Why Personal Sovereignty Matters
As systems, structures, and traditions crumble around us, it becomes essential to be sovereign within ourselves.
Where is your seat of power? Where is the energetic throne within your body where you can take your seat and be — even if only temporarily at first — immovable? Sovereign in your vision and decisions; in conversation with outside influences and conditions, but not swayed by them.
Mine first appeared in a dream a decade ago. I was walking through the stone halls of a temple, naked — in my original state. I navigated slowly towards the sanctum sanctorum, the innermost chamber. I knew the way. When I arrived, a saw an empty throne in the middle of the room. I wondered who was meant to occupy it; what great leader, what king or pharaoh? Then, I realized the throne was mine and woke with a start. I shared the vision with a mystical mentor who asked, “What will happen when you finally take your seat?” I couldn’t fathom it at the time.
I thought about that throne over the years. For a long time it seemed distant, unreachable. I began to understand that the ascension, the taking of that seat, was not an intellectual exercise and was going to require more than sheer will. I would have to undergo a state change. I needed to become the person who sits on that throne...or maybe more accurately…I needed to remember the sovereign me.
It was indeed a process of re-collection. The recollection and reintegration of all the fragmented parts of self I’d denied, evaded, and disowned throughout my life. When I’d finally put enough of them back together again, I took my seat.
In a sense it was a gradual (sometimes grueling) process, until one day I realized I was sitting in the center of my being and needed nothing at all from the outside world. The feeling was regal and I sat up straighter in my chair. That’s when it hit me that I was sitting on my throne. My dear friend, David Sauvage, who was with me at the time noticed. We were in the kitchen of a house upstate talking deep into the night. I shared with him what had happened. He smiled warmly and advised me to take an energetic snapshot. “This is all I’ve wanted for you in this life,” he said. I memorized the feeling within me, which in that moment included the added dimension of compassion his presence and comment evoked; helping the last little bit of me that feared my loved ones might disappear if I no longer needed them relax its grip. He was loving me through the process of evolution. We sat there and felt the shift as our relationship blossomed into something beyond attachment. That was my first taste of sovereignty, and it was the opposite of lonely.
This is the use of memory:
For liberation — not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. ––T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
When I’m on my seat, there’s no place I’d rather be. And though I now know where it is and how it feels, I still get knocked off — step or fall off — several times a day; sometimes for days at a time. This process of recovery is my practice now and for the foreseeable future.
We can appreciate the delicate balance this human experience offers us between independence and interdependence. Down to the cellular level, we are material, but also pure energy. This is where science and spirituality meet. Nothing is as solid as it seems and nothing can be considered independent of its context within the whole web of life. Our consciousness is local and all-pervading at the same time. We are defined as much by our patterns and interactions as our component parts…maybe more.
This is important to note because being sovereign does not mean divorcing oneself from the web of interconnectedness that is the ground of our being. We are reliant on this planet and on each other. That can’t be denied. It must be embraced. The trick is to be able to hold both simultaneously — a healthy sense of self and a fearless surrender to the truth of existence: we are one. We spend a lifetime toggling between those modes and the accompanying feelings they engender — resentment, hope, yearning, fear, desire, grief, love. In a sense, all of our emotions arise from this conundrum of being both a particle and a wave in a sea of other particle/waves.
While there are many reasons for all of us to cultivate sovereignty in these times, one that interests me most is the role it plays in constructive and healthy collaboration, collective intelligence generation, group governance and decision-making. As it turns out, we can relax and flow fully into the collective only when we have a strong sense of self. We’re not afraid of being demolished, disappeared, or devoured by group think or the needs of others if and when we know ourselves, have healthy boundaries, are feel safe to ask for what we need. We can give more when we give from solid ground. This is a step that gets lost so often in our culture today that teaches kids about the importance of the whole before and sometimes at the expense of helping them develop ALSO a strong sense of individualism. It feels to me like an overcorrection from the ills of the capitalist/modernist/dog-eat-dog world we’re moving out of. But, moving from Me to We without a strong sense of I is a recipe for resentment, confusion and disaster.
At this time when new worlds are wanting to be built, it feels critical to ensure we’re building them as whole/holistic individual units representing healthy and unique perspectives. We need many voices, many visions, many hands in these times. And we need many people who are capable of discerning the right way forward together; a way that best meets the needs of the whole, including non-human stakeholders. We need people who can speak for themselves and also for the trees (thank you, Lorax). We need people who are sure enough of their own needs to ask for help in meeting them. We need people who are seated on the throne of their hearts, open and willing to generate unprecedented, never-before-thought-of solutions that take into account not just the parts, but the whole; coherent individuals, coherent systems, coherent solutions to complex problems.
So, how does sovereignty feel? How do we occupy this place between what is us and what is the world with a deep sense of knowing, acceptance, and also certainty? There are many paradoxes in the process. The poet-philosopher, David Whyte, says:
“I began to realize that the only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you, that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown both inside you and outside you. John O’Donohue…used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world, letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out.”
A practice I continue to find helpful in locating and taking my sovereign seat is to use my imagination not — as Whyte says to “abstract ourselves our of our bodies, out of our direct experience,” — but, to place myself squarely in the center of my being. Instead of abstracting out, I concrete myself deeper into the body. For a while this was a technique in the “fake it ‘til you make it” school of human potential. Here’s how it can work:
Imagine a sovereign character that suits your temperament and typology — an Egyptian Pharaoh, a High Priestess or Oracle, a benevolent and wise Monarch…someone who occupies their throne with dignity and self-possession. Imagine yourself seeing through their eyes, relaxed in your power, courageous and certain. Ideally, you do this while sitting firm and alert in a chair with your feet planted on the ground. Eyes open, chest and heart open, sitting up straight with a central axis that connects heaven and earth.
Now imagine someone approaches you with a request. How do you receive it? Someone comes bearing bad news. How do you handle it? Someone announces a victory or brings good news. How does it land in you? From this seat you watch over the empire, your domain. Your awareness is spacious and vast. You can sense the interconnectedness — like a mountain in a mountain range — while also feeling your own complete uniqueness. You are protective of your boundaries, but open. Equanimous: not not feeling, not numb, but relaxed as a vessel for life’s ecstasy and agony in equal measure. Like the mountain, you stand firm while the weather moves about you.
You can do this exercise on the subway, at home, at work, during a meeting, during a difficult conversation. Become intimate with this version of yourself until you can slip into it easily.
One thing I’ve noticed about the journey to sovereignty in contemporary times is how much trouble most of us have identifying and expressing our needs and desires. This can be a deep practice; a lifelong practice. I’ve worked with many women and men who developed shame, fear, and eventually rage from childhood (even infancy) when they wrongly interpreted their caretakers’ overwhelm and exhaustion as being caused by their existence and their dependence/needs.
Sovereignty is as much about knowing and owning our own needs and desires as it is about listening to and incorporating the needs and desires of others. Not one of these steps is easy when we’ve had poor attachment, feel fundamentally unsafe or unworthy, are not in touch with our inner knowing, or have been told subtly or not-so-subtly by an intimate or the culture-at-large that our needs aren’t valid. So, working with needs and desires is fundamental to achieving and maintaining sovereignty.
As an individual our sovereignty can be challenged by the needs of a partner or child. We may have a need to rest, but the child has a need to be fed or played with. We may have a need for touch, but our partner has a need for personal space.
As a leader they can be challenged by the needs of a group; let’s say shareholders or stakeholders, or an entire community. We may have a need for privacy, but the community needs transparency. We may have a desire for peace, but the situation is warlike.
These challenges to sovereignty come and threaten to take us off our seat unless we have the tools to stay rooted, grounded, connected to self and Spirit. Being in touch with it, one also knows when they’re not operating from a place of sovereignty. To know this is critical to leadership, decision-making, and sound judgment. I have a strict policy to never make decisions from a place of contraction. I can even say to close collaborators and friends: “I am not feeling in my center right now. I need a moment to know what I feel about what’s happening/get in touch with my needs/know what to do.” Not everything has to be a compromise or come at a cost, but every situation in which multiple needs are being considered must be approached clearly, creatively, and with a willingness to see and be seen.
Most of the time, there are omni-considerate solutions (win-win solutions) to be found. Unfortunately, we tend to vacate our seat to navigate conflict or tension. Some of us stay too firmly rooted, allowing (or forcing) others to sacrifice their needs. This can teach us that resistance can be its own form of attachment. Others sacrifice their own needs at the first hint of tension. This can lead to resentment, depletion, and a loss of self. Either way somebody loses unless the agents stay sovereign. Not inflexible, but sovereign.
What sovereignty seems to offer is choice; or liberation from automatic response. This is a radical proposition in a time defined by reactivity. We “make decisions,” and “take action,” but really these are defenses and counterattacks. We’re under threat. We don’t feel safe…and frankly, we’re not. Existential risk looms large. Sovereignty gives us the space for inspiration, for listening, sense-making, and for right action. Ultimately, more sovereign people means less reactivity and this will loosen the hold the current culture has on us. This will allow us to see things as they are and create a new future from a place of freedom. This is where our liberation lies… in the liberation of the energies that are currently eddying in virulent whirlpools of confusion. The current situation is getting dangerously close to entropy, meaning there’s not enough free energy available to make the conversion we need to a new order.
Sovereignty is also important to inciting and sustaining polarity in relationships. There can only be a high charge and creative, generative pull…eros, really…between two people when they are both capable of sovereignty within their own systems as they enter collaboration. Otherwise the magnetism, the force of the drive for union can throw the balance too far or force the dissolution of one into the other. I lose myself in the other — the great danger of the feminine essence. Or, I become isolated, cruel in my autonomy — the great danger of the masculine essence. Things become muddied rather than electric and the beauty that might have been found in the union of two distinct entities is lost.
In one way, sovereignty is just an elegant synonym for autonomy. But for me, it implies something more, precisely because it evokes the godlike qualities within us; the divine mandate each of us has, the birthright to be here as we are right now in every moment. It’s related to boundaries, but more subtle and porous. It requires self knowledge and discipline, but is not dogmatic or prescriptive. It’s regal, but not grandiose or distant. Both autonomy and sovereignty convey a sense of governing the self without external influence. I think of sovereignty as autonomy with grace.
The best part of sovereignty as a practice? It requires us to be in intimate, moment-to-moment relation with others and with the world we live in. It demands we attend to our body, emotions, the environment, all our needs on a basic human level. Nothing is below it and nothing above it. Sovereignty is complete ownership of our dharma (what this incarnation is here to do or become) and what is needed to get the job done. And it requires community. It’s one thing to be sovereign alone while walking in Nature or sitting in meditation. This is important and magnificent. But, to remain sovereign through life’s exchanges with other human beings is the true test and measure of our capacity. We’re not sovereign in spite of each other, but because of each other. This is how we know where … and how … we sit in the world. Whatever is happening — or crumbling — around us, it will be sovereign individuals who collectively birth the new world. Will you be one?