I was running along a beautiful trail, up Gwynn Creek, towards the back of the Perpetua Ridge here on the central Oregon Coast. It was a glorious day, and everything would have been perfect had I not been so scared. Of cougars. When I told people that, they smirked. But there are cougars, I saw one two weeks ago, on my own driveway. And the old timers living up the valley here say that house cats are disappearing at an alarming rate this year. And, they say, with a smug look, where are all the deer this year? Yep, the cougar population has exploded.
So, not being a fast runner, and not being very big either, I decided my best bet was to meditate. I figured, if I could find out why my imagination was running away with thoughts of cougar, maybe I could discover what I wasn’t –what about cougar was my mind infatuated with?
It came to me immediately. Courage. Meditating on that cougar, I felt its fearlessness. And right away it hit me how much fear I live with. Of late, it’s my desk that scares me. I sit down to write and tremble. Does it sound right? Is it any good? Most of what I’m writing these days is for a public, an unknown, unnamed public (for instance, you, the reader of this blog). I have to admit, social media terrifies me. It’s speaking to a faceless, unknown critic, a powerful anonymous crowd.
And as I was running along, thinking about this, I was reminded of research on social status and power I was reading. In the lingo of social psychology, people in “high power positions fail to individuate subordinates.” In plain talk that refers to something we are all very familiar with: people in high power positions tend to lose their appreciation for the individual differences and unique personalities of those with low power or status. In other words, people in power have difficulty feeling empathy for and taking the perspective of those in lower positions.
In high rank position, we’re more focused on ourselves than on others. We are more smitten with our own opinions, perspectives, ideas and feelings. We follow hunches better, tune into our own feelings more, and can hold onto our opinions better, even in the face of opposition.
And it turns out, in a high ranking role, we are amazingly ignorant about the experience of those with less rank. We not only fail to understand their experience, but also overestimate our ability to understand them.
But here’s the interesting thing. It happens to everyone when they step into a high power position. The position creates its own psychology. There is a rank psychology, and even the most empathic person, when entering a position of high power or status, falls prey to that influence.
And this can be turned to our advantage: when we feel powerless, we can turn our gaze inward, focus on our self, our own perspectives and feelings. Going inside and losing sight of the other gives us a greater sense of power. In other words, self-focus creates the experience of high rank. It’s like the psychological state of flow so often talked about — going inside and focusing deeply and intensely on your own experience shuts out the noisy voice of the critic, dampens the sound of the crowd, and puts you in touch with your own creative experiences.
When I come back to my desk, to the tasks that make me tremble, I think of this, and I think of how one of my favorite poets and activists, Alan Ginsberg, says it:
To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.