differentia. If we hear some unpleasant noise, we rush over to stop it if we can. If we are tickled, our tendency is to wiggle as if to escape our tormentor. In such cases, note, our volitional response (resistance or preemption) has no very significant effect on our health or life[10].

We may use the word drive to mean ‘urges or mere impulses’. Often the distinction between urges and impulses is moot. Often, what appears as an urge can be construed as a mere impulse – for example, many of the above described hedonistic aspects of the sex drive. We may also classify habits or compulsions like smoking tobacco, the use of hard drugs or alcoholism as impulses. The failure to soon procure the desired drug may produce withdrawal symptoms (irritability, insecurity), making it seem like the impulse is an urge. Thus it seems to the victim’s befogged mind; but, biologically, the opposite is true – the drug is destructive. So in fact, if there is any urge, it is a natural urge to stop smoking or getting doped-up or drinking, or risk disease.


2.         Mental Urges and Impulses


Mental impulses and urges have logical constructions similar to physical ones, except that usually the initial stimulus is a thought (or discontent) rather than a sensation (or discomfort). For example, the above mentioned social convention aspect of the human sex drive is clearly a mental urge, rather than a physical one.

The dividing line between them is admittedly sometimes arbitrary. Often, a physical urge or impulse occurs following a thought. We have seen, for example, how the mere thought of urination may give rise to the sensation that triggers the urination urge; similarly, for instance, the mere thought of a cigarette may make the habitual smoker ‘feel like’ having one. Conversely, a mental urge or impulse may be kick-started by a prior sensation or perception. For examples, one heard someone say something or saw an ad on TV.

A good illustration of mental urge would be my urge to write this here book. It starts with a spontaneous, persistent thought. It is an urge, in that a time constraint is consciously involved – I constantly tell myself to finish the book before I die (and pray to be granted life enough). This distinguishes it from, for example, an impulse to buy a new car I saw tantalizingly advertised; although, having so hooked me, the salesman may try to induce in me an urge to buy it, by setting a deadline for a ‘special offer’ at reduced price or with extra features!

The production of mental impulses, and their upgrade to urges, are common practices of religious traditions; for example, a religion may teach that standard prayers or other rituals are necessary to salvation (impulse), and additionally institute set times for such rituals (urge). Similarly, the tax office sets a deadline for tax returns, and imposes a penalty if the task is not done on time. Such expedients are used by all secular ethical, social, legal or political systems, to promote duties and their timely exercise. In such cases, the terms ‘to impel’ or ‘to urge’ someone respectively mean ‘to cause an impulse or urge in’ that person – the causality involved being that of influence.

A mental impulse or urge is triggered by some distinctive memory (perceptual or conceptual), or an imagination (visual or auditory), or an emotion (a mood or psychosomatic sentiment or purely physical sensation), or a verbal proposition. These initial ‘thoughts’ may arise spontaneously, or through some intellectual process, or by mere association of ideas; or they may be generated by bodily influences or by perceived external physical events or persons. Beyond that stimulus, everything is analogous[11]. Impulses differ from urges in lacking temporal pressure. The time factor involved in urges functions by creating psychological stress, which makes us double up our efforts so as to get rid of the annoyance as soon as possible[12].

It is interesting to compare impatience to mental urgency. They have some affinity, although they are logically opposite in the sense that urgency is due to (assumed) insufficiency of time, whereas impatience signals (assumed) excess of time. Impatience arises when one feels that some process (e.g. waiting for one’s date) is taking more of our time than one is willing to devote to it. So one wishes to hurry it on, e.g. by being less careful or by inciting urgency in other people involved – and if it is out of one’s power to do so, one suffers stress. The time one has mentally allotted to the task is artificially (by wishful thinking) shorter than the time it really takes. An impossible (and needlessly stressful) urge is therefore produced to fit a process of longer duration in a time restriction of one’s own making.

