She was nominated for a Nobel prize for her contribution to resolving nuclear conflict. Now Scilla Elworthy believes we all hold the power to make the world a better place - just below our navels. David Cohen investigates
Scilla Elworthy stands in her living room, legs apart and eyes closed, and peels down the top of her skirt to reveal her bare belly. She places both hands below her navel, then opens her eyes and says: "Your hara is here, where your uterus is if you're a woman, where the tummy sticks out if you're a man, the centre of gravity of the human body. It is the synthesis of our intellect, body and spirit, and by developing our consciousness of it, we can become incredibly rooted."

She calls it "hara power", a power that is derived from accessing a primordial inner strength, the fusion of our masculine and feminine energies, and she claims that it holds the key to the kind of power the world desperately needs today. Mandela has it. Gandhi had it. A power that faces up to domination without using force, whose object is not "to win" but to reach a just and fair settlement, to solve the problem.

Earlier I had pondered the thesis of her new book, Power and Sex (Element, pounds 15-99) with a mixture of hope and scepticism. The ideal she advocates - "to deal with a bully without becoming a thug yourself" - seemed noble but idealistic. How, for instance, might an individual use hara power when confronted by a motorist exhibiting road rage? How might John Major have used hara power to resolve the conflict over British beef? How might her concept of power be employed to revive the Northern Ireland peace process? And how, now, would she cope with the power imbalance inherent in the journalist-subject relationship?

Observing Elworthy padding about in her bare feet and clasping her well- toned belly, one might be tempted to dismiss her as a New Age idealist with little grip on the real world. Yet Elworthy, 53, has developed her ideas from close-up scrutiny of, and involvement in, the toughest, highest- risk power game of them all - the nuclear weapons industry.

In 1982, Elworthy set up the Oxford Research Group, funded by Quaker Foundations, to investigate how nuclear weapons decisions are made.

She wanted to know who in the USA, Russia, Britain, France and China designed nuclear weapons, ordered them, wrote the cheques, deployed and fired them. She indentified 650 key decision-makers, then set about finding out "what these people were like, what they thought of the world". Having made contact, she facilitated dialogue between decision-makers and opponents of nuclear armaments, and in 1990 and 1991 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her quiet and unsung work in bringing together opposing sides of the nuclear weapons debate.

But the closer to the source of power she came, the more powerless she felt. "I found myself in the presence of very powerful men and wanting to find a way to communicate as an equal. But their underlying assumption is that we live in a world that is a zero-sum game and that to win, you have to dominate. It is a very lopsided, masculine way of operating. At the same time I was reading about societies, both past and present, in which another kind of power, a more feminine power, held sway. Archeological records of the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages, from circa 7,000 BCE, pre- God in other words, showed evidence that these societies worshipped goddesses. Yes, women. The existence of such cultures came as a surprise to me. I wanted to unravel what this other kind of power might look like."

Elworthy knew the taste of male power, having herself aspired to it as a young woman. She grew up in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, with an authoritarian stockbroker father "whose word was law", and four elder brothers whom she learnt to beat at their own game. "I flew aeroplanes, parachuted, walked on my own across the Himalayas - you name it, if it was dangerous, I did it." She went to university, got a "rather second class" diploma in social science, then pursued a career as a model in South Africa before marrying an industrialist.

She had a daughter, Polly (now 22), and after 13 years was divorced, with a settlement which enables her "to survive today, just", when she's not being paid. In her late forties she went back to university, gained a doctorate in British Nuclear Weapons Policy, a subject which had come to obsess her, and later became a consultant to Unesco.

"Like many traditional feminists, I became one of the boys, only better. For a while it gave me a buzz to win at their game, but ultimately that kind of power just goes nowhere. Traditional feminism excludes men and so perpetuates conflict. I am not interested in warring about power. The thing about hara power is that it is equally available to both men and women."

Today, Elworthy lives on her own in a small, but luxurious "converted stable" in the ancient Cotswold village of Sherborne. She offers me "real coffee" and sits me down at her dinky table for two, which is groaning with bread, salad and cheese, flowers and - I cannot miss it - a little angel card with the word "understanding" turned up towards me. A nice touch. Let the power play begin.

She closes her eyes, lets her arms fall by her side, and starts with a disclosure. "About 10 minutes before you came, I received a telephone call from a friend that has left me feeling strange. I just wanted to tell you so I can put it to the back of my mind and give you my full attention," she confides. Very good. I realise, having read the book, that I am experiencing the first wave of hara power.

Boiled down to basics, the Elworthy thesis is that, faced with a domination power situation, the individual has four option: to acquiesce and to play the victim; to manipulate or to try to outmanoeuvre the adversary by bargaining or doing deals; to escalate the crisis; or (and this is "the only choice" for her) that of "honest communication", whose goal is to settle rather than to win. Only the last option uses hara power.

It sounds simple but achieving it is, she concedes, "the hardest work you can ever do". The reason is that in order to communicate honestly, you have first to be fully aware of your feelings in the moment (she said she was feeling strange); to state those feelings (as she did); to allow yourself to be vulnerable without backing down; and, finally, "to bring your full weight to the situation", by which she means centring yourself in your hara, then moving from there. "The last step is the clincher, requiring us to move out of our male intellect and incorporate the feminine side - feelings, body and spirit - so as to respond as a "whole" individual," she says.

She sees hara power as increasingly prevalent in society: in the new mediation initiative on divorce settlements; in the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa; in the recent breakthrough at the Geneva talks whereby the Chinese dropped their objection to imposing a comprehensive test ban on nuclear weapons (a shift she attributes to her group's work with the Chinese at a time when the British Ministry of Defence had zero contact because of the dispute over Hong Kong); and in the signing of the Oslo Accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The fact that the accord has since broken down, perhaps permanently, is evidence of the fact that there are no finite happy endings and honest communication has to involve all parties, she says.

Point taken. But time for a stab at the obstacle course. How would Elworthy have advised a potential road rage victim and Major on the power-play over Northern Ireland and British beef? "The method of full and honest disclosure is the same, only the detail differs," she suggests. "With Northern Ireland, my advice would be to create the space for both sides to sit down and really hear the grievances of the other. Until that historical anger and mistrust is genuinely addressed, any peace process will founder on quicksand. As for British beef, it's hard to say because there we had two bullies intent on escalation. The best policy for Major would have been to first establish the full extent of the problem and then to divulge it so as to stem the distrust, making public health his first priority. If you do that, you take all power away from the blackmailer.

"Finally, if someone cut me off in my car and was coming towards me, purple-faced with rage, I would get out of my car, try to acknowledge and go through my fear and then say, calmly: 'I sense that you're very angry. I get that you're really mad at me.' But every situation is different - if I had kids with me, I'd just get the hell out of there."

I had taken Elworthy a litany of the world's problems and asked her to solve them. At the end of the day, hypothetical tests remain just that hypothetical - so her advice is hard to assess. What I can vouch for is this: she is tripping with real-life examples of how she has used hara power to empower herself in her personal and professional life: in her divorce settlement, love quarrels and interactions with Chinese generals. And you cannot play the adversarial journalistic game with her for long. The reason: she welcomes your criticism and acknowledges your points.

But when I got home I tried it out. The garbage collectors were just leaving and had failed to collect the majority of our dustbin bags. Drawing myself to my full height, feeling my fear and going through it anyway, I went up to the driver and announced: "Excuse me, but they've left half the rubbish behind". He stared straight past me then drove off as if I didn't exist. What did I do wrong?

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