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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Enpowerment as Enlightenment

  Domenico Piazza
  Domenico Piazza
Senior Associate

At one time or another, all of us in the serving professions have had a sense of mission. I certainly get hooked into the notion now and again that something big needs accomplishing and I’m the one to do it.

I think it’s time to unpack the idea of empowerment—a word used frequently by those of us in the human development movement. Empowerment is taken by most of us to be a good thing and central to our notions of an evolving, healthy existence. Like many words and phrases that enter the lexicon of discourse, it might be helpful to examine the implications and functions embedded in the word itself, as well as the qualifiers that often accompany it, i.e., “self ,” and actions such as “empowering others.”

What are the components of “empowerment”?

  • A realization that one can initiate actions to further personal intentions
  • An emotional and intellectual sense of controlling one’s destiny
  • An understanding of a process by which we draw energy from our environment in order to find self-expression
  • An experience of the responsibility we have to ourselves and to the world
  • The clarity that we must take action to manifest our empowerment
  • The awareness that we do not get empowerment from others but rather create it from the context of our personal journeys
  • An understanding that certain conditions must be present for empowerment to become a real factor in our lives rather than a feel-good slogan

In each of these components, the overarching question for me is, To what end do we use our empowerment? How does it encourage and support healthy growth and freedom for ourselves and others? In the language of the U.S. Constitution, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” The key to this statement are the words “We hold these truths….” It was the choice of the framers of our government that we declare the equality of all humans. And so it is with the idea of empowerment. We choose to hold it as an inalienable right, not a gift we’ve been granted. Thus each of its components must be viewed in relation to its personal and societal responsibilities.

Central to the word “empowerment” is the word “power.” Power represents the energy needed to achieve some end. When we use power, it has the capacity, almost inevitably, to create change. Power is, however, a neutral term and does not necessarily result in healthy change. When we are empowered, we can fulfill our personal intentions. For me, encouraging others to be mindful of the sources within them that drive decision-making is vital. If our intentions spring from damaged, negative places, our behaviors are likely to perpetuate those same conditions. This creates non-productive cycles unlikely to foster emotional and intellectual growth. When our power is tested and produces life-giving results, we can choose to create more of what is working. When we are empowered, our emotions, intellect and behavior are synchronized.

I have become increasingly concerned about the side effects of a medication I take for rheumatoid arthritis. I knew it was endangering my liver. The options seemed to be between unbearable pain and irreversible liver damage. To find the healthiest path forward, I advocated for myself with my doctor. Through a series of questions, I was able to understand that, with early detection from regular blood tests, a different course of action could be taken that would allow the damaged organ to heal. I was able to rewrite an internal narrative that was creating anxiety to one based on reality. I became empowered by knowledge.

I also believe that a commitment to others is critical to true empowerment. In fact, one might say that the moral responsibility of a democratic government is to protect and empower its citizens. This idea is the central thesis of George Lakoff’s excellent book The Political Mind: A Cognitive Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics. Lakoff writes: “This is the moral basis behind the idea of the openness of government, so that governmental operations will be transparent and can be criticized when appropriate and prosecuted when necessary” (p. 50). If we, both as a nation and as individuals, can be a source for the empowerment of others, it is surely in modeling positive power through our behavior. As with good parenting, our actions are the most effective teachers.

Empowerment is also modeled when we use our environment as a partner in our life’s journey. For me, the natural world is an immediate check on reality and a source of empowerment. When I feel lost in the forest, it helps to realize that the trees and stones are not lost. There is a steadiness in what is real that helps us keep our bearings. In The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins demonstrates how the natural world is full of wonder far greater than the magic of fairy tales, metaphysics, and mythologies. The magic of the real world is the focus of his book. He points us to the world surrounding us as a source of deep grounding, proclaiming: “We are moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music and we describe the performance as ‘magical.’ We gaze up at the stars on a dark night with no moon and no city lights and, breathless with joy, we say the sight is ‘pure magic.’” Our natural ability to understand the underlying reality of the world and universe around us is, in itself, a powerful source of personal strength. We also learn to live with the many mysteries of existence. What greater excitement is there than the many unanswered questions life presents us? As we search for verifiable truth, we rely on our innate sense of power and our openness to surprise.

Openness and honesty with loved ones is also a great source of power, as is a commitment to a deep sense of non-attachment to the things of this world. When we are unburdened of the necessity to try to hold on to more and more, we are empowered to give freely of ourselves to others. The more we give away, the more empowered we are.

I think the idea of empowerment is akin to the Buddhist notion of enlightenment. In Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das observes, “The enlightenment did not come about through the intervention of outside, mystical, or unworldly forces. The Buddha Way is the way of clear-seeing rationality; it is the way of reality; it is the way of critical examination and sustained inquiry into the nature of life.” Grounded in reality, the mindfulness of our inner lives becomes the best source of fulfillment, and lights the way to happiness. Empowerment, then, is the force for actualizing our innate perfection and thus the way to an enlightened life.

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