A mental impulse or urge, like a physical one, involves a certain velleity to action, which may include specific muscular feelings; e.g. eagerness to play the piano may give rise to sensations in legs to go to the piano, and in hands to play it. An evaluation occurs, which determines our degree of desire or aversion, the urgency if any of its fulfillment, and the available ways and means. Choices are made and decisions taken, culminating in volitional acts – whether temporarily resisting the impulse or urge, or doing what it impels or urges us to do at an appropriate time and place, or letting things happen as they may.

Note that what classifies an impulse or urge as ‘mental’ is its assumed starting point – the eventual action(s) it drives us to do may be physical as well as mental. Thus, for instances, lust is an impulse to grab and kiss the girl, anger is an impulse to punch the guy’s face in – these are physical acts proceeding from a thought. Again, yearning for understanding is an impulse to study – the latter consisting mainly of mental acts.

Just as bodily urges are cyclical, their fulfillment bringing only momentary relief, soon after which they recur, so with many mental desires – they tend to be insatiable and unlimited. Thus, for instance, for most people, the more money they can get, the better; because even if they feel secure for today and tomorrow, there is always the day after and the one after that to worry about. Urges can thus become permanent prisons, if given free rein. The lover of wisdom would here suggest: If you identify with the urge, it dominates you; if you don’t, you can dominate it.

The passive connotation of the word drive (driven) should not be overemphasized, however. We should rather keep in mind that ‘drive’ rhymes with ‘strive’. One may actively drive oneself. Our mental urges and impulses are not just happenstance, or innate like most physical ones – they are generally acquired. They are furniture of our minds that we have often constructed and placed there[13] ourselves. Like the body, the mind is an instrument of the soul. An instrument is something that has some uses, though not infinite uses; something that can be useful, but also obstructive; something that has a nature, and is not infinitely pliable.

Thus, we may train ourselves – or be trained by others – to respond in certain ways to certain situations. This may occur consciously, in the way of ‘working on oneself’ – or it may be the natural effect of a long series of separate choices and acts, which together eventually constitute a habitual pattern of conduct. We may be fully aware of a drive, whether we approve or disapprove of it; or we may be subject to it while largely unaware of it as such, whether due to overall poverty of self-knowledge or because we have suppressed the specific knowledge to make room for some personal contradiction.

Indeed, we may be subject to conflicting drives, be they physical and/or mental. For example, one may have to risk one’s life to save a loved one. Impulses or urges are in conflict when it is naturally impossible to follow/fulfill them both. Urges are, moreover, in conflict, when the time required for their performance and their time limits makes it impossible for us to satisfy them both. In such cases, we have to become aware of the potential conflict, or else fail in both cases; and then we have to prefer one to the other, and in urgent cases make our mind up quickly enough to avoid actual clash. Sometimes the dilemma is paralyzing; in which case, nature follows its course.

When a person deals with such conflicts in a systematically irrational manner, making little effort to bring them out into the open and resolve them one way or the other, keeping them in the dark through fear of admitting unflattering traits or wishing to indulge in drives he or she knows to be unsuitable and harmful, the person is eventually subject to mental pathologies. Such repressive behavior over time may, for instances, give rise to chronic negative emotional states like anxiety, or to occasional ‘inexplicable’ outbursts of hatred and anger, or to excessive sleep and permanent fatigue, or to nervousness and hyperactivity, and so forth.

In all such cases, one can glimpse underlying conflicts that have to be faced, and resolved through appropriate thoughts and deeds. Mental drives are not permanent features once acquired. They can, more or less consciously, be attenuated and eventually eliminated, by making suitable choices over time – for instance, training oneself to respond differently to the same stimuli till such new response becomes ‘second nature’. Such changes usually require sensitivity, cunning, effort and time – they rarely just happen or can be produced by immediate will.


