Q: I hear everyone talking about ‘agency’ these days, even at spiritual gatherings. I hate to admit it, but I don’t have a clue as to what it means or how it relates to me. Is it something we already have or need? Any light you can shed on this topic would be much appreciated. S.D., New York, NY
A: I suspect you have been taking online classes and/or attending thematic, professionally crafted seminars. If so, you would definitely have been exposed to agency, a newer tool of marketing campaigns and the social network complex we are all exposed to on a regular basis. And yes, the spiritual marketplace is no exception; it is big business these days!
Believe it or not, agency became a buzzword in the eighteenth century during what was called, the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. And here it is, back again. Basically, agency is a person’s capacity to act independently and exert thought or power on one’s own behalf, without undue influence or external pressure. It is based upon the concept of free will. You are acting as your own agent when you go to the gym for a workout, choose a dog at the animal shelter, or attend a class on the Internet.
There are three types of agency: Individual agency is when a person acts on their own behalf (like when you seek guidance for yourself), proxy agency is when an individual acts on behalf of someone else (like when you see a healer or spiritual counselor), and collective agency is when people act together (like when you attend a seminar or a protest march).
For obvious reasons, the factors that determine or limit an agent’s ability to choose freely are a subject of hot debate these days – experience, societal beliefs, perceptions, circumstances, and the environment all play an important part in determining our ability to direct our own life – and teachers have an important role in this. That’s why spiritual teachers have an added responsibility to safeguard their students’ agency, and not to exploit it for personal gain. A good spiritual teacher can deepen and expand agency; a bad one can limit it, cause dependency habits, or worse.
When we think and act with intention, compassion and mindfulness we become better agents, feel more secure in our environments, and set fine examples for others. Free will agents are not leaders or followers, but can usually be found walking beside their friends and colleagues.