Physical Intelligence and Will

Note:  This article was originally published in 2003 and updated in 2004.

Considering the number of books in print, there has been surprisingly little published about “Will.” There are different kinds of will, and for the purpose of this article, I’ll refer to “lower will” and “higher Will.” Lower will, like intention, concerns taking the time to do something that requires effort. Examples of this include working out at a gym if you want to get in better shape, changing your eating habits if you want to lose weight, practicing yoga or tai chi, meditation, or changing how you express yourself if you don’t want your anger to unnecessarily offend other people.

Higher Will is not something we can train, but is something that appears after we’ve worked to develop lower will. If we’re mindful, if we’ve done our inner work, if we’ve been increasing our lower will by engaging effort and learning how to express ourselves in an emotionally healthy way, we become more aligned with our true nature. If we’ve done this work, when we’re challenged and our “buttons get pushed,” we don’t always have to figure out or plan what to do or how to respond, but “Higher Will,” which I would also call a form of “grace,” can take over, and we easily and naturally do the right thing.(1)

Motivation to change encourages us to develop our will. The effort is worth it if we’re interested bettering our lives. After reading Roberto Assagioli’s book, The Act of Will (2), Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ(3), and Tara Bennett Goleman’s book, Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart(4), it seemed to me that a crucial step was missing. It wasn’t clear how lower will could be developed so that it would impact the ability to make lasting change.

As a kinesthetic learner with a background in professional dance, teaching, choreography, transpersonal psychology and the Enneagram, I felt compelled to develop a system that translates emotional energy into physical energy that teaches people how to train and trust the body’s intelligence. [At the time of writing this article in 2003, I called this approach “Physical Intelligence,” or PQ, representing one’s Physical Quotient, rather than IQ which represents one’s Intelligence Quotient. Revising this in 2014, I am now calling this work Body Wisdom, listening to the body’s wisdom in a way that changes the brain and supports desired change. It is a combination of EnneaMotion and Somatic Focusing. Other articles describe these bodies of work in depth.]

Physical Intelligence includes EnneaMotion which uses movement to explore the energy of each of the Enneagram types. Because this process uses movement, it engages both sides of the brain for “whole-brain learning” and creates new neural pathways for easy expression of the gifts of each of the personality types. This literally increases one’s emotional range, flexibility and fluency, the components of emotional intelligence (EQ). These exercises increase our PQ, and that increases our EQ.

This gives us the ability and flexibility to respond to whatever life challenges we encounter in a way that best serves the situation. For example, when a situation requires you:

  • to be a leader and to take charge, you can respond in an “Eight-like” way.
  • to be patient and bring together opposing points of view, you can respond in a “Nine-like” way.
  • to take quick action and get the task done, you can respond in a “Three-like” way, etc.

Applying PQ gives us tools for managing emotional energy. This often means expressing our reactivity in a way that we can be heard without alienating the person we’re talking to, it means speaking in a timely manner, and with the appropriate amount of energy, ie not yelling and screaming which often doesn’t produce the results you want.

Brian science has shown us that there is a moment between the impulse to take action and when the action itself is taken.

In my experience, the missing link in the development of will is the relationship between personality and the body. Our mental states influence our physical actions as much as physical actions influence our minds and moods. This means that we can make change by not just thinking about it, or wanting to feel differently, but also by training the body to move in ways that are unfamiliar.

My students and clients have reported making leaps in personal growth from using PQ techniques that were surprising to them, including a Five who found herself behaving in a very social, amiable way at her three-year old daughter’s birthday party, a Two who found a new kind of courage in the face of fear after 9/11 that gave her the strength to support others.

Our Enneagram types (see thumbnail descriptions at end) imply that we have certain strengths that can also be our downfall due to overuse. Strengths become habits from years of experience. Their familiarity becomes a crutch as we react without thinking; the ease of  drawing on them causes them to be on “automatic-pilot,” which can become a trap. This happens when we’re not being mindful, and when we’re on automatic pilot, we’re not present and not responding to life with fresh eyes. It might serve us better if we could tailor our responses to the circumstances. It may be that when someone is ill, a generous and caring Two-like response would best serve the moment. Or if someone is frozen with anxiety, one may need to respond like a peaceful Nine.

Mindfulness, Change and The Magic Quarter Second

When we want to make a change in our lives, we first become aware, or mindful of what it is we want to change. This is what allows us to notice our “no-longer-desired-behaviors” so that we can stop one of them before we take action. When we’re on automatic pilot, after a disturbing emotion has been triggered, and we’re about to engage our “no-longer-desired-behavior,” that impulse flows automatically into action. (See Figure 1.)

