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Avant-God, Essays, Perennialism

Emergence of the Contemplative Shaman–Part One, Ch 2: Ego is to Self as Money is to Wealth

In a reader’s comment to the the first chapter of this series, it was pointed out that hyperindividualism, though a pre-existing term, has little by way of an established, consensus definition. In her words:

“In one article, the word ‘hyperindividualism’ was used to argue that excessive protections of individual rights have led to mass shootings because of the legal difficulty in involuntarily committing people with mental illness. In another instance, the word ‘hyperindividualism’ was used to critique consumers who consider their tastes to be so unique yet expect to be catered to by big-box retailers. In a book by Bill McKibben, ‘hyperindividualism’ is used to describe the way excessive consumerism has led to less and less personal happiness/satisfaction, and the way our affluence and our never-ending quest for more and bigger stuff has isolated us from neighbors/society. So I think the term, while it sounds totally straightforward and self-explanatory, is misleading in that sense because its definition is actually too malleable and subject to arbitrary interpretation.”

This challenge seemed sufficient to warrant a new plan for the remainder of Part One. Before moving on to the root cause of hyperindividualism, we’d better make sure we are all acquainted with what it is and how it effects us. Chapter 2 will solidify the definition by illustrating the evolutionary context of human individualism and seeking out the point at which it goes hyper. Chapter 3 will focus on present-day manifestations of hyperindividualism and how they accelerate the unraveling of the social fabric that made individualism possible. It will also offer a brief peek at the ray of hope that suggests there is something greater yet to come.



To draw out a proper definition of hyperindividualism, I will (as I so often do) call upon the words of Alan Wilson Watts:

“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”

It sounds flippant at first, and for all I know in its original context it was. But in consideration of some of Watts’ other statements derived from the Eastern cosmologies –such as life being an elaborate game of hide-and-seek that God plays with himself– “for fun” might be shorthand for “in order to play a game” (which, as game theory tells us, can still have life or death consequences for the players). It may also borrow from another definition of “play” and mean “for the sake of drama” (which has consequences for fictional characters but not for the real actors). In either case, if life is not being lived for fun, Watts believed, chances are it is being taken too seriously.

So what does “too seriously” mean then? Another AW quote:

“What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money … but it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth … In somewhat the same way, thoughts, ideas and words are ‘coins’ for real things.”

~ Alan W. Watts, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety’

“Too seriously,” then, seems to mean something like “too literally,” to confuse a symbol for the substance it represents.  

The distinction between money and wealth is analogous to that between a person’s ego identity and the natural self. In this context, the natural self is the simple “I” experience of perception as a living organism with a complex, self-aware nervous system, while the ego is the product of that self-awareness, the feeling of being something behind that experience perceiving the perceptions. This subtle distinction is the key to understanding hyperindividualism, so it deserves a more vivid illustration.

Let’s say you have a million dollars, and you use it to buy a factory. You will get a piece of paper saying that everything within a perimeter line drawn on a map is yours (and everything outside of it owned by others is not yours), and assuming all is on the up and up, this becomes an unassailable legal status of that property. The money enables you to claim that relationship to the physical space, and what you do with it will in large part determine whether it will take more money or less money for someone else to buy it from you. Everyone understands this and most people in a capitalist society consider this a good means of apportioning wealth.

But the wealth is the factory itself. Because you no longer have the million dollars you traded for it –you have a factory. If it is worth $2 million a year later, you will still have a factory; if it is worth a half-million because it fell into disrepair, you still have a factory; if the economy collapses and the dollar becomes worthless, you still have a factory, and the subtle difference between money and wealth will suddenly be very tangible.

The crucial point, though, is this: Because of the concept of private ownership, money and property can be divided and separated into mutually exclusive units in a way that wealth cannot. Money says that the land and water and air within those property lines are yours and yours alone, but the wealth within those lines is inseparable from its environment. Your factory won’t be operable for long without inputs of capital from outside your property boundaries. You can’t isolate the air that your unregulated smokestacks pollute, or the water in the stream that carries your runoff toward the lake a few miles away. If you dig a fracking well on your land, you can’t sequester the effects of fracturing ancient shale beds that extend well beyond your property. So the interconnectivity of natural wealth (not to mention other layers like the economic wealth of your labor force, without which your factory would sit rather inert) should be just as well understood and in some cases given primacy as a consideration over property rights that are tied to money, for wealth is real and exists regardless of the abstraction of a market that allocates it.

