The Life of Power and How We Can Channel It

The experience of power is thrilling — intoxicating, even. It evokes expansion, overcoming, assertion, virility, strength. The lack of power is also a visceral experience: it can demoralize and imbue contraction, smallness, weakness, passivity and despair. We experience our power and powerlessness all the time, and yet it defies any simple definition. What is power, really? What is its source, and how does it grow or fade?

In The Anatomy of Power, John Kenneth Galbraith describes a traditional view of power this way: “The exercise of power, the submission of some to the will of others, is inevitable in modern society; nothing whatever is accomplished without it.” Notice how he equates power with dominance and submission. Clearly these are key aspects of power, but aren’t there other important ways power expresses itself in everything that moves, grows and changes?

The traditional view (most famously articulated by Robert Dahl’s The Concept of Power) limits power to something quantifiable: how much I can get you to do that you wouldn’t do otherwise. It’s always about our power over others. We automatically connect it to our hierarchies of authority: our bosses, government officials, coaches, parents, and religious authorities. Of course, we do feel powerful when we hold these roles and direct how others act. But this leaves out the power that we feel with and through others.

How do you describe the feeling of power you feel when you participate in a protest, or when you volunteer with others to serve the needy or clean the Earth? For me, these experiences are far more rewarding because the power is shared with those around me, rather than something I hold over them. We should question why traditional views of power leave these important aspects out, and then reflect on how this shapes the way we automatically think of power in our lives. As we do this, we see that we are far more powerful than we ordinarily think.

In Sensuous Knowledge, Minna Salami shows this view of ‘power as dominance’ to be rooted in patriarchal, euro-centric thought and therefore lacks or even devalues any conception of power traditionally held by women, Black people, indigenous populations and others. In contrast, her notion of power is “entangled with nature,” forming “dendritic patterns” that branch and re-branch repeatedly like rivers, veins, and neurons. It is a current that flows, and it can be harnessed or opposed with our own efforts.

Seen this way, power is alive and moving in the world even before we arrive on the scene. It’s not just about getting others to do things they don’t want to do. Power is an organic process underlying all change and growth, and its nature is to expand itself in “self-mirroring patterns as many times as possible.” When one branch reaches its end, another sprouts somewhere else in a new direction. Salami’s imagery captures all the ways power flows in and through the spaces of life, replicating and expanding as it learns new ways to thrive.

How does thinking of power in this way change how you feel power in your life? Salami urges calling upon this perspective whenever you feel powerless. Whether that happens at work or home, you can then see it as only one branch of the many that flow through your life. There are always other branches of power available to you, even if they aren’t fully realized yet. They are waiting for your spark of energy to bring them to life, so they can empower you and others you touch. There are even entire networks of power that can be activated when people sharing this perspective align their energy.

What are all the ways power appears in your life? Where it feels uplifting, how can you align yourself more with it? Where it represses you, how could you resolve to resist and counter it even more? Think of the latent power in your networks that could be tapped if your connections shared this perspective. How can you help those around you see their power, and the power that flows between you? We are capable of so much more than we know. When we start to see and feel our true power, we become unstoppable.


  • drawing by pigwire

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