Political Hope with Charles Eisenstein
The question of power rests on a theory of change.
Who we think has power depends on how we think change happens in the world. I’d like to go to the story of separation, which informs our understanding of what change is, how it happens, and therefore, who has power and who doesn’t. In the story of separation, change happens when a force is exerted upon the world. This is Newtonian mechanics. A force pushes a mass and the mass accelerates. If no force is exerted, the mass keeps moving along at its current velocity.
The world keeps moving like a clockwork, unless something comes to intercede and push it in another direction. So the theory of change is based on force. That kind of explains why human progress is conceived as an increase in our ability to exercise force and the precision with which we can exercise it. It’s part of the program of control. It’s one reason why so much of our environmental discourses around energy fuels because that is what gives us the ability to exercise force. It’s necessary in a universe where things don’t just happen on their own without a force-based cause. That’s all coming from the story of separation.
In that story, the more force you can exert, the more powerful you are. So who’s powerful?
It’s those who have lots of force at their command. Back in the old days, the one with the most power was the strongest, biggest man who could use his muscular force to The question of power rests on a theory of change.
It’s those who have lots of force at their command. Back in the old days, the one with the most power was the strongest, biggest man who could use his muscular force to dominate others. But then we developed machines, money, and guns. Afterwards, the most powerful person became the one who had others at his command, a lot of hierarchical power, and a lot of money to make people do his bidding. Maybe in the internet age the most powerful person is the one with the most name recognition, the biggest platform, the biggest audience, the most likes, or the biggest mailing list.
It comes down to scaling up. If we have a different story of the world, a story in which things don’t have to be forced to happen, this is a major disruption in the story of separation. In quantum mechanics, it’s called a causality, where something just happens and there isn’t a force making it happen. You have two identical uranium atoms and one of them at some point decays and releases alpha particles. The other one doesn’t. The mind of separation says, why? There has to be a reason. There has to be a cause. There has to be something that made this one decay. It’s about force. How do we make people change their minds? How do we make people change their beliefs? This mentality of force is so pervasive in our political thinking. What made this uranium atom decay? What made this photon go this direction through the single slit and that one go another direction? What made it happen? That’s what the mind of separation wants to know.
In quantum mechanics that is incoherent, nothing made it happen. At least most interpretations of quantum mechanics say it just happens. It is beyond any attempt to control it. If we extend that to a world full of beings where everything has agency and everything has choice, change in the world does not depend on imposing it. We can instead align with it, participate in it, and experience change that is much bigger than what we can force to happen. That’s good news because if we are restricted to what we can make happen in the world, it’s hopeless.
How are you going to make change happen when whatever forces you name as the evil-controlling ones are more powerful than you? How are you going to make change happen when you’re faced with the military industrial complex, the surveillance state, the centralized media, the centralized financial industry, Big Pharma, Big Ag, and Big Data? Are you going to overthrow them by force? Fortunately, that story of change, that theory of change that’s based on force, is a tiny sliver of all the ways change happens in this world.
I’d like to put a little bit of logic around a felt intuition using the tools of reason here, but really nothing I’m talking about comes from logic fundamentally. It comes from an attempt to give logical clothing on an intuition or a felt experience that violated, and continues to violate, what I’d been told about the way change happens in the world.
This felt experience, I’m sure you’ve had it too. You’re in some kind of situation and maybe it’s your call to be at the bedside of someone you love who is dying, to take care of someone who’s sick, or to attend to somebody in need. Maybe you have to drop everything to do it, but this feels more important right now. This feeling of “this is the most important thing I could be doing right now.” Usually, but not always, that’s some kind of personal relationship. It’s a situation that isn’t going to scale up, isn’t going to go viral. Your mind cannot say, “How is this important to the way that the world will be in 500 years?” But it feels important. Is that feeling just kind of a sentimental distraction from the pragmatic work we have to do in the world? Or can we trust that feeling?
In the story of separation, you can’t really trust that feeling. We have to overcome that feeling. Maybe it’s irrelevant. In the story of interbeing, a theory of change that makes a lot of sense is the theory of morphic resonance, or morphogenetic fields. I believe this term was coined by Rupert Sheldrake, and it says that it’s about how change happens. It says that any change that happens in one place, in one moment, generates a field of change so that the same change begins happening more easily somewhere else. Any time you put down all of the things that seemed so urgent to spend some time with this friend in need, the sick person, or this dying person, that act of kindness and compassion generates a field, or it strengthens the field of kindness and compassion.
