“My benefactor used to say that a warrior who stumbles on a petty tyrant is a lucky one.”- Don Juan
It has to be said; some people are a right pain in the arse (or ‘ass’ if you prefer). We could be all gently liberal and thoughtful and talk about the difficulties we might experience with others as being about problems of relationship – the issues is ‘between us’ and not necessarily the fault of either party. However sometimes we come across someone in our lives who, for us, fits into the role that Carlos Castaneda (or rather his literary creation, Don Juan) described as a ‘petty tyrant’. Such a person might be a bitter ex-partner, a manipulative co-worker, a playground bully or (thanks to the internet) a tedious online troll. (Actually there are various classes of petty tyrant according to Carlos and indeed the term does appear in the work of other theorists.)
According to Castaneda the petty tyrant, although clearly irritating (and even potentially threatening in cases where they wield temporal power), can act as a goad to the progress of the ‘impeccable warrior’. “A petty tyrant is a tormentor. Someone who either holds the power of life and death over warriors or simply annoys them to distraction.” Within his model Castaneda suggests that the petty tyrant is an adversary who, if handled correctly, can actually empower the person whom the petty tyrant is attempting to victimise.
Typically someone who finds themselves in a petty tyrant role is stuck in a situation, locked into a looping Groundhog Day of their own bitterness. In that respect they deserve our compassion (if not our appreciation). What they typically lack is any ability to think outside of their own reality tunnel (as Leary and Wilson would put it) and one critical diagnostic feature is their lack of a sense of humour (especially the ability to laugh at oneself). This is hardly surprising given the vital role that humour plays in broadening our perspectives and shaking up entrenched ways of thinking.
The mistake average men make in confronting petty tyrants is not to have a strategy to fall back on; the fatal flaw is that average men take themselves too seriously; their actions and feelings, as well as those of the petty tyrants, are all-important. Warriors, on the other hand, not only have a well-thought-out strategy, but are free from self-importance. What restrains their self-importance is that they have understood that reality is an interpretation we make…Petty tyrants take themselves with deadly seriousness while warriors do not.
So a sense of humour is an essential attribute when we find ourselves in these situations, including practices that challenge our own sense of self-importance. Our interpretation of reality may well be that our petty tyrant is doing any number of vile things to us, but if we step aside from our own self-importance (and our sense of being got-at) we can notice how other people are actually reacting to the antics of our foe. If our adversary is just another hopping-bonkers voice on teh internetz (for example) we can be sure that other intelligent people will judge their buffoonery with the scorn it deserves.
Castaneda is not the only person to explore the benefits than can be found in our dealings with difficult people and situations. Shakespeare makes the same point speaking through the character of Duke Senior in As You Like It:
“Sweet are the uses of adversity
which like the toad ugly and venomous
wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”
Of course the petty tyrant, as minor league irritation (the first-world problem of internet trolling for example) is worlds away from the potentially life-threatening situations where people are living under actual tyranny. Whether it is dressed in the glossy veneer of oh-so-reasonable military-industrial capitalism or pro-Medievalist Muslim fundamentalism we can find ourselves in situations where the tyrant swells to become a fully fledged monster; in control of money, weapons and information sources. Luckily the petty tyrants most of us encounter are a toothless version of these much more serious foes. Even so those same strategies that Castaneda outlines can help; don’t become stuck in our own self-importance, use humour, be patient, realise that others also think as we do.
Castaneda counsels us:
“To tune the spirit when someone is trampling on you is called control. Instead of feeling sorry for himself a warrior immediately goes to work mapping the petty tyrant’s strong points, his weaknesses, his quirks of behavior.”
Mapping the behaviour of petty tyrants is generally pretty simple because they are typically stuck in that repetitive rut mentioned above. They act more like automata because their obsessive behaviours have eaten up their creative humanity. Watch them as they indulge in the same attempts to goad and upset again and again and again. Any apparent change in their behaviour tends to be minor variation on the same theme.
Even in extreme cases, such as the release of images by the Islamic State of executions and the smashing of artworks, there is a simplistic (albeit horrific) repetition in these calculated attempts to goad and distress the enemy. As with most bullies the hope is to get a reaction, which is why one of the best ways to respond to these terrible films is not to click ‘play’. Given the fact that human neurology is optimised to remember distressing stuff it’s unsurprising that there is part of us that wants to watch that car crash, or view the burning of a Jordanian pilot. In the lesser case of the petty tyrant we may want to ask; ‘what is so-and-so saying about me now?’ but again the best course of action is to rise above it. Let those attempts to gain attention fall on stony ground. This is not the same as completely ignoring what is going on (we may know, for example, that the distressing material placed online by terror groups and deranged keyboard warriors exists), but this is about not falling into a reactive trap; into an agenda set by the terrorist or the troll.
The petty tyrant gives us a fabulous opportunity to practice our Tonglen Meditation. This practice has various benefits. Within the context of the technique (which, if you’re not familiar with it, basically consists of sending nice thoughts to ourselves and then everyone in the world, including our enemies) we are actively working for the liberation from suffering of our petty tyrant. Psychologically we’re ensuring that when we battle with monsters, as Nietzsche puts it, we don’t become monsters ourselves; we strengthen our impeccability and are more likely to put ourselves into a mindset suitable to gather a community of support and resistance around us. In addition we’re actively using the upset that our petty tyrant wills against us as fuel for our own spiritual illumination and liberation. By giving thanks for our ability to see the tyrant, petty or otherwise, as a chance for growth rather than a reason for regret, we strengthen our own psyche.
As they say on teh internetz; win!