3. Building the Empathy Superhighway
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3. Empowerment: We use power to empower others rather than to dominate over others.
As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world—that is the myth of the atomic age—as in being able to remake ourselves.
Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, has brought to the world’s attention the need to radically change our relationship to power. To save our planet, we must find alternative, clean, renewable sources of power that support all of life’s systems. The same thing can be said about the need to change our relationship to personal power. We must shift from a paradigm of hoarding power for purposes of using itover others to sharing power and lifting others. The spiritual activism principle of empowerment calls on us to take personal responsibility for transforming the nature of power by “doing” power differently.
Every living thing is animated by power and has power to use. Whether it’s a plant photosynthesizing the sun or a squirrel running up a tree, it is using energy/power to fuel action. As social animals dependent on each other for survival, we use power to navigate our social relationships, and this power has the capacity to heal the world if we commit ourselves to using it for that purpose.
Many have said that human action is fueled, or powered, by either love or fear. When our actions are born out of fear, we grasp for safety. While fear is an innate response helpful for heading off danger, what we perceive as dangerous or threatening to our survival has become ubiquitous. Even though modern culture has largely eliminated the daily battle for survival, the same culture leads us to believe that our very survival depends on accumulating alarger share of the limited supply of stuff and on controllling others.Having more stuff and more control will give us more power; if we have morepower, we think we will be safe. An imbalance of fear is driving us to all the wrong places for our survival.
The problem with fear is that it is self-perpetuating. The more fearful we are, the more willing we are to sacrifice others for our own self-preservation. As we act defensively, we move further into a state of disconnection. As psychoanalyst Erich Fromm states in his book, The Art of Loving, “the experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety.” The thicker the barrier between us, the easier it is to be non-caring or violent towards each other. When we are in the grip of fear in non-emergent circumstances we give up the very source of true safety – being vulnerable and taking care of each other.
In contrast to fear, the power of love has been described in poetry, song, liturgy, and art, as that which brings us together, heals us, elevates us to our highest potential, and connects us to that which is sacred. Love is also said to be infinite, which means that as a source of personal power it is completely renewable, self-generating, can be gifted freely, has the magical qualities of lifting things up and can make the sum of the whole greater than its parts. Humans, with our capacity for love, are miraculous generators of this infinite source of power.
The promise of love as a source of power is that, like fear, it is also self-perpetuating. The more loving we are, the more nurturing conditions we create, which builds a world of true safety where we can open ourselves, freeing our creativity and innate yearning to build lives with meaning.
Each person, regardless of circumstances, has the capacity to choose love as the motivation for action. Even in the most horrific situations such as being captive during the Holocaust or being a survivor of rape, there is the capacity to choose to act from love instead of fear. As Victor Frankl writes in his book, A Man’s Search for Meaning:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
And as Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day says about her work around the world with women who have suffered the worst kinds of gender violence:
As I have traveled these last eight years, I have had the honor to meet women and men across this planet who have witnessed or suffered enormous violence, and rather than getting an AK47 or a machete, they feel this violence, grieve this violence and allow it to transform within their beings. Then they devote their lives to making sure it never happens to another woman or girl. … They are women and men who constantly sacrifice their own personal security and by doing so create real safety and freedom for the rest.
If we can become the transformers of power by cultivating a new way of being together in our everyday lives, then we help reverse the downward spiral from fear to love, from war to peace, from alienation to connection.
Just as it will take incredible individual and collective effort— unprecedented in scale and speed— to change our behavior to address the fuel power crisis, the same exertion must be made to change the way we use our personal power. This takes awareness, practice, and commitment, but each step perpetuates the next and creates multipliers of support for the transformation of power. And, importantly, changing the personal power paradigm is key to successfully addressing the fuel power crisis and visa versa.
