Knowing glory and staying modest, be the valley of the world.
Being the world’s valley of eternal inexhaustible power is to go back again to the natural. . . .
Natural wood is cut up and made into useful things.
Wise souls are used to make into leaders.
Just so, a great carving is done without cutting.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The reversals and paradoxes in this great poem are the oppositions of the yin and yang—male/female, light/dark, glory/modesty—but the “knowing and being” of them, the balancing act, results in neither stasis nor synthesis. . . . Reversal, recurrence, are the movement, and yet the movement is onward.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, on the Tao Te Ching1
A central tenet of Buddhism is the concept of dependent co-origination or dependent arising. There are many approaches to understanding and describing this concept. One way is to consider any given moment of experience. In a singular moment, there are innumerable causes, conditions, and contexts that are concurrently emerging in order to create that singular moment of perception. The moment that follows also comprises innumerable causes, conditions, and contexts. Consequently, although often imperceptible to the human brain, from one moment to the next, there is a constant cycle of simultaneously arising and ceasing. This, in turn, is what creates every moment of experience, each of which is unique in some way. Cause and effect are not separate. Where one begins and another ends depends on the observer, who is also experiencing this continuous cycle of interdependence and impermanence. This paradox is present throughout the natural world, across time, space, culture, and place. One of the earliest examinations of this paradox, and its relationship to power, is in the Tao Te Ching, which provides a poetic approach to understanding the natural world and humanity’s place in it.
In Daoism, yin and yang are interrelated parts that comprise a mutual whole “whose interplay of energy makes harmony,” as Ursula K. Le Guin observes.2 These forces, she notes, are paradoxical opposites, though not in the Western sense of duality. They are not separate from one another, nor are they static. Etymologically, “yin” refers to the “shady” or “cloudy,” while “yang” refers to the “sunny,” sometimes depicted as the sunny and shady sides of a mountain. As the sun shifts over time, the sunny side becomes the shady side and vice versa. The two forces are inseparable, though always moving in dynamic tension with one another, with one force peaking before transitioning into the other.
In the Tao Te Ching, water is a prevalent element.3 It is often associated with yin energy. Unbounded in potential, water can go almost anywhere. If there is an obstruction, it just goes around. Over time, it will wear down that obstruction until it is nothing. By then, it has already moved down the way. It is living and giving rise to life in some other place. Water is also able to retain its essential nature while moving beyond an obstruction, which is one reason why it is considered the most powerful of the five elements.
Fire, meanwhile, is often associated with yang energy. Its nature is ultimate struggle, passionately seeking to expand and consume. Ungrounded, it becomes chaotic and unwavering in its destructive force. Grounded, it can be useful for creating the conditions for life. Fire destroys life so that water can give birth to life. Fire can light the way forward but fades quickly without fuel. Water, on the other hand, is its own regenerative fuel. Fire’s struggle is water’s liberation. Water can quell fire, just as fire can evaporate water.
In the current hegemonic worldview, which prioritizes patterns and dispositions of domination and relationships of “power-over,” power is often portrayed as fire.4 All of these hierarchical constructs are rooted in yang energy. The imbalance of yang in our world has shaped social movements in the modern era, so much so that the focus of social movements is often limited to an effort to control fire through institutional containers, constructed as rigid, competitive hierarchies. People become stuck in a recursive cycle of trying to put out a wildfire with fire, thereby providing fuel to perpetuate the chaotic and destructive conditions of a yang-dominant life. Interpersonally, this may manifest as petty tyranny, where generational patterns of trauma are reenacted through individual micro- or macro-aggressions, assertions of authority, or the promotion of fear through punitive processes. A common institutional example can be found in hierarchical nonprofit organizations in which a shadow culture emerges that embodies the very same conditions the institution seeks to change—a paradox present in numerous transformative or justice-centered organizations with rigid hierarchies that affirm authoritarian leadership styles while espousing counter-oppressive values. In both cases, relationships revolve around repeated, often impulsive, actions carried out by people who assume positions of authority. These actions often stem from internalized attachments to hierarchy, whether conscious or unconscious. The result is continuous struggle within the confines of human-made institutions, created from the materials of a system of interlocking oppressions. This leads to an ever-narrowing frame of reference and an ever-diminishing view of possibility.
