Day 4: From Power To Force

Sep 12, 2005

"I have learnt one thing today: power rules. Instead of getting a job, I've decided that I will only do my own business," one of the meditation students told me on day 3 of his 10-day meditation course, with a strong sense of frustration.

As promised, the director of the school showed up today. Two of us walked with him to show him the campus. All his 120 students saw him and one could feel the waves of fear arising in them. Because he controls their college lives and their future job placements, everyone is afraid of him. Students are happy to hype up negativity by talking behind his back, but very few have the guts to face the consequences of standing up against him on principle. And even those few are always looking for strength in numbers.

To that power-craving student, I responded, "If you can't control your own mind, do you really think you can have any authentic power over anything else?"

In today's world, power is mostly equated with money. During a conversation with a very influential venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley, I once said, "Quite frankly, I just can't understand people's obsession with money." It was a direct challenge to his profession of investing and re-investing money into profitable businesses. Speaking to a 23-year-old at that time, he blankly responded, "Money is power. Without money, you can't do anything in the world, good or bad." It's a good thing I didn't listen to him, because at that point, I was starting CharityFocus. :)

Sooner or later, though, we have to ask the question about money, the underlying need (or greed?) for power, and the command-and-control organizing culture.

First, we should understand money for it is. Bernard Lietaer, a chief architect of the Euro, defines money as the information about the way we exchange energy. Today, we have started to add value to the convention of money so much so that we define ourselves by it, by our "net worth". Lietaer says that, "Economics theory teaches us that people compete for markets and raw materials; I think, in reality, people compete for money.? Considering that 95% of the currency transactions are motivated by speculative profit and less than 5% for goods and services, I would have to agree with that conclusion.

Second, we should understand our obsession with money. Most economic systems are built on the premise that there is not enough to go around; ie. something is considered to be valuable to the degree in which it is scarce. Because of this presumption, we have designed money in a way that it is always scarce. In fact, the job of the central banks is to create and maintain the currency scarcity. Consequently, we constantly experience scarcity and feel like we have to fight with each other simply to survive. Thus, in large part, society's insecurity for money is fueled by an imperfect design.

We, the people of the world, produce enough food to feed everybody today; we, the people of the world, have enough work for everyone to do in the world. So what's the problem? We are waiting for the money to arrive! Any astute observor will tell you that a system with such a bottleneck is simply a flawed design.

Fortunately, we the people of the world have now started experiments to see if a "gift economy" can actually be a viable option to greed and cut-throat competition. In Europe, there are now Give-Away Shops where people can take stuff for free; their slogan is Gandhi's quote: there is enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed. In the US, the freecycling movement has spread to hundreds of cities. And on the Internet, the 600 billion web-paged Internet that has created stellar examples like open-source software movement and a free online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. Moreover, communities are now leveraging into self-organizing units to issue "complementary currencies" that strength local community and sustainability. In Ithaca, New York, there is a currency called Ithaca Hours that can be used with your local plumber or at the town's best restaurant; some people even pay part of their rent with it and the landlord can go to the farmer?s market to buy his vegetables and eggs. In Japan, there's a private currency system called the Fureai Kippu, that is used for any care to the elderly that isn't covered by the national health insurance. Edgar Kahn's tax-exempt Time dollars lets people convert their personal time into purchasing power, by helping others in the community. And so on, there are over 5000 examples of working complementary currencies around the world.

Still, though, there's another crucial component to our obsession with money -- our greed for power.

Several years ago, I was walking through an aisle of a bookstore when I saw an intriguing title -- "Power Vs. Force". I was so struck by the title that I even forgot to pick up the book from the shelf. All of a sudden, a veil was lifted in front of me: power is what ego provides, force is what nature provides.

Generating power is an incredibly exhausting task of lining up all the ducks in exactly the right way: set up an image, manage impressions, network in places of leverage, show off your work to regenerate the cycle, and then finally expend that power to recover from the stress of the whole process. And by definition, only a few members of every group will be successful in their quest for power. The remaining majority will fail.

Then, why are we still unrelenting in our pursuit of power? Because we are afraid of being powerless. Instead of addressing our fear, we try to continue on our losing parade of power. That's our biggest flaw. Ironically, it is only when we are powerless (and hence, fearless) that we are open to receiving force. Force is an authentic state of being, where there is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to be; it blossoms with the simple realization that everything you need is contained in the ever-changing "present" in front of you.

So much of our lives are wasted in just acquiring, managing and spending a conventional medium of exchange, ie. the currency note. My guess is that the student, the principal, the venture capitalist and the 23-year-old questioner who are all operating under the influence of "power is everything" premise are actually just confused due to lack of any serious investigation.

When the source of strength is based on our impermanent circumstances, we become insecure and crave power. Instead, if our foundation rests on our ability to stay still through each changing condition, we give rise to authentic force that can actually move mountains.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."