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Four languages of power (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

My friend Carl Johan Rehbinder often lectures about the five, or maybe, seven languages of love. Recently I ran into an old passage from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, an early Buddhist text from 28 BC – It states the following.

” These eight worldly conditions, monks, keep the world turning around, and the world turns around these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain…”

To me, it describes four polarities, and I find these to be essential when playing with BDSM. Of course, the Buddha probably referred to them in the real-life world, maybe even as something negative, but like all knowledge about the big, it is also often applicable in the small. I think they are understandable as four languages of power.


I like to order them from the body to the soul, and that puts the pleasure and pain polarity first, closest to the body. I believe that this is where most people start their journey into BDSM. It is the whips and vibrators that stimulate the skin and insides. Pain is punishment, and pleasure is the reward. Simple. Next polarity is gain and loss, and it is an abstraction of pleasure and pain. One that requires a deeper level of trust between the dominant and the submissive. Because the dominant is no longer “only” manipulating the senses of their partner, they now also own a system that holds power. By consenting to this, the submissive is deepening the polarity of the power dynamic. As BDSM often starts in pleasure and pain, that becomes the most logical thing to define as a system. For example, orgasm control or tease-and-denial is a popular practice, where the submissive gain or lose their permission to orgasm. But the same principle can easily be extended to allowing and denying anything. Like certain type of clothing, foods, or hobby activities.

Okay, I am moving on to the next polarity, praise and blame.

Again this is a further abstraction of the previous polarity of gain and loss. Here the submissive starts to increase the value of the dominants opinion. To what extent this happens is a grey-scale, that can range from merely listening attentively to prioritizing it over their own. An example here is calling your partner “a good boy” or “a filthy slut”. All dirty talk is more or less acting this out – the polarity of praise and blame. If you, as the reader, have a hard time understanding why anyone would enjoy this, then I can tell you it is about permission – to be allowed to act out a side of oneself that one normal repress. You can read more about this in my text about shame and humiliation. The most significant difference between praise-blame and gain-loss is the boundary of the ego, and therefore it is a vast difference between the two following sentences.

“No candy before dinner.”

“Only stupid slaves eat candy before dinner.”

Because the second sentence also defines who they are as a submissive – in this case a stupid one.

From here it it borders to the forth polarity of fame and disrepute. Because now it also matters who knows about the power dynamic. A popular expression of this is walking collared in a play party or even a public space, perhaps with a dog-tag saying “Property of …”. Or by posting pictures online with similar words written on the body. To an outsider, all these examples might look as something negative, but often it also comes with a sense of pride, for the level of trust required to have such a vast polarity.

Aristotle and his lover Phyllis. Work from 1515.

So why do I write this?

Mainly because I want to encourage others to play with all these levels of abstraction. But also to know about how they impact the psyche, and sense of self. Human beings are flock animals, and fame-disrepute defines us in that context, while pleasure-pain is something that “only” happens in the body. There is a saying – what goes up must come down – and playing with fame-disrepute and blame-praise will often push most people higher than pain-pleasure and gain-loss. One question to ask is, how serious but also dangerous, do you want to play? And knowing that sometimes a silly and joyful spanking is the right thing. 

Okay, enough warnings, because there is another side to this coin. I see equally many people stuck at the lowest level of abstraction. Because they start with a little bit of spanking and then think that is all BDSM can offer. But there is a huge opportunity here; to deepen their trust with a partner, form a more energetic polarity and intriguing power play. And, as a medical massage therapist, I think it is beneficial to lessening the forceful impact on the body and shifting the arena to the soul.