To embody a yin-like power, to imbue the energy of water into your relational interactions with life, is to experience a form of individual liberation. But to imbue the energy of water into social movements is to experience collective liberation. This is not to say that we must abandon fire. It is delusional to think this is even possible; again, the seed of yin is in the flower of yang just as much as the seed of yang is in the flower of yin. Fire is useful at times, necessary at others. Yet, fire without water is death. A mutuality must exist between the two, and in order to balance out a raging wildfire, we must let the water flow fully and freely.
Mutuality is not a fixed state. It is not “balance” in the sense of a scale with equal weight on each side. It is a constantly shifting state of existence that is in harmony with the conditions and contexts of the moment, without trying to codify those conditions. It is an acceptance of impermanence with an embodiment of interdependence. This has both personal and political applications. The important takeaway is that the harmony between yang and yin—between our current dominant state of fire and the possible future of water—is a dance. Moreover, this dance is not temporal. It can exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future.
Within each moment of experience, there is the capacity to react to conditions in different ways. Each moment provides an opportunity to rediscover our internal power and act in a way that brings more balance into the next moment. How we act, or react, in any given moment flows from our dispositions and relationships with power, which are informed by our connections to lessons and patterns from our past (including those people that came before us), our sense of what is possible in the present, and what we envision for the future. Our sense of agency in the present moment is impacted by and will impact our awareness of the conditions that will follow. If we hold a shared vision for the future, we can cultivate ways of being in the present that support that future shared vision without contradicting those values—like water, we can retain what is essential to us while moving beyond obstructions in our path. Mutuality expands possibilities. Without a shared vision of the future, our disposition in the present becomes more reliant on existing attachments and habits, thereby limiting what is possible in the future to conditions from our past.
Drawing upon some of the earliest recorded examples of anarchist theory and praxis (primarily Daoist understandings of power, with some Zen Buddhist, indigenous, and martial influences), which are rooted in a reality that does not separate humanity from nature, this writing intends to outline an approach to power and change that promotes both internal (or individual) and collective liberation.
The Possibilities of Power
The current epoch of human history is unique and paradoxical. The potential for human evolution and collective liberation is just as great as the potential for devolution into dystopian tyrannies. At this moment, neither possibility outweighs the other—though the dominant paradigm of dystopia tries really hard to scare us into believing that fascism is the inevitable and natural outcome. This is just one vision for the future, though, which is defined by domination and promoted to narrow our sense of possibilities for the future—a limited fire that promotes purity primarily through destruction.
A future formed with the energy of water is one that flows from a mountain through various streams, rivers, and tributaries toward a vast ocean of possibility. From the present position of the mountain, one can see a wide horizon, and multiple means of making the journey toward the ocean. It may take more than one generation to traverse. Some paths may be easier than others, in some parts, for some people, and no one path is pure or perfect.5 Some streams flow into tributaries and rivers, while others remain isolated and dwindle until they no longer flow. Our awareness of the shifts in the streams and the terrain through which we tread shapes and is shaped by the surrounding environment. To move toward that ocean with the outcome of collective liberation requires more than one vision for how to get there, and more than one strategy to navigate the terrain. Movement toward that vast horizon of liberation, then, is determined by different dispositions, visions, and interpersonal patterns of power, in mutuality with the surrounding ecosystems. The cultivation of views of a vast shared horizon and the development of strategies to get there are cooperative processes dependent upon the energy we bring to this effort, who is included in the group, how decisions are made together, and our relationships with the natural environment on which the group is grounded.
