It’s not who you may think.
Power, and the abuse of power, keeps coming up in conversations. Given the work I do, these conversations–whether with old friends or new acquaintances–tend to run a bit deeper, be a bit more intimate, and often lead to very personal tales of cruelty and exploitation. It’s worth noting that these stories come equally from men and women, both too often finding themselves in abusive power dynamics.
“It’s worth thoroughly analyzing, because it’s the source of the demise of our western culture.”
While this abuse often takes place at work, it’s just as often with parents, siblings or other family members. It’s equally in love and intimate relationships as it is within communities and neighborhoods. I’ve even heard stories of it creeping within deep friendships. And these stories aren’t from prototypical powerless people. They are leaders, CEOs, many of them Ivy League graduates, all in power positions of their own.
In intimate conversation, as people talk through finding themselves at another’s mercy (and they do tend to find themselves in these situations, not having noticed the subtle creep of manipulation until it’s too late to shift the dynamic), the conversation often moves into a deliberation over what drives the abusers. What is it that drives people–people who already have power–to need more and more of it? What impels them to abuse their position at another’s expense? And, then, the conversations often move to deeply questioning what keeps folks (themselves) in seemingly powerless positions.
I posit that the same thing drives both sides of the power equation, and that “thing” is ultimate powerlessness.
For some this may seem obvious. But for most of us, in the midst of our own internal power dynamics, it’s not exactly clear what underlies these power plays. And, even for those for whom it seems obvious, the currents run much deeper than they have likely analyzed. And it’s worth thoroughly analyzing, because it’s the source of the demise of our western culture.
The powerlessness I speak of is not small powerlessness. It’s a deep undercurrent of powerlessness over life, death, love, happiness, meaning, and purpose. The big stuff. We don’t tend to rigorously examine these core concepts–core concepts we believe are the heart of our humanity. And it’s to our detriment. Without thoroughly examining how we see life and death, love and success, good and bad, we remain at the mercy of drives for impermanent feelings of power, peace, happiness, or safety. And then we inevitably need more when the feeling inevitably fleets.
“dominance and influence masquerading as confidence and mastery are nothing new”
As I hope is obvious, the plays at getting or maintaining power we see on the national stage are not displays of real power. They are desperate attempts to feel power. Such dominance and influence masquerading as confidence and mastery are nothing new. But, recently it seems … louder.
What can be misleading is that these false displays of power are technically powerful. They have profound effects on others and the world. But the outward expressions of false power are in direct contrast to the deep fears, longings, and unconscious scripts that underlie its desperation. Even if you understand this ostensibly, it’s necessary to investigate this more deeply within yourself if you want to affect the power plays operating within yourself, and especially if you want to affect the power plays operating in our world. You must do this if you ever want real peace in this world of continual change and impermanence.
Inherently (and again hopefully obviously) if you need power–or control, dominance, perfection, or safety–you don’t have power. Power has you. If you think you have power, or mastery, or influence, yet need more of it, you don’t have power. Power has you.
Power becomes the driver, and you its puppet. Those who live at the mercy of their needs, fears, desires, and longings very often come across as powerful, as their needs drive them to amass outward displays of power in order to feel a more stable form of safety or peace. But this safety is built on inherently impermanent, unstable things. As such, they are fundamentally powerless to their outward manifestations. When the things they’ve built inevitably fall apart or don’t act according to their will, they cannot live. They cannot be kind. Or generous. Or happy. And they definitely cannot be at peace.
This is all of us, by the way. Neither you nor I are immune here. Hence, again, the necessity to investigate this deeply, and to understand the unique way power plays out in each of us.
Power — real power — is the center of all my work. Power is usually associated with competence, control, mastery, authority, influence, or strength. It is often related to notions of force and dominance. But few of these are real power. At best, mastery can convey what I believe is the true essence of power, but not in a way most may think (I am not talking about self-power. That’s fake power too).
“Drowning out big things like suffering, emptiness, or death with constant doing and achieving is the standard form by which most of us attempt to have power over that which we ultimately have no control.”
