Power is an inescapable aspect of modern life. Our work places, social lives and even families are often made harder by the struggle for power, status, money and control. Everyone hates “office politics” but we all get sucked in to the dynamics of human power far more often than we would like. But sometimes the path to power is as indirect as the steps we take to wholehearted living.
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most respected teachers of Buddhism. A Vietnamese monk who was exiled from his country because of his activism during the American war, he has since gone on to found monasteries and teach Buddhism to millions around the world. Hanh’s work in the Zen Buddhist tradition is deceptively simple, focusing on every day tasks like walking, or washing the dishes, as gateways in to the present moment.
In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh puts forward a radically different definition of power. To be powerful is not to have a big house or car, is not to control armies, lead a Fortune 500 corporation, or be a billionaire. We pursue these things only because we believe – quite falsely – that once we have them we will be happy. But it is happiness itself that is true power.
“When you are happy, it is not difficult to earn enough money to live comfortably and simply. It is much easier to make the money that you need when you are solid and free. If you are happy, you are more likely to be comfortable in any situation. You are not afraid of anything. If you have the five spiritual powers and you lose your job, you don’t suffer much. You know how to live simply, and you can continue to be happy. You know that sooner or later you will get another job, and you are open to all possibilities.”
The five spiritual powers that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches are at the core of Buddhism, but expressed in such simple and down to earth ways that even the most most skeptical atheist can likely find some guidance in these spiritual principles:
ONE – Have faith in happiness. Unless you have some faith that you can be happy, and that being happy can come before having money, fame and status, you’ll never stop believing that money, fame or status need to come first. You have to take a leap of faith, and trust that your own happiness will catch you.
TWO – Be diligent in cultivating happiness. It’s hard to be happy when you keep doing things that make you unhappy. Gambling, drinking, arguing, negativity of all kinds, is addictive. While positive actions like eating well, exercising or growing friendships can feel much harder. But if you’re diligent in pursuing happiness, it will grow.
THREE – Be in the here and now. Mindfulness – being present in the moment, rather than lost in thoughts of past or future – is central to Buddhism, and increasingly widely understood beyond Buddhist teachings. But it’s hard! It’s only in the present moment that we can notice our thoughts, and sense our bodies, to really see the causes of our unhappiness – and our happiness.
FOUR – Get concentrating. The more time we spend in present awareness, the better we are able to concentrate on specific tasks. Anything from drinking a cup of tea, to performing a violin concerto. The better we concentrate, the better we do our tasks, and the happier we are.
FIVE – Insight is the goal. Faith, diligence, mindfulness and concentration build on one another to help us arrive at insights. These can be personal – realising that a relationship has become bad and needs to be fixed. Or they can be more universal – understanding a complex idea like interbeing. It’s these insights that make our happiness long term and lasting, far beyond the transitory “happiness” we assign to wealth or great fame.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas as I have described them are simple, and he continues to expand up them in The Art of Power. The full book is a short but tremendously valuable read. It is well accompanied by his early text Peace Is In Every Step, and the excellent After The Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfield.