That which corrupts, that which creates (Power)
“Do we want employees who, when told by a corrupt manager to doctor the records and perjure the company, will do so without raising an objection? Do we want children who, when told by an authoritative stranger that they had better get in the car right now, will do so without making waves? Do we want a nation of people who, when faced with an important and difficult decision—one involving multiple, complex considerations—will prioritize sound bites of advice found on Facebook ahead of their own cognitive abilities?
“I don’t. I want employees who, in the face of complexity, continue to strive to achieve useful goals rather than stopping all progress and waiting for someone else to provide the answer. I want children who, when presented with unusual direction from an unrecognized authority figure, ask questions rather than blindly complying. And I want a nation of people who, in response to the challenges faced by our society, bring to bear their substantial intelligence rather than assigning blame and retreating into excessive, mind-numbing entertainment.”
— Edward Muzio
Power: Concentrated, Corrupts Absolutely
As someone who typically studies and meditates deeply on current events—someone who for years has doggedly pursued answers to society’s systemic challenges—I have found it hard to orient myself in the world lately, much less form coherent things to say, amidst the blitz of bone-chilling news, landing like psychic bombs minute to minute all around me. The chaos is consuming, deafening, and dreadful. Who am I—where am I—in the thick of this madness, that is now deemed a new “normal” and must be navigated?
I suppose it is not unlike a civilian’s experience of sudden, descending war: the shock of witnessing your city and its citizens blasted to shreds before your reeling eyes, and yet needing to keep those eyes open, to navigate, desperately, toward a hope of safety. Your mind keeps trying to apply its images of the city you knew moments ago, but the reality, horribly, refuses to comply with your mental image.
It appears that President Trump (to revive a George W. Bush-era term) is waging a campaign of “shock and awe” directed at Americans, in an effort to daze us emotionally and sensorially (numb our capacities for processing information) with great psychic effect, in preparation for further subjugation.1I mean that literally. See Myth if you doubt Trump possessing concentrated power could possibly, theoretically, be harmful. That is to say: the toxic mythologies of dominator hierarchies have invested themselves in a grotesque, provocative totem like Trump in order to season us for an intensification of their objectives. Trump himself is just one sorry man, tacking his ego onto his outrageous and short-sighted actions in hopes of ensnaring external gratification in the form of adulation.
But for most people alive today, the suffering is compounded. Since Trump’s election, for myself as for many Americans, it has become a daily challenge to enact the basic rituals of self-care, and care for others, that are essential for human dignity and decency. For most of us with daily access to the Internet or television news, it is all we can do not to be psychically (if not bodily) subsumed in the latest scandal, outrage, disaster, insult, or diversionary tactic—including direct or indirect threats to our safety and well being—24/7.
Personally, as one of the the growing precariat class (former middle class, now itinerant freelance workers scraping by), I work six days a week across a variety of paid and unpaid projects. Most of us are overworked, overspent, and undercompensated: add to this the psychological burden of being re-traumatized daily through news stories about the current presidential administration wreaking havoc domestically and internationally. We must keep busy to keep up, even while it makes us chronically ill. And most of are too busy to do anything about the fundamental, underlying problems fueling our precarious situation. We give every last ounce of our natural capital—our lands, our labor, and now increasingly, our attention and mental space—to perpetuating an economic system and culture of toxic memes which are not only not reliably meeting our human needs, but are actively destroying the very foundation on which we could meet those needs together well into the future And for what? What are we giving our life energy to? It’s time we grapple with the fact that being extensively utilized is not the same as being profoundly realized.
The concentration of power enabled by our power-over economic system (capitalism) manifests in the form of excessive money and leisure time for a tiny cohort of profiteers. Though the elite benefit tremendously from the material wealth and glorified social status accordant with their position, a power-over system is fundamentally unable to meet other types of needs that rich people have: as people. The uber-wealthy have a great deal of power and influence over materials and workers/servants, but as a result of their isolated, elite position, they are entrained to distrust other people and view everything (and everyone) as commodifiable. That which cannot be bought and sold—like authentic human relationships—remains outside their grasp. The “malnutrition” of this need going unmet for years can manifest in abusive, perverse or inappropriate social conduct; a shallow understanding and experience of empathy; narcissism and other regressive psychological effects.
