Woke is a term that we see more and more frequently in this century. Merriam-Webster included it in its lexicon in 2017 as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” In that same year, the Oxford English Dictionary added it as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” Both indicate it emerged from the phrase stay woke.
The phrase stay woke itself traces back to a dialect used by African Americans in earlier times to indicate those who were self-aware and striving for a better life as they questioned the dominant paradigm. We don’t really know how far back this phase was part of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). We do know that Lead Belly used it in his 1938 song "Scottsboro Boys”: “best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
In 1962 Author William M. Kelley used the lone term woke in an essay titled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” His entire essay focused on the richness of black idioms. It was a cultural description. He never intended woke to be a battle cry.
The shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown in 2014 began the transition of the phrase stay woke into the lone term woke becoming a paradigm of its own in the arena of social and political injustices. A year earlier in 2013, Black Lives Matter had launched in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s accused murderer. This sparked BLM to build the Black Live Matter Network. Since then, the term woke had become more prevalent.
In today’s divisive times, the term woke has been transformed in the global vernacular as a summation of one’s bipartisan stance on social justice theories and racial issues. The Right uses it to denigrate the Left's adoption of the term to highlight more progressive thinking. So, despite itself, it has become a battle cry, not only for the African American community, but also for the left-leaning populace.
Spiritual Philosophies Behind Being Awake
Let’s take a moment to explain a couple of perspectives. Being awake has been part of spiritual philosophies in one form or other since the beginning of time.
Buddhism is non-theistic, but it does accept that meditation, concentration, and training the mind within a well-developed spiritual practice leads to attaining enlightenment. Does this mean they are woke? Well, not in the social and political context. Enlightenment is a compilation of the basic concepts of their discipline. It includes nirvana (the extinction of craving), Bodhi (awakening from the sleep of ignorance), and Buddhahood (complete awakened state).
Certain Christian faiths believe that the teachings of Jesus tell us that we must let go of our attachments to worldly things. This means not just physical things, but beliefs we carry with us that stem from worldly feedback, beliefs that hold us back from accepting our potential as “spiritual beings having a human experience” as Teilhard said.
The philosophers Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and their student Maurice Nicoll taught the concept of humans being asleep to who they are and the need for waking up. The process for accomplishing this is called The Work. In other words, learning to live one’s world from the within to the without, instead of the other way around. Learning to move from conditioned reactions to conscious choices. The difficulty with this is that we don’t always recognize that we are conditioned, hence the term The Work.
So Why Is the Term Woke Not Having the Hoped-for Impact?
The use of the term woke in the media and by politicians as a noun encompassing either a set of moral beliefs held dear or a set of beliefs held in contempt completely strips away any effectiveness. Why? Because it has recently become a political gimmick.
By definition, as I mentioned, woke means being attentive to social and political injustices. Simply striving to make everyone aware of these issues and trying to force change on society is quite simply a Band-Aid effort.
Until people set aside those puffed-up pictures of themselves, all those preconceived notions without a factual basis (prejudices) and fixed inclinations (biases) that preclude fairness, nothing will change for the long-term. You can see this in the way the Right and the Left are slinging their prejudices around in the media, the Right even going so far as to label legislation as “woke” as a reason to defeat it.
Such thoughtless attitudes work against us and those around us. It divides us into camps. Psychologically or spiritually, whichever is your preference, this is a dead-end path. It creates more and more negative energy, fueling fear and discord. This keeps us blind to our potentials as individuals and as a nation.
We are not going to progress through enacting controls or loosening them. Only through waking up from our self-imposed sleep as individuals is going to effect permanent change. When a person allows life or their family or friends or political harlots to determine who they are, what they believe, then they are asleep.
So, how do you go about waking up? For starters, just imagine if you will, what your family life, your work, your friends, your social groups would be like if you refused to allow yourself to get involved in the bickering, gossiping, or fearmongering and never said negative things about others. What if you tried to put yourself in their shoes instead of beating up on them? It would be hard (again, that’s why the process is called The Work), but it would first ignite a change in you and gradually change some of the others in your circle of influence.
Now imagine, instead of everyone today fighting over who’s the most Woke, Americans began to practice waking up as well. With a greater sense of Self, people began to engage in critical thinking, which is “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.”
It wouldn’t happen overnight, of course, but the power of those leading the charge for negativity would gradually diminish. We could possibly find ourselves in the highest state of balance and harmony we’ve experienced as a nation since our inception.
I’m fully aware there will be naysayers to this practice. It is inevitable because those who are so deeply entrenched in their craving for status in the world, whether as someone in power or as one of their followers, are fearful of letting go of these things. It has become their identity. Letting go is like a form of death to them. In truth, it is their chance to experience freedom.
The idea of stay woke or being alert to social and political injustices is important. However, trying to use control or trying to “plug holes in the dam” is not the answer. This nation must experience a positive change in consciousness, one free of fear and anger. The enemy is not “out there.” The enemy is within each of us.
*First published on my old Medium account in 2022.