When I was a 26 year-old Zen student living at the Green Gulch Farm (a part of the San Francisco Zen Center) a woman Zen teacher and friend looked at me and said, “Marc, you have a way of pissing away your power.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this statement. I sensed it was not meant to be a compliment (yes, this laser-sharp insight was due to several years of my comprehensive and expensive Zen training)! At the same time, it didn’t feel like an ordinary or familiar kind of judgment or criticism. The directness and mysteriousness of her words definitely grabbed my attention and caused me to pause.

I wondered what her words meant, and why she was saying this to me. I was curious what power she saw in me that I was unaware of, and how I was “pissing it away.” I had never given any thought to power, personal or otherwise.

Though the statement – you have a way of pissing away your power – may sound harsh, this is not how I experienced it. I don’t think it was intended to be disrespectful or cause harm. In fact, I’ve always felt it to be a tremendous gift. Since hearing it, I’ve become immensely curious and attentive, even passionate, about the topic of power – noticing, wondering, studying my own and that of other people, as well as how they stand it in, and whether they use it well, badly, or piss it away entirely.

Her statement has become a core reminder, often helping to either frame or orient my life, acting as a cautionary warning for how not to live, and providing aspirational direction for a better path.

In a way, her observation has become a “koan” – a Zen teaching phrase, puzzle, or story to engage and grapple with, to think deeply about, allowing the words to seep into your bones and into your being as a way to uncover something meaningful and important, even primal, as a means to learn and grow, to unearth insights, and to be transformed.

In my work as a business coach, I regularly hear from clients about how difficult it can be to face, own, and embody our true power.

Sure, it’s much easier to have an image of our power, or to aspire to be powerful. It’s always easier to play it safe, to stay safe. After all, if we don’t take risks we won’t fail, right? This is when I typically offer the reminder that motivation, will, purposiveness, intentionality, choice, initiative, freedom, and/or creativity probably won’t have a chance to surface if you’re content to stay “safe” by ignoring or skimming the surface of what is difficult, risky, or painful.

Cultivating Power

Explore quieting your usual judgments and ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, powerful and not powerful.

See if you can recognize and accept that you are a vulnerable, human being, and that you have this in common with every single person on this planet. Try on accepting fear as part of your path. Practice noticing your aspirations and the gaps between where you are and where you aspire to be. There is real power in our yearning, our vision, and intentions. When I was CEO of Brush Dance, a greeting card company, one of my favorite cards stated:

Why not go out on the limb…that is where the fruit is.

When it comes to cultivating power, Marianne Williamson (currently running for the Democratic nomination for president) has a potent and surprising take on power:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

As Williamson so eloquently writes, it is by cultivating self-awareness that we find our real power – the power to be present and authentic, the power to heal, actualize, and have a positive influence in our relationships, in our organizations, and in the world.

And, here are a few more of my favorite quotes about power:

“Power when properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Transforming Power: to be able to have the potential, to possess and use one’s energy of creation.”

Adrienne Rich

“Power is the drive of everything living to realize itself with increasing intensity…”

Paul Tillich