Creating Transformation – Empowerment in Practice

As I was sitting down and getting ready to write this particular column, I gathered my thoughts, trying to remember some good examples of empowerment in practice. I knew I had something that had taken place pretty recently that was a good example of empowerment in practice, but I wanted at least one more example.

As I sat in the common room of my building, I remembered that I had forgotten my small spiral notebook downstairs. Usually I take the stairs, (twelve flights – don’t ask, it’s good exercise) but in this case I was a bit sore from running in the morning and I knew I was going to use the stairs when I was finished writing. So, I broke my own rule and took the elevator. My building has several doormen and I’m friendly with all of them. Today it was Patrick. He’s a tall-ish, soft-spoken black man of about forty. He has an accent – Virgin Islands? I can’t tell for sure. I ask him how he’s doing. He tells me in a solemn tone that next week is his last day at work. “Why?” I ask him, concerned. “I’ve been accepted to CUNY for their medical program,” he says. The program has the option of a Nurse Practitioner or a Physician’s Assistant track. He says he may go on to become a physician, but hasn’t yet decided.

“Congratulations,” I tell him excitedly and pump his hand. “Which way do you think you’re going to go?”

“I’d really like to become a physician,” he says, “but I think I’m too old.” I can tell he seems a bit intimidated by the whole thing.

“Nonsense,” I tell him. “I started college years after I had seen the inside of a school, and my school record wasn’t much to write home about.” I tell him about a woman I knew in a different city who was divorced with around four little children who went to med school and became a doctor. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. Now I’m on a tear. My writing is forgotten, we are standing in the open elevator and I begin giving him every college/grad-school survival tip I’ve ever learned over the years. I tell him college is not a steep upward slant. It is not a sprint up a mountain. It is a marathon, all about persistence and determination. Each level may be different than the one that came before and may require different strategies, but it is not necessarily more difficult the further you go along. I tell him to learn to conserve his energy and to find the most efficient ways to get the work done. I tell him to focus on passing, not on the individual grades. “Look,” I said “I got a D in my MA program (nasty prof – don’t ask) and two C’s in my PhD program (stats – taught by ‘Dr. Death.’) I didn’t even pay attention to the grades, I only cared about passing. He’s looking more relieved by the minute.

“You’ll be fine,” I tell him. “All you have to do is get through.” I tell him congratulations and pump his hand some more. I go back to the common room, notebook in hand, leaving behind a much relieved, relaxed and more ‘cope-ful’ Patrick. It isn’t until I am halfway down the hallway that I realize I have just now gotten an example of empowerment in the present moment to use for this column. You don’t have to find these opportunities to be transformative with others, if you cultivate the awareness, they will find you.

Another story of empowerment: Walking through Central Park, I overheard someone asking a passerby for directions. I thought I heard him say something about a hostel. On a whim, I turned around and walked back a few steps. “Are you trying to get to the hostel on West 103rd Street?” I asked him.

“Yes!” he replied. “Do you know where it is?” “Sure,” I tell him. I actually stayed there when I was apartment hunting in the city. I start to give him directions and then stop. “Look,” I say, “I’m going that way, we can walk together.” He seems pleased and we set off companionably together and begin to chat. He has a British accent and is dressed in casual street clothes – jeans, sneakers and a windbreaker. He looks to be in his mid-forties with an average build, bald head and a plain, pleasant face. I ask him his name. “Cherkyung,” he says. Needless to say, that’s an interesting name for a middle-aged Brit. He explains before I ask, “I’m a Tibetan Buddhist Monk.” He tells me that he usually wears the traditional orange robes of the Tibetan Buddhist monks, but since he was walking through the city, he put on Western outfit. “It’s easier to get around in,” he says.

He goes on to tell me that he is here for a nationwide conference of monks. As we walk, I ask him more about his background. He tells me that prior to becoming a monk, he got his PhD in physics (or was it genetics? Neuroscience? Something like that.) There’s a certain rigidity about his answers, something about the way he talks makes me want to challenge him. It seems a bit forward, but I’ve learned to listen to my gut.

I ask him, “Could you be a Buddhist and hold your monkhood in an open hand?” “What do you mean?” he asks. I tell him that there is something about the way he speaks about his path – about the monkhood – that feels like he is grasping it tightly in a closed fist. “Can you let it rest in your hand like you would a butterfly that has alighted there – and let it be there for as long as it fits who you are?”