There are many benefits of mindfulness meditation. Besides relaxation and training the ability to focus attention, it also trains the ability to notice without judging. By noticing the breath, the sounds in the room, the smell of the air, the temperature, thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc., without judgment, and then letting go of needing to focus attention on those things, we release our attachment to them or to the story about them. When we learn how to do this with our emotions, to observe them without judgment, without the story, and to let them go, we eventually learn that we don’t have to respond in any set way. We become more emotionally flexible.

In her book, Bennett-Goleman describes the work of neurosurgeon Benjamin Libet. His discovery suggests:

“…mindfulness can be such a powerful method of bringing intelligence to our emotional lives. Because the brain has no nerve endings–and so feels no pain–and because neurosurgeons need to be sure they have not inadvertently strayed into the wrong area of the brain, patients do not get a full anesthesia during brain surgery, but remain awake and aware. This allows them to speak or move a part of the body to let the surgeon know that all is well.

“Taking advantage of this unusual opportunity, Dr. Libet did a simple experiment: He would ask patients during surgery to move their finger. He used an ingenious clock face that tracked time in thousandths of a second, allowing the patients to note the time with extraordinary accuracy. This way they could report the precise moment when they became aware of the urge to move the finger.

“In short, it let him separate the moment of intent to move, from the moment of awareness of that intent, from the moment of actual action.

“…the brain begins to activate an impulse prior to the dawning in our awareness of the intent to make that very action.

“Once the person is aware of the intent to move, Libet discovered, there is another quarter-second before the movement begins. This window is crucial: it is the moment when we have the capacity to go along with the impulse or to reject it.”
— Tara Bennett-Goleman
Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart(5)

This quarter-second window is the Magic Quarter Second. This quarter second is what I call the “Choice Point,” and where I believe Will resides.

Once we’ve developed our mindfulness to a point where we can notice the intent to act, we find ourselves poised at the choice point. If we’re mindful, we might ask “What do I do instead?” or “How do I do something different?” It’s difficult to change a behavior pattern even though it may no longer serve us. We can’t change who we are, or our Enneagram type; our emotional and behavior patterns are habituated from a lifetime of use and etched into our psyche. It’s much easier to travel a paved path than to forage through unchartered territory: “Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously. In this way, habits are formed. They can be compared to streets and roads; it is so much easier and more convenient to walk along a street than to force one’s way through the undergrowth of uncultivated land.

“‘Gustave Le Bon, in his book La Psychologie de l’education, goes so far as to state that ‘education is the art of making the conscious pass into the unconscious’.”
— Roberto Assagioli
The Act of Will(6)

Neural Pathways

Neural pathways are the channels through which information travels between the brain and body. A neural pathway begins with a message, thought or impulse from the brain, with a feeling, or an action you take, something you “do.” Each thought, feeling or action has a message that travels along neurons, dendrites, axons, muscles, neurons, neuron peptides, molecules, receptors, pherons, membranes, and connective tissue. They communicate a message to appropriate muscle groups which then engage the body in the desired action.

Messages also flow in the opposite direction along the same neural pathways. A physical sensation, like touching a hot stove, sparks a series of messages. The muscles enervate the nerves, and the nerves send a message to the brain — PAIN. The brain returns a message along the same neuron pathway — “Remove your hand — NOW!”

The body is intelligent and this series of messages is communicated quickly, fluidly, and unconsciously. This example is part of the automatic nervous system. Distinct from that, but equally important, are neural pathways that are trained to perform special actions like activities of daily living, doing sports, and expressing emotion.

An infant learning to drink from a cup demonstrates the effort in the development of a neural pathway (lower will). At first unable to grasp the cup, eventually the infant will lift it to his lips, only to miss and dribble the milk all over his face and onto the bib. With repetition, this neural pathway is trained, and the infant eventually will drink without spilling. By the time we’re adults, we’ve engaged this pattern so many times it has become unconscious, and we can even read the newspaper, hold a conversation, and drink a cup of coffee without spilling.

We have equally well-developed neural pathways for all our thoughts, feelings and activities: for getting dressed in the morning, cooking, driving, for the way we listen, express emotion, our degree of self-confidence, the way we organize our desks and our lives. The thinking and feeling patterns that we engage in most often have the most well-developed pathways. If we always tell ourselves we’re a failure, it creates a pathway that affects our posture and how we function. Believing we are unstoppable in manifesting our dreams creates pathways that are energizing and mobilizing, affecting our postures and how we function.