In nature, systems thrive because of conditions of equity, which encourages diversity and dispersion (aka distribution). Homogeneity and concentration within natural systems leads to competition as a means of existence. It breeds inequity and prioritizes power-over. Competition is a survival strategy of a dying species.6
While competition is often portrayed as the primary force in evolution in the dominant Western worldview, rarely does it proactively produce beneficial change within a species or ecosystem, especially in contrast to factors such as mutual aid or mutations that develop in relationship to natural conditions of a species’ lived environment. As Peter Kropotkin so clearly stated over a hundred years ago: “The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. … The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.”7
The possibility of human evolution itself opens up innumerable possibilities that are currently inconceivable to any one person’s imagination. Yet, the dominant form of power and movements are often limited to what could be considered superficial understanding. They seem to think that there is some ultimate or singular way of experiencing and defining these interdependent phenomena. This position holds power as a scarce resource that can only be wielded over others. Access to that resource, then, is determined through competition. Movements, in this view, gain power by taking it away from other organizers. Consider, for instance, the tendency for nonprofit organizations with similar visions to compete for funding from the same sources, rather than attempting to cooperate by applying shared resources toward shared outcomes.
The notion that power is present only in a singular form minimizes the ability to facilitate power in a cooperative way. Limiting power’s expression and full interpersonal manifestations are key components to the patterns and experiences of domination that have developed into structures over millennia. These structures reinforce ways of being through the ritualization and policing of specific modes of interaction, which over time develop unconscious habits of internal and interpersonal domination that supersede cooperative ways of being.
These hierarchical ways of being are promulgated by humans to humans, then extrapolated to the natural world as existing everywhere in nature, regardless of actual scientific observations and refutations to the contrary. While mutual struggle is a natural part of survival, a species’ ability to thrive depends upon natural forces that foster mutual aid and the impulses toward cooperation.8 Humans have both created and normalized institutional hierarchies in order to contain and control these natural forces for selfish benefit (often personal power or social status), instead of altruistically interacting with those natural forces to continuously find harmony within each moment. An ideology of institutionalization is reified in the collective human mind through this selfish promotion of the idea that competition and domination are not only natural, but necessary everyday conditions of human life.
Through this process of normalization, structures of domination perpetuate the myth that power and movements exist within a set temporality, and that shifts in one or both take place within a current frame of reference and understanding. Institutional power and power-over are the most common types and forms of power that exist in our current reality. Yet, both of these are the furthest from nature’s living systems. In the most abstract sense, then, political power and social movements are limited to a singular form of expression that is the institutionalization of power-over. The charismatic authority figure, for example, is able to concentrate institutional power and cultivate a culture of fear because such a puritanical view of power has been normalized by their own actions (as well as the actions of obedient others whom they’ve appointed in proximal positions of authority).
Power is impermanent, always changing, shifting and flowing depending on innumerable conditions, contexts, and correlations. Power is movement, and social and political movements can be an expression of power. Movements can be a force of destruction and an element of creation. Both forces are useful and necessary. Power and movements are interdependent parts of natural, living systems—just as we are interdependent parts of natural, living systems.
A Paradigm of Power
The word “power” comes from the Latin word posse, meaning “to be able.” In this sense it refers to “ability” or “the ability to act or do.” Power can be used as a noun, verb, or adjective—though it is commonly considered a noun. At the most basic level, treating it as a noun cultivates a more static understanding that promotes the concept of power as a thingthat a person or entity can possess. From this position, power becomes easily conflated with authority, itself etymologically rooted in “ownership,” which then legitimizes the placement of power in the hands of the few.9 Since the Roman Senate, this narrow approach to power has reinforced structures and patterns of domination. The ruling class has granted themselves authority to exercise power over others, and that ability is reinforced by the institutional structures they have created. This does not, however, always have to be the case.
Treating power more like a verb—as an ability to act—moves us away from the need of external institutional permission in order to act in any given moment. This active understanding of power opens up the possibility of engaging power within one’s own body and among other bodies, which can then further grow power within the collective body.10 The most dominant approaches to engaging power tend to focus on the abstract types of power-over: institutional or state power. Other approaches, however, focus on more natural manifestations: internal and interpersonal power.
