Sunday, March 27, 2011

A little meditation about power

It's been an uneventful and meditative weekend. I spent a good part of the weekend grading papers and reading A People's History of the United States. I highly recommend this book. It tells the history of the United States from the perspective of the poor and disenfranchised, and offers a refreshing alternative to the standard history-textbook accounts of politicians as liberator-heroes, and explains in sobering detail the disconnect that people have been feeling between politics as represented in the media and the average person's everyday experience of socio-political reality.

All this makes me think about human nature. They say that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Which implies that the more power one has, the more likely one is to become corrupt and out of touch with the everyday sufferings of everyday people. Which is interesting, because many of the most powerful figures in history started out as everyday people. Such persons often possess a keen understanding of the situation around them, which enables them to inspire others to gather around them and bring about substantial social change. However, once they become powerful themselves, they seem to forget the sufferings of the people who brought them to power, and put in place laws and policies that inflict violence upon and add to their sufferings. What is it about having a lot of power that changes people in this way? Or maybe it is not the having of power per se which changes people; perhaps it is the process of getting that power that changes people's motivations?

All of this gives rise to one thought: Is it possible for a human being to become powerful without becoming corrupt? This question is relevant not just to the powerful in society, but to each one of us. Most of us, I take it, are not absolutely powerful. But we do have some power, whether it is over our loved ones, our subordinates at work, our students, or somebody else. Which means that there is a possibility that we may use this power in a way that benefits ourselves at the expense of those over whom we have power. In a word, we have the potential to become corrupt (maybe I already am). Is there a way to enjoy (is this the right word? I don't know) this power without becoming corrupt?

Of course, one might resort to the standard yogic answer to this quandary, which would be something along the lines of, "Power is only power when you perceive it to be power. If you choose to love your fellow beings unconditionally, and try to act from this choice, then you are not exercising power over them." Well, fair enough. But we know that too many abuses have been carried out in the name of love ("I love you, so I don't want you to do x, y, or z", or "I love you, so I don't want you to be x, y, or z, and if you love me, you should listen to me, and not be x, y, or z"). So perhaps love (or at least, what counts as love for many people) does not prevent abuse of power and corruption.   

What can I do about any of this? I don't know. Hmm... maybe I shouldn't read such depressing books and think such depressing thoughts. Maybe I should just go pick up a copy of Yoga Journal or something. 


  1. It is interesting, I suppose it depends on the level of development of the individual, i/e Gandhi gathered a LOT of power, but used it for good, so did Superman, I guess it takes super-humans to be able to balance power with doing good without it going to their heads.

    I read the story of some famous roman official once, or it may have been an Indian official, I don't know, someone from history who asked a servant to remind him often : "You are only human"

  2. Indeed, Claudia. I think level of development plays a big part. After all, as Ben Parker famously said, "With great power comes great responsibility." The problem, I suppose, is how to attain this level of development.

  3. great post! ...I suppose the answer in the "how to attain this level of development" is practice....not that I'm there yet, but just a guess ;)
    I don't know if this happens in your practice, but I especially notice in balancing poses, that as soon as I think "Look at me! I'm doing whatever pose!"...that's when I fall over.

    Similar things happen in life. As soon as I start to think something is about me, I'm generally knocked immediately off my pedestal. :)

  4. Yes, Christine, this happens to me in balancing postures too; especially so for me, because I'm not very strong at balancing postures in the first place :-) And yes, the same is probably true in life...

  5. My theory is that power corrupts when one wants to hold on to it and keep it for one's interest at whatever cost. Look at Qaddafi....

    Agree with Claudia's example of Gandhi and I'd also volunteer Mother Teresa and, Guruji perhaps? They're powerful in their own way (as are all of us), but they shared freely and weren't pre-occupied with using power for their own benefit.

  6. Yes, Savasanaadict, I agree with you, especially about Qaddafi. In this case, what's even worse is that the US seems to be responding to the wrongful use of power with even more wrongful use of power (aerial bombing). But that's another story...

    I agree with Claudia's examples too. Hopefully, the practice will help us to use power more responsibly.