disembowelling empowerment

Have you noticed how empowerment is in everything these days? Leggings ads on Instagram? Blog posts on dentists’ websites about teeth whitening treatments? Popular feminism? Fitness advertisements? Meditation apps? 

Empowerment is in everything these days.

Empowerment is a nice, fuzzy word that makes us feel good inside. Empowerment. Empowered. Changing the world. Meditating for twenty minutes a day whilst donning fabulous leggings. It appeals to every sensibility of wanting to be earth-changers, movers, and shakers who can take control of their lives, their schedule, and their needs. 

But to do what? Take control to do what? In using “empowerment” to market everything, are we (the targeted consumers) being encouraged to forget what we’re actually being empowered to do? 

In other words, what is empowerment, and is it enough?

Before I jump into any cultural critique, I want to reflect on some of my lower moments. There have definitely been times of my life so hampered by disordered eating or mental illness that I literally forgot what I liked. I forgot I liked deep-fried food and salad, vinegary pickles straight out of the jar and flowy clothes and push ups and cute bras. I remember hating salads because I forced myself to eat them, and telling myself I hated crispy, fried foods because I told myself over and over again how bad they were for me and how I could never, ever eat them. 

Those were dark times. Sometimes, all you need is a little bit of chicken fried.

More seriously, I’m bringing up these dark moments to say that “empowerment” for me was about figuring out what I actually liked again in midst of those bleak times. Realising I did genuinely enjoy fitness, fried food, salad, and some varieties of popular feminism were actually all important steps in my development as a human being. I got back in touch with my body, my hunger, my fullness, my drive to learn, my lust for life. Figuring out what kind of leggings I liked was a crucial step of this process. 

Having come through those times, however, I don’t think empowerment can stop at simply at figuring out what leggings you like or what pop-feminism sayings most float your boat. 

To put it bluntly, I don’t think empowerment as a concept or practice exists to simply make us more informed, choosy consumers. I don’t think feeling empowered in ourselves stops at knowing what clothes make us feel badass or what books give us the warm fuzzies (or, for that matter, a sense of righteous indignation).  If so, empowerment is simply an agent of consumerism, a marketing tool. 

In Ronald Purser’s book McMindfulness, he talks about how meditation and mindfulness have become part and parcel of the consumer-capitalist scene. In other words, meditation, which is only one part of the Eightfold Buddhist path, has become a disembodied method of reducing stress and improving productivity. Of course, this productivity tool has been given to consumers and workers in our current system as a way of improving their output and dealing with stress and fatigue associated with our consumption-driven lifestyle. In the process, we also consume apps. 

This practice also totally divorces meditation and mindfulness practices from their traditional roles in a number of philosophical and religious traditions (Buddhism, Christian mysticism, Sufism). 

The historical role of meditation in religious traditions is, obviously, way too much to cover in a single little blog post. I can’t boil it down to a pithy sentence. But if I had to try, I would say that meditation has often been associated with the development of awe, wonder, ethics, nonjudgementality, and deepened relationships with fellow human beings and the Divine alike. This helps individuals treat emotions as neutral and react from a place of awareness and compassion whilst simultaneously developing their moral compass and their ethical framework. 

Let’s take this back to the subject of empowerment. Meditation of the McMindfulness variety has totally empowered me. Reducing stress in a competitive academic environment? Dealing with stressful life transitions? It’s come in handy and saved my skin so many times. But staying on the level of McMindfulness is like keeping feminism on the level of leggings that say “empowerment” on the side. Or like rock climbing but never challenging yourself (though I totally have weeks like that). 

This leaves me with another uncomfortable but obvious question. For what purpose does empowerment, awareness, and spiritual development exist? My answer is both personal and passionately felt, and I would be curious to hear yours. 

I believe empowerment is about living life fully and attempting to make a difference, however small, however minute. This encompasses a continual growth of my personal boundaries, my sense of ethics, my environmental values, my everyday code of conduct. It’s about how you treat people, both in your everyday life and in future generations. It’s about how you deal with your own failure to live up to your values. After all, what is power for if not to make some sort of tangible, qualitative difference in your own life and in the lives of others? 

If a sense of confidence just leaves me well-clothed and well-traveled and able to put money in the hands of the already-rich, what good is that confidence in the long run? I guess I will have lived a comfortable life and die with a full belly and pictures on the wall. But I don’t know if that’s dying well, and it makes me wonder: why bother? What would I have fought for? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

I don’t know much, but this I’m sure of: 

Empowerment that stops at personal comfort, marketing and consumerism is hardly empowerment at all. It’s a gutless power, confidence without true character or heart, a disembowelled empowerment. I know empowerment has to start somewhere, but it also needs to keep moving. 

I’m still working on this “keep moving” part. I’m still trying to figure out how to use my relatively newfound sense of purpose, direction, and embodiment. I still struggle to read my ethical compass, and I’m still trying to understand my own philosophical and moral views. I’m still wearing leggings (and trying to figure out how and where to recycle them). 

And some days, I still occasionally wonder if I “should” be doing more squats to make my butt look better. However, I have the sneaking suspicion that affecting change in my local government’s environmental policies is far more important than how my butt looks. 

The journey goes ever upward, my friends. I don’t think this is a linear process, but it’s an honest one.  Let me know where you are on this path. I’m curious and I want to keep learning from you.  

sources + inspiration: 

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

McMindfulness by Ronald Purser 

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