One of the most direct ways of developing a deeper relationship with your own internal power is to practice with your breath and its relationship to your body. The lower your breath goes in your body, the closer it comes to your core—specifically, your lower abdomen, just below your belly button, and your pelvic floor muscles. In meditative and martial physical practices, this can refer to your lower dantien or hara, or what could be called your energy center. The patterns of your breath impact your focus, heart rate, blood oxygen level, and autonomic nervous system (which is responsible for regulating your body’s unconscious actions). Some patterns and postures are more beneficial than others, and the intentional interruption of habit patterns of breathing can increase awareness, strength, and flexibility. The optimum pattern generally involves at least twenty-five full breaths (and no less than ten) that extend the diaphragm down toward your core at a slow and steady pace. Each breath consists of an approximate six seconds inhale (ideally through the nose), and six second exhale (through the nose or mouth), so that you are completing about five full breaths per minute. To do this, you may have to adjust your whole posture (from the crown of your head to the position of your feet) so that oxygen can flow freely and fully from your nose down your airway, lungs, diaphragm, and into your core. Syncing your breath with your core and spine while in movement are central practices to building strength in disciplines such as yoga and Pilates, and in martial arts like tàijí quán.11
The more practice one has with intentionally breathing and moving from one’s core, the more resilient and adaptable the body becomes when faced with external forces that may disrupt balance or harmony. Moving from this relational place of posture can build your internal power so that each action you make from this place is an extension of your personal power. These practices cultivate an awareness of one’s internal power and the impacts one’s actions have on others. Two or more bodies practicing together from this place can quickly build interpersonal power. A movement practice called “resonant breathing” has started to saturate many transformational spaces. There are many forms of this, though they all share conditions of two or more people syncing their breath and body movements in an intentional and relational pattern. Groups can practice while sitting, standing, lying, walking, dancing, humming, or chanting, in the same physical or virtual space. This particular practice can encourage relaxation, focus, patience, and trust, while embodying relational movement that cultivates physical and mental ability, thereby cultivating interpersonal power.12
In this paradigm, there is a continuum of power that is seeded internally and extends outward. Beginning with the personal, internal power, one can find agency, strength, and courage to choose to act based on one’s values and beliefs. This internal power fully manifests when it interacts with others’ internal power, which can cultivate interpersonal power—the ability of more than one person to act together to attain a shared outcome for the mutual benefit of the group. Additionally, the more practice one has with this cooperative power, the more one is able to recognize their own agency and how their choices impact others. And the more practice two or more people have in intentionally engaging their interpersonal power and their surrounding environment, the more skillful they can become in facilitating power for the benefit of both the group and the ecosystem within which they are acting. In this way, both internal and interpersonal power are inherently relational, regenerative, co-arising phenomena, influencing and shaped by the contexts and conditions present in any given moment. This relational occurrence influences culture within any given environment or ecosystem.
Individuals’ internalized attachments to hierarchy, and the habit patterns that they form through repeated actions, tend to institutionalize behaviors so that a static understanding of power arises within a culture. This static understanding, while it may appear natural, is dependent upon continual reinforcement through cultural cues and choices that normalize hierarchical ways of being. Over time, without the presence of structures and attachments that perpetuate patterns of domination, cultural habit patterns of hierarchy might begin to dissipate. One can begin to interrupt these habits by turning inward. Culture itself emerges from internal and interpersonal power manifested through the practice of mutual aid.13 Through cooperative practices—such as shared decision making and clear differentiation of roles and responsibilities—a different institutional culture arises that can interrupt preexisting patterns of interaction. With enough practice, this interruption of habit and intentional introduction of new ways of interacting can also become regenerative.14
Regeneration is not about permanence, keeping things as they are; it is about interdependence and impermanence, the cycles of life, the seasons of a system. These cycles build resilience through the processes of renewal, restoration, and growth. Each cycle is unique and builds upon the previous cycles’ conditions and contexts. The new cells and systems that emerge (within an individual body, as well as the collective body and ecosystem) have learned from past environmental disturbances and developed a greater capacity to recover from such obstacles in the future. Regeneration is about adaptation, movement, change, and evolution. When two or more individuals act cooperatively with the yin energy of water, from their places of power and toward a shared horizon, they are more resilient to the obstacles and challenges they face as they move toward that future place.
