Living our life deeply and with happiness, having time to care for our loved ones—this is another kind of success, another kind of power, and it is much more important.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
When I was in my early 20s and a young Zen student living at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, an older woman Zen teacher of mine looked me in the eyes and said, “Marc, you have a way of pissing away your power.”
I didn’t know what to make of this. I was stunned at her directness. And I was puzzled. Was this a criticism or a compliment? I felt bad, wondering why and how I was not embracing and utilizing my power. At the same time I felt encouraged because I had no idea I had any power to piss away! I thought: Where and what is the power that she sees in me, and that I don’t see? Over whom and in what context? I suspected that this statement was intended as a gift; one human being looking at another, seeing and expressing what they believe is possible in the other person. Not measuring and comparing but acknowledging an intrinsic positive quality. Perhaps at its most basic offering what she said was a compliment, but one couched in language that said ominously, “Don’t squander that gift.”
This statement has been a puzzle, a “koan” for me ever since. A koan in Zen Buddhism is a story that is used to deepen one’s understanding, to transform the way in which one experiences one’s own self and the world, generally by cutting through habits, patterns, and conventional views and attitudes. A koan doesn’t necessarily have an answer but by staying with the question it can develop understanding, uncover hidden places within one’s consciousness, and develop one’s ability for greater insight, understanding, and compassion.
In order to penetrate that rather startling statement that Zen teacher made nearly 30 years ago, I’ve had to stay with it, keep coming back to it, over and over, even when it is uncomfortable. What is my power? How do I express this power? How do I give away my power, and at what loss to me? What if giving away my power is as much a positive as a negative?
I’ve learned since that time (and I continue to learn) that there are a variety of ways that I give away my power. I give away my power:
– when I say yes and mean no
– not being honest about my feelings (acting nice, feeling angry)
– when I stop myself from reaching out to help someone in need
– when I’m not honest about what I want, and don’t want
– when I act on the fear of not being smart or competent enough
– when I do not show the best part of myself, and want to
– when I abdicate the opportunity to make tough decisions.
When we give away our power we give away our sense of belonging, rootedness and of abundance. We feel less able and less connected. Not only do we move from abundance to scarcity; our lives also shift toward greater complication and less simplicity.
I could keep going with this list, but this seems like a good start. I invite you to ask yourself wherein lies your own greatest power? How do you define personal power? How do you claim that power and how have you further developed it? How do you squander or “piss away” your power? Do you want to change that history or tendency? What part of sharing your power makes you feel better about yourself, makes you a more benevolent and effective leader?