Development organizations for which I work like to see themselves as empowering women, youth, girls, and marginalized groups. Empowering in most instances refers to facilitating the means for these groups to lead the social change process, make their voices heard, and gain access to their rights individually and collectively. However, I would argue that the existing frameworks for empowerment ignore a deeper, more abiding aspect to empowerment than the issue of human rights.
To explain further, organizations whose mission revolves around empowering marginalized groups might design programs that help them to gain equitable access to resources, such as schools, health services, and agricultural support services that improve their livelihoods. They expect to see economic and social gains, such as women involved in savings and loans groups become more self-confident, acquire more decision making power in the household, and become leaders in their communities. The more enlightened organizations understand that for real social change to occur, they must also get to the root causes that perpetuate poverty for disenfranchised groups, such as the socio-cultural norms, patriarchy, discriminatory legal frameworks, and structural inequality. Invariably, too, advocacy and coalition building are important to achieving long-term change.
Already, a gap arises when organizations report on the change process. What I have found typical is that they are wont to report on the “before and after” but leave out the middle of the change narrative. What was the transformation that an individual or a group underwent? How deep and how far did it go? And how exactly did the change occur? Most of these answers are not readily available and it further pushes me to consider the presumption of empowering others, something that has always made me feel uncomfortable.
While my own field may not easily offer up the insights I seek, what I do know with greater certainty is that the literature and the experience of personal transformation does. And what it tells me is that there is a bedrock layer lying underneath the structural causes that has not been mined and that is consciousness. It is key to the process of empowering one’s own self and using one’s own power for the good of others. However, I say this with a vision of consciousness and empowerment in much broader terms than, say, becoming politically and socially aware with the result that groups or individuals are exercising their human rights. And it begins with a concept of self-inquiry, not of the mind, not of the body, but of the mind-body-heart-spirit in an integrated whole. I have met many people who by some trigger event or encounter have been broken open and for the first time in their lives, see themselves in all their immensity. And this immensity is a truer vision of who they are. It is a place of knowing that transcends the mind, the ego, even time. It is free of identifiers and boundaries that create separateness. At its best, the person finds herself in a state of love that is not attached to anything; it needs nothing. As you advance further on the journey of self-awakening, you would even lose the attachment to life, letting go of the fear of death itself.
In the case of a friend, it was a worsening health condition that brought about her self-empowerment. Seeking solutions for her health, Laura took control and defied the fate to which others committed her. This is often the case when we find ourselves in a last ditch situation. But she also became re-acquainted with a part of her self that was yearning for something more, something beyond the visible, tangible world we take for reality. Laura began to nourish her soul, mind, heart and body by allowing into her life energy healing and spiritual knowledge and as she did, a sense of trust took root, like the surrender we feel when we are in an embrace. Quite naturally, it ensued that she recreated the power to be honest with others, out of fidelity to and respect for her self. The fetters of authoritarian figures in her life were becoming undone, and her family members reacted positively to her self-assertion, contrary to what she expected. The change she was undergoing from the inside out was like an inkblot; it went everywhere.
Laura’s experience is only a small window into personal transformation and is still at an early stage. But it is similar to other accounts and resonates with my own. The ‘becoming aware’ is becoming aware of presence of Being, the divinity within, with its quality of unlimitedness, characteristic of the divine light. This broader concept of consciousness restores ‘spirit’ to our integrated personhood. Our being is more than just the body and it is not merely the body that needs relief from suffering; fundamentally, it is the soul that needs healing. When the mind and the body align with heart and the soul, a state of harmony establishes itself.
John Heron is a well-known figure in the field of transpersonal psychology and author of Sacred Science: Person-Centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle (1998). He has designed a ‘map of Being’ that serves as a conceptual framework for his work with groups who embark on an experiential inquiry into spiritual development, a methodology not aligned to any spiritual tradition. I borrow from his system for its reference to four directions in which the soul may journey:
- inward to the heights of spiritual awareness beyond all name and form (ascent)
- inward to the depths of spiritual life within, the ground of all manifestation (descent)
- outward to engage creatively with the presences and energies of higher worlds (ascent)
- outward to become actively involved in social change and planetary transformation (descent)
Clearly, the inward and the outward are interactive and tightly connected. While most of us are familiar with the outward descent (d), the other three enable and enrich the individual pursuit of social change. However, to appreciate their full meaning deserves a serious read of Heron’s book.
I have known people, friends, who lost their lives defending the rights of disenfranchised groups or caring for them. I know many extraordinary people who dedicate their lives to being in service to others. But whether it be the development worker, the change agent or the marginalized groups who are being empowered, there is a disconnect between the internal and external manifestations of that power. While the latter are important, there seems to be much less awareness of, and thus inquiry around, the internal workings. Fulfilling and enacting one’s rights in the world does not convey the inner transformation potentially taking place. In a sense, the inward dimension is the very seat of power; not only will it drive us towards action in the real world but it will tap and transform the unconscious mind that keeps us prisoner on automatic pilot. A lot of undesirable limiting beliefs can come undone through the inner journey.
A person becomes self-aware when the transformative process unfolds from the inside out. A self-inquiry presents itself with a very different set of questions for an individual, such as:
- What is my life purpose?
- Who am I without the labels and identifiers ascribed to me or to which my ego attaches itself?
- How strong is my sense of self-love?
- Can I recognize the voice of my heart?
- What is my capacity to bring love to relationships with others, no matter how challenging they may be?
- What is my connection to my Higher Self?
- Am I capable of experiencing joy just in being, independently of anyone or anything else?
These questions almost arise naturally when one decides to journey inward and unlock one’s creative potential to its fullest extent. People who have done so tend to be more concerned with discovering something new than with accomplishing because they are not trying to prove anything to the world; they are merely living their own expression.
On the one hand, it is definitively more difficult to envision embarking on such a journey when in a state of great need or enduring suffering, as is the case for most of the population groups that I work with. On the other hand, it is frequently the deep, dark moments in our lives or one’s state of need – whether related to poor health, poverty, loss, or trauma – that propel us towards some source of spiritual inspiration and healing. I have been witness multiple times in my life to the gratitude of people receiving relief from war or poverty. But the real balm is the love that is given freely and genuinely. It leaves an impression on the heart that does not go away, like stocks that eventually run out.
When we touch someone’s heart, it diminishes the duality in one’s mind that churns questions such as: Why does this always happen to me? Why am I always so unlucky? Why is the world so unjust? Why am I alone? And so it is important that bitterness and despair do not anchor themselves so firmly that there is no room to even receive love. I can only hold up as my perfect idol Amma, the Hugging Saint, who sources her global humanitarian work in pure, divine love.
So to come to the end of this reflection, every human being deserves love and a life of dignity vested with the full gamut of human rights. Added to this, each individual can awaken to his or her Higher Self and free the self of the afflictions imposed by the mind. Even if life’s circumstances do not go in the direction we wish, the true catalyst is within. And as John O’Donohue says more poetically below, the outer experience is a mirror of the inner soul. So will be our world. This is my wish for each and everyone of you.
May you awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.
May you receive great encouragement when new frontiers beckon,
May you respond to the call of your gift and find the courage to follow its path.
May the flame of anger free you from falsity.
May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and may anxiety never linger about you.
May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.
May you take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.
May you be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.
May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.
Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Yearning to Belong. 1999. New York: HarperCollins. p. 97.