Tribalism, hatred, war and oppression has been a part of our unsavory history for as long as we humans have been humans. Since the day our minds could first conceive of such things, we believed in the gods who demanded the slaughter of our enemies. We believed in our tribal identities and created narratives around those identities in the form of myths and traditions. These narratives served to confirm one thing: that our tribe sees things as they really are and that we are therefore in right-standing with the universe.
In order to reinforce our sense of rightness, we created “others” in our collective consciousness—other tribes or nations; other races, religions, political parties and sexual orientations. Unlike “us”, these others were in wrong-standing with the universe and either had to be corrected or wiped out completely, and we did so with extreme cruelty.
But one day we all “woke” up. Suddenly things were different. We became more politically correct, progressive, tolerant and sensitive to others’ feelings. On that day everything changed. Except—quite ironically—it didn’t.
“Wokeness” is roughly associated with becoming more aware of the cruelty, hypocrisy and injustice in the world and then doing something about it—like ranting about it on social media. But even though wokeness is a kind of zeitgeist of our time, the world can seem more delusional now than ever.
And it’s not that wokeness in itself is a bad idea; of course we should be aware of the cruelty, hypocrisy and injustice in the world and by all means, do something about it when it’s in our power. But before we storm out into the streets or launch a smear campaign against some celebrity, we could consider a deeper question.
It’s amazing to live in a time such as this, where a world of information is quite literally available at our fingertips. This gives us the unprecedented ability to become informed about what’s really going on in the world. Finally I can see through all of “their” bullshit. But here’s the deeper question: can I see through my own?
If I can’t see through my own bullshit, I will continue to project it onto the supposed “other”. This is what makes people susceptible to gossip, fake news, propaganda and conspiracy theories; because it feeds the narratives that keep us in right-standing with the universe and our own conscience. It’s easy for me to see all the ways in which religious people can be bigots, for example, and then I can pat myself on the back for not being like that. But often times I catch myself thinking, speaking and behaving in a way that is bigoted towards religious people. And this has not been so easy for me to see.
I no longer believe in a literal Jesus, but many of the teachings attributed to him still ring true for me. One such teaching is to, “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
My ideas about the world and my sense of right-standing amidst those ideas can create blind spots in my awareness. This is how we can be fighting for the “right” cause while being completely oblivious to the injustices we commit in the process. This is how the oppressed becomes the oppressor. History is littered with stories of political movements that once liberated its people from corrupt and unjust governments, only to become corrupt and unjust governments themselves.
The first step towards true awakening is self-awareness. This is really what some of the most revered spiritual teachings come down to. The Buddha claimed that, “Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.” And according to the Dalai Lama, “being aware of a single shortcoming within yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in someone else.”
Sadly, wokeness looks a lot more like self-righteousness than self-awareness and this is why it won’t and can’t change the world. Because if I want to change the world, it has to start with me.
I might not be able to change the thoughts and behaviors of others, but I can work on my own.
As long as my focus is on everyone else’s thoughts and behaviors, I’m not actually dealing with my own shit.
And as long as no one is dealing with their own shit; we’re not actually getting anywhere.