As a community of awakening people, we need to talk. There’s something toxic bubbling below the surface of our collective social and environmental justice movements: competition and divisiveness.
This piece of writing won’t call out, embarrass or shame specific individuals or organizations. Below, I keep my writing general, which diminishes the impact, certainly. However, the intent of this piece is compassion, learning and engagement, for myself and the community, not further segmentation and isolation of our Work and selves. We are nothing if not in this together.
So what am I talking about? I am talking about shaming your fellow path walker for not using the correct gender-neutral or trans-friendly terminology when navigating “new” issues. I am talking about white people not standing down and being silent during discussions about the absence of POC in certain spheres of work, not to be quiet or complacent, but to allow POC space, a voice, and opinion. I am talking about sideways accusations of cultural appropriation of practices like yoga, shamanic techniques, and other mystical practices without real engagement or discussion other than accusations and finger pointing. I am talking about the scarcity mentality that exists among people doing Work, among non-profits and NGOs – that these groups and people have to claim name, space, and money, separateness, rather than working together toward a common goal (I see this all the time, from volunteer environmental organizations, yoga classes and communities, and professional environmental non-profits). This is just a small sample of what I have personally witnessed, and conversations with “woke” friends reveal many other instances. I am sure you have your own.
What’s the problem? All of the above instances create divisiveness and distraction. Tending to pettiness and scarcity mentality keeps us busy from doing bigger, more engaged Work. It also ignores the issue of self-actualization – that is, people are not able to see the issues around social and environmental justice unless they themselves are on the path of self-actualization (self-betterment and fulfillment).
“I have seen that we cannot fully create effective movements for social change if individuals struggling for that change are not also self-actualized or working towards that end. When wounded individuals come together in groups to make change our collective struggle is often undermined by all that has not been dealt with emotionally…….Toni Cade Bambara reminds us that ‘revolution begins in the self and with the self’” (hooks, xi)
This is not a race to see who can out woke the other. Rather, we are only able to go as far and as fast as the slowest and last person among us, those that don’t even have their feet on the path of self-actualization and self-healing. The one person holds themselves in hyperbolized, distorted wokeness is dangerous; rather than concerning themselves with getting more people aware and open to change and collective Works of movement and good intentions, they are isolating and elevating themselves. I am reminded of a passage by Pema Chödrön:
“Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind – our drunken brother, our schizophrenic sister, our tormented animals and friends. Their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape. In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it. We move toward it however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die” (Chödrön, 92).
Although Chödrön refers to spiritual awakening, I’d argue that it is the same as social- and environmental- and self-awakening, along with self-actualization – these are all paths to the same goal. General awakening and healing. And Chödrön’s right – the work is not in elevating or proving yourself, but in doing the dirty work by going downward, inward with self-work and inquiry, and helping others step onto the path to self and collective healing. Otherwise, what’s the point? You’ll be up there alone on the mountaintop, leaving billons behind, in suffering and darkness.
I recently had a conversation with a relative about the differences between homosexuality and gender expression (specifically the difference between being gay verses being transgender). I acknowledge that just opening this conversation with me had to be a challenge for him as I am sure he sees me as being self-elevated in terms of political correctness and awareness. I did not shame this person for not knowing the difference but saw it as a window and light of genuine curiosity and interest in doing self-work – he was toeing the path of self and collective work and I so enjoyed being able to have a caring and compassionate conversation to help him. May those 5 minutes of shared space and words continue to work in his subconscious and awaken his heart more. Could this person have approached someone that spews vitriol and pretentiousness in an attempt to prove themselves most woke? If people cannot be able to freely ask questions to address curiosity and learning gaps, how are we ever, as a collective going to get anywhere?
And that’s the thing with wokeness. Once you have it, you realize how connected and interdependent we actually are. In the Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama speak to interconnectedness of human life, that the goal of human life is joy and purpose, that we are wired for togetherness and goodness, that gratitude in life allows one to come from a place of enough-ness rather than scarcity. “If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and respectful of all people.” They further recommend that we are oases of peace for others and that by not having anything to prove, we are less pretentious and more open and honest. Have we forgotten our compassion, our gratitude, and our joy on the path to “get woke”? Have we forgotten our own Work toward wokeness and what being woke even means? If your wokeness causes harm and hate towards others, silences and shames, are you even woke?
We have so much work to do in this world, but let us not forget to hold spaces of compassion and self-inquiry as we allow ourselves and others the ability to learn with grace, understanding, and empathy. Expecting perfection from each other is a hindrance and busy work – “perfection is the enemy of done” (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés). Indeed, social justice giants like Martin Luther King, Jr and Ghandi are without stellar records: MLK has been accused of womanizing (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/four-things-about-king/) and Ghandi of racism (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/irene-monroe/the-gandhi-none-of-us-kne_b_842941.html ), and yet we don’t throw out the entirety of what these individuals accomplished and inspired. We should not be permissive of bad behavior by idolized people, but there is duplicity in expecting purity and perfection from the regular individuals doing work and trying to “get it right”. We can’t possibly get everything right all the time, but we can do the best we can at the given moment. The questions that should be asked are: Am I learning? Am I working to heal rather than harm? How can I hold space for kindness and compassion in realms of hate and divide? Am I avoiding coordinating work and effort with those of similar interests out of jealousy, fear, and/or scarcity mindset? Am I open to dialogue and continued growth and self-reflection?, even when it is uncomfortable and challenges my own inner biases? Can I hold space for imperfection, my own and others’, and the multiplicities of being human? Am I going down the mountain to help lift others or am I alone on the mountaintop of wokeness?
Don’t go back to sleep, don’t be tempted by isolation and perfectionism. Be the light, be the loves, dearest waking ones, not as an escape or spiritual bypassing, but to serve the greatest good. We are, after all, for better or worse, in this together.
(Written by AM. Material is copyrighted, please cite accordingly)
Chödrön, P. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
hooks, b. sisters of the Yam. black women and self-recovery
Lama D, Tutu D, Carlton Abrams D. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.