Molly’s Musings # 7 – June 2009


Manipulation or Participation

Open up the newspaper, tune into radio or TV news, read “Truth-out” or other Internet news source, and see story after story of people and corporations acting out of greed, hunger for power, short-sightedness, and a sense of entitlement.  Even efforts to find alternatives to petroleum seem driven primarily by greed: corporations cutting down rain forests to produce palm oil for bio-diesel is one example.  Where is the concern about the over-all welfare—and survival—of Earthly life?  So much of our economy—and the government that supports it—seems based on profit alone, to the exclusion of any other concerns for life. (See Joanna Macy’s May 2009 letter[i] for two disturbing examples of this.)  In the last decade, we have witnessed the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of people without trial, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the falsifying of “intelligence” to justify these heinous policies (to mention only the well-established examples). I feel such horror and grief as this continues, even with the new Administration in Washington DC.

On the other hand, most of the people close to me want to contribute to the common good.  Of course they want to make a decent living for themselves and their families, but they choose to do so in ways that they think benefit society, and they are happy to work for a modest income (by U.S. standards).  They don’t require mega-million salaries and bonuses to do their work in the world.  During elections, they vote their conscience far more than their pocketbook.

Perhaps there are two very divergent ways that people approach the world and life.  I don’t want to say there are two kinds of people, although it is tempting to do so (safely placing myself in the preferred category, of course).  It may be more accurate and helpful to suggest a continuum upon which we all move, sometimes towards one end, sometimes towards the other.  I have to say, however, that some people appear to be lodged more or less permanently at one end.

It seems to me that “participation” lies at one end of a continuum, and “manipulation” at the other.  Participation entails seeing oneself as a part of the living web of life, able to contribute to it and be supported by it.  We can only participate in something that we give ourselves to, or something we realize we already embedded within.  Participation implies interconnectedness, interdependence, and cooperation.  It also implies that we can have an effect on things we participate in—that we can bring our intelligence and love and creativity to bear to the benefit of all.

Manipulation, on the other hand, implies separation, a relationship in which a person attempts to have an effect on others, or on a situation, without being affected in return—except in the specific ways the person intends.  We manipulate situations “from the outside” so to speak, to extract something we want for ourselves—usually power and money.  Another word for this end of the continuum might be exploitation. We don’t consider ourselves connected or a part of that which we manipulate—it is merely a resource to exploit as we see fit.

How we act toward the world affects our perception of how the world operates, and vice versa.  If we manipulate, we feel manipulated—we expect that. We see things as happening to us, just as we try to impose our will on the people and events around us.

 If we participate and cooperate, we see the world as interacting with us: we are all in this together.  Our responses to what happens are part of what’s happening, in an on-going, dynamic feedback cycle.  Of course we have plan and goals, but we learn to hold these lightly, ready to “fly by the seat of our pants” when the unexpected occurs.

The distinctions between these two approaches to life are not always clear.  I write this essay for Molly’s Musings and my blog to participate in a conversation taking place among many, many thoughtful people today, as we see the horrific effects of our Industrial Growth Society on our planet and its peoples, and as we confront the unraveling of that society in the face of global climate change, peak oil, and economic collapse.  I want to listen to the other voices and contribute my own to this important dialogue.  That’s participation.

But I have other motives, too.  I hope to make my web site and my work more accessible and attractive to people.  I hope that more people will want to take my on-line courses or hire me as their coach or counselor, thereby helping me make a living.  So am I trying to manipulate or exploit the Internet and my readers for my own financial ends?

I think the distinction is one of intention, as the Buddhists teach.  If my intention is to make money or gain power without regard to what happens to others in the process, I am at the manipulation/exploitation end of the continuum.  If my intention is to offer something helpful to others in exchange for financial support, then I am participating in an exchange within an interdependent system. 

