As I am fond of saying, “the world is about power” – and in a sense, of course, this is logical and inevitable. Even picking up a cup of tea is about power, because in order for this to happen, I must be able to conceive the intention and control the necessary muscle contractions, and I must have sufficient strength to do it. In this sense, every action, every relationship is about power. When I deal with other people, some are smarter, some less intelligent, some physically stronger, some weaker, some my titular superiors, some not, and so on. These differences all imply differences in my power to produce desired effects in different situations. The question, though – and it is a dangerous question for human beings – is whether I deal with these differences oppositionally, hoping to gain benefits for myself by diminishing the power of others, or cooperatively, sharing power in an honest and loving way.  Do I strive to benefit both parties in each interaction (“love thy neighbor as thyself”), or to benefit myself at another’s expense? One approach implies honesty and concern for others; the other approach implies deception and narcissism, and notwithstanding this obvious fact, it’s hard to say which approach is really culturally mandated in the United States – I’m not sure it’s the pretty one.

But is that a problem? Darwin tells us that inter and intra-species competition for resources is part of evolution: the successful survive longer and ultimately reproduce more often. So this is good, right? I guess I would answer that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: while I’m sure that Darwin’s theory is generally accurate, I also doubt that we fully understand evolution, its context, and all its implications. If you observe people carefully, you may note that many of us are fairly tense and use excessive force when performing everyday tasks – Gurdjieff commented that we use enough energy when picking up a pack of cigarettes to pick up a person. Why do we use too much force? There are a number of reasons, including being unaware of our bodies, but a major reason is stress – negative emotions, and the concepts that go with them. Using excessive force is a hallmark of the oppositional approach to action described above. Let us return to picking up my teacup. “It’s my tea, and you can’t have it!” “I hope I don’t spill my tea and embarrass myself.” “I won’t have time to drink this unless I hurry.” In each case, I have an agenda that opposes my situation – I don’t like what reality presents, so I’m going to use force to improve things – and if I notice myself doing this ten times a day, I probably do it a thousand times unconsciously. In each case, of course, I’m experiencing – or, more precisely, anticipating and imagining a stressful situation and relying on some kind of force buttressed by negative emotions such as anxiety or anger to get me through. Well, it works, sort of. But it also wastes energy, decreases awareness, creates rigid repeating patterns of behavior, and is almost certainly damaging to our health. And there is little room for love in such a picture, at least while we’re wrapped up in our little – or not so little – battles.

I’ve spent most of my life learning and teaching a different approach to action, one where the aim is not to succeed at all costs, but to maximize one’s capacity through relaxation and discipline. Put another way, I think most tasks should be relatively effortless: in other words, they should seem easy and pleasant and should not engage a sense of conflict. This is far easier said than done, because, first of all, it requires non-attachment: you can only enjoy picking up the teacup – or playing the piano – if you’re not worried about the results. This means we must accept the negative – failure. That’s the Yin side of the equation – ultimately meaning acceptance even of death. I may spill my tea, I may play badly, but I must be willing to let that happen or there can be no effortlessness. On the other side, the Yang side, I must be in control, but not in the way we normally imagine – this control has nothing to do with force: rather, I must really understand and prepare for my task and I must truly focus on and commit to what I am doing, while letting go of any expectation. My action should really be driven by awareness rather than ego – but I must also deal with obstacles to that awareness. If I can’t see the music when playing the piano, I need to move it – or light it better; if I can’t play the notes, I need to practice to remove that obstacle; if my hand position is wrong, I need to work on that. If I try to solve all of these things at once, I will necessarily create a conflict that could bring my progress to a standstill, but if I can be patient and solve these problems singly, I begin to approach the point where there is no conflict – and in the end, no effort. But this is very difficult to do, because when I practice reading notes or improving my hand position instead of pushing to conquer the piece, I am by default letting go of the goal, which is not very natural to us in this goal-directed culture. If I really want to learn to read quickly and well, for example, I should entirely forget about the piece for a while and just focus on this task: just enjoy the symbols and sounds – that leads to effortlessness. That is the control I’m referring to – the kind of effortless mastery that comes from being centered – patience, awareness, joy, solving each problem as it comes – that’s power, too: the power to broaden our insight and understanding, the power to heal ourselves and find harmony in our relationships with others.

How is all of this related to dominance and hierarchy, to coercive power in relationships? One of the key elements in trying to move effortlessly is balance: imbalance – in your posture, in the weight of the hand on the keyboard – immediately causes stress, because without muscular effort, imbalance will cause you to topple or move in the wrong direction. If we apply this principle to relationships, the Golden Rule seems like a good start: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” The moment I deviate from that, the moment I begin to envision a world of limited resources where I want more – usually at someone else’s expense – I create conflict. I separate myself from you and we disagree. I may go farther, and intentionally try to coerce or deceive you to my benefit and your loss – which sometimes seems to be what our society is advocating: I just better hope you don’t find out what I’m doing and gain the advantage. All of this is about negative emotion, and it creates a dark world full of anger and conflict. What I’m coming to believe about many human societies – and especially our own – is that we talk a good game: we espouse one justification or another – for us, it’s a kind of pluralistic social Darwinism where the cream rises to the top through conflict, where self-centered action leads to broader benefit through competition – but the reality is that we’re deceiving ourselves. In the same way that using physical force without understanding one’s task is a good way to damage your body and fail in your task, this “winner” culture usually seems to produce mixed results at best. Certainly in the creative arts, which is my field, it produces many composers who know how to read the academic tea leaves – how to ride the wave of musical fashion: how to be, as one well known composer said to me, “the first to be second” – but very little viable new music, very little music which can attract a broader public. The result in the arts is that we’re all pursuing a larger piece of a smaller pie – a recurring theme in our society. In our political process, surely the second Bush administration, for example, represented a pinnacle in terms of both aggression and cunning: what kind of result did this produce? Notwithstanding massive shows of force in many areas, from international politics to the invasion of Iraq, to devastating attacks on political opponents, to the doctrine of the unitary executive, the second Bush administration was by it’s conclusion was one of the most unpopular in history, mired us in two unwinnable wars, and presided over the near collapse of our economic system. Again, what they really accomplished – for a while – was to get a larger piece of a shrinking pie.