In the same way the infant learned to drink, we can learn to ride a bike, ski, manage anger, or express affection. We can train emotional as well as physical neural pathways by “moving in the way of” a thinking or feeling pattern that is new. When we engage that neural pathway, the correlated inner state WILL arise.

A simple physical exercise can demonstrate how movement can influence inner states (see “EnneaMotion: The Somatic Enneagram,” EM Feb.’02 issue).

For example, a type One who is overly critical, constantly judging and pointing out what’s wrong with others and himself, may not have a neural pathway for “calm acceptance.” A PQ exercise for this inner state includes: walking with less rigidity, less directness, with a lighter use of energy, with gestures that are open, calm and accepting.  Repetition trains the neural pathway for calm acceptance.

Or consider someone who’d like to be authentically generous with their time as they care for a loved one who is ill. This person could do the PQ exercise for Enneagram type Two, the exercise for kindness and loving generosity, which includes gestures with an open, embracing quality, moving gently in a curving path through space. Repetition of these movements will start to generate a sense of loving kindness and generosity.

We also have neural pathways that are over-developed from over-use. A person who’s quick to get angry has a highly developed pathway for the expression of anger. This person may not even notice he’s angry and raises his voice at the least provocation. This response is on-call, always ready, often used and is effortless; a remedy could be found in training the opposite quality of tolerance, listening, and speaking gently from the heart.

There is a time and place for the expression of all emotions, but to do this smoothly, we need to have presence of mind (or mindfulness) and emotional fluency–the ability to respond in whichever way best serves each moment.

The following is an example of a Two whose work with PQ exercises, most notably moving with the courage of the Six, impacted her coaching and counseling practice:

“Your work has helped in my executive coaching and private counseling practice. Now more able to ‘step into’ the various types, I can more closely ‘feel’ in my own body what others are experiencing. This added level of insight has increased my ability to understand more deeply and more quickly.

“One other thing happened for which I can’t thank you enough. I have been an optimistic person with a positive outlook most of my life; the events of 9/11 and the fear that followed moved me to an emotional place that I had little experience with. In your training, we translated the high side for each type into movement and developed a physical stance to peg the memory into the body.

“Through this exercise, I was able to get in touch with the courage of the Six. I hadn’t understood it from an intellectual perspective, but the movement exercise allowed me to truly feel courage. It is not courage because you think things will be fine…it is courage in the face of fear. That experience has helped me stay engaged in my work and be a support to others. On the 12th, I was called in by a corporation to train their managers and employees in handling the stress while supporting their clients. By tapping into Six energy, I was able to help people in the face of tragedy.
— L.S., type Two

Emotional Alchemy: Effecting Change

“In each of us there are, potentially, all the elements and qualities of the human being,
the germs of all virtues and of all vices. In each of us there are the potential criminal and the potential saint or hero. It is a question of different development, valuation, choice, control, and expression.”
— Roberto Assagioli
The Act of Will(7)

Part of the work of will, and of PQ, is developing alternative responses. This can loosen the fixation of our Enneagram type, making us more balanced and responsive to life’s challenges.

We can expand our palette of options to give us easier access to the virtues of all Enneagram styles. At different times, we might benefit from having the drive and motivating passion of a Three, the observation skills of a Five, the peacemaking ability of a Nine, etc. Once you identify a desired state, PQ exercises translate its attributes into corresponding movement.

With repetition, you train the neural pathways for that state, establishing a muscle memory for recall. This adds that emotion to your emotional palette, increasing your emotional range and flexibility and eases your access to that inner state. You are now more emotionally fluent and you have increased your EQ.

Hoping to learn something about the alchemy that transforms emotions, I attended a course on “Emotional Alchemy,” co-taught by Tara Bennett-Goleman (author of the book by the same title), and her husband, Daniel Goleman, who has popularized the term, “Emotional Intelligence” (EQ). The workshop included lectures about the brain, about the amygdala being the source of our gut response and call to action, and most memorably, about the “magic quarter second” described earlier, a time for the “thought to be caught” when you can, in fact, stop yourself from doing something you may later regret. We learned about the difference between brain time and real time, and that the neocortex in front of the amygdala can actually stop the “call to action” before we act.

