All That Power

Songs are written about it. People die for it. Everyone has it.
And guess what, it’s not love.  It’s power. The times, they are a-changing and what power once was is slowly starting to evolve. What is it? Why do we all have it? How do we not get lost inside of it?

When I was a teen, I, like many of my peers, read The Prince by Machiavelli. I thought it was interesting, this concept of ruling with either love or fear.  It created a ton of cognitive dissonance for me. Machiavelli believed in a world where people could not be equals.  In this sort of power dynamic, one person or a group of people control  another through fear or love. The Machiavellian understanding of power is finally proving itself as outdated. Through movements that seek equal rights for people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, the modern world is moving more towards equity than vast power differentials. That also means that each of us is endowed with more personal power.  We have the ability to effect the lives of everyone around us. I believe people exist on many many spectrums instead of binaries.  We all have the capacity to be cruel as much as we have the capacity to be compassionate. We all can be aggressive or passive or anywhere in between. It is a choice we make with every action, every thought, every word. This week, my good friend Emily sent me an incredible article entitled “How Power Causes Brain Damage”. The title alone is enough to make anyone pause. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has done research into power and how it effects areas of the brain connected to mirroring, a key process in our ability to empathize with others.  Enough power and this area of the brain ceases to function normally. The more power we acquire, power in the dominating Machiavellian sense, the less we care about other people.  That seems fairly obvious, but so quickly do we forget once we are ‘on the top’.

For many reason, people can shut down or shut off their ability to empathize with others. As somebody who believes that empathy is one of the most important super powers we possess, it hit my heart hard to hear that when we stop recognizing the incredible privilege it is to have any sort of status or power, we start to create long lasting damage to our brains and our empathy. Am I surprised though? For most of time, the people who we see as humanity’s greatest villains are those who have an incredible amount of absolute power and ultimately cause many people harm and/or their lives In pursuit of power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. So as the tides turn to a more equitable sort of existence, how can we ensure that the reclamation of our personal power doesn’t turn us into monsters?

Simply, don’t be an asshole. We don’t get to erase the past.  We don’t get to say things never happened, people never existed, choices weren’t made.  We don’t get an undo, a CTRL Z, a white out. We don’t get to un-say things or un-hear things.  Because of that, we each have a very large responsibility to show up with as much kindness and compassion as possible. I have long held the belief that a true leader isn’t always the person at the front of the line or the person with the loudest voice. Very often, true leaders are in the middle of the crowd. They are interested in how things look from another person’s perspective.  A true leader empowers others. A true leader gives other people a lift, and not from a place of guilt or shame or obligation.  A true leader believes that every person has the right and the ability to chart their own course and gives them the tools to do that thing.  Get in the middle of the sticky and beautiful mess that life is. Don’t sit on the sidelines postulating truths. Get inside the situations; become an expert with a ton of knowledge support by experience and see what is  truly reality. 

Have a ‘why’ that grounds every experience in something more than acquiring more power/money/status. Why do you do the things that you do? What is your mission statement as a human? This is the moment where you get really specific and honest with yourself.  The general “I want to be happy” isn’t enough because that broad definition can be used as an excuse to make other people feel smaller or less-than. What does happiness mean to you? Does it include tearing others down so that you can rise? Does it include minimize the voices and presence of others so that you can feel big? If so, we’ve got to take a very hard look at what’s going on with you. So let’s get real. Let’s get honest. Why? Why anything? Why everything? Your ‘why’ is your true north. The moment anything is out of alignment with the ‘why’, your gut knows.  It knows and it will tell you. Things become much less complicated when you know your why.  If your current circumstances inhibit you from acting with integrity, you either try to change them through some creative problem solving or you leave.  It’s really that simple. Find your why and the allure of power/status will never be as tempting as keeping your integrity.

As often as you can, give back. This is very similar to leading from the middle instead of the front. Helping out another person, seeing and feeling and hearing the challenges they are facing, being in the midst of that energy, can expand your mind and make your problems about power/status seem very very small. Educate yourself about the immense disparities that are probably happening in your own backyard, if not the rest of the world. Not everyone has to devote their lives to service or non-profit work, but getting involved in a community and doing something good for someone other than yourself is a sure way to cultivate empathy and keep your heart grounded in reality.

Be a part of a community. One of the most wonderful gifts that yoga has given me is the idea of community (shocker: it was not the inversions and arm balances and the asana, which is only one of the eight limbs of yoga and not really the most important part of the practice). Sometimes, we walk into the studio and we put down our mats.  We feel like little islands, so separate from the rest the people in the same space. The more time I give to my practice, the more I realized how all of these little island-mats are actually an archipelago.  We are all connected by something larger than an individual ego. This idea of “when I rise, you rise” is so key to success of a community and inhibiting of the bad side of power.  Even power itself is not binary.  There is the sort of power that crushes other people and the kind that lifts them.  Being a part of community, feeling the collective energy of a group of people who are lifting each other up, is the positive side of power. Harness that, and you can change the world. You can change lives.


Interested in all things Power?  Listen to this episode of Dissect about Power by Kayne West.

Read this article that sparked all of these thoughts.

Listen to this podcast with Professor Keltner speaking about his two decades worth of research.