Individualism, you could say, is the recognition of the property rights of the ego identity over the natural self [1]. The latter is the physical body and its peripersonal space, as defined by an authoritative rights-giver (the nebulousness of that space allows for a wide variety of the scope of the “self” to which one has rights, usually including some intellectual and material possessions), which corresponds to the wealth of the factory. The deed to your ownership of self is a collection of documents with definitive names, numbers, and vital statistics  –most notably, your birth certificate and, in the United States, your Social Security number. This is your ego identity in the social context, a conceptualized self as distinct from the experiential, natural self, which has neither a name nor a number.

The natural self is more intimately connected to the mental perceptions and physical sensations of the organism, and thus a more direct connection to the wealth of your human experience, your actual “I” that, in reality, is inseparable from “Not I” like the factory is inseparable from its physical environment. The social identity of names and numbers, all of the tags and labels you associate with yourself as a medium of information exchange for social purposes, is only loosely connected to this organism, just as money is a medium of exchange for the transfer of wealth, and is not the wealth itself. (Consider what is stolen from a victim of “identity theft” in modern society: not a physical body at all, just a body of information.)

So, odd as it may seem at first, the dawn of individualism comes when a unique social identity –a self separate from the other because it is created by its proximity to the other, like the imaginary line between my property and yours– starts to define a person’s self-identity, which heretofore had been rooted in some kind of collective identity, as a leaf to a tree. It begins when the ego demands its freedom from that which created and sustains it.


The modern Westerner has a cognitive bias that makes it difficult to grasp that individualism is not a given and in fact has not been predominant throughout the majority of human history, nor in many contemporary traditional societies. We talk about “natural rights” to individualistic selfhood that are “self-evident,” even as history shows us that they are an anomaly in nature and anything but self-evident. There are still plenty of traditional cultures where self-identity remains more fully rooted in a collective, and the demand for independence from the collective, if made at all, is ritualized in a way that keeps the individual harnessed to strict social norms that chafe modern American sensitivities. (It shouldn’t take any elaboration on that point to show that exoteric religion is one of the fundamental harnessing institutions utilized by all cultures.)

But when we in the hyperindividualistic West talk wistfully now about wanting to feel that we are “a part of something bigger than ourselves,” we are essentially talking about returning to what 99 percent of human existence has been and largely still is.

Collectivism –in which the individual’s self-identity is either rooted or completely encased in a collective identity such as a family, a tribe, a nationality, a creed etc– is the predominant identity pattern in the animal kingdom. Consider the classic examples: the bee hive, the ant colony, the wolf pack etc. At the simplest levels of animal societies, individualism is non-existent, and organisms operative from a “hive mind,” dedicated solely to group survival.

Individualism arises from the hive mind in an evolutionary continuum, not as something flicked on like a light switch nor magically endowed to humanity as in creation myths taken literally. The neural processing capacity to observe and respond to sensory input –the characteristic trait of the natural self– is found in some degree of development in all organisms. This capacity is the foundation for another layer of processing by which certain organisms can observe their observations (still a function of the natural self, it is very important to note) with enough subjective detail that self-awareness results. There is a continuum of development of the feedback loop that produces the effect of self-aware individuality,  starting with invertebrates, simple vertebrates (presumably the spine as protector and structural keystone of the nervous system was an important evolutionary threshold), then the reptilian brain, then the mammalian brain, then primates, then finally the step at which the loop reaches a new threshold capable of codifying that identity with language.

Generally speaking, the greater resemblance of an organism’s central nervous system to Homo sapiens, the more it will exhibit an individualistic sense of self, and chances are the zoology will show that social cohesion was the key to developing the consistency of survivability needed for that system to develop over many generations.