In this way, the regenerative capacity of social and political movements increases with adaptive actions that build resilience. The evolution of the abolition movement is one example of this generational process, from the ancestor’s actions to abolish slavery, through the movement to abolish segregation, to the present actions for police abolition. While direct confrontation has contributed significantly to these shifts, those actions alone were often suppressed by the state. However, once the vast horizon of a future of freedom without slavery, segregation, or policing emerges, a diversity of visions, strategies, and tactics can take root. Through distributed and cooperative forms of power that create paradox in the collective conscience, these modalities transform the cultural cues and patterns of domination. In this way, the collective imagination is able to regenerate within localized environments, which are interdependent with other localized environments, giving rise to renewed ecosystems over time. What was once normalized and unquestioned starts to be seen as archaic and unnecessary.15
As a whole, human society today is not regenerative. This is because we are not creating conditions for life, but the conditions for death—both for ourselves and other forms of life. Our system is based on the exploitation of death (e.g., fossil fuels, war, famine, poverty). Yet, life and death are a part of regeneration. As human beings, we get to choose to nourish life—to live and act more like water than fire. This agency allows for future regenerative actions to arise.
An Ecology of Power
Thriving ecosystems, from cellular to societal levels, contain two primary conditions: diversity and dispersion. Diversity can also be considered differentiation. Ideally, over time an ecosystem will harmonize a degree of diversity that is sustainable. Sometimes, this harmony is a result of mutations that prove to be advantageous to specific life forms as well as the interdependencies of the ecosystem; that is to say, these mutations are mutually beneficial. Dispersion, meanwhile, can also be considered distribution. If a life-form is given a large enough ecosystem in which to move around and interact, it is likely that it will adapt more quickly, which can be beneficial for the interdependencies within the system. Dispersion also supports diversity as life evolves in relationship to the environment and context in which it lives. And as a species disperses to varying environments, the likelihood it will adapt and change increases.
These conditions occur on a cellular level, such as within a single “body,” just as much as on a larger ecosystem level such as the Amazon rainforest, where biodiversity is among the greatest on the planet. Healthy ecosystems (including organisms and groups) are ones in which access to resources and the ability to regenerate are distributed across a diverse array of species and subspecies. “Diversity” in this sense is not one-dimensional identity, but also refers to beliefs/traits (genotypes/phenotypes) that are unique and differentiate between individuals of the same group or identity. It is fractal to the nth degree, while also maintaining something unique at each level of organization. Power operates in a similar way. The more distributed it is within diverse groups and ecosystems, the more regenerative it becomes. The more concentrated it is within an ecosystem, the more destructive it becomes to the system as a whole.
Examples of this can be seen in studies of employee turnover and survival rates between different institutional structures. In hierarchical organizations, where power is concentrated primarily in a few positions of authority, the turnover rate was between forty and sisty percent, and the five-year survival rate was forty to fifty percent. Employee-owned organizations, however, had an annual turnover rate of fifteen percent and a five year survival rate of sixty-four to sixty-seven percent. In cooperative structures, there are many other long-term benefits that are absent or limited within hierarchical organizations. A significant factor in cooperative survival rates is on the intentional culture of cooperation, which includes clear distribution of decision making and differentiation of distinct roles. Those organizations that survived the first five years focused energy on the practices, skills, and relationships that regenerated a cooperative culture. These cultures are better at integrating new people and more resilient in the face of departures, and become increasingly skillful at renewing cooperative practices that can adapt to changing conditions.16
From one generation of a species to the next, an exchange occurs that includes genotypes—the complete collection of information transmitted from ancestor to descendant—which support the presentation of phenotypes—the observable expressions of a being. How this exchange occurs between ancestors and descendants varies, though altruistic approaches to this transfer of knowledge are more favorable, over time, to both the specific species and the ecosystem within which the species exists. Altruism in a biological sense, applied to human power, could be defined as behavior that increases the regeneration of the group’s wisdom and beliefs (genotype) or traits and characteristics (phenotype) at some cost (reproductive capacity) to the individual actor. This is particularly important when the group is threatened by another group. It is also seen when a (permanently, partially, and/or temporarily) disabled member of the group is unable to contribute to the sustenance of the group through acquisition of resources (such as hunting), and members give their portion to the disabled member(s). The redistribution of resources is a redistribution of power. Selfishness along these lines (biological, as well as social) is about the perpetuation of beliefs or traits that serve the individual’s own implicit interest in a way that doesn’t serve the group. To return to Kropotkin, the outcome for his “unsociable” species—that they are “doomed to decay”—could be understood as interchangeable with the effects of selfish characteristics. As such, altruistic collective power is superior to selfish collective power in nature.17
A successful strategy for collective liberation, then, is one that emphasizes the importance of group altruism over individual selfishness, within and between groups. This ties into the natural regenerative nature of power and the way of water. The more some altruistic individuals within a group develop relationships with other altruistic individuals from another group, the more resilient they become and the more collective power accumulates. This accumulation, though, is distinct from concentration. Accumulation of power among altruistic groups requires that power is distributed both within each group and between the groups that are in relationship. And even though there may be some selfish individuals within each group, the collaborations of altruistic individuals between the groups supersede any individual selfishness. Over time, this process creates a strong social norm of altruism that prevails against any selfish expressions. Indigenous-led movements for sovereignty, as well as environmental protection and renewal, offer numerous examples of this strategy that have shaped conscious actions and alliances across generations and groups. Like water, the collective power wears down the selfishness and continues moving forward, while retaining its essential nature.
