The power we have and the power we give away

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We each of us have incredible power to impact the world. Every thought that is spoken or acted upon sets into motion a chain of reactions — a ripple effect. Given this nature of things, we can see how important it is to be present, mindful and compassionate.

Even the expression on our face at any given moment can set something into motion, perhaps something we never intended. This was driven home to me when, after the absence of many weeks, a fellow Toastmaster showed up at a meeting. I was happy to see her and mentioned how much I enjoyed her last speech. ‘You did?’ she replied, clearly amazed.

‘Oh yes, very much so!’ I assured her. She then told me that she had been taking time out to lick her wounds after feeling she had given a terrible speech, and one of the indicators to her that it hadn’t been good was the expression of concern she saw on my face while she was speaking.

Oh dear! I don’t remember being concerned. Maybe my mind had wandered for a moment? Maybe I had gas? Who knows? It was so long ago. It never crossed my mind that I could have that much impact just in the way the muscles of my face configure themselves.

She had given me too much power and I had been oblivious to the power I had. It seems that many women in particular do both these things quite readily. We seek approval from outside ourselves, and doubt that anything we say or do could really make an impact on someone else. But it turns out that the people we vest with power are unreliable resources; and conversely, without even knowing it we have encouraged and discouraged those around us at a time when they were unsure of their course and looking for external cues.

Think of a time when you gave up on something you wanted to do because you got discouraged. What discouraged you? What disheartened you? What caused you to lose your enthusiasm for what you were doing?

Was it something someone said, or didn’t say? Was it a look on someone’s face when you talked about it? Or the way they changed the subject or looked away, as if to avoid saying what they thought about it? Or was it your own assumption about what they would say, based on your past observations? It is so very easy to be turned away from a course we were enthusiastic about just the day before. I know this all too well!

At those moments it pays to notice whose opinion we are hearing in our head. What are the words we are hearing? And then to follow the source, question the source and be aware of how we are giving away so much power to a source that perhaps isn’t giving that message at all.

In this kind of inner exploration, the more particular we can get the more effective the process will be. The more clearly we can expose the exact time and place and people in these crystallized message-memories, by describing them in detail, even write them down, the better we will be able to recognize them when they rise up again to sabotage our efforts. Here’s an example from my life:

Circa 1959, in our family home in San Francisco; over after-work cocktails, my parents are having their daily sharings of their days. I was the innocuous eavesdropper sitting in their midst, always amazed at their ability to remember what people said and did with such exactitude. Yet more than 50 years later I perfectly remember their words as that particular evening they belittled a neighbor woman who ‘sits at her typewriter all day long writing a “novel” (air quotes), for God’s sake. Who does she think she is?’

Apparently it doesn’t matter to our tender vulnerable psyches whether we are the subject of the disparaging remarks. I was twelve years old and already writing stories, though not sharing them. Their scoffing laughter at this neighbor made the world feel like an unsafe place for creative pursuits. People would talk behind my back if I dared to think I could write. (I still imagine they do, come to think of it.) My enthusiasm for writing dried up a bit that evening. Being a writer was clearly a foolish activity.

So that’s a very specific memory from my life. Now think of a powerful message-memory from your own life that gives you pause when you think of undertaking something for which you have some enthusiasm. The one that rises up to shoot you down. Flush it out with details, and see yourself and the person or persons in that long ago moment very clearly from this present vantage point of being an adult. This will give you a clearer and more compassionate view.

The purpose of this exercise is not to place blame. Were my parents alive today there would be no benefit in confronting them with it. Their words inadvertently may have set something in motion, but I am the one who keeps those words alive. I am the one who uses the memory as a tool of sabotage, albeit unconsciously.
So I have the power of awareness to see how I use that memory to suck the joy out of a moment of enthusiasm.
I have the power of compassion for my parents in their own fear-based unskillfulness, probably not even registering I was witness to this conversation or that it would matter to me.
I have the power of compassion for my child self who made their words into a monument of memory.
I have the power to understand that as an adult I have many other resources and experiences to draw from to help balance out the effects of that moment.
And I have the power to see that no one in the world is so all-knowing that their opinion on my life should prevail.
This sense of empowerment builds resilience that aids me when I feel under attack. I used to be so defensive. Ask my brother! Ask my husband! I might sulk or I might lash out at the ‘attacker’. Fortunately, through mindfulness practice, I have mellowed. I am not impervious to the pain, but I see more clearly how the process unfolds, how the slight may not have been intended, and if it was intended, the person is lashing out in response to feeling attacked by someone else and is probably projecting it on me. There’s a lot more room for questioning and a lot less need to be right.
I remind myself that ‘I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to defend. I have nothing to hide. I have something to give.’ This phrase that came to me while on a silent retreat years ago supports me still.
The process of recognizing an embedded memory that sabotages or deflates us in order to bring it into the light of our awareness is a most valuable one. As we come upon thought-memories traveling through our field of awareness, we don’t have to shy away from them, feel shame and determine blame. We can hold them in an open loving embrace and let their presence remind us that we are each of us powerful beyond our wildest imagining.
So we see that we are more powerful than we realize and when we discount our power we can inadvertently cause harm. A mild comment might be transformed within a person’s head, amplified, transmogrified into something much more toxic, by the pre-existing condition of childhood taunts, criticisms of self or even of others.
At the same time we may give away our power to others and make life choices based on what we hear from others, even many decades ago.
If we have that much power, can handle our words and even our body language more effectively? If we think praise, can we speak the praise, and say it directly to the person we are praising not to someone else, and can we do so in a timely fashion?
If we rely on others for cues, are we assuming something not in evidence? If so, can we get clarification as quickly as possible? For old wounding words that continue to rankle and deter us from our course, can we do a little investigation to find out whose voices we are listening to, what assumptions we are making? Can we bring them to light, question them, have compassion for the speakers who were dealing with their own struggles, speaking what was said to them when they were young, etc.?
And can we send metta, loving-kindness to them, after we have given it to ourselves? May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy……May you be well, etc.
This is the practice.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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