Leavers and Takers

As I mull over this distinction, I am reminded of Daniel Quinn’s idea of the Leavers and Takers, from Ishmael and his many other books.[ii] Takers correspond to Manipulators in many ways, while Leavers have a lot in common with Participators.  However, Quinn’s Leavers and Takers refer primarily to economic systems, and I am trying to examine the underlying psychology and worldview that gives rise to human behavior within economic and social systems.  Clearly ours has been a Taker economy for many generations, doomed from the start to an inevitable collapse.  As more and more people awaken to their interconnectedness within the web of life, we will presumably become more participatory, less manipulative, and our economic systems may evolve in the Leaver direction.  I pray this is so.


I may be leaving out another dimension here.  What about one major group of victims of manipulation—the people who go along with the American myth, without realizing how they are exploited and deceived?  They believe the ads and propaganda they see on television, work at whatever jobs they can find (no matter what that job entails), buy stuff they really can’t afford, run up the debt on their credit cards, take out sub-prime mortgages in an attempt to be part of the American dream, or enlist in military service believing they are fighting for democracy and freedom.  They are the ones who are losing their jobs and homes; they are the ones losing their limbs, their sanity, and their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet don’t we all have this dimension within us, too?  Don’t we all carry naïve beliefs about our socio-economic system and our democracy, beliefs that are constantly called into question?  I know I can look back on my life as a long series of disillusionments—or perhaps a better word is “awakenings.”  I constantly discover anew that the institutions and people I previously believed to be looking out for our collective best interests are instead looking out for their own pocketbooks and powerbases. I discover how deeply Manipulators have insinuated themselves into nearly every aspect of American life, from energy and food production and all forms of manufacturing to health care, schools, and religious institutions. I also keep discovering how interlocked these institutions are, so that, for example, stopping the devastation of mountain top removal in Appalachia could result in hundreds of jobs being lost, jobs upon which families and local economies now depend.  Yet how can we continue to lay waste the countryside, to fill streams and valleys with deadening debris, just to keep people employed? This is how Manipulative people set things up, so they can continue to create enormous profits for themselves, regardless of the consequences.

Part of moving in the direction of Participation, as I am defining it here, may be overcoming our illusions and denial about the power and money dynamics of our world today.  At the same time, we need to recognize when people truly are acting in the interests of the common good.  If we see only manipulation and exploitation, we are missing half of the picture, the half that needs and deserves our trust and support. We need to replace denial, prejudice, and bias with clear discernment.

Why do people manipulate?

What drives the Manipulators and their victims (who may aspire to become Manipulators themselves, given the chance)?  I suspect that their parents manipulated and controlled their children to meet their own egocentric desires, without regard to what their children truly needed for healthy development.  Unless someone else (teacher, neighbor, grandparent, etc) gave these children love and recognition, they would either tend to become Manipulators themselves, or continue on as victims.  If all you know of the world is competition for power and “getting one’s needs met,” you are going to be driven to stay on top, look out for old Number One—otherwise, you feel powerless.  If you have been treated as an object, you are likely to treat others that way.  If you have never been given unconditional love, or been the recipient of unconditional generosity, you come to believe that you have to fight for everything you need.   The biological drive for survival is built into each of us, and will find its way to expression in nearly every circumstance. In a word, fear drives people toward manipulative behavior. This perspective helps us see that such people truly deserve our compassion, even while we work to limit the damage they do.

The vital human need to create

I am an inveterate knitter, and have been for many years.  Knitting is a kind of meditation for me, keeping me grounded in the physical world—yarn and needles, creating beautiful things a stitch at a time. As I knit, purl, and cross stitches over each other, the pattern emerges visually and I experience a miracle taking place within my hands, thrilling and deeply satisfying.  If I am in conversation while knitting, the next time I pick up my yarn, the conversation is there for me to remember, as if woven into the fabric itself.