The Dominance of Institutional Power
Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it is useful.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Institutional power is often the one we recognize, relate to, and exist within. Institutional power is separate from ourselves, while at the same time it influences and shapes much of our waking life—at least, there are countless coercive ways in which institutions seek to do so. It is the yang energy without the grounding yin.
Most modern institutions are containers based on a historical, hierarchical, tyrannical structure that consolidates power at the top. This structure is propped up by the great lie of meritocracy, which helps reinforce a specific belief system that excuses structural domination, while ignoring generations of oppressive tactics intended to mitigate the natural demise of such a cannibalistic system as capitalism. Institutional power embodies the paradox of our current state as power is concentrated in a disembodied entity divorced from anything living or tangible. It is, for example, the corporation that is legally a person, with more legal rights than a living being or ecosystem.
In some ways, there is life—or, at least, the appearance of life—within institutions, particularly in the individual and collective interactions that occur inside them. The institution itself does not have a life to lose—at least, not naturally speaking. Yet, there are entire fields dedicated to the “life cycle” of an institution.18
Fabio Rojas, whose work examines the intersections of organizational analysis and political sociology, has offered a couple of definitions of institutions that are useful:
- Institutions are stable patterns of behavior that define, govern, and constrain action.
- An institution is an organization or other formal social structure that governs a field of action.20
In both examples, the institution is a force of constraint. The power it wields is, in effect, against that of life and liberation. At the same time, institutional power (whether for-profit, nonprofit, or based in an association or other formal group) can be crucial for creating the conditions for collective liberation, particularly in our corporate society. The nonprofit industrial complex is based on corporate structure and legal restrictions, which inherently limit the horizon toward which they can move. Nonprofits are limited to organizational forms that will always be confining, regardless of size. In order to move toward a horizon of collective liberation, we must hold a both/and approach that addresses immediate issues of inequity while also cultivating patterns of behavior that support long-term liberation.20
For every human-made organization the usefulness is not the group itself. The usefulness is the space within the group, where life and elements can move, be moved, shift, change, grow, and disperse. An organization is only as useful as the things contained within it. These things are not dependent upon the group for their own usefulness. In this sense, they are more like tools or conduits for change than actual agents of change. This means that while we can leverage institutions to support conditions for transformation, we should not depend on them to create sparks of change. Our capitalist society creates bureaucracies to restrain financial flow, which it imposes on institutions that intend to support social change. This burden can cause institutions to lose sight of their mission and vision due to their constant focus on maintaining the financial bureaucracy that validates their existence. In response to this condition, numerous cooperative groups and coalitions have moved, like water, around such obstacles by creating conscious tax-exempt institutions like foundations, fiscal sponsors, or other umbrella organizations that let resources flow through a funnel to be more widely redistributed. These specific institutions serve the bureaucratic requirement, while allowing community groups to focus on actions that support their own purposes. The intentional creation of such short-term groups best serves a vast horizon when its bureaucracy is managed by those benefiting from its existence, rather than restricting access to resources based on superficial conditions. When the group’s purpose is served, its existence becomes unnecessary and it can be dissolved.