In short, in human relationships as in any physical interaction, we should learn to think in terms of balance instead of force. With balance, even a small effort can produce enormous results – but it is not easy to understand and master even physical situations in this way, and it is a mastery that requires profound openness and patience. So, instead, we often find it easier to resort to force, and, in addition, are saddled with all sorts of atavistically attractive ideas about what “strength” and “leadership” mean that seem mostly to involve various forms of focus on ego. What the Bush Administration really succeeded in producing after seven years in control of Washington was discord, and lots of it. That is what the self-centered kind of strength breeds – misery and conflict. As in Zen archery, we must instead learn to express our intention in a spontaneous, open way, with minimal force.

I believe that when we act through power we are acting mostly as animals – that is to say, we misunderstand our great intellectual and spiritual capacities and use our truncated abilities as clubs with which to pummel each other in an endless competition for resources. The ultimate delusion behind this disastrous philosophy is that we can control outcomes – that the consequences of acting in an unbalanced way can be sidestepped because we can solve the resulting problems through more of the same. I think we’re stumbling down a hall of mirrors. Our world, though accessible to human reason, is also profoundly complex and chaotic: it is foolhardy to imagine that we can repeatedly and knowingly act wrongly and fix things later. In fact, as Buddhism suggests, we each create our own reality, our own limited image of and interaction with a world that possesses possibilities that we rarely see – but this interaction is mostly unconscious and unfortunately often based in large part on unbalanced and even really negative actions: the picture we’re painting is sometimes rather grim. Think of our government’s long history of interfering in foreign countries – each act justified with surface arguments which were quite different from its true, and usually quite self-serving and amoral motivation: rarely has this realpolitik approach produced anything positive in the long term. As you might expect, one of our primary international problems today is the threat of attack by terrorists and states that mysteriously hate us – is it our “freedom” they hate, as suggested by George Bush, or is it the way we have dealt with them in the past?

On the contrary – and this corresponds oddly well to the scientific method – I think we can only understand and interact effectively with reality by trying to make balanced choices. In science, we always use certain standards of action to control hypothesis and experiment – we place certain limitations on the process and thus can learn from the outcome: for me, spirituality – the path to enlightenment, is surprisingly similar. Where scientific standards permit us to create and test hypotheses, balanced action centers us and moves outside of the complex turbulence of self-centered interaction. When I fight the world and insist on my own way, I enter into the unpredictable results of using force in an unbalanced way – and these results are profoundly complex. If I act through balance, my choices are much clearer and the outcome more predictable. Instead of trying to anticipate the endless permutations of conflict created by pushing ahead without much awareness, I seek a simpler world, and where complexities appear, I can always seek the center of each problem by trying to find the most balanced course of action. To make an analogy, the act of walking is complex, but ultimately quite analyzable and predictable, and highly efficient in terms of energy; losing balance – for example, slipping and falling down a staircase – is much more difficult to understand precisely and may have unforeseen consequences. If, by analogy to the way many of us interact with our environment, our forward motion depends mostly on force, consisting of a series of more or less controlled stumbles and ultimately not relying on the natural balance of the system, the process takes vastly more energy than a balanced gait and is much more difficult to predict and control – this is wrong action in the broadest sense: the misuse of power. Therefor, what we need to pay attention to when acting is not just the result we wish to impose, but also the process – we need to look at the balance of our actions: if we seek to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, this – aside from being immoral – is a way of acting that must produce conflict at every turn. If we cover our self-seeking thorough lies, we betray our closest relationships and begin to weaken our own contact with reality while increasing our narcissism. If our sense of righteousness leads us to force others to our will, we have abandoned right action in favor of the theory of our own perfect understanding. If we are being forced to another’s will, the opposite situation holds: we are abrogating our choice and understanding in favor of theirs – this is also unbalanced. And if any mode of action involves negative emotions, we can be sure that it is unbalanced: balanced action does not depend on negative emotion and tends in fact to heal these wounds.

It’s a very long list, and my aim here is not to fully describe what I mean by balanced action, but to point out why I believe we keep endlessly coming back to the same problems: the answer – as the Buddha taught – is that our suffering results from poor choices. Unfortunately the solution to these poor choices cannot be found by simply adding more stop lights, hiring more cops or raising or lowering taxes: we must reach far deeper: we need to move away from force and violence, and we must learn that ethical behavior and balanced action are to our mental health as good nutrition is to our physical health. In the same way that a balanced gait promotes health and efficiency in movement, balanced action promotes awareness and a more profound understanding of the reality around us. Mired in negative emotions and attempts to game the constant unpredictable consequences of wrong action and attachment, it is impossible for us to gain more than a hint of our true abilities, but if we can let go of the apparent control of reality that we so desire but do not in fact possess, we can begin to see far more deeply into the miraculous and beautiful world around us and to find the love and joy which is our birthright.

©2013 Stephen James – All Rights Reserved

On Power

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