By Jonny Gerkin, MD
Power is that fantasy of control, so that you don’t have to experience what you fear. Strength is the capacity to experience all that there is and remain responsive. Power has its place at the right time. I don’t mean to cast power aside into the dust bin of a ‘new-agey’ sounding, abstract yet liberating rhetoric. I mean to see power for what it is and help others do the same: good enough at times, but far short of the strength of vulnerability, presence and mindful, compassionate response.
So, what is it to be vulnerable?
What is it to be present?
How does one respond mindfully and with compassion to oneself and others?
There are myriad ways to define and describe these capacities. What resonates with me, may not resonate with you. That said, my belief is that all humans know what it is to suffer, to not be able to turn back time, or effectively turn off their mental or bodily experience or re-experiencing. Nearly all humans, at some level, know that we share the common experience of feeling out of control, yet striving to feel how we want to feel despite this. My version, of the now so ubiquitously lamented imposter syndrome, has always been related to my unavoidable worries that I am not smart enough or tough enough to actually be what I profess to be.
What do I profess to be you might ask? I describe myself as a privileged, male, academic-clinical psychiatrist, who is a self-taught secular Buddhist and third-wave behaviorist. I am also Appalachian and the son of a severely mentally ill parent. I decided to try to become a physician to be a pediatrician, but found myself compelled to work with what I feel is the most important aspect of health, behavior. It is through these lenses that I want to share some words, unsolicited guidance on the important difference between power and strength.
Once, when just beginning to give a talk on the potentially powerful combination of appropriate methods of meditation with appropriate prescribing of psychotropic medications, I broke down sobbing when discussing my father’s nearly lifelong behavioral condition. I cried for probably 90 seconds in front of approximately 75 strangers. I let it run its course, felt it pinging in my chest here and there for the rest of the talk, and then I think provided a compelling argument for an adapted approach for each intervention. Afterwards, several of the folks in the crowd, which was primarily composed of Advaita Vedantins, approached me to offer support and a few suggested I join their regular meetings to learn their philosophy so that I do not suffer my experience so heartily. I greatly appreciated their concern, and also noted that I have worked really hard to be able to be vulnerable and have the capacity to cry when I felt like crying, even if it was in front of a largish crowd.
Presence, to me, is a choice to prioritize attending to this very moment while accepting that total presence is impossible and self-compassion is requisite to having even a snow ball’s chance in Costa Rica (by the way, Costa Rica is as amazing as everyone says it is, you should check it out). For me, to be present, is to get proficient at investigating and then realistically seeing the outer context as it is, doing the same with one’s inner context, and then integrating these practices in such a way that I can see my immediate inner reactions, then pause and choose effective and meaningful outer actions.
This moment, the moment in which a consciously-self-aware being has paused and is preparing to and subsequently taking action, is the one that so many of us take for granted and glide on by while on autopilot as we live from one crisis to another. As a psychiatrist, I see my share of patients ricocheting between catastrophic crises for which I have deep compassion and empathy. I accept that our starting point is usually at the very beginning of developing the capacity to remain present with everything there is to experience and begin to identify habitual patterns of avoidance. As a psychotherapist with folks functioning more effectively between smaller yet significant crises, I find that clarification and prioritization of values is a must. Each of these presentations require both of the above while also prioritizing compassion – first and foremost for oneself – lest the altruism so many of us regale upon others is likely functioning as an avoidance strategy that impedes self-acceptance and may cause us to falter in our personal lives or burn out. Thus, to be able to mindfully respond, practicing compassion for ourselves and for others is required. How do we practice compassion? Well, there are formal practices such as loving-kindness and compassion meditation, and there are less formal practices like identifying and loving our strengths, and our flaws – which are what we have had to face and carry along. Carrying our weaknesses essentially gives us strength to begin with!
So, to sum up, it seems to me that power is about control, a fantasy in the world out there and the world of our minds. We can’t help what is happening moment to moment out there, just as we can’t help but have the thoughts and feelings that show up in our minds in each moment. What we can do is drop the narrative of powering through or utilizing our power to manipulate ourselves or others. Instead, we can find strength in developing our capacity to accept ourselves, be vulnerable, stay present, and act mindfully with compassion. If you find yourself judging yourself critically, feeling stuck moving from crisis to crisis, and unable to find your footing, please find a therapist. Psychologytoday.com is a valuable resource to find providers who are advertising for your business. Further, if this article resonates with you, then look for a third-wave behavioral approach such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Also consider reaching out to me (email@example.com), and I can provide you with some resources to get started with while you find a therapist to guide you within the often-uncomfortable space of self-exploration and to compassionately hold you accountable when committing to take action.