Sunday, April 22, 2012

Powerplay

Let's do a little word association. When I say "power" or "powerful," what comes to mind?

When I was in yoga school, we did a meditation during which Yogi Bhajan appeared to me and told me, "It's time to own up to your power. Stop bullshitting." This was well over two years ago and I'm just now getting around to this point on the agenda. See, when you say "power" or "powerful" none of my immediate associations are good ones. When I did this exercise, the following came up: oppressive, controlling, dominance, taking advantage, lording over, manipulating, sleazy, misuse of, irresponsible use of, politicians, warlords, kings, dictators.

Of course there are all kinds of expressions of power and people who yield that power gracefully with benevolence. But none of this springs to the forefront of my mind. It's no wonder that I shy away from power- and I don't think I'm the only one.

For me, Power feels like a dirty taboo. Being a powerful person means hurting and/or taking advantage of others. I haven't fully deconstructed why that is, but I'm sure it is at least in part due to "The Media" and the focus placed on people doing horrible things to each other. Ideas and events and people gain power from the attention that's paid to them, and because we live in a morbid, "can't look away from the car wreck" society, we feed dysfunction and pain and violence with our unquenchable thirst for this sort of coverage. If the content of the news and reality TV is any reflection of the mental well being of this country, we're in extremely poor shape.

Even in the spiritual realm you see examples of people misusing their power and influence, sometimes very seriously. Pulling from recent headlines, I knew of John Friend vaguely before his scandal broke, but you better believe I knew a whole lot more about him after he became yoga infamous. It's a shame because Anusara is a lovely practice and it would be sad for people to give it up or not try it due to this. In so many instances where the leader of a spiritual practice has ended up being unforgivably human, the practice itself and the teachings are wonderful.

When I was diving into my Kundalini teacher training, I came across all kinds of salacious and scandalous information about Yogi Bhajan and 3HO (The Healthy Happy Holy Organization). I went through a phase of being really angry about this, and feeling betrayed and misguided. I refused to read Yogiji's lectures, asserting that he was a big fraud and couldn't be trusted. Overtime, I came to realize that while he was perhaps not a perfect man, he was a great teacher. Much of what he had to say was wise, well grounded, elevating and, ultimately, totally worth listening to. I forgave him for not getting it all right in his personal life because the teachings he courageously shared have transformed me in essential ways. It's the teachings that matter. The person who delivers them doesn't have to be spotless to make them valid.

We all contain immense power. That's the basic truth. Our words and actions affect other people. Think about how a small word or a glance can crush or uplift. Owning up to our power allows us to do a few essential things on the path to practicing ahimsa (doing no harm).

First of all, owning up to our power allows us to understand that we are powerful and  that we do have the ability to affect other people with our words and actions. Once we're being honest about this, we can study just what sort of effect we're having. Bringing consciousness to this brings a whole new power because now we know how we influence those around us. This is where things get messy with the John Friends and Yogi Bhajans of the world, with rock stars, politicians and countless Catholic priests, even with the non-(in)famous. People who have realized their ability to get what they want with their power will sometimes use that power to disgraceful, unsavory ends. They may test the limits of their power by seeing how much they are able to get away with before people begin to push back. The longer and further they go, the more powerful they are.

However, before we lambast John Friend for his misdeeds, we must consider that he never would've become "The Yoga Mogul" without the attention and affection of over 1,000 teachers and 200,000 students worldwide. I'm sure it helps that he's charming and savvy- he has apparently realized his power and how he can use it to get what he wants, like so many others before him. Because of Anusara's meteoric success over the last 15 years, some have (somewhat) jokingly referred to it as a cult, but maybe there's something to that. It's a familiar story: Charismatic leader takes money from and advantage of students who are seeking that inexpressible, intangible "something" that is promised by every religion and spiritual practice. But those seekers followed him, and a leader is nothing without followers.

Which is not to say that people haven't found that inexpressible, intangible "something" while doing Anusara, or Kundalini, or during Catholic mass. Again, we shouldn't immediately disregard teachings just because the ones who spoke them did so with a dirty mouth. My suggestion is to be thoughtful about what you're feeding with your attention and who you're giving your power to. One of my favorite quotes on personal power comes from Viktor Frankl: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances." Frankl was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and wrote about "the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread." Even in these most extreme circumstances, suffering this extreme abuse of power, these people refused to give up their personal power, their ability choose how to approach the situation they were placed in.

Owning up to our power can be a struggle for so many reasons. It forces us to take responsibility for our lives in their entirety- for what we do, how we feel, where we go and how we affect other people along the way. It forces us to confront our own preconceived notions about what it means to be powerful, which is a particular challenge if everything you believe about powerful people is negative. For those who have traditionally been disempowered, if forces them to reckon with their feelings around power of unworthiness and/or guilt and/or fear and/or shame.

On my path, owning up to my power is difficult because of how visible I'm afraid to suddenly become. The psychic lawyer told me that I was hiding my true self, that I wouldn't let anyone around me really see me, and it's taken me two years to admit that he's right. I've been trying to hide my light under a bushel, I even realized it last year, but the joke's on me because everyone around me already sees me, much to the horror of my self-consciousness. According to my Kunda yog numerology, the key to fulfilling my destiny in this lifetime is to be radiant and whether I like it or not, I am. Everyday someone tells me that I'm a bright light. I've spent years trying to diminish my light through various methods of self-harm, but it never worked. Like my blue eyes, photographic memory and love of ice cream, my light is an integral, natural, unchangeable part of myself. My one and only job here is to Shine.

Perhaps that's the source of true, sustainable power: realizing our purpose and living in accordance with it in every moment of our lives from that point on. Real power has nothing to do with controlling or manipulating others. Real power has nothing to do with anyone else but ourselves. Real power is bringing our internal environment (and as much of the external environment as is reasonable) under our compassionate control. Real power is actively engaging with our ability to choose, and choosing well.

Power is...
honesty, compassion, surrender, self-control, purposefulness, authenticity, choice, discipline, consciousness.

Power is...
you & me.

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