The capitalist economy continues to envelop the planet. Most of the population has few other viable options available to them for meeting their basic needs (we can’t all just start “living off the land” anymore, nor can we revolutionize our memes or societal structures overnight). We strive to conform our lives to the stiff requirements of industrialized capitalism. Yet most of the tight tracks we have to run on lead only to hollow forms of gratification. All the material consumer goods leave us feeling desolate after the short-lived “high” fades. Per the dominant norms of consumer culture, our purpose as human beings in society is conflated with the rise of the rate in jobs; our worth is defined by our financial and real assets; our happiness is defined by consuming goods; and our capacity to serve society by our employment status.
Don’t we want more than that? The mythos of this system tells us that attaining elite status is the ultimate ideal, and that our goals in life are defined in terms of figures on a paycheck. But…if we dared ask whether we really want those things, what would be the answer? Are we perturbed it might be “no”? Through commitment to self-inquiry and responsive action, could we not define broader and more creative aspirations for our purpose in life?These memes (and the people who reinforce them) have got us playing a game that’s no fun anymore: the winners and losers game. If we don’t bring attention to these subtle levels of what is going on, then we might hallucinate ourselves to be embedded in these dominant paradigms, with no hope of change, tethered by our survival to these systems. Through unthinking indulgence of the survival drive—chasing after our prey, the paycheck—we feel like we have to keep it going. But by bringing attention to the illusory nature of these adopted memes, we must acknowledge that we do have choice, through reflection and will, to change what we’re doing or change what goals we pursue.
If we can’t take ownership of the choices we’re making that sustain these suboptimal systems right in this very moment (i.e., our complicity), then how will we reclaim our power to move in alternative directions? It’s not at all idealistic and unrealistic that we could organize our society completely differently: it only requires a little application of consciousness. Memes cannot do anything without our consent; their mythic realization hinges on our body-minds’ participation. We do have choice, and we could choose more beautiful options—but we must first shake loose the meme of false necessity, which would have us believe that just because things are a certain way that they must be that way, and we are powerless to choose differently.
If we were to get in touch with ourselves as fleshy, living beings, and ask what we truly wanted, and then endeavored to move in the direction of our desires, this would signify us “standing up” to seemingly all-powerful memes. It would entail drawing a line in the sand and reinhabiting an inner wisdom that is a synthesis of our life experience (and perhaps even the subtle voices of all beings) free of memes. We are not destined to be passively embedded in memes that don’t serve us—we can utilize memes to realize our greatest dreams.
I don’t deny that power-over pathways organically emerged from our evolutionary conditioning: they definitely did. The “will to power” is a fair characterization of the ascent of humanity into a global species. Our intimidation at witnessing aggression, our shallow pleasures in material grandeur, our discomfort with facing our problems: all of these aspects emerge from the way we are wired, frontal lobe atop mammalian brain atop reptilian brain. But if we can see how this pattern of power works, and recognize its limitations—doesn’t that give us the power to go beyond it?
If we believe power-over structures provide our best option for survival, we will continue to invest our life energy into them. We must not blame ourselves for the myths we were raised in: we are conditioned to be who we are before we can notice what we’ve become. Before bringing awareness to it, one’s conditioning is just happening. Be that as it may: once we shine light on our conditioning, we have no excuse to abdicate responsibility for our actions in the world.
