Often times in spiritual spaces, there is a belief or notion that to sit or to practice yoga is enough to change society. But when Gandhi spoke about “being the change,” he didn’t stop there. He went out into the world and made the change. Humans are multi-dimensional creatures and so it seems true that our journey towards awakening is also complex. Why wouldn’t we awaken to different degrees in different areas of our lives, including physical, emotional, creative, spiritual, sexual, and last but not least, social? In my own life these various awakenings have impacted each other and overlapped. And I have also found it true that each area has also required a clear and unique practice. For example, as I began yoga and meditation, these meditations made me more mindful of how my body felt after eating sugar. However, it didn’t necessarily help me realize the behavioral patterns I’d developed as a child in order to use sugar as an emotional crutch. As Rabbi Rami Shapiro put it, “I wouldn’t go to a therapist for spiritual advice or to my spiritual teacher for therapy.” His comments point to the need for attention, effort, practice, and development in all of the complex areas of our experience.
Just as Shapiro also warns that spiritual teachers become dangerous when they haven’t invested in knowing and transforming the ego, I’ve seen the harm that is caused by spiritual teachers and practitioners who are not on a path of social awakening. After the current president was elected, I was in yoga classes where white teachers offered their teachings in ways that completely ignored the suffering of people of color. I’ve also seen teachers offer practices in ways that did not honor the cultures or traditions from which they came. I’ve also heard spiritual teachers speak about transcending identity in ways that are akin to spiritual bypass and less than helpful.
In “Rhadical Dharma” Angela Kyodo Williams identifies the path of transformation of a “social ego.” To understand the social ego is to understand how collective consciousness works. A group of people that have come together for meditation has a very different energy and level of consciousness than those who come together to watch a baseball game in a stadium or to have a drink in a bar. With this in mind, we might begin to understand collective consciousness and how social systems were established as a result of the collective consciousness of those in power. We might begin to understand whiteness and masculinity in terms of dominance and ego. Social consciousness, then, is a fine attunement to how the collective works, just as another facet of our individual awakening is attunement to how our own mind works.
Yet many practitioners and teachers are still not even yet aware that they are even part of a collective consciousness, or a collective for that matter. Some of us have not awakened to our collective identities, especially race and gender. Others choose not to explore it and ignore this aspect of awakening. However the path of awakening is available to us all. We can all study our social systems to understand the evolution of genocide, slavery, racial terrorism, Jim Crow, the immigration system, mass incarceration and policy brutality. We can all find teachings in the poetry of Maya Angelou, the art of Frida Kahlo, the songs of Celia Cruz, the speed of Jesse Owens, and the movement of Fifi Abdou. We can all strive to clearly see the suffering and joys of the collectives, as well as our history as it lives in our present day.
We need to cultivate our social understanding and development to move towards a more enlightened society. One of my spiritual teachers, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, said “In order to save our planet Earth, we must have a collective awakening. Individual awakening is not enough. That is why one Buddha is not enough.” Some of my other teachers, including Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa, also embody the path of social consciousness and give guidance in this area through their social activism. “Let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments,” the Dalai Lama said when responding to questions about terrorist attacks. We can’t expect God to do the dishes or to solve our social problems. These teachers recognize that while certain practices help us transcend the individual ego, there is still work to be done to transcend the social ego. So if we truly want to follow a path of enlightenment, where we are awakened in all the dimensions of our existence, we cannot ignore the path of social consciousness. And while we also temper this with compassion for ourselves and others and honor where we are on all of these complex and intersecting paths, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to get on the mat, or on the cushion, or write that letter to our legislator. If we want to see social change we have to develop a practice to transform the social ego.