The ancient wisdom of strength and true power


Knowing others is intelligence.
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength.
Mastering yourself is true power.
If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich.
~ Lao Tzu, from the 33rd verse of the Tao Te Ching

I’ve written about this shift from the crumbling old stories to the emerging new ones as a time of simultaneity. These radically different stories of who we are and why we are here leave us to navigate the dissonance and paradox of living both versions.

The phrase, “new stories,” is a rather misleading shorthand that needs a bit of clarification. The emerging stories of interconnection, belonging, humility and compassion are not really so “new.” This is not a New Age thing. And they aren’t “new,” as in new and improved. (Tom Waits’ great line from “Step Right Up” comes to mind: “It’s new, it’s improved, it’s old fashioned.”) Charles Eisenstein has coined a term, “the new and ancient story,” which is a bit unwieldy but also accurate. The story that we belong here, as part of the divine design of the cosmos, is as old as humanity.

That’s good news, because ancient wisdom traditions are full of clues for how to live into the new stories. In a recent conversation, a friend brought up this theme from the Tao about the distinction between strength and true power. This is a relevant and helpful exploration of how to live on the threshold between stories.

Trying to master or control others is, of course, one of the hallmarks of the old story of separation. It’s so ingrained that I probably recognize only about 2% of instances when it shows up, either in my own relationships (with others and myself) or in the wider world of politics, economics, or current events. If you just paused from reading for a minute, I’m certain two or three examples would come to you without effort.

I made a list of how strength and power show up, using action verbs. It’s an experiment, not meant as definitive theory, more like an exercise in waking myself up. I firmly believe that, while opposites can be a useful distinction when wrestling with something, they actually co-exist; both are true, always. Things are never black or white; they are shades on the infinite spectrum of grays in between. In that spirit, here’s the list so far. If others occur to you, please add them in a comment below.

Strength pushes.
True power yields.

Strength activates.
True power slows and stills.

Strength puts it out there.
True power receives.

Strength dictates.
True power listens.

Strength answers.
True power questions.

Strength hones in.
True power opens up.

Strength knows.
True power feels.

Strength acts and reacts.
True power pauses and waits.

Strength efforts.
True power channels.

Strength wills.
True power allows.

This is not to say, “true power is the new black,” or “strength is soooo 2013.” Seeing these on the page helps me to notice when I’m relying more on strength or on true power in my thoughts and relationships. In an earlier piece, I imagined these states as a fluid and dynamic dance between mastery and apprenticeship. The Tao frames it as mastery either way: of others or of self, and goodness knows mastery is an appealing ideal. However, in the wrong hands (mine, for instance), the goal of mastery can be a merciless driver itself. Aspiring to diligent apprenticeship in all things invites humility to be my companion, allowing a softer approach to everything.

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