A Wise Society is an Awakened Society

JULY 2, 2019

The commitment of a wise society is awakening, individually and collectively.

What is collective awakening?

The next buddha is a sangha – Thich Nhat Hanh

Awakening is, by its nature, hard to describe and impossible to define. But it can be alluded to and its presence is unmistakable. Just as awakened beings have certain noticeable characteristics so we can seek to describe the characteristics of an awakened collective, of an awakened society.

In an awakened society there would be no murder, no theft. The crime there was would be the product of those with substantial mental disorders.

As a collective, an awakened society would use no or extremely low levels of physical (or verbal) force, internally or externally. It would not engage in war. At the same time it would be a stand for itself and the world, nonviolently and courageously.

It would be whole, just as its members would be whole. There would be a deep commitment to see all included: financially, socially, emotionally. Everyone would have the economic resources to live a life of honour and dignity. Socially and economically it would be deeply, profoundly fair, egalitarian even, without being caught in the equality complex. Men and women, black and white would be treated equally.

The wholeness of the members would be apparent. Levels of secure infant and adult attachment would be close to 100%. Mental disorders such as depression and anxiety would be low or non-existent. Pharmaceutical prescriptions would be low. Trauma, especially childhood trauma, would be minimal and rapidly addressed – “adverse childhood events” would be close to zero.

Wholeness would also mean a base connection and commonality at the cultural level. Members of an awakened society would share a (critically open-minded) commitment to core beliefs and practices.1 There would be coherence, a common understanding, a share common sense.

This coherence is crucial and hard to define for it is different from a rigid consensus or a dull homogeneity. Just as a healthy body has a multitude of diverse cells and organs working together, so too would an awakened collective. There must be a healthy diversity of occupation and opinions. At the same time, this diversity rests on a bedrock of shared culture (and experience) that allows that diversity to flourish. Just as a body has some deep shared connection amongst its cells that allows them to cohere into a whole being.2

Coherence also implies coordination. This is one of the areas where it is hardest to anticipate the future. There could and should be an extraordinary dyadic resonance between the awakening of the individual in the awakened society and what that permits in terms of collective action. Put crudely: in our world today much of our efforts of governance and coordination must be spent on dealing with dysfunctional elements and worse-case scenarios. A focus on law and governance reflects a dysfunctional and distrustful society. Formal mechanisms exist – and most importantly – only function well surrounded and embedded within a much broader and deeper set of tacit agreements and support. Culture proceeds and underpins institutions. Thus, the coherence and wholeness of an awakened society should profoundly alter what is possible in terms of how we coordinate together. It is hard to say exactly what this would look like but we can try. Most importantly, (we think) it would allow some transcendence (or transclusion) of the tension between democracy and autocracy, between autonomy and team. Democracy does not scale.3 It is the worst except for all the others. In several thousand years we have seen little or no innovation in governmental forms. This is not because we are foolish but because of Arrow’s impossibility theorem! But the way beyond Arrow is not through form but content: as culture changes, new institutions become possible.4 Consensus does not scale. Why? Because of the “bad actor” problem (one bad actor causes breakdown). But majority voting can be exclusionary, even tyrannical. Majority plus rights deifies individualism and struggles with big collective action issues (climate change etc). We need a way to move both rapidly when needed but also that includes. Bridging that gap does not require process innovation but being innovation.

What would this look like? An awakened society would address collective action problems rapidly and effectively. It would care about the long-term much like today. Global warming would be dealt with actively and effectively. There would be high investment in long-term R&D, in preventative medicine, in education.

Common Principles of Awakened Collective

What principles do we think we would find in common across awakened collectives?

  • Non-collective-self and Interbeing: a deep appreciation of the interdependence both within and beyond the collective. This interdependence would extend not just to other groups of humans but to all life and nature. That any given community does not exist independent and cut-off but in a constant mutual interplay of energy – material and psycho-spiritual – with the universe around it.
  • Impermanence: all things are born and die including the collective. Attachment to our immortality whether of the individual or the collective is one of our greatest sources of suffering and aggression.
  • Hope (Nirvana): an awakened collective is hopeful, pragmatically optimistic. It says yes to itself and to the world. There is a strong faith in the possibility of awakening for itself, its members and others. It also sees awakening as a mount with no top: not a place to get to but a goal to constantly aspire for.
  • Sourceful: looking deeply into the source and nature of things. Getting to the root of issues. We walk to work rather than doing open-heart surgeries.
  • Loving and joyful:
  • Critically open-minded: dogma is anathema. We consistently open ourselves to new experiences and opinions, especially those we don’t agree with. Views are held committedly rather than with attachment. We test against experience and the expertise of others. At the same time we bring a critical mindset to assessing our own opinions and those of others. Views are not changed on a whim or because of majoritism. The devil’s advocate is judiciously used.
  • Proudly humble, egalitarian hierarchy: transcends (transcludes) the superiority, inferiority and equality complexes.

Appendix: Wise metrics

What are some of the measurable ways we could assess how wise of awakened a collective was?

  • Levels of mental well-being / absence of disorder
  • Method of treatment of mental disorder (e.g. drug prescribing) vs other therapies (part of a larger discussion about remedial vs preventative and shallow vs deep)
  • Trauma: Avg number of adverse childhood events
  • Infant and adult secure attachment rates
  • Crime rates e.g. murder, theft
  • Incarceration rates (how does the society treat crime and what kinds of crime)
  • Education: fairness and performance
  • Long-term planning
  • Cultural aspects
  • Levels of interpersonal trust
  • Economic Fairness and Performance (wealth inequality etc)


  1. critical open-mindedness means commitment to beliefs without attachment to them. They are held firmly and lightly. They are beliefs we try on rather than hold onto. We examine them in the light of experience and discourse with others. They are not dogma or judgment. At the same time, they are not simply opinion or whim, to be discarded at will. [return]
  2. We should be a little cautious with the organismic metaphor as it can insufficient and somewhat misleading cf the Leviathan of Hobbes. It is rough analogy not a precise similarity. The human head does not imply the need for a state with authoritarian rule. A theorised hierarchy of the organs need not imply a hierarchy of the body politic. [return]
  3. at present, there are no large well-functioning democracies (or societies for that matter). The good ones we can think of e.g. Finland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Denmark etc are all small. Large societies are largely imperial and/or authoritarian. Large democracies such as the US, India, Brazil the EU are deeply dysfunctional either corrupt (either literally or hijacked by an elite) and/or inept (very slow-moving, often unable to address collective action problems and long-term planning effectively etc). [return]
  4. An increase in trust / a reduction in bad actors allows for new institutional equilibria (e.g. consensus decision making can be great if everyone behaves well but very poorly if everyone does not). Poor cultures must spend most of their governance energy dealing with shirking. Systems are designed against worst-case scenarios but with the consequence of limiting best-case scenarios. cf Putnam on Italy here. [return]