3.         Formal Analysis of Physical and Mental Urges


We analyzed in detail some basic bodily urges, and showed that similar features can be found in other physical urges and in mental urges, stating that these differ essentially only in the way our attention is drawn to them. Physical urges are triggered by certain sensations either originating in the body or caused by external objects, whereas mental urges spring from thoughts. We also noted that mere impulses differ from urges in lacking the factor of inevitability. Impulses involve stimulus and standard response, but no time limitation; there is tendency in them, but no urgency.

a.         To begin with, let us review (with new numbering) some of the salient features of physical urges and their closest mental analogues, with particular emphasis on aetiology:

  1. Some event is bound to eventually occur. This event, or at least its timing, is undesirable[14]. The time limit involved may not be known with any precision, but instead indicated by the increasing intensity of physical sensations. In the case of mental urges, the time frame is often emotionally highlighted, though it may have been intellectually estimated.
  2. But fortunately, the untoward event can voluntarily be slowed down for some time, or preempted. However, it cannot be indefinitely retarded, and the time allowance for its preemption is limited. As we have explained, preemption may be positive or negative. The consciousness involved in the volition may range from minimal (so-called involuntary) to maximal (fully aware).
  3. If the event or its time of automatic occurrence seems inopportune, the agent may be increasingly influenced by the prospect of such occurrence or mistiming to take some suitable voluntary steps to retard and/or preempt the event. Note the words inopportune, prospect, influence, voluntary and suitable – implying valuation, cognition and volition at various stages. Even in the case of physical urges, the central events are mental.
  4. The initial sensations or thoughts, that made the agent aware of the event, do not force him to act in any way; he may choose not to intervene. If the agent intervenes inappropriately or too late, or does nothing about it, the undesirable event occurs anyway, at whatever time natural circumstances happen to make it occur.
  5. Relieving an urge, whether by an act of will or by letting things happen by inertia, does not mean ridding oneself of it forever. After a while, it may reappear. This is particularly true of natural bodily urges, though it may even apply to mental urges.

This list suggests that urges can be formally defined through a series of statements, including modal categorical and conditional propositions. Thus, we might label the agent concerned A, and the event X, and so forth, and state concisely: “X will inevitably happen to A by time T, unless A retards such event (inertial X) by will for a while or until A preempts X by willing X (or notX, as the case may be) before X naturally occurs, etc.” However, the above detailed description serves as definition just as well.

Our analysis makes clear that an urge may be viewed as a ‘causal nexus’ – a series of causal relations of various kinds together forming a common pattern. The same is true to a lesser extent of an impulse; it has some of the components of an urge, but not the more pressing ones. Both are more complex than the relation of influence, which they involve among others.

What should be examined next is what we mean here by the modality “inevitable” – for it is clear that this term has many nuances.

  • In its strictest sense, we mean by it a natural necessity, something deterministically bound to occur eventually come what may. This sense would apply to the natural bodily urges earlier described; for instance, once we need to pee, we are eventually bound to. A more conditional version of same would be natural inertia, meaning: within a certain existing framework, the event is inevitable, but if this larger context is changed, the inevitability might not hold. For example, the patient will ‘surely’ faint if not fed, but that won’t happen if the patient dies.

It should be added that natural inevitabilities do not apply only to the body or its physical surrounds. The mental domain also has a ‘nature’ and so is subject to natural necessities and inertias. For example, if one behaves in certain foolish ways, one is bound to eventually suffer certain unpleasant consequences, like neurosis or madness.

  • The concept of inevitability can be further broadened with reference to artificial necessity, and further still with reference to artificial inertia. For examples: in a legal system, a penalty may be obligatory once sentenced, or it may be open to review. Clearly, such artificial inevitabilities apply in situations organized by someone’s volition (one’s own or some other persons’). They may be physical as well as mental; for instances, the penalty may be capital punishment, or it may be social stigma.

The concept of urge can further be broadened, by acknowledging the fact that the inevitability and/or its timing need not be real, as so far implied, but may be merely imagined. The urge, be it physical or mental, is based essentially on the agent’s assumption that there is inevitability (of whatever sort) and/or that the undesirable event will happen within a set amount of time. Such assumptions are sometimes justified, and sometimes erroneous – but in either case, the urge has the same stimulating power. Error is perhaps more common in the case of mental urges; but even bodily sensations and physical perceptions may be wrongly interpreted.