We don’t need to be living directly in the midst of horrific suffering in order to apply a new way of holding power. Our relationship to power can change right now in our everyday lives, including how we are with our family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and strangers. It helps to know that millions of people around the world are dedicated to making this change. As Paul Hawkins says in his book, Blessed Unrest: Why the Largest Movement in The World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, “I now believe there are over one—and maybe even two— million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice.”
To help bring a deeper level of awareness to your own issues around power and to suggest some practices for becoming a power transformer, listed below are some ideas for doing power differently.
1. Taking A Personal Power Inventory: Raising your own awareness about your motivation for action is a good practice that you can do anytime, anywhere. Throughout your day, ask yourself what is the motivation for action? Is it fear based and self-protective or are you acting from a place of love and compassion? Are you sharing your power to support someone else? Or are you using power to make yourself feel more than someone else?
2. Sharing Your Access: Identify a way in which you have access to powerful relationships or information and identify someone you know who doesn’t have the same kind of access but would benefit from these resources and help them gain access.
3. Surrendering Control: Identify a situation in which you typically take control and instead let someone else be in charge. Becoming accustomed to the feelings associated with allowing others to be in control is good practice for breaking the “need to control” habit.
4. Releasing Your Grip: Identify one way in which you are using your power over others in order to make yourself feel more secure. This could be in a parent/child relationship, a consumer/sales relationship, a hierarchical work relationship—anywhere that you feel or are trying to feel you have “one up” on someone else. Find a way to reorient yourself so that you can release your power grip over others and experience your true equality.
5. Giving Credit Away: By acknowledging others for their contributions to work projects, family meals, or community efforts, you remind yourself of your interdependence and can see how the power of others helps you. This is a good grounding for when you get lost in your own need for credit or to be seen above others.
6. Taking Responsibility For Avoiding Old Paradigm Power: Identify a situation in which someone is using power over you that is disempowering. Create the support you need through friends, family, co-workers, or professional helpers, to transform that circumstance, including your own attitude or approach.
7. Building A New Power Paradigm Network: Tap into the growing network of millions of people around the world who believe we can make this shift in how we use power and are doing it right now. There is an emerging global community that can be found in websites, books, and in organizations that is setting out to make this profound transformation. Check out http://www.wiserearth.org which is a community directory and networking forum for not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations addressing the central issues of our day: climate change, poverty, the environment, peace, water, hunger, social justice, conservation, human rights, and more.
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Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega Institute's chief external affairs officer and cofounder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. An attorney with 25 years of experience in public interest advocacy, she has contributed to more than 100 city, state, and federal laws, and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women’s rights, poverty, public health, and social justice. She is a commentator for WAMC’s show, 51%, writes a column and serves on the advisory board for Feminist.com, and serves as advisor to Women Without Borders.
Before joining Omega, Carla Goldstein was vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC), where she directed the agency’s advocacy and strategic communications work. Before joining PPNYC, Goldstein worked for the speaker of the New York City Council, where she helped craft and advocate for state and federal legislative agendas. While in law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she was cofounding editor-in-chief of the state’s first women’s law journal, the Buffalo Women’s Journal (now published as Buffalo Journal of Gender, Law, and Social Policy). Goldstein has also been featured at the New York State Bar Association’s “Women on the Move: Successful Women in the Know”.
Goldstein was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College for eight years, where she taught a course called Law and Social Justice, which was designed to empower students to be effective advocates for progressive social change. She now teaches a variety of workshops at Omega, including Omega’s Women & Power conferences and retreats, which inspire thousands of women from around the world. Carla Goldstein also appears regularly on local and national radio and television, and makes public presentations on issues related to women’s empowerment, holistic and sustainable living, activism, and spiritual activism.
Follow Carla on Twitter @Carla_Goldstein
Read Carla's article about her recent trip to Rwanda: Omega Attends Women's Conference in Rwanda
Founded in 1977, Omega is the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops, retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.
The Omega Women's Leadership Center, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since 2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political. The OWLC provides opportunities for women and men to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices through unique learning and community building experiences.
For more information, visit www.eomega.org.