You and I have the innate power to determine how our respective life power is utilized—and we’ve got to acknowledge that we’ve been giving it to these systems all along—as if in a trance. Until we break the spell, we might continue to believe that our survival is tied up with the perpetuation of these systems. We fail to notice that it is our life energy animating these systems. All of it hinges on our collective complicity. Therefore, one of the most important forms of power for us to reclaim is the capacity to deny our consent—to turn our energy away from some stories, and toward others. We can withdraw or withhold our life force from systems (material and symbolic) we disagree with. We can utilize our time, energy, and attention in other ways.I used to sit during the pledge of allegiance in high school. For two reasons: 1) I did not desire to pledge my allegiance to a flag, and in fact, the strident patriotic vitriol that emerged after September 11th concerned me; 2) I sat because I had the right to do so, and 3) I sat lest the right be taken out from under me. (In that sense, it was arguably an even more patriotic act than if I had conformed to the group mentality about appropriate expressions of patriotism.) I faced social consequences for my choice. After a warning, my math teacher sent me to the principal’s office. (The principal, bewildered, affirmed that a teacher can’t impose on a student’s free speech regarding the pledge—which I knew—so I was promptly sent back to class with a note from the principal, scolding the teacher.) I denied my consent to what was conventional and normative, and self-determined the ethics that I could authentically defend, in an effort to preserve my freedom of choice.
In the space of opportunity created by the reflective “standing up” (or, sitting down…or “taking a knee” to call attention) to a prevailing myth, let us consider what we might really want. Let us explore options for meeting our needs more holistically and durably, from an inclusive awareness of our common humanity that accepts the full spectrum of our needs, including the emotional and psychological factors making us prone to mythic ensnarement.
At the most basic level of existence, we discover that every single one of us is motivated by the same set of needs. Every one of us wants a good future for our children, meaningful work, sufficient means of living, and so forth. When we acknowledge this, then we realize that all the other high-pitched, battering narratives are meant to distract us from noticing a really basic truth: if there is, after all, just a meek man behind that emerald curtain…who but mere men have been running the show all this time?
IT’S JUST US. At the end of the day, we are just humans. Stripped of our epic mythologies, it’s just empty, conditioned humans reenacting ancient dramas on one another’s bodies and the body of the Earth. It’s just people causing this madness and suffering. It’s just the way we’ve internalized a set of toxic memes that make for such horrific outcomes. It’s not a mysterious god or invisible hand; it’s just our mundane web of actions and consequences. It’s just us.
At the level of our biological realities, it has always been true that we need each other. We need our ecosystems to provide us with the materials to meet our basic needs; we need one another in cooperation and mutual aid for our collective survival. We need each other if we are to go through a process of healing that involves affirming the beauty and desirability of our existence and owning the responsibility to do well with it.
That we all, in actuality, share the same basic needs and the same organic platform (and it’s merely our strategies and myths that apparently differ) is a truth with the potential to unify humankind in unprecedented ways. Yet it is so basic as to have been staring us in the face, all along.
In reality, we have all suffered from power-over systems, albeit in distinct ways. Universally, the belief in our separation from one another—required by power-over ideologies—is an innate cause of our suffering. We all have pain we need to process—pain from living under these dominance-based systems for generations. On the basis of processing our pain and moving forward toward health and wellness, we can come together. We can even channel and liberate that pain if we act grounded in empathy: the transformative way to reach more wholesome results.
Power: Empathetic, Transforms WonderfullyLet us innovate creative and fulfilling solutions founded on a simple yet indelible foundation, a ground of a common reality, beyond all elaborate and intoxicating illusions: that we each and all, in fact, need each other. May we channel our attention into more liberating stories, practices, inquiries, and actions that unleash new life-affirming spirals of complexity, enabling more creative, symphonic arrangements of our life energy. When we embrace the full dimensionality of each and every life form, we can build structures that include and empower a vibrant spectrum of living beings to share their power for the mutual benefit of the whole.
In stark contrast to the intensive worry many Americans feel every day in reaction to media about President Trump’s statements or actions, I have been struck by the awareness of how little my life has materially changed since Trump took office. Whereas, on the morning of November 10, 2017, I was half-expecting to witness some kind of fantastic explosion of social order and structure in the coming weeks…in fact, very little of the actual pattern of my daily life has changed.2This is definitely a partial outcome of my privilege. As a white person, I am not likely to be targeted by the recent rise in racist hate speech and attacks perpetrated by whites against people of color—nor by the invasive raids of ICE, either. However, it is also evidence of how little effect the abstract office of the President really exercises over our daily lives. Which is, actually, a source of hope and sense of power. Furthermore, if Trump were dramatically ousted from office tomorrow, what would change about our daily lives? This seems to reinforce the notion that it’s just us, and that we rely on our social bonds and contracts on a daily basis much more than these myths would have us think.
EMPATHY is the way holistic.
So, if it’s just us, then what do we want to do together?
If everything is empty and conditional, imagine if we envisioned our purposes and acted from a place of authentic desire rather than intimidated compulsion. What if we took ownership over our bodies, our minds, and our destinies, accepting both the responsibility of that autonomy, and the benefits? What if we co-defined what was meaningful for us, from a basic understanding of our common human condition? When we have common understanding and clarity on our shared human situation, then we can begin designing and workshopping alternatives. The same power that fuels the power-over systems can be diverted into power-to and power-with activities.
One of the key initiations on this path is to practice kindness and self-reflection: embodying the gentleness and inquiry to just sit and reflect on our actual situation, and accept whatever intense feelings, thoughts or images come up for us. We started the series with a practice of spacious meditation, and as we proceeded through looking at difficult realities I hope that you have carried it with you. It is important to give ourselves adequate space from the noise of stimuli to just sit with the experience of unfiltered reality.
We first must know ourselves.3A wonderful secular resource for developing intimate self-awareness and tools for working with the self (in its complete body-and-mind dimensions) is Full Catastrophe Living by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Coming to a common understanding will require both inward journey and outward dialogues founded in respect and inquiry. Gradually, one ripens in the strength of one’s intuition and more swiftly discerns truth from lie. As one’s self-awareness ripens, one’s mind (and critical filtering) is strengthened. From this aware place, we can begin to steer the application of our life-energy toward regenerative ends.
If we want to relinquish the ways of destructiveness on which our society is based, we must divest from these systems through a denial of our life energy (attention, labor, faith, etc.) and a refusal of our collective permission to continue operating. (I develop these ideas further in the subsequent essay, Redemption.)
If we want to realize ourselves more completely, we will create a culture that encourages the bringing of one another’s most profound purpose into realization—a culture founded on continuous refinement of the puzzle of living life well. Whereas a common framework for a planetary culture should center on our human condition, there is a diverse “meme pool” of ideas, technologies, and sociological adaptations that support the aim of humans learning how to elegantly balance and integrate all the needs of the beings that comprise their own existence.
I have referred to “indigenous” ways throughout these pieces: allow me to explain what I mean by this term. I define indigenous as “suitable for inhabiting Earth.”4Indigenous peoples are those who developed in place on a particular part of Earth; their cultures reflect appropriate adaptation to that place in time. Not every indigenous culture developed ways that would be widely beneficial if applied at a global scale. But there are many indigenous practices, marginalized or wiped out by the prevailing dominator culture, that would be highly advantageous for conditioning oneself and one’s communities. When I speak of patterns that are “suitable for inhabiting Earth,” I’m interested in memes that help bring people back into harmony and respectful co-existence with the systems on which they depend for their lives (something that is impossible in a scenario of universal conquest by dominator hierarchies). The necessary practices and norms to develop include: empathy training; contemplation; deep noticing (to be able to perceive what different beings’ presences and habits in a landscape are really telling); tolerance of difference and uncertainty; and skillful and appropriate responsiveness (trained through meaningful feedback and interaction with the world). Indigenous ways of being in the world all come down to developing a deep respect for life and for the life principle, thus seeking the most eudemonic outcome for all.