It follows from the above analysis that we can emancipate ourselves from physical and mental drives that we find inappropriate, provided we remain lucid. We should try to always be aware of the forces impinging upon us, identifying their nature and sources, checking their underlying premises, evaluating the benefits and dangers inherent to them, and confronting them if they need to be rectified. It is preferable to be proactive than reactive – as the saying goes “a stitch in time saves nine”.

As already stated, to insure personal freedom of action, it is necessary not to identify with the urges or impulses concerned, i.e. not to consider them as part of one’s essential identity. The object is not, however, divorcing oneself from one’s passions, or rigidly controlling them, out of fear of them. Internal harmony and peace, and ‘spontaneity’ and ease in action, are highly desirable. The most efficient way to find the right balance is through meditation: achieving inner calm, everything naturally falls into place.

Humans have free will – but that is a potential we have to daily actualize. Doing so, the self asserts its mastery of the house of matter and mind it inhabits.


4.         Are There Drives Within the Soul?


We may ask the question: are there spiritual urges and impulses, by analogy to physical and mental ones? Is the term spiritual appropriate, or are all non-physical ones mental?

A common early experience of meditation is that thoughts of all kinds (e.g. focusing on a sensation or memory or emotion; projecting a mental picture or sound; verbal discourse, anticipating, planning; etc.) seem to have a ‘momentum’ of their own – seemingly against our will. They are not (or not always) entirely involuntary, but often (if not always) involve some voluntary mental activity – and yet we do not have instant and total control over them (at least not till we reach a certain level of mental calm through meditation).

This is a paradoxical experience, which needs to be explained. How come human will does not have immediate and full control over the mental if not material functions at its disposal? Why can I not stop mental turbulences at will, and get on with my meditation? What is it below the surface that drives thought, making it semi-automatic if not completely hectic? How do obsessions, and more broadly compulsions, work?

The mind, as well as the body, would seem to have its own mechanistic inertia. Our primitive response in the face of such impulses is to ‘follow’ them, doing what they impel us to do. The soul (through its free will) tries gradually to gain ascendancy over these naturally moving mechanisms, i.e. to resist them and become more autonomous. At first, only some aspects may be immediately accessible to willful interference. As we become more calmly focused on the spiritual self, and cease to identify with mind and matter, we are able to more and more control them. Control is not a matter of greater force, but of finding the correct point of leverage.

If we grant the postulate of freewill, that the soul’s modus operandi is always and exclusively volitional, it means we reject any notion that inertia or coercion are possible in the ‘spiritual’ domain, i.e. within the soul. It is therefore an assumption that all involuntary events occur outside the soul (in body or mind, or beyond them in the rest of the world), never in it. This implies that, although it is cognitively receptive, the soul in itself has no ‘passions’ of volition. Influences make a direction of will ‘easier or more difficult’ for the soul, but do not literally push or pull it in any direction.

This theory may make our inner life seem extremely bland and dispassionate, and some may well wonder if it is accurate. They will argue that we do seem to have drives, pressing on us or drawing us hither and thither. It does appear that there are influences that do not merely increase or decrease the effort requirement of our volitions, but which at least are programmed to occur unless voluntarily stopped. If that is true, then the soul might be said to have ‘real’ drives, at least in the way of internal ‘inertial processes’ (if not causative necessity).

But the issue is: are such (seemingly) ‘spiritual inertias’ really occurring in the soul, or in its physical and mental surrounds? I very much doubt that any such inner impulse or urge could move the soul into acts akin to volitional acts even with the soul’s acquiescence (let alone with determinism). The soul’s typical ‘acts’ seem to me such that they can only be performed by the active will of the soul. I suspect the nature of these acts is such that only the soul can carry them through to completion.

