Friday, June 3, 2011

Power and Humility - Part 1

by Miki Kashtan

Some time ago I wrote about submission and rebellion, the two poles that we have inherited as traditional responses to another’s power. Today I want to return to this topic from a different angle, which is whether and how we can transform power dynamics, so that the statement that “power corrupts” no longer appears so completely like a truism. Another way of asking this question: what does it take for any of us to become “incorruptible,” meaning being so strong in our inner practice that we can withstand the allure of power? I want to believe that we can operate in a way that diminishes and eventually makes obsolete the responses of submission and rebellion.

I am a relatively small fish in the large order of things. I have less than 400 subscribers to this blog, for example. The organization I co-founded has about 10 employees, and I have at most a few hundred former and current students who look to me actively as their teacher. Nonetheless, I am quite aware of at least some of the dynamics of power within which I operate, and have intimate knowledge, even on the small scale at which I operate, of the dilemmas and complexities that come with power.

The Challenge of Structural Power 

In blunt terms, having structural power means having the option of attending to my needs without including others’ needs. Structural power means access to resources based on my position within a structure, not based on relationship or personal resources. Here are some personal examples:
* As a boss (which I mostly am not), I  can fire someone. They cannot
   fire me.
* As a program leader, I can choose not to give someone access to the
   program, they cannot restrict my access in the same way.
* When I sit in a room and speak, people listen to me and are likely to go along
   with what I want much more often than when someone else, who is not a
   “designated” leader, speaks into the same group.

I find it extraordinarily challenging to know this and to have any clarity about how to operate in integrity. I am so committed to moving forward in a way that honors everyone’s integrity, dignity, and autonomy that I sometimes act with less than my full personal power in certain moments as a way to avoid imposing anything on anyone. I know enough to know I want to transform this habit, and am chipping away at it. I am not yet where I want to be. This is a learning edge for me.

The Temptation
I hold a very large vision for the world, and my life is completely mobilized for the foreseeable future to do all I know to do to increase the likelihood of a livable future. This is a lot of work, a huge amount of effort. I teach, I write, I am a key leader in BayNVC, I created and continue to offer leadership to the Consciousness Transformation Community, I am part of several collaborations, and I receive a steady stream of requests from former students, colleagues, and others. That in itself is more than a full life.

I also have a sister, Inbal, that I love beyond words and who is living with cancer. I am a major and active part of her support and care network. This is a journey full of uncertainty and immense beauty, as my two sisters are the biggest joy of my life. (Inbal is doing well at present, in case you are worried, and that’s not always been the case in the last four years and may not continue.)

If that’s not enough, I myself had cancer in 1997 and want to do all I can to minimize the risk of having another one (cancer runs deeply in my family, on both sides), I am very committed to attending to my own body and self-care, and to do things that nourish me.

Between these three primary commitments, my life is essentially unmanageable. The metaphor of a blanket that’s too short seems very apt to me. And, on top of that, I am a person with many sensitivities, physical, emotional, and social, and I find daily living often challenging.

I crave ease in the midst of so many commitments and challenges.

I know I am far from the only one who is challenged by life. Many many people are craving ease in the midst of challenging lives, all over the world. Most of them will never have enough ease and relief. I can’t not be aware of that truth. I also know that I do have enough power to arrange for some ease in my life if I want to use my power in this way.

Because I am so mobilized and putting so much of my energy towards service, I can easily “justify” using my power to create ease for myself. I feel that pull. I also know, and trust this insight, that it’s not going to serve the world for me to resist the pull and do nothing to create ease in my life, because it would result in my being less effective. At the same time I want to stay clear of slipping into more and more ways of creating ease that are less and less aligned with my values. Like many, this is a very complex line to walk.

For example, I like the outcome of my own decisions and how I do things better than most people most of the time. Full ease would mean making all the decisions and telling other people what to do to support me. That is too far, too similar to old models, and in that way ultimately not serving my vision. It’s also not doable for me emotionally, because I have a visceral aversion to imposing my will on others. I am still learning about when and how to involve other people in decisions and in the doing to maximize effectiveness, connection, collaboration, and empowerment for all of us. Like many things, this is a tall order.

Full ease would also mean working only with people who are fully empowered in their relationship with me, able to transcend the submit/rebel paradigm and make choices based on their full sense of inner power, and easily aligned with my vision and direction. This would mean people who can say “no” to me when I ask them to do something, who would give me divergent opinions when I offer mine, and who would be relaxed and comfortable shifting through dialogue with me. It would mean people who can speak clearly and articulate what’s important to them even when there is tension, as well as able to hear me and open their hearts to me without much effort. That’s a lot to ask for. If I don’t have it with someone, then I am at a loss about how to tend to the relationship with integrity, how to use my power with people, when it could take so much effort and open spaces in my schedule to do so. How can I do it? How can I not?

As often, I have more to say than fits in one entry. Stay tuned for the continuation of this topic in the coming days.


  1. I think I can understand your reasoning, that I find very appealing. Nevertheless: "to crave ease" sounds to me as some kind of "square circle". Is the phrase intentionally meant as an oxymoron? Just wondering... (jhv)

  2. as always, when you speak (in my opinion, articulately) of power dynamics, I find myself basking in inspiration and shared vision. ahhhhhh. It is as if you find a way to speak what is in my mind and heart, and that brings a rest into companionship. And the last paragraph speaks volumes. Letting myself imagine the full ease of being with people who have the intention and skill to interact with me from a self responsible place.... I felt something relax in my back. Realized why some settings and groups bring so much pleasure. That I can acknowledge this "truth" now allows me the strength to dive into the less easeful situations where I'm in balancing acts for my own integrity around power. thank you, Miki....

  3. Gratitude for the companionship. So soothed by your words: at times it is so hard for me to keep my inner flow and faith in humanity as I too, am a person with many sensitivities :). Mitsiko

  4. Miki,

    It sounds like you have more going on than you have resources to address, and I wish you space to receive what you need, if you would want that.

    I recognize something I've grappled with myself in what you say here: "I am so committed to moving forward in a way that honors everyone’s integrity, dignity, and autonomy that I sometimes act with less than my full personal power in certain moments as a way to avoid imposing anything on anyone."

    I appreciate that you articulate this because I believe that sharing power is key to all of our well being. To speak from my perspective, I think that holding myself back to avoid an imposition on others is a signal that I am not fully recognizing the power that each of us has. I also think it's impossible to hold myself back, and exhausting to try. To me, everything is creative. There is no holding back - only expression. There is no imposing - only another's response.

    It can be quite a tangle for me. Much to unlearn.


  5. Brandaan: It's funny you should mention that, because I had the opposite reaction: "craving ease" resonated instantly with me. The business of constantly putting oneself and one's thinking out there, at least in my experience, can be extraordinarily vulnerable and exhausting. In response, I often find myself seeking out ways to simplify my life, because even my few primary commitments ask so much of me. I suppose the trick is to give oneself permission to ease without sacrificing one's efforts to do good and be present to the world.

    I'm not sure this is exactly what Miki had in mind, but it's what I drew from her use of the phrase.

  6. Living in Canada this am, pondering the clash of the sacred and profane violence in Vancouver, your reflection is needed everywhere. Persons seeking power of association with the winner seemingly do not recognize the power dynamics operating within themselves when faced with loss / grief and let down. What may happen in Boston - today or tomorrow - will also show how our culture of violence and retribution / winning at all cost / verses living respectfully and living fully alive expresses itself in our daily lives in community. Your work is a blessing!!