It was only through an avid self-education process (after I was freed from the arbitrary structures of traditional schooling) that I discovered Buddhism, a logic and an order regarding how humans might live well on Earth that has greatly influenced my development as a person. I found memes that worked for me only after breaking out (mentally and physically) of the conditioned bubble (of circumstances and culture) that I was born into. What I came to realize, deep in my soul, is that beings of Earth have all the innate equipment necessary to know how to flourish within the constraints of Earth’s living systems. We must only apply our innate powers of sense-making to find the right fit and role to meaningfully contribute within the world that gives us life.
Although I do believe that some memes, founded on and compassionate to our human condition, can transcend the particulars of time and place into a near universal relevance (like empathy), I also think we must endeavor to diversify our meme pool as well. Just like the planetary loss of biodiversity, the Earth is also bleeding cultural diversity at an alarming rate. We need to honor and include all of our stored insights, biological or cultural, regarding “how to be” on Earth; to fight back against the homogenizing, colonizing tides should take up the majority of our attention in defense of ourselves. That said, indigenous ways are not a consumer item, to be superficially acquired. Such ways are grounded in the cultural and mental conditioning of individual human beings; therefore, we can’t just “use” the models without reconditioning our minds. Becoming vulnerable to changing our ways and changing our minds is essential.Stories and myths about us and about life that emphasize our creative, ethical, problem-solving aspects will help condition our minds and communities for a reinvestment of our life energy in alternative paths.5For a beautiful and touching depiction of human participation in competing and innovative “good memes” in the world, see this poem, “Credo,” by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell. To believe we are just animals and we never learn or improve and thus history will just repeat itself in ever larger and bloodier clashes is to be completely blind to the stunningly visionary, potentially-world changing, grassroots-based communities, stories and technologies being diversely innovated and proliferated around the world this very instant. But to foreground those stories is to see a fresh perspective on the world, in which ordinary people who love life, nature and the Earth are making it possible, attainable, to live our lives by an entirely different set of rules.
So: can we free up the best minds of our generation do liberating, world-transforming work for the betterment of humanity? In other words, could we conspire to let everybody reach their immanent potential? Because I truly believe that this is what all well-adjusted/non-sociopathic human beings want to be doing. Do you think we would go about building a better world, even in absence of a paycheck? Would we do it for fun, for the challenge, or even for our real survival? Would we do it fueled only by hope that we could effect a crucial intervention in the world that would serve to transform the outcomes for our youth and future children and their communities—with rewards being seen even in the next few years, and over multiple generations?
The main barrier in the way of us realizing this widespread grassroots potential is the gap in affordances of institutional and interpersonal pathways of cooperative power to the “masses.” In accepting this, we must accept that the empowerment of a global elite no longer serves appropriate purposes—and that their continued installment in positions of power-over is not neutral. The so-called “leaders” of today’s society are active obstacles, not facilitators, of necessary social growth and transformation—while millions of born and life-tested leaders are deprived of opportunities to actualize their visions for a more beautiful world. In a dominator-hierarchy, leadership effectively means possession and coordination of power-over. But imagine if we could empower one another laterally as servant leaders, acting as facilitators of opportunities for power-with and catalysts awakening exploration of power-to. Those who have lived the most and made the most sense of it all would be privileged with more influence in such a distributed, “leaderful” system: honored as wells of wisdom in coaching those further back on the path and less sure-footed in the world.
By reflecting our own pain and extending a compassionate hand, we need to invite one another into dialogue. Through the mycelial web of our social networks (wherein we are only ever six degrees of separation from everyone else), let us model healthy, humane exploration of what is real between us. Let us offer safe spaces in which to process pain, and wholesome challenges in which to hone our minds and bodies. Let us strive to respect other beings’ journeys of consciousness, no matter how differently they may materialize than our own.