He thinks about it, considering the idea. It seems new to him. “What is the essence of your spiritual path?” I ask him, “What is the deepest expression of who you are? Who you were when you were still called ‘John?’” (I’ve picked a name at random.) “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a monk, but rather than holding so tightly to it, can you instead simply express what is most essentially you, and let that be your guide?” I can’t resist teasing him a bit, “Just think about it, what if you’re a monk for the next ten or fifteen years, and then suddenly some hot chick walks in to your meditation class, takes one look at you and says “I want him!” As a Buddhist, will you be able to follow the way that is most truly and essentially you?” He blushes a bit. I can tell that the ‘hot chick’ scenario isn’t a possibility that he’s considered.

In a more serious tone I ask him, “What is your path? What is the spiritual expression that is (and has always been) most essentially you?” I’m trying to get past the externals, the rigidity and get a sense of what is at his core. He doesn’t seem to mind the question and responds with, “I always wanted to reach the level of being a servant to all living beings.” “What is holding you back?” I ask. He tells me that he does not think he has reached a sufficient level of inner purity and spirituality. He still has struggles with his ego and other things that hold him back.

“Forget about purity and enlightenment,” I tell him. “The world needs you now. Not when (or if) you become perfect. Look, do you expect perfection of those you teach?” I ask. “No,” he replies. “So, why are you expecting that of yourself?” I ask him. We are standing on Central Park West now. We are already past my block and halfway to his destination. “Look,” I say, “are you willing to reach that level that you spoke about right now?” His doubt is palpable. Can what he has wished for so long really happen that easily?  Nonetheless, he agrees. It seems we’ve built up a bit of mutual trust in our long walk and conversation. He also believes that people encounter one another for a reason – to learn from each other – so that helps. “Okay.” I tell him. “What was it you said you wanted to be?” He answers, “I want to reach the level where I can be a servant to all living beings,” and then he adds hastily, “but, I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.”

“Okay,” I say, “say the same thing again, but drop the ‘I want’ and say it in the present tense.” He takes a deep breath, gulps and chokes it out, “I am a servant to all living beings.” “Say it again,” I tell him. “Say it like you mean it!” He says it again, this time with more certainty. “I am a servant to all living beings!”

He looks at me as if a light-bulb has gone on in his head. “Look,” I tell him, drawing a line with my toe on the sidewalk. “You just crossed over the line. Now you have become who you really are.” He can feel that something has changed. “Go and be that,” I tell him. “Be that servant to all living beings.” He tells me how much this has meant to him. He tells me that he will not be the same. I ask him if he accepts hugs. He says yes. We hug and say goodbye. I turn around and walk home. Sometimes people are empowered in order to help them. Sometimes people are empowered to become transformation agents in their own right. This was one of those times.

Just in case (after all of this) you thing empowerment is something complicated, I’m going to end with a very short story. I was in Starbucks®, where I sometimes go to write. I put in my order and wait for the girl to make it. As I watch, I see that she is struggling with her orders. It is all very confusing to her. It’s clear that she is very new on the job. To make matters worse, a woman to my right is also waiting and watching the young barista, it is clear that she is very impatient. “Wow,” I tell the barista. “it’s like brain surgery , I don’t know how you do it!” I ask her how long she’s been working. She says it’s her first week. “Boy, I couldn’t do you what you are doing!” She smiles and says she has a good trainer.

“Well, even with the best of trainers, I couldn’t do it,” I tell her which, by the way, is completely true. The woman to my right looks at me dubiously with an expression that states, ‘why the heck am I saying this to such a clearly incompetent worker?’ I tell her in a low voice that it is obviously the first few days on the job for the young woman, and that she is definitely in need of support and encouragement. The woman says, “you are more patient than me.” It seems to have gotten her thinking, stopped her for a moment in her rush. It’s a moment between two women. Was either one affected in some way? Who knows? It isn’t my job to know. I get my milk and go sit down.

Next column: Is The World Broken?

Miriam E. Mendelson, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Transformative Development, Counseling, Consulting and Mediation in NYC and is available for speaking engagements, individual and family counseling and business consultation. Click here for a complete list of all Miriam Mendelson’s articles. Column feedback and questions are welcome:
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