The Mutuality of Natural Power
Interpersonal and internal power are rooted deep within the natural world. We can still experience them outside of human-made systems and structures. Internal power and interpersonal power are distinct and interdependent. We can’t have one without a relationship to the other. It’s not possible to have either/or. Therefore, it is important to have a deep understanding of your own internal, personal power, in whatever form it may take.
That is not to say that there are not challenges to internal power—context matters. Some people, for example, develop a relationship to their internal power so as to better exercise power over others. This approach to internal power is limited and limiting. By moving like water, however, you can develop an altruistic relationship with your own internal power. This way you can become aware of it in different settings—whether in power-over or in power-with (collective) settings. Furthermore, by setting the intention to strengthen this relationship to internal power, you can engage in collective power more fully and allow for mutuality to arise.
Mutuality cannot be forced or controlled. It requires consent and willingness from both/all sides. If you intervene or calculate or hold expectations, then mutuality cannot occur, as it becomes a transactional relationship. Sometimes it takes lifetimes to achieve. Other times it arises in what feels like an instant. Mutuality is an acknowledgment that two or more connected beings share a past, present, and future, and that through this connection liberation and evolution are possible for all beings. It is continually acknowledging and discovering our humanity in relation to other life.
To recognize interpersonal power in this way—to allow mutuality to arise, without trying to control it, without attaching to the outcome of creating mutuality, without expecting mutuality to arise—requires courage: The courage to adapt to unpredictable conditions. The courage to be like water and flow where the openings are without getting stuck in the obstacles.
To cultivate mutuality, then, requires our courage to reflect upon and challenge our own attachments, judgements, and expectations. At the practical level, mutuality requires us to courageously and continuously interrupt our own internalized attachments to hierarchical forms and relationships, and to develop intentional practices that cultivate new liberatory internal and interpersonal practices. It requires us to know the obstacles of our own attachments and dispositions of hierarchical patterns, and to move through them toward ways of being that are aligned with our shared values and horizon.
Developing Dispositions of a Vast Horizon
While we must always have a horizon in mind, we mustn’t neglect the steps directly in front of us. The next few steps are as important as the horizon toward which we are walking. And the way we make those steps influences the paths we move along. The “knowing and being” of that horizon in each step we make becomes clearer as we walk forward, together—always returning to what is, while at the same time becoming what could be.21
The ability of an individual to shape change diminishes the more one moves away from the immediate, personal types of power toward the hierarchical, institutional types of power. In every context, situation, and moment, we have the ability to choose how we will act (or react). Even so, the environment supersedes our internal agency in shaping habits.23Our choices are limited by the constraints of the containers of institutional power. Sometimes this leaves us with severely limited choices, in which we cannot clearly see a good choice. One common example is the “lesser of two evils” in our electoral system. Even within these expressions of institutional power, however, there are choices that can be made that move us closer to the horizon of collective liberation.
One way to strengthen our internal agency and interpersonal power is to build and strengthen supportive habits, which requires repeated intentional practice and the co-creation of liberatory environments. In this sense, one’s intentional integration and embodiment of anarchist values in everyday interactions and environments provide opportunities to build and strengthen one’s agency and the agency of others. The more each of us interrupts our internalized attachments to hierarchy and cultivates alternative ways of being with others, the more agency and power are available within the collective movement toward liberation. It becomes easier to interrupt our own habit patterns and cultivate alternative dispositions with each attempt. Our bodies begin to build different ways of orienting toward action, and this orientation exponentially increases with each intentional, relational occurrence. This is regenerative power.
How we act in any given moment flows from our relationship to power and our environment in that moment. Deepening our relationship to our own internal power, and that of others, expands what is possible for us to envision and enact. In this place of practice, we can begin not only to sense a vast horizon of possibility, but to embody new ways of just interaction, rooted in the natural world, that are regenerative and resilient. From here, we can transition from a limited view of possibility, to a living, mutual place of power that exists without the structures and patterns of hierarchy.