With respectful, humane cooperation, we perhaps could, at this point, manage ourselves quite well and just fine: if we developed the behavioral and ideological frameworks supporting this aim. The one thing those in power don’t want us to talk about is how we (at critical mass, with at least 90% of humanity) might set up efficient, elegant and well-adapted systems for governing ourselves directly—cutting out the insatiable “middlemen” (who are actually at the top of wealth structures). And climate change is the ultimate call-to-action, because we are in serious trouble if we don’t start working on issues that directly affect us and our communities, urgently—instead of continuing to play the tired old roles of losers and winners, feeding the false, illusory divisions spun to keep us meek and assuring a perpetual supply of natural capital for the bloated affluence of a thin minority.
How long will we continue to tolerate this arrangement? How long can we afford to bleed out all life in service to a handful of conditional, coveted memes? When we will channel power instead to those worthy of social influence, to those beings with the greatest minds, widest wisdoms, and sweetest hearts? When will we redeem our life energy for its life-affirming potential?
It’s just US.
It is time for decent people to stand up to the toxic myths and their human defenders: to stand our ground. Our society needs a simple, firm “have you no sense of decency?” moment for the current times. Those of us who have developed the ethical, moral, social and empathic capacities to be sane must say “NO” resoundingly, amplifying one another’s voices, and stand up. Let’s activate a “movement of movements” as sturdy, as determined, and as clear-headed in response to the increasingly desperate and powerful toxic myths—rooted in enduring, life-supporting patterns.
We do know better. We have learned from history. This I believe. We can do better than this. I believe that we could harness our collective energy for much more purposeful ends. The question is, as it has ever been during any time of rising fascism, whether we will act on what we know now, before we squander even more of our diminished reserves of emotional, mental, physical, cultural and natural capital to the power-over meta-schema manned by a mere—but ostentatiously inflated—cult of hungry ghosts.
Unfortunately, knowing better does not always translate into appropriate actions taken. We sometimes make poor choices, in part because we’ve been conditioned for certain behavior. Just wishing to make a life change isn’t enough. We’ve got to build new habits. A core tenet of mind-training is to practice activities that build new habits and neural pathways. So, it’s time for our wisdom to take shape—it is time for us to act on the better we know. There is enormous, fruitful work to be done.
To reinvest in ourselves, we must honor our needs, but temper our temporary cravings and fears.
To divest in the status quo, we must undermine its myths while developing language and cultural forms rooted in awareness and empathy our common situation.
We need each other, and we always have.
May this be the organizing ethic for a new collective direction.
What powers-to do you want to develop in your life?
An essential alternative to power-over is power-with: that is, joining with a fellow being in a consensual effort. How could you convert some of the power-over you experience in your life, to power-with?
From these essays, what resonated most strongly with you (and what do you wish to pursue)? What stuck in your mind, didn’t feel quite right (and what would you like to augment)? Participation is the first step to liberation. This project is devoted to artful, thoughtful dialogue in support of developing life-affirming skills and sensitivities. Thus, you are invited to contribute by commenting below, submitting your own art, or joining Cosmos as a member to support the movement.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||I mean that literally. See Myth if you doubt Trump possessing concentrated power could possibly, theoretically, be harmful.|
|2.||↑||This is definitely a partial outcome of my privilege. As a white person, I am not likely to be targeted by the recent rise in racist hate speech and attacks perpetrated by whites against people of color—nor by the invasive raids of ICE, either. However, it is also evidence of how little effect the abstract office of the President really exercises over our daily lives.|
|3.||↑||A wonderful secular resource for developing intimate self-awareness and tools for working with the self (in its complete body-and-mind dimensions) is Full Catastrophe Living by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.|
|4.||↑||Indigenous peoples are those who developed in place on a particular part of Earth; their cultures reflect appropriate adaptation to that place in time. Not every indigenous culture developed ways that would be widely beneficial if applied at a global scale. But there are many indigenous practices, marginalized or wiped out by the prevailing dominator culture, that would be highly advantageous for conditioning oneself and one’s communities.|
|5.||↑||For a beautiful and touching depiction of human participation in competing and innovative “good memes” in the world, see this poem, “Credo,” by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell.|