The other part of the course included guided mindfulness practice. Finally, I asked the question, “How do you effect change?” The answer was: “Become mindful, and then do something different.” With mindfulness, we’re able to break the chain of events and make a change. I agree with their conclusion, but think that for most people, a more concrete tool is required to make lasting change. Oftentimes, a response other than the one we’ve always had doesn’t even occur to us. We may not know what that “something different” would even be. Or perhaps we know what we want to do instead, but not how to do it. In fact, if we haven’t “done” this “something different” before, there’s not a neural pathway to engage in order to do it. This makes change extremely difficult, if not impossible.

My suggestion would be to explore a range of alternatives by doing the PQ practices when we are NOT at a choice point; do the training when there is no decision or action to be made. That way, we are less pressed, can practice new responses at leisure, and train and strengthen the new neural pathway. Then, in a moment of need, we have a neural pathway developed for the new response. (See Figure 2.)


Thinking, Feeling and the Body (Movement and Behaviors)

This is an “imagination” exercise which illustrates the relationship between thinking, feeling and the body.(8)

Your thoughts affect your feelings and your body. Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine that you’ve run into somebody you care a great deal about, whom you haven’t seen in a long time. Notice your body. Notice your breathing, notice your posture, your energy. Notice your feelings. Stay with this for a moment, and then let it go. Now imagine a time when you received a bad critique, were hurt or rejected. Notice your body; notice your breathing and the tension in your muscles. You may feel tense, heavy and sluggish.

Did you notice how choosing to hold onto different thoughts or memories brought on either a sense of elation, or a depression and an inability to function?

Your feelings affect your thoughts and your body. Close your eyes and remember a time when you fell in love. And notice your body and the tension — or lack of tension — in your muscles. Notice your breath. Notice the thoughts, images and memories that may surface.

Notice how these feelings can have an impact on both your thoughts and energy.

Your body (movement and behaviors) affects your thoughts and your feelings. Close your eyes again, and take a deep breath. Take a few moments to simply focus on deep breathing. Allow other thoughts to come and go, always returning to your breath. If you were running around all day forever multi-tasking or trying to catch up, your thoughts could become anxious and nervous, your feelings short-tempered and high strung. Keep your mind on just the breath.

Did you notice if this breathing had an impact on your thoughts and feelings?

These principles have been used for thousands of years in such practices as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and chi gong which are based on the recognition that the body, thoughts and feelings are inextricably connected.


The example of touching a hot stove and then removing your hand illustrates that information travels along the neuron pathways in two directions: from the inside out, and from the outside in.

Inside out: When we’re angry (a feeling from the “inside”), our thoughts and our energy are heavy. If we’re happy, our thoughts and energy are light. Another kind of example is when your mind says, “Drive to work,” and your body knows what and how to do that. Our thoughts and feelings impact our bodies (actions and behaviors).

Outside in: Sinking into a hot bathtub can have a calming effect on your thoughts and feelings. This is an example of a physical action (something from the “outside”) impacting our inner state.

The “missing link” in developing will is based on the fact that information travels along neural pathways from the outside in. This means that when we want to make an emotional change, it can help if we can broaden our palette from the “outside” first. This means we can train the body to “move in the way of” a variety of emotions, which will expand our emotional palette. This establishes and trains a neuron pathway we can call upon when needed. We etch that particular pathway into physical memory by dedicating an “anchor” to activate it.

The anchor is made up of a mantra and a mudra. These are both Sanskrit words. The mantra is a word or phrase, and the mudra is a body position or gesture, both designed to elicit a particular inner state. I take a lot of creative license with these ideas, and say that any phrase that represents “what you want more of,” and the accompanying body position that also represents the change you want, together, support the change you’re wanting to make in your life.

The useful application of anchors is well-expressed in the following quote:

“I learned that physical postures can change my emotions. I noticed being more able to capture the stability of type Eight when I came home and had to deal with my Six mother. I felt the strength in my body and just didn’t react much. I found the Eight postures were helpful in finding my personal power, which I really appreciate. The anchors are helping me find physical integrity within myself when under attack, instead of feeling vulnerable.”
— C.K., type Six

The Five alluded to earlier most often embraced the neural pathway for withdrawing during social occasions. Not wanting to do that at a special event, she employed her mantra and mudra:

“Last night I did my mantra and mudra before I gave a dinner party, and again before the 3rd birthday party I gave for my daughter. As you know, social occasions can feel very awkward to me, especially when one is the “mom” or the “little woman” expected to see to everyone else’s needs. However, instead of escaping to my bedroom to hide, I engaged myself in the preparations slowly and methodically and in the obligatory small talk without any resentment or ‘checking out.’ I was interested to observe the sound of my
voice and the expression on my face were ‘sweet.’ There’s no other word for it. I just felt really sweet, like a Two, in relation to my guests, both the toddlers and the adults. I don’t think I’ve ever explored that particular quality in myself, and it was completely spontaneous. Consider this is a testimonial to this work!”
— G.H, type Five

In summary, the ability to engage our will includes the following steps:

  • develop mindfulness;
  • expand your palette of emotional options when you’re <not> at a choice point; this engages “lower will.” You can do this by developing mantras and mudras for the change you’re wanting to make, and strengthening their neural pathways with repetition and practice;
  • notice when you’re at a choice point;
  • make a decision about how to respond;
  • do the anchor (the mantra and the mudra) for that inner state which will energize the corresponding neural pathway —

and then watch what happens! This series of steps will elicit the desired inner state, and I think you’ll find that change doesn’t have to be so difficult.

With the desire to change, enough mindfulness to catch yourself during the “magic quarter second,” and the use of anchors to increase your emotional intelligence, it becomes easier to engage your will and make positive change. Expanding our emotional choices brings us out of contraction and towards wholeness — a key to living a joyful life.

– – – – – – – – –

Enneagram Types

The Enneagram (<“ennea”> means nine in Greek, and “gram” means diagram or drawing) is a symbol with nine points around the outer edge. The points describe nine different personality styles, each with a different set of strengths and gifts, and predictable challenges and blind spots when under stress.

Below are thumbnail descriptions of the nine styles to assist in understanding some of the language in this article.

Type One: The Perfectionist

Excellent detail and organizational skills, logic and reasoning…may be too serious or critical under stress.

Type Two: The Nurturer

Excellent people skills, supportive and has great intuition for what others need…may be intrusive or too needy under stress.

Type Three: The Achiever

Motivated, action-oriented and efficient…may be too competitive or image-conscious under stress.

Type Four: The Individualist

Creative and intuitive with emotional breadth and depth…when stressed, hypersensitive and envious when comparing self to others.

Type Five: The Observer

Perceptive, innovative and profoundly focused…may be too abstract or reluctant to take action under stress.

Type Six: The Loyalist

Reliable, cooperative, committed and a great team player…may be insecure, anxious or defensive under stress.

Type Seven: The Enthusiast

Positive, great at brainstorming and creating projects…when stressed, not great at completing, easily bored and distracted.

Type Eight: The Leader

Grounded, self-confident and quick to decide…may be quick to anger, controlling and manipulative under stress.

Type Nine: The Peacemaker

Natural mediator, peaceful, and gets along with everyone…too accommodating and self-forgetting when stressed.

Copyright Andrea Isaacs, 2003.

Special thanks to Don Riso and Russ Hudson who gave me a context in which to develop my ideas, and to Tom Condon for the several conversations we’ve had about Physical Intelligence which were always an inspiration.

Andrea Isaacs, founding co-editor/publisher of the Enneagram Monthly,
combined her background in dance and psychology to develop “Physical Intelligence” (now called Body Wisdom, a combination of EnneaMotion and Somatic Focusing).

She is a faculty member for Continuing Education at the Institute of Transpersonal
Psychology, for the Riso-Hudson Professional Enneagram Training Program, was an IEA Board member for six years, coaches and teaches workshops internationally. She can be reached at

(1) My thoughts about lower will and higher will have been inspired by a conversation with
Robert Frager, one of the founders of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

(2) Assagioli, Roberto, M.D., The Act of Will (Penguin Books, NY), 1973.

(3) Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bantam
Books, NY), 1995.

(4) Bennett-Goleman, Tara, Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart
(forward by the Dalai Lama) (Harmony Books, New York), 2001.

(5) Bennett-Goleman, pages 144-145.

(6) Assagioli, page 57.

(7) Ibid, page 89.

(8) The Thinking-Feeling-Body connection has been inspired by numerous conversations
with Jack Labanauskas, editor of the Enneagram Monthly, about the “three-legged stool.”
In terms of making change, he was fond of saying, “If you can’t move the stool by
grabbing one of its legs, grab a different leg.”

Since the publication of this article, I have advanced my thinking on developing
Will which is reflected in the Figure below.



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