The petty tyrant

E VERYBODY WHO LIVES IN COMMUNITY - WHETHER A COHOUSING group or an ashram - has met a petty tyrant. In The Fire from Within (Pocket Books, 1991) Carlos Castaneda defines the petty tyrant as: "a tormentor, someone who either holds the power of life and death over warriors, or simply annoys them to distraction." Whenever the petty tyrant walks into the room your inner artillery is instantly alert and ready for combat. Everything she says - or doesn't say - gets to you. The petty tyrant is that person in community whom you either go to great lengths to avoid - at times missing meals or staying away from certain events in order to avoid encounter with her, or whom you have decided to confront head-on, making it your personal mission to change her for the benefit of all.


While we rarely directly address the issue of petty tyrants in community, we tend to gossip about them endlessly. We give ourselves full liberty to complain about how so-and-so did this, or how irresponsibly so-and-so handled that. Yet, we are rarely willing to recognize that the petty tyrant exists as a part of every community, and to discover what it means to be consciously in relationship with him.

Petty tyrants come in many forms. Castaneda divides the tyrant into three subclasses. The first, "petty tyrants," or pinches tiranos, are fearsome, terror-inspiring individuals, often physically or emotionally abusive, who wreak havoc on our lives simply by existing. The second class of tyrants, pinches tiranitos, or "little petty tyrants," persecute and inflict misery on the lives of others, but generally don't cause irreparable damage. They may storm out of the room now and then, or deliberately create problems, but they don't threaten the overall safety of the community. The third class Castaneda calls repinches tiranitos - "small-fry petty tyrants," or pinches tiranitos chiquititos - "teensy-weensy petty tyrants." A number of this type of petty tyrant generally exists in any community. Whereas the presence of "small-fry petty tyrants" is disturbing, even highly irritating sometimes, they cause problems only by disturbing our peace of mind, or interrupting the flow of communion between community members. It is the latter two types (not the seriously abusive ones) that we will deal with here.


Whereas commonly one or two people in a community serve as petty tyrants for the majority of members, individual community members often have different petty tyrants. The man who grates on your nerves like no other may also be your best friend's husband - whom she loves despite his eccentricities. And your personal petty tyrant may change from time to time. The woman who tormented you to no end when you first joined your community may have later become your close friend.


Reactions to the petty tyrant vary. Some people treat him as sub-human, no longer able to find characteristics resembling a human being's. Others befriend him, either for their own self-interests (to fend off his wrath), or out of compassion. I tried making friends with the petty tyrant in my community for a long time. I was warned about X when I first arrived, but had decided that I would stand by him; I would be immune to his tirades; I would be the martyr who single-handedly confronted the force of evil in the community.


I was fooling myself. I did befriend him, for a time, but I was not being kind out of the fullness of my heart, or from a place of compassion for the pain that gave rise to his antics. Instead, I was doing backbends around him - walking on eggshells in order to appease him and stay out of his way. Terrified of his rage, I codependently catered to his needs to avoid his fury. Although my actions appeared righteous, they were no better than those who engaged him and fought him tooth and nail - it was just the other side of the coin.


One day it became clear that I had been supporting him as an act of self-defense - not because I was compassionate. Recognizing this, I had no choice but to stop relating to him codependently, and to instead take full responsibility for my relationship with him. Our relationship changed dramatically - and not necessarily for the better in terms of my personal comfort. The petty tyrant stopped being kind to me; I became yet another community member whom he perceived was trying to persecute him; I became the target of the very wrath I had tried so hard to evade.


On the flip side, I now have a working, adult relationship with him. Our relationship is not "working" in the conventional sense of the word, and everything is not always nice between us, but I am working. I am working to not let him drain me, to not obsess on my difficulties with him, to treat him kindly but not falsely, and to stay out of his way when I'm feeling sensitive and vulnerable. Furthermore, from time to time we share good moments together. And if I succeed in my work with him, it is I who will benefit the most.


We have two choices in terms of how we handle our petty tyrant: either we work with her, or we don't work with her. If we work with her, we grow, and the whole community benefits from our work. If we don't work with her, at best, we stagnate; at worst, we spiral downward in our dynamic with her until the situation becomes so unbearable that either we, or the petty tyrant, gets ejected from the situation, or the relationship shuts down entirely.


When we don't remain conscious in our relationship with our petty tyrant, instead of relating to her we "react." The type of reaction we have largely depends upon our personality and tendencies. If we are anger-based, we fight with her. If we are fear-based, we try to avoid her. If we tend to feel victimized by life, we blame our personal problems on her.


But we have another option. We can respond to our petty tyrant consciously and deliberately. We can respond on the personal level, the political or community level, and the spiritual level. Working with the petty tyrant on any one level will affect all three, even if we are unaware of it.


On the personal level, we work with the petty tyrant for the sake of our own sanity. If we refuse to work with him, we suffer. If we work with him, we've got a chance. The personal level means working with our own emotional patterns, noticing patterns in the people whom we attract, and realizing that something in us makes us react so strongly to the petty tyrant, no matter how tyrannical.


On the community level, the level of politics, working with the petty tyrant means confronting the forces of aggression. Unconscious aggression (as compared to simple anger) generates the competitive, me-centered, "dog-eats-dog" attitude that's so common in our culture. Many of us gravitate to community as an alternative to the pervasive aggression in mainstream life. Yet we often perpetuate the same forms of aggression on a subtler level when we live in community.


If we really support nonviolence, we can take a radical stand for it by eliminating the aggression in our own lives - and there is no better opportunity for this than in the presence of a petty tyrant. A common response to the petty tyrant is to fight back (consciously or unconsciously) with aggression - even indirect, passive aggression. If we believe we're trying to live in harmony, as long as we remain in conflict with the petty tyrant we're kidding ourselves. Generally speaking, we see ourselves as non-aggressors--except for when we think aggression is justified. However, if we want to be truly nonviolent we must practice non-aggression always - not just when it suits us! To react with hostility to the petty tyrant is to perpetuate the cycle of animosity and dominance in the world, whereas to choose to work consciously with the petty tyrant is an opportunity, in our own small way, to help reduce the amount of aggression rampant in the world.


On the spiritual level, the petty tyrant affords us the opportunity to confront the workings of our own minds, and the possibility to transcend our own pettiness. Castaneda goes so far as to say that if we are trying to grow spiritually, and we don't have a petty tyrant, we should seek one out! The petty tyrant provides an opportunity like none other - he allows us to face and come to terms with ourselves. Working with the petty tyrant on a spiritual level does not mean that our reactivity and difficulties with him ever go away. Instead, it means that we learn to be steady in the face of our own reactivity; we learn to live in a way that we are not dominated by or at the effect of harsh external forces.


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