The human being has followed this pattern to the top of the food chain with relatively little physical prowess to thank for it. It shouldn’t be hard to see that the individual human, completely helpless at birth and immature for many years longer than its would-be competitors in the wild, owes all of its survivability to the novel skill of abstract thought and its cohesive self-identity with social collectives. Cognition, though, is no mere step in the progression, but a quantum leap forward, greatly enhancing the natural effect by which we humans observe the observer and know the knower (and in a spooky new way, of experiencing the self as a thing that has a body). When human individuality emerged as the driving evolutionary force of the species, it did so with guns ablazing, and verbal language was the trigger.


So what kicked us into the next gear as a species and made us feel as though we could basically take over the place? The specific answer is not known and might never be, but the general one fits our emergent pattern with great precision.

After many thousands of years fending for itself in nomadic hunter-gatherer packs –more sophisticated perhaps, but not too different than other primates– a much-theorized surge in mental capacity [2] nudged the Homo genus over a threshold that completed an emergent second neural feedback loop and gave us that new, uniquely human dimension of observing our observations of our observations, making possible abstract thought and symbolic language, and the ability to preserve and share information vital to maintaining life. Over a vast period of time, this led to a host of innovations in Homo sapiens‘ relationship to its environment –most significantly, the Agricultural Revolution that gave us new levels of control over our food supply roughly 12,000 years ago. The result was the emergence of local collectives we know as civilizations, each with its own learned and preserved recipe for survival based on adaptation to its bioregion.

As the civilization is stabilizing itself, the most successful adaptation for its human organisms is to follow that recipe without deviation, and in fact the agency for deviation isn’t fully developed yet because one’s self-identity is the collective, like a wolf in a pack. Biological life becomes less tenuous to maintain, with more predictable results, as the dominion of the collective grows and competition with the wild diminishes. But as the recipe for survival also grows more complex, it relies less on instinct and more on mental ingenuity, and this requires a more sophisticated tool for development and preservation of ideas. Thus we see in each civilization a tipping point in which the written word supplants oral tradition as the primary means for collective, intergenerational communication.

With this tipping point comes the foundation for individualism, because the direct, interpersonal transmission of life-supporting wisdom and co-operation between members of the collective –analogous, perhaps, to a barter system in which wealth is traded directly for wealth– is supplanted by the “coins” of thoughts, ideas, and words that will increasingly define the roles of the civilization’s members, and from those roles grow a sense of individual identity (as well as increased semantic, left-brain activity). Once the beachhead of civilization is firmly established, in other words, its solidified collective self is stable enough to sprout manifestations of itself-the-whole that use language to define themselves as the parts, to whom the whole will increasingly seem like an aggregate of parts like a car built on an assembly line. The result is a de-emphasis on the collective and a vaulting leap forward in self-conceptualization and actualization of the human person. The deed to self-ownership is a direct byproduct of the proliferation of the written word.

With ego identity comes a more fully developed drive to survive, not merely to propagate the species or a collective identity, but for one’s own unique benefit and purpose as well –and not necessarily at cross-purposes with the collective…yet. Because individualistic civilizations, as we have witnessed, advance rapidly. Technological progress leads to much lower infant mortality and much longer life expectancy overall, not to mention the time and energy to develop the verbal matrix of language, and activities not devoted solely to survival that further refine the possible ways to be human, leading to deeper complexity of social roles by which to define the individual, and on and on in an accelerating and rising wave of achievement…

But, as insinuated earlier, something happens on the way to this technocratic Shangri-La: another tipping point, in which the individual’s sense of self, lifted up on the shoulders of the collective that defines it (remember, the ego is a product of relativity and the web of interconnected social roles), is so convinced of its independent existence, so removed from the baseline of the natural self’s direct non-verbal perception of/connection with its environment, that it sees itself essentially as a society of one, and this is the point at which the problems of hyperindividualism arise. It is as if the individual says to the collective that is carrying him, “Thank you, I’ll take it from here,” and attempts to levitate. The resultant crash is only a matter of time.

Thinking of himself as a collection of names and numbers on a balance sheet, the hyperindividual has confused his money for his wealth. In his self-image, he is the deed to his property, not the property itself. He is an ego that has a body.

