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contemplative shaman, Essays, Perennialism

Emergence of the Contemplative Shaman–Part One, Ch 3: The Road of Excess

11 Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. 13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. 14 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. — Luke 15:11-14, New King James Version

 

By the end of Chapter 2, I was painting a grim picture of life in a hyperindividualistic society. I don’t think it was inaccurate, but I do want to start this chapter by emphasizing that this situation did not come about by some horrible mistake that humanity could have avoided. Everything about our current existential miasma is an entirely logical product of the development of fully subjective, conceptualized consciousness (or cognition, to tap the shoulder of a good term that could use a more specific definition), as predictable as the fact that summer will follow spring and precede autumn. There is much confusion under the sun, and everything is fine.

On the other hand, this is also not to say that Western individualism is our final answer and definitive truth about the human condition, nor that we are stuck with whatever consequences it has wrought. There is, of course, another perspective of the individual that is not a product of the existential tension behind hyperindividualism, being neither limited to the conceptual ego nor defined by the binding characteristics of collectives. It is at once our simplest and most advanced notion of the self, and as such it has been glimpsed through the glass darkly by the subjective human person, more intuited than known, both as a vestige of our pre-intellectual past and, I speculatively posit, as a precognition of a meta-intellectual future. It has been perceived with dim awareness by a small minority throughout recorded history and across all cultural boundaries. Many variations exist because communication about this intuition requires bringing it back to the conceptual realm of symbolic language, but the universal element is a more holistic vision of the self that seems either aloof of or altogether unbound by linear time-space. This vision, never predominant in any human culture, became obscured even further by the influence of Cartesian dualism and was relegated to the esoteric fringe of Western philosophy during the Enlightenment.

I will borrow a term coined by the beloved Zen Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, and call the existential state indicative of this perspective “interbeing.” If an individual being sees itself from its own perspective, as the product of its own cognition, in an egoic, Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” manner, interbeing places that “I” back in its full natural context, interconnected with its environment like the natural wealth of the factory in Chapter 1. Interbeing, in other words, puts the human person “back” into the universe, in the same way that, if necessary, it would put the wave back into the ocean and the leaf back into the tree. 

Though our bodies are distinct “properties” with their own deeds and their own mentally constructed experiences, interbeing reminds us that ontologically we are one interwoven web of Existence, experiencing itself from myriad perspectives. Interbeing says, “I am, therefore I ‘inter-am’ with all else that is.”

The point is not that we rejected interbeing because is false, nor that we could have chosen to trust our intuition and failed –the point is that interbeing is a more advanced notion of reality than what cognition alone reveals, and it holds a great wealth of Truth, but we have not yet had the mental faculties to understand it in sufficient numbers for it to become the dominant paradigm. We got individualism, and then hyperindividualism, because at present we are best equipped to perceive and understand our worlds –both manmade and organic– through those dualistic lenses. To go further will require building upon what we have become in order to potentiate emergent developments of our collective consciousness that will make intuition a more common form of knowledge, just as cognition was once novel and revolutionary before it was standard equipment for Homo sapiens.

To develop the skill of abstract thought, humanity had to build within the natural world a realm of abstraction and go to that “far country” of the mind, and suffer the severe famine of imagined isolation from the Source. The prodigal sons and daughters of Nature had to get all the way lost in order to find themselves and return home.

3.1

Though based on a half-truth –an egocentric declaration of independence from the collective to which the ego is inherently dependent, as opposed to the deeper organismic truth of the interbeing of our natural self– the individualism of modern Western civilization has one trait that defines its breakthrough role in the development of human personality: its recognition of the dignity and integrity of the single human being. [1]

Individualism raised the moral platform of the species by creating the space for true empathy –for individual beings to meet and recognize both their experiential uniqueness and common existential ground. We see the former and miss the latter to such an extent now that it is hard to imagine a state of mind in which it is different, but it can’t be stressed enough that the unique and isolatable ego is a mental construct, a useful illusion, not a natural phenomenon. It is something each person builds and experiences alone, a private “trip” of Existence through Existence, not an entity to study or discover. It is as real as the unicorn you are thinking of right now.

But the ego also serves an important purpose: it helps us orient ourselves to and navigate the conceptual world and communicate with each other, and ultimately to survive and proliferate. [2] This may be the extent of the biological imperative behind the development of the neural capacity to produce an ego, but spiritualists inclined to holism (the author included) maintain that it is also true that Life, the Self of the universe which would otherwise be featureless and unmanifest without subjective observers, has an imperative of its own to know itself as thoroughly and intimately as possible. Given that, the romantics (also inclusive of the author) would add that we, as Life manifest into multitudes of lives, also developed the ego so that we can learn to love. We have to first see a division in the unity of “self” and “other” in order to long for the bond of union that we know as love.

