We hear the word “empowerment” a lot these days, especially in the corporate world, but have you ever been disempowered? I remember my ex-husband once interrupting and cutting me short during a discussion in which I was trying to express my opinion with, “You? You have no opinion.”
So what does it feel like to be disempowered? To be shut down, set to one side, ignored, perhaps even, in some cases, shunned, outcast or ostracised for having a mind of your own. How have you dealt with people who disempower you? Reach out by dropping a comment below. Trust me, you’re not alone.
But let’s look at someone who has famously been empowered, both in terms of her upbringing as in her management of the shooting that nearly killed her. When asked why her voice in favour of the education of girls is so powerful, Malala credits her father, and thanks him for “never having clipped her wings”. So we’re talking here about empowerment by omission, rather than deed.
Malala’s wings may not have been clipped, but most of our wings are. “Clipping wings” is something that happens a lot, from a very young age, all the way through to adulthood, perhaps even our whole lives, if we’re feisty and imprudent. But it’s worse if we’re not, I think, because then we just accept our fate and learn to live earth-bound, incapable of flight, and that really is tragic.
Growing up, and even into adulthood, the way I used to handle disempowerment was pretty unskillful. I’d complain because I wanted to fly! I could see others flying, why not me? “Please explain” (why my wings are being clipped), is something I’d ask a great deal, only to be punished with silent treatments and a reputation for “being difficult”. How stubborn! Why could I not just “drop it”? Not only were my wings clipped anyway, but there was no one to sympathise with me when I wailed in anger and frustration. “See? That’s why you need your wings clipped, look at how unreasonable you are.” Then looking round in dismay to see everyone’s head nodding in agreement.
Fast forward to when I learnt how to meditate and began to see clearly that resisting the clipping was doing me a great deal more damage than the clipping itself. I realised that the answer was not in resistance but in withdrawal. Further, it was also clear that there was no “winning” (i.e. not getting my wings unnecessarily clipped!) while I remained in that situation. And with this understanding, new possibilities opened up before me. The first was to gracefully accept that, while I continued in that situation, the clipping of wings would continue as well. So what did I want more? The upsides of the situation or the perceived uncertainties of the freedom to fly?
Next time a wing-clipping situation arose, and with a clear understanding that flapping about angrily would only empower the wing-clipper, it was easy to bow into submission without protest. Meantime, I prepared myself mentally and emotionally, with the support of the practice, the teachings and the community of practitioners – The Three Jewels – for the day I’d be able to fly. I learnt about the mechanics of it, and practised night and day, even when I knew that flying wasn’t possible at that moment. And with an activated imagination, I could see myself flying even when I was land-bound, and stopped protesting against the relentless wing clipping.
My whole attitude became lighter and friendlier in the knowledge that things change, and in this transformed inner state, I found a way out. “The way out is in”, is a famous quote by my teacher and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Freedom! Soon the people around me were not wing-clippers or wing-clipper supporters and assistants, but friends who could fly. Friends who listen, sympathise and understand. Friends who support me and each other, who encourage me to keep trying, to set new goals for myself, to fly higher, even when it’s scary or risky. Friends who stand by me when I’m down, friends I can stand by when they’re down, friends I can continue to practise with and to flourish.
Does this mean my life is free from wing-clippers? Indeed it does not. Wing-clippers are everywhere. But these days it isn’t so easy to clip my wings, even when I stay still, without flapping. Mindfulness is a superpower that generates an invisible shield around those who practise it, preventing wing-clippers from getting anywhere near our precious feathers.
Although sometimes they do, as was Malala’s case. Those wing-clippers didn’t want to prevent her from flying, they wanted to annihilate her outright. And they very nearly did. But Malala assures us she has never been angry at the people who shot her:
Here is where I take my hat off to Malala. It is here that her self-empowerment lies. In the wisdom of her words, in the knowledge that nothing is as important as our own happiness and well-being. There’s nothing we can do about the actions of others. But we can take care of ourselves, we can decide where to place our attention. We are the gardeners of our own hearts. We are responsible for our thoughts, feelings and actions. I’m not sure Malala has never felt anger, because the seed of anger is in all of us. But what is certain is that she has taken such very good care of her anger, and has learnt how to refrain (again, an omission rather than an act), from cultivating it and allowing it to grow. Instead, she goes about her business cultivating love and joy, turning herself into a loving and joyful person.