What It Really Means to Be 'Woke': Radical Activism Is Spiritual as Well as Political
The word radical means “root.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines radical as “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something.” In the U.S. today, our corporate media and our hyper-capitalist public agenda have created the popular misconception that radicalism is simply another word for dangerous extremism. But what a true radical does is “cut to the root” of both political and personal reality and seeks to address the source of problems instead of their symptoms. As we barrel toward environmental and social collapse, we are in a moment that demands radicalism and offers an unprecedented opportunity for root-level solutions and fundamental change to take hold.
Harking back to the ’60s, hundreds of thousands of Westerners have “gotten radical” in one of two ways:
We have gotten “woke” to what is actually happening and ceased to be diverted by what the powerful say is happening. We rejected obfuscation and denial. We “followed the money”—literally. We dared to speak the truth. We recognized bullying and corruption and refused our consent. We were “radicalized” by our recognition of systemic injustice and oppression. We saw through the false narrative we were sold about why the world is as it is. We got political.
We “awakened from the dream” of our thoughts and problems into an experience of open, joyous, awake intelligence. We discovered a deeper wholeness and interconnectivity that revealed our experience of separation, contraction and conflict to be illusory. We underwent a personal radicalization when we awakened from the stories we told ourselves about who we were, how we should related to each other, and what kind of life we should strive for. We saw through the false narrative we bought into about our identity and the place we occupied in the greater scheme of things. We got spiritual.
We are now in a moment when it is time for these two ways of being radical to integrate. For those who have awakened, it is time to “get woke.” For those who are woke, it’s time to be awakened. Moral heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Daniel Berrigan set a powerful example of how to integrate personal spirituality with political commitment. It is time for us all to strive for the same wholeness of personal and political mission. I call this evolutionary activism because it pushes us to a new way of being, both personally and politically, and it is driven by great external pressures. I believe that it is the new frontier of true radicalism.
Why the Time for Evolutionary Activism Is Now
Human civilization is at a tipping point. The sobering reality of climate change and intensifying political, economic, and social instability are pushing us toward a future that is unknowable, but sure to be wildly different from the past or present. Everything is in flux. We’re poised before the chasm and a great unknown lies before us. The world we will find ourselves in is not a predetermined one, but one that we have the potential to co-create.
If we want to make a harmonious, just, and sustainable future, we must do both the inner work of personal growth and the outer work of political activism. Our task is to transform ourselves and our world—simultaneously. It is time to recognize that the inner and outer work are interdependent and function best when they function together. Too often spiritual practitioners have become solipsistic and insular and political activists have become burned-out and embittered. As someone who was raised in a leftist cooperative near Chicago and who pursued a spiritual path beginning as a young adult in the ’60s, I have seen both firsthand.
In a moment like this, we need our best wisdom. Interestingly, after developing locally in isolation from each other, all humanity’s traditions for cultivating wisdom have been engaging in an increasingly vigorous dialogue going back over 60 years. What so many of them share is the realization that reaching the height of personal spirituality draws us back into full participation in social life. It is this paradox that we must embrace.
Conceived and refined long ago, beginning at least in the 12th century, as a description of the path of Buddhist meditation, Zen’s “Ten Oxherding Pictures” illustrate this exactly. The story begins with an oxherder who tracks, finds and tames the ox (the unenlightened mind), then rides him home. He returns to the place where he began transformed, an enlightened man. But in the last picture, he “returns to the marketplace with helping hands.” In other words, he realizes that his spiritual nature is bound up with his community and his participation in it. Even though he is “free” of ordinary social needs, he must fully immerse himself in a collective. That is just what the sage does, and it is the character of awakening to help, to serve, to be of benefit. It is in the rewarding, difficult work of vibrant brother-sisterhood that our spirituality expresses its deepest character.
We Need Each Other
At the same time, communities of activists—people who are woke—need the inner resources, the well-being and presence that arise out of radical spiritual awakening. We may be living through what Joanna Macy calls “the great unraveling.” We will have to weather discouragements and worse; that will test our capacities. We will need an unshakable foundation, rooted not in the events of the day but in “that which never changes.” Amid the political upheaval, our personal mooring needs to be secure.
Activists tend to suffer from burnout. No wonder. Activism fights the good fight even when obstacles are formidable and the currents are hostile. This is especially true in a stressed-out society where anxiety and alienation are already common. Last year the National Center for Health Statistics, a project of the CDC, revealed that between 2011 and 2014, 13 percent of the U.S. public over the age of 12 reported taking an antidepressant in the previous month: “Antidepressant use increased 65% over a 15-year time frame, from 7.7% in 1999–2002 to 12.7% in 2011–2014.” Millions of Americans self-medicate with alcohol, marijuana and opioids. Some studies suggest that as many as 30 percent of adolescent girls and 20 percent of boys—over 6 million teens—have had a diagnosable anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. No wonder; life has always been hard, and now it is dawning on us that our very civilization is imperiled and our future is anything but certain. We have to realize that our crisis is inseparably political and spiritual and that our response must address both.
Those who are committed to taking on the systemic problems at the root of our predicament are subject to the same life stresses as everyone else. And this is a time when “regular” people are succumbing to a larger societal dysfunction. Luckily, we have the example of many activists who have led rich spiritual lives. African-American spirituality has been a powerful driver of civil rights and social justice movements, and we are fortunate to have Dr. King as a towering example and guide. Increasingly, even those who are rational and atheistic are experimenting with meditation and mindfulness, some even becoming dedicated practitioners. The process seems likely to continue, and new flavors of activist spirituality will emerge, deepen and mature.
An Organic Process That Changes Us Inside and Out
It is already happening, in other words. Radical spiritual awakening is uncommon, but awakened spiritual practitioners have a powerful gift to give. It can and should be given in service of social change and environmental justice, in fellowship with engaged activists. It might even catalyze a remarkable street and community level cultural renaissance.
If “imitating Jesus,” “living as love,” or “cultivating Buddhanature” (and transforming both subjective and objective experience) can become the sincere shared intention of grounded serious activists, it can sweeten and lubricate the days and nights of hard work. A feeling of celebration, gratitude or reverence lightens the load. This is not self-indulgence, in which bourgeois white people accessorize their egos with spiritual idealism. This is a spirituality that expresses itself through tangible service, humility, generosity, personal discipline, practical responsibility, and skillful communication.
Such “sacred activism” opens additional space for catalytic conversations, friendships and partnerships between activists and awakeners. But only if we really listen to one another, really intend to grow our capacity to see things from additional perspectives in ways that broaden and deepen and transform us. And if we also work together to make a material difference in the lives of people and the non-human world. It makes sense to partner again, at a time when the “presenting problem” of our contemporary social instability is alienation and loneliness. We may discover that our friendships can heal us all. We (activists and awakeners) are each whole where the other is fragmented. Each and all of us have important gifts to share and to receive.