However, to be clear, we have to distinguish here between the soul’s willing (positive) from its totally not-willing (negative). Otherwise, we would have to assume the soul is always obliged to will, whether a positive or a negative goal. It would never be at rest, never uninvolved. This would not be a true picture of our inner life. When the soul positively ‘acts’ (either willing or deliberately not willing), it creates something new in and for itself. But obviously, when the soul ‘does nothing’, it still has some description – viz. the way it happens to be thus far. The latter situation is not to be counted as ‘inertia’ in the above sense.

If we carefully analyze situations involving drives, such as the ‘hard to control’ thoughts mentioned above, we find that the events that are ‘inertial’ are entirely in the realm of causation, in body and/or mind, i.e. outside the soul. For instances, speaking out or imagining something. In such cases, there is a natural process in the nervous system or in the rest of our body that, either in general or in certain specific circumstances, is bound to occur, unless the soul volitionally interferes and stops such a development. The soul’s volition, or abstinence from volition, is entirely in the realm of the soul; whereas the precise inertial event, whether it is allowed to proceed or prevented, is entirely outside the soul.

In truth, even our most subtle feelings, such as the positive and negative moods or esthetic responses that poetically put seem to permeate our very soul, do not really occur in the soul proper but in the adjacent mind. Although very subtle, they are still internally perceived phenomena, and not intuited experiences. Therefore, they act on the soul like all other influences, making its volitions easier or harder, but are not essentially within it.

Though hard to prove with finality, this doctrine seems more probable. However, see the further reflections below, which give more consideration to the different ways consciousness is implicated in volition.


5.         Formal Analysis of Spiritual Urges


We have just considered where in the psyche seemingly inertial events like obsessions and compulsions might be located, and concluded that they could not be assumed as spiritual (i.e. in the soul) consistently with will and its freedom, but must be regarded as mental. This, as we shall now show, suggests certain formal differences in some mental drives.

There is a special class of mental urges, which deserve particular attention. As we saw earlier, the volitions we call ‘unconscious’ or ‘inadvertent’ are so called, not because they lack all consciousness or deliberation, but because they have a very minimum of it. The adjective ‘involuntary’ is paradoxically applied to certain of our volitions, only hyperbolically in the way of self-reproach for insufficient attention, not meaning literally to imply total non-volition.

We may on this basis construct a logical form of urge that, instead of opposing natural or artificial inevitability (necessary or inertial, real or imagined) to voluntary retardation or preemption, opposes an agent’s so-called involuntary (i.e. minimally conscious) will to the same agent’s voluntary (i.e. more conscious) will. By this means, we are at last able to clearly formalize the ‘spiritual inertias’ most of us experience daily in our thoughts and actions. We can thus explain why obsessions and compulsions seem to occur by themselves although they obviously involve will; and even against our better judgment, although we are essentially beings with freewill.

Our proposition is that although such urges do involve consciousness and will, more effort of consciousness and will is needed to prevent or stop them than to start and continue them.

A habitual routine involves consciousness and will, but it is relatively effortless compared to the investment called for by any attempt to overcome it, so we repeat it on and on and thus reinforce it. This explains the analogy between ‘spiritual’ inertias and natural inertia: an extra effort is required to transcend them. Just as in the realm of causation, the inertial goes on until if ever diverted by volition, so in the realm of the soul, there are situations where less demanding volitions proceed unless or until more effort is invested. We might thus refer to ‘volitional inertia’, or keep using the term ‘spiritual inertia’ to stress the agent’s responsibility in the implied indulgence.

Thus, here, (1) instead of referring as above done to some event that is “bound to eventually occur”, we refer to a relatively ‘involuntary’ volitional activity; and (2) whereas the former would be “voluntarily slowed down for some time, or preempted”, the latter would be relatively more voluntary (i.e. require more effort of consciousness and volition). In both cases, (3) mental events determine the response. And, finally, (4) if the response is “letting things be”, the event that occurs here is continuation of the ‘involuntary’ behavior; after which (5) the whole cycle may resume. The analogy is manifestly apposite, allowing us to use the term ‘urge’ in both cases.