Pragmatically speaking, love can also be seen as a measure of the value afforded by individuals to each other. If each and every part of a collective is fully expendable and without individual value, the parts, having attained sufficient self-awareness, will rightfully wonder, “What is the point of preserving the collective?” Clearly it must be more than to facilitate the survival of pointless parts.

So individualism arises as 1) civilization becomes stable enough and 2) its people become self-reflective and linguistic enough to ask their own questions about mortality and meaning. The answers will still be provided by the collective, but to even ask the questions brings an undeniable depth to the individual human person, as though we were cardboard cutouts of ourselves that became fleshy three-dimensional creatures with brains. It is much easier to feel pathos for a living, 3D person like ourselves than a cardboard cutout or a cog in a machine.

This is not a frivolous nor accidental development in our evolution as social beings, as we will see in more detail later. Generally, the collective has meted out individuality as to suit its needs through its teaching institutions, particularly religion, the branch of knowledge tasked with providing collective answers to our existential questions –the “who am I, how did I get here, why is all this happening?” we perennially ask without finding any definitives. The shorter the leash, so to speak, given by the collective to the individual person to explore and shape his own idiosyncratic understanding of the collective’s official book of answers, the more stable and static the society will be; the longer the leash, the more the collective will harness the individual’s emergent will to empower itself and hence will tend to be more progressive and dynamic [3] With faster advancement of technology, individualistic collectives had a military advantage and spread much more prolifically than traditional cultures. Desirable or not, imperialism and colonialism –almost always of monotheistic cultures over animists or pagan-polytheists– was the inevitable result of “long-leash” cultures outperforming ones where individual motive was less developed.

None of this is to say that individualistic cultures are morally superior to traditional ones. The West’s often condescending or hostile perspective toward the heathens, savages, and otherwise “lesser beings” that had not made the same leap into existential self-other dualism belies a distrust in itself and a severe limit to egocentric morality. But it is evident that the range of potential for pathos grows wider. The libertine individual can be morally depraved in a way that the more constrained traditionalist likely won’t [3a], but I would propose that she can also reach loftier heights of empathy and awareness of unity for having strayed into isolation and diversity. Sociologically speaking, the middle road of well-grounded, traditional-minded collectivists might not be the best outcome for society as a whole, for extremism seems to be what pushes us past the tipping points of paradigm shift and social innovation –or, more poetically, in the words of William Blake, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Furthermore, the manifestations of hyperindividualism we examine here should be seen less as a disease or a departure from an abstract “straight line” of evolution, and more as a symptom, or an early warning that we are bumping against the glass ceiling of how far we can go in our current state of consciousness, and another of these evolutionary tipping points is nigh.

Hyperindividualism will seem like a disease to those who, for various reasons, are attached to collectivist-leaning social structures that served us well in the past and helped bring us to where we are. The rising popularity of both Democratic Socialism and “white nationalism” in America –the former with its appeal to collective economic programs and New Deal populism, the latter a nostalgia for a social stratification that held racial privilege in place for the former majority– are both predictable reactions to a society that seems to be racing toward disintegration. But just as you can’t cure a disease by treating the symptoms, ultimately hyperindividualism as manifested in public policy and popular culture will not be eradicated by forcing a more collectivist government upon it nor by covering it with whiteface. The condition causing these symptoms has become too ingrained in our existential blueprint. What we are now –a skyline of towering intellectual constructs and personalities, loosely connected by geography but otherwise not affiliated, starting to buckle and tilt under their own unsupported weight– was built upon the flimsy foundation of ego identity, and that problem of slipshod construction wouldn’t change by tearing it down and building a giant Iroquois longhouse over the same foundations. The collapse would be just as certain, if perhaps less dramatic, as we all know what happens to a house divided against itself.

3.2

Remember the Gilded Age?

All that said, there are four main reasons why I used the word “crisis” in the subtitle to the Introduction –maybe “critical mass” is more appropriate– and why I believe the phenomenon of hyperindividualism needs meliorative attention and conscious evolution in a truly progressive direction. One of the key advantages to developing such a refined self-reflective capacity in the human nervous system is the potential it creates to change on purpose, essentially to evolve with revolutionary expediency and even some degree of precision.

Let’s imagine that the individualism that made America prosperous and relatively sound morally is symbolized by a kid eating a single scoop ice cream cone in a public plaza. He has no external compulsion to share it equally with everyone, but thanks to a rising tide lifting all boats via a combination of free enterprise and the leveling hand of monetary redistribution, the majority of people around him have the resources and the option to obtain their own. This may never be egalitarian enough for our social engineers, and always fraught with corruption by our kleptocratic class, but it is hard to argue against the moderate leveling effect of private ownership and money-driven capitalism compared to the natural collectives of the wild. Natural selection means that food chains, hierarchies, and caste systems are the static arbiters of morality, and sickness and starvation are the fate of the weak so that the alpha qualities of each species make up the deeper end of the gene pool. Individualism, the emergent concern for the welfare of what we perceive to be the smallest indivisible unit of being, opened our capacity for empathy to such that even “the least among us” have inherent value and deserve some degree of protection from the worst of depravities. So it isn’t just lip service to the dominant paradigm to suggest that the “invisible hand” of free enterprise will provide sustenance for more kids in this plaza than the visible web of Nature provides for its non-human animals.