The deed is private and isolated; the property is part of a commonwealth, it is connected to other properties. Living life as the owner of himself and not simply as himself, the hyperindividualist thus lacks a natural sense of connection to the collective and an innate compulsion to care for collective needs that don’t seem to benefit him directly. Acquisition of more property seems like the natural desire of a property owner, whereas if he were the property itself, he might simply be content to exist, to feel the sensation of being alive among the greater play of Life, or at least treat all this competition as a game, not to be taken too seriously.

Knowing no other ground of existence greater than himself, though, the hyperindividualist fortifies himself on his island and dreams of schemes that would make him immortal. The institutions that once harnessed the individual to collectives are now seen as hindrances to his self-fulfillment. Release from the harness is exhilarating at first, the progenitor of countless innovations and titillating simulacra that define a fulfilling life to us modernites, but it soon resembles the primordial battle of all against all as the abstract “pursuit of happiness” becomes a never-ending competition to possess more than one’s neighbor. Why meekly inherit the earth as part of a collective body when you can amass enough money to buy it now?


In summary, a fascinating symbiotic pattern of evolution emerges when you look at human history as the interplay of collective and individual identities. Not surprisingly –as above, so below; as macrocosm, so microcosm– it parallels that of the stages of development of the human person.

Starting with infantile dependence –a tenuous biological crapshoot in which continued existence is the exception for each member of the brood rather than the expectation –the Homo genus naturally developed the toddler’s territorial guile of organismic self-awareness and survival instinct. Then those instinctive reactions were enhanced by learned survival techniques imparted by the greater collective self, a cohesive social unit analogous to the family, characteristic of the sapiens in our species’ name.

The dawn of individualism, then, comes when the sexually mature teenager, biologically capable of creating the next generation, is compelled to surge toward independence from the collective, but is held in check by social roles and rituals that define his sense of self –thus initiating a long period of struggle toward social maturity, which could be defined as a realized individual who, ideally, is also comfortable in his social roles, the so-called “well adjusted adult.”

Hyperindividualism, we will find, corresponds with the rusted adolescence of teenage rebellion extended into adulthood, maybe shades of midlife crisis in some cases. I will also try to show that beyond that crisis is another phase when even well adjusted individuals need each other more and should have more wisdom to impart to younger generations. Just as we don’t generally take the freewheeling mentality of youth or the householder responsibilities of adulthood into our golden years, so too must some natural part of the pattern emerge to guide a maturing civilization into a broader wisdom beyond the deep but narrow channel of intelligence we gathered, and teach us how to use it for what comes next.


[1] Many people would dispute this definition of individualism, and counter that it is the recognition of the independence of the natural self from false collectives, such as in the Objectivist writings of Ayn Rand and the works of other libertarian philosophers. I believe this is half-right, but it misses a key step. If the ego were identical to the natural self, as it is in Rand’s grossly oversimplified “A is A” concept of what an individual is, perhaps this would be true. But she was the poster child for the individualist who so mistrusts the collective that she can’t see she is a product of it, and makes no distinction between the money of ego and the wealth of self. (And having published her ideas for posterity, she made herself the perpetually petulant teenager of modern philosophy. It is downright scary to me that many people consider that something to emulate.)  Nevertheless, she wasn’t wrong about the damaging effects of adhering to collectives that must maintain themselves by force, so her work is not without value. I would just caution the reader to consider that ego is not the final stage of development for the individual, that something will liberate the natural self from the ego just as surely as the Western ego has mostly been set free from the collective…stay tuned.
[2] I am a fan of Terrence McKenna’s “stoned ape” hypothesis –basically, that the surge in mental capacity was the result of the happenstance addition of psilocybin mushrooms to the diet of Homo erectus. But I’m not so attached to it that I can’t entertain the likelihood of more pedestrian ideas, such as the harnessing of fire as a tool for cooking food and increasing nutrient absorption. They aren’t mutually exclusive theories of course, as there were certainly many factors involved and no smoking guns to be found.

Emergence of the Contemplative Shaman

Part One

Chapter 1: Staring Down the Crisis of Hyperindividuality (and not blinking)

Chapter 2: Ego is to Self as Money is to Wealth

Chapter 3: The Road of Excess

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