These specific mental urges may be distinctively called ‘spiritual urges’, for the reason already stated. We can then (briefly) define such urge in formal terms, as follows.

Agent A has an urge to will W” means “if A does not voluntarily will notW, then A involuntarily wills W”, where ‘voluntary will’ refers to conscious volition and ‘involuntary will’ refers to subconscious volition, i.e. volition with the minimum amount of awareness needed to perform it and no more. It is logically obvious (since W and notW cannot both occur at once) that “if A does voluntarily will notW, then A does not involuntarily will W”, so this need not be added.

I would like to emphasize the importance of this finding. Having previously formalized physical and mental urges and impulses, and here spiritual ones, we can now safely assert that in all human drive contexts, the agent retains freewill and responsibility. Until now, a doubt could subsist, because vagueness of conception allowed some theorists to give the impression that the agent could be essentially passive and therefore unaccountable. But our descriptions show that his personal involvement is quite conceivable, and thus serve to confirm it.

For example, Freudian theorists subdivide the person into conflicting forces, segments or entities – the ego, id and superego; or the conscious, subconscious and unconscious; and such like – in an effort to explain various behavior patterns and psychological effects. However, though such concepts may well serve a useful therapeutic purpose[15] out of context, from a broader philosophical point of view they are counterproductive, because they needlessly split up the self into impersonal heterogeneous fractions, and thus put in doubt the soul’s fundamental liberty and accountability. Thus, such theories ultimately obstruct explanation, stopping us from asking how the unitary self may function in conflicting ways.

The scenario of spiritual urges is, to repeat, as follows: some involuntary will W is about to be or has been put in motion; but the opposite notW can still be voluntarily willed; the agent is increasingly influenced by the undesirable prospect of W, until he voluntarily wills notW. In other words: W seems desirable at first sight (due to the little effort of cognition and evaluation expended), and the agent naively pursues it (using minimum consciousness); then the agent (suddenly investing more effort of consciousness and will) reviews the situation and revises his estimate of the desirability of W, preferring notW; this influences him to make the extra effort of consciousness and will to pursue notW, instead of W. Note that notW logically signifies anything that is contrary to W.

The direction of will W need not in itself be harder than notW; the opposite may in fact be the case. However, W may be initially preferred by default, in the way of an instinct, while notW requires intelligent reflection. That is, W may be the first choice because it is more manifest, so that one tends to attach to it unthinkingly, without comparing it to others; while notW has to be sought out to be noticed.

Notice that our brief definition does not mention the awareness of something influencing A to will W or notW. The involuntary will of W may have one set of influences (say, I) and the voluntary will of notW may have another set of influences (say, J). Among the latter (J) may be a dawning ‘self-awareness’ by A of his involuntarily willing or about to will W; the agent may then realize he does not want to proceed further in that direction, and voluntarily will notW instead. However, the influences labeled J may equally well exclude such self-awareness and the ensuing negative motive, and be concerned with some entirely other purpose and a more positive motive.

Therefore, although the involuntary or voluntary volitions involved in ‘spiritual’ urges, as all other acts of will, may be facilitated or made more difficult by various influences, the latter are not central to the logic of such urges. The essence of such urge is that an unconscious willing is incipient (a velleity) or ongoing (actual action has started), and that this proceeds until and unless hindered (prevented or reversed) by an opposite and more mindful act of will. Therefore, these urges as such are not necessarily influences.

One may or may not notice what one is doing, before doing the opposite. The agent need not cognize his impulsive act (the unconscious willing) to awaken his counteraction (the mindful will). Although such extra awareness may on occasion make the latter easier, it may in some cases make it more difficult and in other cases have no influence at all.

A spiritual urge constitutes an ‘objective’ situation, in the sense that the agent, although essentially free, has somehow become locked into a certain course of action, from which he cannot extricate himself without a special effort of consciousness and will. This is more constraining than the situation of influence, which does not imply any prior commitment or engagement.