Any inner sense of powerlessness inevitably leads to outward grabs at false power. And, the wielding of power is a direct demonstration of inner powerlessness. These are usually subtle and unconscious. You likely do not know your inner senses of powerlessness. The more deep-rooted the inner fear, pain, or sense of lack we harbor, the more critical and desperate the need for outer power and control. The degree to which one needs to show it, or have it, or wield it is the degree to which they feel ultimately powerless to the larger world.
Again, this powerlessness is often unknown to the one wielding power, but they can feel it lurking and it’s terrifying. It hides deep beneath the surface, often tucked away in the subconscious or unconscious, easily triggered by any inkling of attack, danger, lack, longing, or fear (but, it is also easily revealed in a safe environment via a few thought provoking questions and, with work and dedication, can be seen through and dealt with).
This powerlessness can manifest as overtly as sexual harassment or physically harming another, or as subtly as controlling the image others have of us. It can be seen in attempts to control outcomes in order to preempt suffering, loss of control, or perceived negative exposure (think of the seventh grader who breaks up with the guy she likes out of fear he will break up with her, or a man paying off someone he abused or had an affair with before she might speak out).
Conversely, false power can–and often does–manifest as power over oneself. Outward self-control or self-mastery is almost always fake mastery, and is belied by the pain, self-hatred, or sleeplessness every perfectionist faces. This perfection can be physical perfection, professional perfection, familial perfection, or even perfection of the world.
Last, false power can manifest as attempts to drown out the pains of life via some addiction. This of course can be addiction to drugs or pleasure-seeking behaviors. But it can also be addiction to happiness, love, or — for far too many of us — addiction to accomplishment. Drowning out big things like suffering, emptiness, or death with constant doing and achieving is the standard form by which most of us attempt to have power over that which we ultimately have no control.
False power shows its true colors in the hurt, anger, sorrow, or defensiveness that arises when we, inevitably, lose the very thing that seemed to give us power, control, happiness, or safety in the first place. If we suffer when we lose what we think we need, or when we lose what we think is at the core of who we are, then we do not have real power. If we can’t be in peace, if we can’t thrive, or we can’t live when reality doesn’t conform to how we imagine it should or could be, then we are powerless.
“Most of us unconsciously live at the mercy of our own power-seeking drivers.”
And, when we’re powerless, we either let others have power over us, or we seek power over others–both vain attempts to feel some form of safety and have some sort of control in this uncontrollable world.
If we don’t investigate this and understand the emptiness* of our deepest fears and needs, then we’ll continually seek more destructive power or control over life, usually unconsciously. The irony here is that our power seeking behaviors are usually completely out of our own control. Most of us unconsciously live at the mercy of our own power-seeking drivers, never knowing why we do what we do, love what we love, and fear what we fear.
We can see this in public figures like Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein, whose power-seeking first led to great success, but eventually led to their great un-doing. It’s also seen in more painful figures like Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain, where a deep disconnect and consummate inability to find any real purpose or meaning in life left them ultimately powerless.
You cannot blame others for their power seeking behaviors. You cannot blame another for hurting someone, or for staying in a situation where they are being hurt. It’s get no one anywhere in the long term. You’ll only elicit more false power-seeking behaviors on their part. All you can actually do is get at what is driving your source of power. Because it’s only when you understand yourself, and go through the deep, and often painful, work of unmasking your drivers, getting distance from them, and being at peace with them, that you can even begin to meet another, much less be empathetic to their relationship with power.
Your sense of power (and therefore your source of powerlessness) almost always begins with how you identify yourself. So, I encourage you to stop and take a sincere look at how you identify yourself. Look at what makes you proud of yourself. Then, look at what you attempt to escape from. Then, look for what makes you hate yourself. Look to the ways you attempt to eliminate, control, or avoid things you don’t like, agree with, or that terrify you (an easy exercise here is to look at your feelings towards the views of the opposing political party). There’s your work. Start there.
Whatever the sources of your identity, control, pride, and hate in life, they’re usually unconscious masks for power-seeking behaviors. Do not fret this. The things that make us proud of ourselves can be our best teachers. On one hand they can be incredible gifts. They can be incredible drivers to all sorts of great things, as long as we’re not attached to any set outcome (this goes for the things we hate about ourselves as well). And, if we can pay attention to them, they can alert us to what may eventually be the source of our own great undoing, helping us avert hurting ourselves, and others, as we live out the manifestations of our gifts.
