“Just because you’re enlightened doesn’t mean you’re woke” – Chai Chats podcast, 2017
I was listening to Chai Chats, one of my favourite podcasts (the one on boundaries literally changed my life – and I’m using literally literally) yesterday and one of the hosts was talking about their interest and subsequent critiques of Buddha and Buddhism. Religious philosophy isn’t really my jam and I have been sleeping an average of 4 hours a night for 3 weeks so I was just about to drift off, when the above quote jumped out at me. “Just because you’re enlightened doesn’t mean you’re woke.” Holy fuck, the truth of that statement hit me with the kind of realness that travels from the mind to those deep places in the soul that are so easy to ignore as we move through life.
I love self-care, I have felt the benefits of mindfulness, meditation and I strongly believe in practicing yoga on and off the mat. I also believe in the power of collective care and get lost in daydreams of a future built on justice, equity and reciprocity. Unfortunately, sometimes communities that promote the former do so at the detriment of the latter.
Late capitalism, first coined by German economist Werner Sombart and later popularized by Ernst Mandel, originally referred to the period between 1945 and the early 1970s. However, the meaning has adapted as the so-called golden age of capitalism has come to an end. Late Capitalism could easily refer to the ultra rich kids of Instagram, the Kardashian/Jenner clan or wellness and yoga movements that co-opt, commodify and pervert the true meaning.
Last summer, I saw a sign outside a yoga studio that said “Namaslay”, once I was done audibly groaning, I snapped a photo and posted it online. A bunch of people I have on social media responded with both words and emojis showing they too were annoyed at this obvious appropriation of a sacred word (namaste) and a popular term in African American Vernacular English (slay). I felt slightly better that I wasn’t the only one upset but this sign. This was comforting at the time, but actually made no difference. This studio’s websites that’s that, “We believe in the power of breaking down doors of tradition and structure to introduce variety, music, and a taste of our own rock and soul.” That’s great, hun, but it’s not your tradition to break. The studio, similar to other yoga studios and various lululemon locations, employ phrases like “sweat tribe” or “find your tribe”, the words “zen”, “namaste” and various sanskrit terms are plastered everywhere and I have seen more white girls covered with imagery of mandalas and Hindu gods and goddess than in all the temples I have ever been in.
This is not to say that white people or non-Hindus can’t learn about and embrace the spiritual, and at times physical, benefits of yoga and Hindu philosophy. Unfortunately, many people involved in western yoga/mindfulness/wellness circles embrace this kind of faux spirituality that appropriates and then commodifies meaningful cultural practices and traditions.
Those in the wellness/yoga/hippie/new age (I know these can be different but share some common traits) often borrow and patch together “eastern” traditions while simultaneously benefitting from black culture to create sometime lucrative business and trends. Golden milk seems suddenly trendy as does big hoop earrings and long nails. I feel a certain bitterness at this. I’m not complaining about the ease of buying earrings or fresh turmeric, but it stings to think that they same people who once mocked my yellow stained fingers and who made “the bigger the hoop, the bigger the hoe” a catchphrase throughout high school now are all over IG with golden lattes and the so-called ‘baddie’ aesthetic.
I am not above mentioning my own guilt in this. There was a time when I embraced the ‘hippie’ aesthetic of “zen” and images of Buddha without having any knowledge of the cultural significance of these traditions and practices. We all fuck up. We all fuck up multiple times. What we have to ask ourselves is, are we learning from this? Can we admit our guilt without be frozen by it? Guilt is not useful unless we are using it to grow our understanding and change our practices.
My own yoga practice, along with my journey of healing from anorexia and related traumas, is meaningless unless it ties practices of mindfulness and wokeness. I can’t fully embrace the healing power of yoga if I’m not unpacking the historical trauma that colonialism has inflicted on my peoples. I can’t continue learning and unlearning – because woke is not a destination but like yoga it is a practice – if I don’t learn to care for myself. I can’t embody gratitude and peace if I do not embody liberation and practice intersectional solidarity, in both the personal and public spheres.
Enlightenment ™ , as exemplified in late capitalism, will not lead to true enlightenment and liberation if the majority of our earth’s populations are suffering the effects of systemic oppression. Care and liberation must go hand in hand. This is a journey and a process of learning/unlearning, so be gentle with yourself, admit your mistakes and move forward. That is a path to enlightenment that just may work.