The velleity or actuality of the involuntary will involved in such urge of course does have causes. The main cause is the soul’s initial choice or decision to will in the direction concerned; this may be referred to as self-programming. This initial posture or performance may well be – indeed is likely to be – influenced by mental or material considerations. The latter may be the natural alignment of phenomena (terms and conditions), or phenomena more or less intentionally set up by some other agents (for example, commercial advertisers or political propagandists or ‘social engineers’).

The resistance or counteraction to spiritual urge, i.e. the voluntary will in the opposite direction, similarly has causes. The main cause is the agent, asserting or reasserting his freedom, either losing interest in the initial will or gaining interest in the new will. Each of these options may as usual involve various supportive or adverse influences, which may again be natural or social phenomena. Finally, the soul deliberately wills to dominate and deprogram its previous will.

Whereas rectifying improper physical and mental drives constitutes a struggle of the soul against forces relatively external to it, revising improper spiritual drives signifies a struggle between the soul and itself. By preferring consciousness to carelessness, we take responsibility for our actions and attain self-mastery.


Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004), Chapter 12.



[1]           Sensations are of course impossible to describe in words, being primary phenomena. All we can do is allude to them through familiar expressions and analogies. Furthermore, my descriptions here are probably incomplete: thirst and hunger may include oral sensations I cannot pinpoint. Also, in some cases, sensations vary in detail: for example, more liquid feces give a different sensation than more solid ones. Sensations are also registered as distinctive: e.g. hunger differs from pain due to indigestion or intestinal grippe; or the sensations relating to urination differ from those in sexual desire.

[2]           I extrapolate this assumption from a common experience in my meditations: as I approach the last few minutes of my regular period of meditation, I often feel a strong impulse to get up. Such “okay, time’s up!” signal is worth resisting, by refusing to identify oneself with it, so as to get the full benefit of the sitting.

[3]           In truth, in the case of thirst and hunger, the feelings may abate after a while. This is evident when I fast for a day; I do not know what happens beyond that. In such cases, the initial signals from the body are only a temporary warning, whose memory must suffice to influence us to appropriate action.

[4]           See Curtis and Barnes. p. 408.

[5]           Here, I refer to the Jewish belief that one’s children are continuations, extensions in time and space, of oneself. But we may also refer to the Buddhist teaching that sexual desire is the motor of cyclic existence, because through that desire one engages in all sorts of pursuits that increase karma and thus generate one’s rebirth.

[6]           The claim that sex, in whatever guise or form, is a necessity for mental hygiene and physical wellbeing has become widely accepted in our culture as fact. But, judging by its observable negative effects on personality and society, this claim should in my opinion be reviewed.

[7]           Even animals do not all satisfy their sex urge (at least I assume so, observing that in many groups a dominant male monopolizes all the females).

[8]           Needless to say, by listing such proclivities I do not mean to condone them.

[9]           However, there must be some mental component. Consider, for instance, why a housebroken dog holds back from doing its thing indoors – it must have some memory of its master’s disapproval of soiling the home.

[10]          Though it could be argued that even an unpleasant noise or sensation is somewhat threatening.

[11]          As we shall see further on, some mental drives have other differences from physical ones.

[12]          Note that often two or more urgencies may be superimposed within a same time frame, increasing our stress tremendously, because we are forced to prioritize.

[13]          This is said in a common manner of speaking. Drives are of course ‘stored’ in the brain, as discussed earlier, in the section on therapeutic psychology (chapter 8.3).

[14]          E.g. in hunger or thirst, lack of nourishment is undesirable, whereas is incontinence it is not the waste disposal that is undesirable but its timing.

[15]          Which I tend to doubt, since as far as I can tell such a disintegrated vision of the psyche is likely to produce psychological conflicts.

Go Back


Blog Search

Blog Archive


There are currently no blog comments.