This is the most important work, I believe. We must look deeply into ourselves, into our identity, into who and what we think we are, name them, and then work to see through them.
An identity based on being perfect, successful, funny, or altruistic can possibly be a great gift. Being successful or perfect or funny, in themselves, are not harmful. It’s a warning, though, if failing or being boring or angry or burdensome destroys your sense of peace. It’s then you know that the perfection, success, laughter, or love you seek is just a cover for a deep sense of powerlessness.
Again, this is all of us. This is a reality of human nature. This doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done. There is a way through, and it is open to everyone.
The mastery at the heart of the real power I speak of is mastery over your own mind. I do not mean controlling your mind. That is more false power. Rather, I refer to the ability to remain at peace in the midst of a mind that one minute tells you you’re great and powerful, the next minute harangues you for yet again failing, or being angry, or saying something stupid.
“the work is not controlling your mind. Rather, it’s witnessing your mind, then seeing through it.”
Real power is the ability to see through your own thoughts. It is not controlling or changing or eliminating said thoughts. Your thoughts are allowed to be there. They are there. They are possibly telling you something you should listen to. But you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go. Thoughts change. They are not solid, and they are always subjective.
Be careful: the work is not controlling your mind. Rather, it’s witnessing your mind, then seeing through it.
Investigate this deeply. Sit still, quietly, for long periods of time. Can you allow your own ideas and concepts to be here, and at the same time have distance from them? Can you not-know, in the midst of your knowing? That is the essence of the real power I speak of. It’s an astute balancing act that requires constant and acute attention and presence.
This is doable. If I can live this, you can. It just takes practice. That practice is sitting in focused-based silent meditation, anchored by your breath to the present moment. That’s it.
Power is the internal peace, no matter outside circumstance, that comes from regularly being still and quiet for long periods of time. Slowly, you’ll be able to see through all things, and though your mind, and then things can come and go, all while you remain at peace. This is true power.
Power is an ability to not be attached to things, ideas, or outcomes. Power is having things, yet not needing them. It is loving and losing, yet not fretting. Power is ultimately found in the things that can be taken away from you.Could you lose you home, your love, your career, your image, your income, your family, your country, your ideas of right or wrong, and still be ok? Still be kind? Still be at peace? If so, then you are no longer at the mercy of your own ideas. If so, then you are truly free. Truly powerful.
No matter the strife, failure, success or joy, power is your ability to stay gracefully centered.
But please be careful. Trying to live what I’m calling a truly powerful existence is also an idea and ideal of some perfect mind. Wanting to achieve such a powerful state of mind is just getting back on the wheel of false power. You’re again stuck in desire. But, it’s not a zero-sum game. Ideals can lead to peace if used correctly. They can guide us, if we can maintain distance from them. I know this from my own experience. It’s a constant practice. It’s a consistent noticing and re-balancing. But do not take my word for it. Find out for yourself.
You can begin cultivating this power right now by simply noticing your breath, by just noticing yourself as you are. Spend quiet time alone with your thoughts and fears and desires. Practice witnessing them, then seeing how those fears and desires are not you. See how they come and go. See how they are not solid, not constant. Over time, you will get more and more distance from them. And, with more time, you will progressively be more and more able to use them, as opposed to them using you.
A final word of warning: again, this is not a static state you achieve. It is a consciousness you cultivate. This is life work. It does not end. There are continual thoughts and fears and longings that arise. As my teacher says, practice being with each of them. One goes, another comes. What develops over time is an openness, an allowing, a presence. This is not some ideal openness, but real concrete presence to what is. This is what you’re cultivating. It’s a patience and kindness with your wants and fears. And, in that, you can eventually be patient and kind with the desires and fears of others.
That’s real power.
*emptiness is a big concept, and is tied deeply to the reality of impermanence. Be patient with these concepts: it can take years of work to understand them, much less come to real peace and freedom within them.