This essay was originally written for Perspectives forthcoming “Power” issue. We offer it now in anticipation of the print issue which, at over 200 pages, will appear early in Spring, 2021. Perspectives Power issue will be available from AK Press and Powell’s Books
Tyson Casey began to experiment with somatic practices while reinventing himself after a work-related injury led to a chronic disability. He works as a coach, facilitator, and educator, and is Assistant Professor of Leadership and Movements at Starr King School for the Ministry. Tyson is a passionate Kado practitioner, an avid science fiction reader, and a continual learner. He lives in Fresno, California, with his spouse and their elderly Italian Greyhound.
1 Ursula K. Le Guin, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching; A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1997), 38–39.
2 Ibid., 57. Chapter 42 contains the only appearance of yin and yang in the Tao Te Ching.
3 In Daoism and Asian medicine, the Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water) are generated from the interactions between yin and yang.
4 Specifically, this is in reference to our neoliberal capitalist, white-supremacist, colonialist, ableist, imperialist, cis-heteropatriarchal hegemonic worldview.
5 Purity is most often promoted from positions of privilege and power-over.
6 As Janine Benyus, cofounder of the Biomimicry Institute, notes, “Competition or awards for maximizing (being the best) are not good in nature, because at that level you are on the verge of extinction.”
7 Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Manchester, NH: Extending Horizons Books, 1955), 293.
8 Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid essays were among the first scientific studies to extensively challenge the popular claim that competition is the primary driver of evolution, without denying the importance of mutual struggle (or intraspecies competition). To this day, his observations and analyses regarding cooperation are more consistent with current insights into the natural world. For a brief overview of this book’s relevance and legacy, see Iain McKay’s pamphlet Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation (Oakland: AK Press, 2010).
9 In the era of organizational development, this conflation is extended to “leadership” and “leader.” What is generally considered “leadership development” is actually authoritarian development, in that it is focused on the ownership of power and control within an institution or group.
10 See Starhawk’s writing on types of power in Webs of Power (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2002) and Truth or Dare (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), as well as Subcomandante Marcos “Power as a Mirror and an Image” (1995) in !Ya Basta! (Oakland: AK Press, 2004) and Beyond Resistance: Everything (Durham: PaperBoat, 2007), and Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, volume 1, An Introduction (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
11 For more on the science, benefits, and practices of breathing, see James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (New York: Riverhead, 2020).
12 Resonant breathing has also been called coherent breathing. I first learned of this in movement spaces from Oakland-based members of the Far Flung Sangha, an international community of practice within the Rinzai Zen lineage.
13 Kropotkin discusses the role mutual aid plays in the arts, education, industry, and knowledge production.
14 See Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood series for an excellent exploration in evolution, intelligence, hierarchy, and mutual aid.
15 This is not to say that these institutional forms of power-over disappear completely. As we’ve seen, they often adapt and take new forms. Slavery, segregation, and policing have shifted and are still present to this day. Arguably, a primary reason for this has been compromise: the retention of the overarching system of institutional domination in exchange for programs or policies that provide short-term relief.
16 See Hilary Abell’s Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale (The Democracy Collaborative, 2014) for a concise overview of the benefits and challenges of cooperative organizations.
17 To borrow from D.S Wilson and E.O. Wilson’s claim that “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” (Wilson and Wilson, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 82, no. 4 (2007): 345). Also see Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell for an exploration of mutual aid and natural disasters.
18 There are individuals who are perpetuating institutions of domination, oppression, and exploitation—whether they truly want to or not—as a result of these very same institutional power structures.
19 Fabio Rojas, “Institutions,” Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), oxfordbibliographies.com. Rojas is Professor of Sociology at Indiana University, Bloomington, and currently serves as coeditor of the magazine Contexts: Understanding People in their Social Worlds.
20 Practically speaking, we must embrace the paradox of utilizing NGOs to sustain movements, while acknowledging that the institutions themselves are not sustainable.
21 A horizon is vast and can contain multiple, distinct visions of the future. This understanding, and the concept of mutuality as expressed here, is heavily influenced by the teachings of Norma Ryuko Kawelokū Wong Roshi.
22 The field of environmental psychology covers a wide range of approaches to understanding environments’ impacts on behavior. Some psychologists in this field consider the environment to have a greater influence on individuals and groups than internal conditions such as genetics or external factors such as nurturance. This perspective seems most prevalent in the study of habits and performance studies.