It’s like supporting the rising tide so that somebody across the world who’s facing the same decision asks, “Do I do this pragmatic thing that seems necessary? Or do I do the kind thing?” Maybe they choose the kind of thing too because there’s a little bit of support in the psychic atmosphere for that choice. Maybe that person is a dictator or an army captain who has to decide whether to order his troops to shoot at the protestors. And his rational mind, which has been indoctrinated with a certain political story, says he better say, “Yeah, better give that order.” And his fear-based mind says, “If I don’t, I’m going to be court-martialed for insubordination.” His fear-based mind says, “Yeah, give that order.” If you’ve been strengthening the climate of fear and the climate of mindless, unquestioning belief in an ideology, a political story, you’re supporting him giving that order. If you’ve made a courageous choice to listen to something else, you’re adding to that field that might support him in making an act of courage himself. “No, do not shoot. Stand down. Let’s join the protestors.”
A long time ago, I was having marital difficulties. This is back in the days when I was married to Patsy, my beautiful and fabulous ex-wife, now my very dear friend. Back in those days, we weren’t such good friends and there was one time that she really got me mad. I just wanted to let her have it. I left the house. I was walking around the neighborhood and I was boiling with these scenarios to just get her to finally let loose with my rage and really go to war. The phrase that went to mind was “go nuclear.” Then I had this alarming realization, totally irrational, but it was, “Charles, if you do that, if you go nuclear, then there will be a nuclear war.” I would be declaring what reality is. If I can’t restrain myself from attacking the person I love the most, how can I expect global leaders to restrain themselves? If I go nuclear, I’m aligning with a world in which nuclear war is inevitable, in which people do this. I’m declaring what reality is and shall be. That thought was sobering.
I went home and continued to hold out for peace. Many years later, there is peace. There are a lot of people doing this kind of work in the world. Right now, there are many people who are making these hard choices to take ownership for their projections, to not see the other person as just the enemy or just the perpetrator. They are trying hard to be compassionate. This is bearing fruit.
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we have actually avoided a lot of wars in the last few years. The military industrial complex, neo-cons, et cetera all wanted a war in Syria and they didn’t get it. They really wanted a big war with Iran. They didn’t get it. They wanted to invade Venezuela. It didn’t happen. Something always got in the way. I call it peace consciousness. I cannot trace a direct causal link between whatever stopped these wars and the meditators, the peacemakers, the nonviolent communicators, all these people doing personal and relational and social work, but I can feel the climate changing.
When we embrace morphic resonance as a theory of change, it’s immediately obvious that every person is equally powerful, whether or not their change is immediately obvious. If you are the president or some other powerful person, your choices can have a huge, immediate impact on millions of people. If you are a humble Uber driver, homemaker, or caring for children, the choices you make, the patients you struggle for, in that moment you could just let that kid have it with some shaming comment, but instead you remember. You say something kind that brings their attention to their behavior, but in a respectful way. Like that hard choice, that internal struggle, or that sacrifice you make. So much of the work that needs to be done the most in this world is humble work, caring for disabled people, caring for addicted people, and caring for sick people. There is so much humble healing work that needs to be done.
The theory of change that is the old story, that bigger is better, it leaves out all of those things. It says that those are less important than the big things. If you want to make a big change in the world, you better get big. You better build your mailing list. You better build your platform. You better accumulate a lot of money so you can do something worthwhile, and so you can have real impact. If you’re just a small person, then you won’t have any real impact. That’s pretty toxic. It sets us all into competition. Even if we are serving ecological healing, when the rubber meets the road, we’re still engaging the same paradigm of competition, like trying to get mailing lists for example. Trying to get funding dollars.
You know who one of the most impactful people has been in my life? People ask me that a lot. When I get interviewed for some magazine or something, they’re like, “Who’s been the biggest influence in your life?” And they’re hoping I will name somebody well-known. Charles sourced his ideas from Mahatma Gandhi or from Eckhart Tolle or from so-and-so. I’ve been looking into their work, but actually the people who have had the biggest impact on me, you will never know their name. There’ll be no point in telling you their name. I don’t even necessarily know their name.
One of them was a motorcycle mechanic in Taiwan, where I lived for many years. He was one of these sidewalk motorcycle shops basically. There was a little garage, but a lot of the work is done out on the sidewalk and the bikes are parked out there. He was so consistently generous and kind to every single person who came into that shop. One time there was even a belligerent drunk that was trying to pick a fight with the patrons and the employees, and the owner comes out and puts his hand around his shoulder. He’s just so cheerful that the drunk loses the will to fight and walks away happy. He would hire people like ex-cons to work in his motorcycle shop. I don’t know why he was always so generous to me. He wouldn’t charge me for things. I tried to do him a favor and bring my friends to buy motorcycles from him, but he would give them a good deal too. He was just this endless fountain of generosity. It’s not that he ever gave me a teaching in words, but the very presence of this man imprinted onto my psyche. It changed my understanding of what it is to be human.