From this experience, I have come to wonder if we might all have a developmental and on-going need to create, to work directly with matter to create something useful and/or beautiful.  It would be the drive behind all forms of art and music, and maybe inventions as well. If so, does this need get warped into violence and destruction when denied expression?  Could this unmet need contribute to a manipulative approach to life, in that a person feels something akin to the satisfaction of creation by controlling, manipulating, or exploiting?  Seems like a lousy substitute to me, apart from the disastrous side effects—and more grounds for compassion.

Moving toward participation

I propose that a manipulative/exploitive attitude and approach may lie at the heart of the industrial growth society and its depredations. Because we live in this society and depend on its systems, we are all affected, all “guilty” of manipulation, at least indirectly. We have a spiritual task, then, to move toward participation in all aspects of our lives—in a participatory way!  We can’t force or manipulate ourselves into participation (e.g. guilt-tripping ourselves or others).  We have to heal and transform our own wounds, and the beliefs, assumptions, motivations, habits, and subpersonalities that arise from our wounding.

We also have to work with the world as it is, not how we would like it to be.  For example, there is a small recreational lake near my town of Mt. Shasta, called Lake Siskiyou.  A friend of mine pointed out to me while we were enjoying a walk along its shores that had we been around when the river was dammed to create the lake, we probably would have been protesting.  But now it is here, and the ecosystem has adapted to it.  To tear it down suddenly would be another “quick fix” with damaging consequences.  So we need to understand what natural processes are at work, and how we can cooperate with them, starting from where we are now with all the human structures in place.

We need to follow the permaculture dictate of “P.A.T.O.”: Protracted And Thoughtful Observation.  (Unfortunately, industrial development rarely tolerates the time required for this.)  If we only see things as problems to be solved in order to reach our goals and meet our perceived needs, we miss the deeper dynamics at play.  Life is what it is—and what is emerging, or trying to emerge, or might emerge in the right conditions.  How can we participate in that lively complex of interactions, in ways that benefit both ourselves and the ecosystems in which we live?  How can we learn “to live well in this land without destroying the land’s wild vitality” (to use a phrase from David Abrams[iii])? We need to begin by observing, watching, listening, and feeling how life actually works wherever we are.

How well we cope with the “Great Unraveling” of the Industrial Growth Society will, I believe, depend on which approach we take, individually and collectively.  If we continue to try to manipulate, exploit, and control, we are doomed, largely because we refuse to receive feedback that we are destroying our own life support system.  Yet as economic systems collapse and fossil fuels become scarce and expensive, fear will no doubt rise.  With fear will come desperate and often shortsighted attempts to regain the illusion of control; we are already seeing that happening.  Manipulation and exploitation will probably increase, and in the process, so will behaviors that damage people, cultures, and environment.

If we learn to participate in the Earthly web of life, as equal partners with other life forms, we have a far better prognosis for survival.  We need to see both the dangers we face and the resources available to us—within our resilient human spirit and in the natural systems around us.  We need to overcome our fear, which might drive us to desperate and destructive measures. 

We can learn to participate and cooperate with Nature by directly meeting more of our own basic needs—for food, clothing, shelter, and community—instead of expecting to purchase it all.  Growing at least some of our own food is an act of participation, one that brings satisfaction as well as nourishment to the grower.  The “relocalization” movement works to revitalize local economies, making us less dependent on (and therefore less subject to manipulation by) big corporations in distant locations.  Farmers’ markets and “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA’s) are part of this movement.   Perhaps it is “too little, too late,” but how do we want to live the rest of our days—as  frightened, desperate manipulators, or fulfilled, connected participators?

Nature can teach us her ways, and guide our human interventions towards greater cooperation with—and even enhancement of—the planet’s “wild vitality.” Angeles Arrien’s  “Fourfold Path” provides us with four simple and powerful guidelines: Show up. Pay attention.  Tell the truth. Let go of results. [iv]  We must learn to approach the world with awe, humility, discernment—and gratitude for the life we are given.


[iii] Abrams, David. “Earth Stories,” Resurgence, Issue 222, January/February 2004.

[iv] Arrien, Angeles.  Website: