The work of wokeness is not what you think
So many people are woke these days. Not only does being woke feel like trying to be the coolest kid on the block, getting woke also feels like some kind of competition we are desperate to win, because the losers get blamed for all the bad shit in the world. There is a desperation to get woke or else. We move around in our circles gauging the wokeness of the people around us, and I can’t help but feel that this inquiry is a kind of elitist performance attempting to establish yet another hierarchy within an experience that is supposed to be inherently anti-hierarchical and inclusive. Wokeness these days seems more like a performance meant to hide the performer’s deep terror of anyone realizing that they are as full of pain as everyone else.
When I think about contemporary wokeness, I reflect on what I call social media gurus and self-help experts who craft glitzy personas and offer simple wisdom with little depth. Contemporary wokeness is basically a New Age feel-good cult mentality steeped in neoliberalism and expressing the traits of performativity (or the pursuit of the cool and hip), reductionism (oversimplification), and a lack of accountability (folks do and say whatever they want)—all stuffed into a machine of over commodification.
I do not consider myself woke. Considering how we define wokeness these days, I fear that I am not cool enough or pretty enough, or that I don’t wear the right clothes or have enough pseudo-spiritual catchphrases or social media followers.
I am not a woke person in the same way that I do not consider myself a good person, because any positive place we claim to occupy as a static identity location makes it hard to notice the times when we are not so good. What I mean to say is that being woke doesn’t mean we somehow permanently transcend being harmful.
My understanding of wokeness began in my early teen years when I was developing an intense interest in justice. This interest was awakened and fueled by my growing awareness of the suffering I was experiencing as a Black queer boy in the South. Even as a young person, I was already tired of suffering, and I wasn’t looking forward to a life of this suffering.
When I talk about wokeness, I am talking about our capacity to realize that our personal brokenheartedness is the same brokenheartedness that all beings are experiencing on some level at the same time. The heart of wokeness is the practice of empathy. It is awakened when we want to free ourselves and others from suffering. In other words, my understanding of wokeness is compassion.
Thus wokeness is not a feeling, a thought, or something that we claim and perform. Wokeness is an experience of being right here in this moment, experiencing our joy as well as our sorrow, all while knowing that everyone around us is having the same experience whether they are aware of it or not.
Wokeness is not a conversation about having the privilege of being woke. It’s not about you being special or not. The conversation is about whether you are ready to get free or not, because freedom isn’t a willy-nilly shot in the dark launched with no intention or out of boredom. It is an intentional aspiration that will cause you everything while simultaneously rendering you everything. There are two key questions: What do you want? And are you ready to do the work to get what you want? We must be willing to do this work not as an Instagram story or tweet thread to publicly demonstrate the work. The work is often done in private in ways that are hard to articulate to others. Yet what we show to people is often the fruits of the work, which is being open and compassionate. Perhaps whatever work we show others is us maintaining this openness through practice.
I am reminded of a moment from Toni Cade Bambara’s prophetic novel The Salt Eaters. Before her healing, the mother healer Minnie asks Velma, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? . . . Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” The weight of healing is the weight of returning to wholeness and balance and committing to staying there through consistent practice and vigilance. Being woke is the same commitment to the practice and vigilance of staying connected to our brokenheartedness and the brokenheartedness of everyone around us.
The work of real wokeness is hard, because at the end of the day, it is really about trying to care as much as you can about others. When I look at many self-proclaimed woke folks, I see them not actually caring for people as much as they are attempting to project an image of being intelligent and critical in order to gain validation and status from those in the community whom they consider gatekeepers. They are not attuned to this gritty work of hurting with others because that would mean acknowledging their own hurt.
I am not woke, but I care. This is enough for me.
About the Contributor
Lama Rod Owens is an author, activist, formally authorized Buddhist teacher, and graduate of Harvard Divinity School. He is the co-founder of Bhumisparsha, a Tantric Buddhist practice community, as well as a co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation and author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger.
Illustration by Daren Thomas Magee