There’s others like him that have come into my life. There was a woman who helped when we had our first child. Patsy and I were in Taiwan. Our first baby was very difficult. His name was Jimmy and he was just inconsolably crying all the time. We didn’t know why. We would have to take turns carrying him all night because he couldn’t even sleep if he was not being carried. After a few mishaps, we found this woman, Mrs. Shia, who helped us. She came for five hours a day and we paid her some money. She was kind of like a babysitter, household helper, and nanny, a very simple woman. One time I explained to her where rain comes from. Evaporation, clouds, and then it rains. She was blown away by that concept. She had no idea. She was totally uneducated and she thought I was a super genius for understanding how rain happens. She was just a very simple person, but she came and gave love and tender care to our son when Patsy and I were at wit’s end.
She made an incredible imprint on me. She wanted nothing for herself, pure service, like an angel in flesh form. The motorcycle mechanic, a garbage man, and some other people as well. Who I am today, whatever work I am doing, and whatever ideas I’m carrying into the world is thanks to those people. I would literally not be as receptive to the extent that what I’m offering is at all useful and valuable, and that it is at all contributing to a more beautiful world. Why am I able to do this? It’s not because of some inborn superiority. It’s because of the totality of the relationships that have taken me to this place. Most of those relationships are with people who are never going to be famous and never thought of themselves as being a big change maker. They had no ambition to save the world.
A lot of evil has been done in the name of saving the world. My heroes had no delusion that they were saving the world, but they were standing in a place of love that brought me into their morphic field of love and made certain ideas more natural to me. I’m able to speak to them with more heart because of what I’ve received from these beings. If you want to be part of world healing, you don’t have to be one of the big people. Maybe you will be, I’m not saying to avoid such a role. You don’t have to have a big voice on a big platform like I do.
In the old story I could tell myself, “Yeah, I’m doing a big thing. I’m really a big part of the solution. A big part of the healing.” That is a deception. That is a delusion. I’m not less apart than Mrs. Shia, but I’m not more a part either. I’m not devaluing what I do, but it would be inaccurate for me to overvalue it beyond what Mrs. Shia does, or what that motorcycle mechanic does. Our power in the world, our actions in the world, are powerful to the extent that they participate in interbeing, in love, in compassion, and in kindness. They are powerful to do what? They are powerful to create a world aligned with those qualities.
Every act is powerful, and this means you can be serene in your role in the world. Maybe your participation in world healing is to be a big person, but maybe it’s to be more like Mrs. Shia. I don’t know who my son will become because of that love that came when he really needed it. I don’t know who he would be today without that. I don’t know who his children will be or would be if he hadn’t received that love. Every time you’ve chosen patience with somebody close to you in your life, you’ve made an imprint on them. Every time you’ve stood in that column of love that is projected from the most beautiful future you can imagine onto the present, and you’ve stood in that, spoken from that, and acted from that, you’ve made an imprint on everybody you’ve engaged with. You’ve become part of what they become. Maybe your greatest service to the world is something like that. Something that doesn’t even register as a blip on the radar in the old theory of change. This is not to say don’t participate in the play of political power. Don’t participate in politics, just focus on the small stuff. This is to say whatever you are engaging in at this moment, whether it is small or whether it’s political, as you do so remember to serve love, to serve compassion, to serve kindness, and to serve generosity. Do these things, the political things, the social things, the relational things, do everything in that same energy. Even if you fail in your immediate objective of electing a certain candidate, or getting something on the ballot initiative, even if you fail on that, at least in the process of doing so you’ve added to the amount of love in the world. You’ve strengthened that morphic field. You’ve strengthened the field of interbeing. As long as you do that, you cannot fail.
This will not answer your question, “Should I participate in politics or not? Should I be political or not? Should I keep up with the candidates? Should I keep up with the news?” The question isn’t should I, or shouldn’t I, the question is, “How will I participate? In what spirit will I participate to remember what you’re really here to serve?” To serve the birth of a story of interbeing in this world. To serve the revolution of love. You can serve that in any circumstance. As you do that, you are powerful.
Trust that you are powerful. Trust that feeling of significance in those moments of choice. Touch the part of yourself right now that knows that this is true. Finally, hold this knowledge for the people around you as well. Know them as powerful beings too. Understand that their choices are just as significant as anybody else’s. Devalue no one. In this knowledge, we can all become agents of the awakening to our power. This does not make us politically compliant. This makes us politically indomitable and unstoppable.
As we practice courage in our personal relationships, we generate the field of courage that will carry us through the most difficult political upheavals.