There is a giant billboard I pass whenever I travel into Salt Lake City. It features a woman with tight brown bouncy curls and a vibrant white-toothed smile, her arms thrown up in the air. She looks like she just won the lottery. Superimposed over the image is the bold command “BE EMPOWERED,” and at the bottom of the sign is the website where you can go to get YOUR free laser hair removal consultation.
This ad sends a clear message: being empowered or channeling the obscenely-happy-billboard-woman vibes requires something external to you. You, alone and of yourself, are not enough. You need something else. In this case, it’s less hair on certain areas of your body (and they conveniently happen to have a laser machine to remove all that unwanted hair!) This idea of “empowerment” is all over the place. The idea that with just the right circumstance, just the right change, you can have everything you’re looking for in life. It’s a very dangerous idea.
Because the implication is that you need something. That you are missing something. We are so bombarded with these messages that we often find ourselves going through life seeking things, experiences, and people who will give us this sense of what they are calling “empowerment.” But I don’t think this is empowerment - I think it’s the enemy of it.
True empowerment is about who we are being in our circumstances, not about the circumstances themselves. Paralysis was a profoundly useful teacher in this regard since it was a problem that didn’t have a solution. There is no current treatment for healing a damaged spinal cord, and mine was completely damaged. I was compelled to find peace by a different means - through myself. When I found that peace, I learned that all of my suffering, not just paralysis, was about my relationship to my circumstances: my fears about money or making a living, dating, sex, family matters, everything.
I found freedom when I questioned the premises of my thinking about my situation. Whenever I had the thought, “I need to recover to be happy,” I responded with the question, “Does walking make people happy?” and “What would walking provide for me now that I cannot provide for myself?” Each time I found that there was a story or a flawed premise that had distorted my view of life and the world.
Empowerment is about knowing which stories serve us - for it is our stories that give us our ways of being in the world and shape our very experience of reality. I had no freedom as long as I believed that I needed to walk to be happy. Once I discovered that wasn’t true, I was free to be perfectly, completely paralyzed. It suddenly became a non-issue.
So, my beloved friend, which of your circumstances is causing you suffering? What do you wish was different in your life? What changes are you waiting for to be happy, or find peace or rest? Investigate that thinking with loving kindness and you may discover a much gentler story. Empowerment is available in any circumstance, we just have to know where to find it.