The hyperindividualism we have today, however, is more like the same kid trying to balance a five scoop cone in one hand and a holding a gun in the other, with private access to far more dairy cows than he could ever need (paid for on credit, encoded in a corporate charter called My Milk, LLC), the privilege of tax shelters created by friends in high places to protect his cash flow advantage over smaller producers, and a minimum wage employee turning his ice cream churn. Whether or not anyone around him can afford even a scoop of ice cream is irrelevant to him because he has privatized all the means to continue making his own, and he has a gun.

The four distinguishing characteristics here that I would call problematic for humanity are:

1) Unchecked consumption. The leveling influence of social collectivism has been our primary means for assuring that resources are allocated not just somewhat fairly, but in moderation. This is partly due to morality –gluttony being one of the deadly sins– but also because the intersubjective nature of decision-making creates a broader scope of the public interest. The compulsion to privatize every possible resource is hyperindividualistic because it insulates the ownership class from the shame of gluttony and the need to cooperate with others to determine how resources should be used. Efficiency of resource use may be gained, but profitability becomes the measuring stick of that, not the sustainability of that resource.

Money can drain all the natural resources of a given property and then move on. Think of the Truffula tree tragedy in The Lorax, or if you prefer non-fiction,  consider the endemic plight of our overfished oceans. When fish are seen as a common source of wealth because they can be caught and turned into food, there is somewhat of a natural limit to their demand from each individual. But when they can be caught and turned into money, there is no such limit, until we reach the hard ceiling at which fish populations are too depleted to reproduce fast enough to meet this bottomless demand. Shifting the measuring stick from money to wealth draws a clearer connection to sustainability.

2) Protectionism. This is the dark side of individuality. Isolation of the ego creates fear of death, but it goes deeper than that. Because the ego is an insubstantial phantom (as opposed to the natural, integrated self, inseparable from the Self), it also learns to fear the loss of the material things with which it identifies. This creates a market for authoritarian goons to offer protection to the majority who are adverse to the job of protecting themselves. Ultimately, the joint venture of protectionism-by-hire, whether through supporting the state’s monopoly on use of force or the increased use of private security firms, is an extension of the organism’s survival instinct, but with layers of fear, in varying degrees of thickness, adding an unpredictable and often aggressive element that turns simple co-existants into enemies.

The death fear is primal and we are all susceptible to it, and we know of countless cases where hypoindividualism leads to exploitation of herd mentality protectionism via various collectivist isms. The hyperindividualist, being more prosperous than the typical peasant or machine cog, and having more stuff propping up his ego, feels he has much more to lose. We are seeing the inevitable results now in the police state that political centrists have slowly built (with increased zeal and public approval since 9/11) and which Donald Trump and Steve Bannon are now trying to launch into hyperdrive: an even more regressive neo-feudalism devoid of both spirit and science. Protection is the only function of government they want to preserve, and they want to increase its presence and muscle so those who have stuff can have more access to stuff while the rest make do with less. It is regression into a Dark Ages mentality so backwards that it may inevitably topple everything and lead to rapid evolution-by-fire (as opposed to the neo-liberal centrists who would preserve the deep state and keep us satiated a while longer until ecological crisis mode commences). I hold out hope that we don’t have to fall backwards off of a towering inferno into the new paradigm, but it will take some serious reckoning on the part of a society whose crass and wholly exterior materialism long ago eclipsed even a basic interior foundation for its sense of purpose.

3) An inevitable decline into crony capitalism. According to Wikipedia, “Crony capitalism arises when business cronyism and related self-serving behavior by businesses or businesspeople spills over into politics and government, or when self-serving friendships and family ties between businessmen and the government influence the economy and society to the extent that it corrupts public-serving economic and political ideals.”

Opinions will vary widely on this, but I believe that Adam Smith’s idealistic free market has never actually been put into practice, and likely never will, because any society free enough to desire it has also let out the individual’s egoic leash far enough that “public-serving economic ideals” will necessarily be secondary to private profit motive. Where there is sufficient overlap between public and private interest, there will be less objection to a mechanism for monetary redistribution (not, I hasten to clarify, redistribution of wealth, which involves the confiscation of actual property and resources), and hence some degree of socialism that “taints” the pure free market.

Capitalism cannot exist in its pure form in a hyperindividualistic society for two key reasons. One, it is rational for an individual or a business to do everything it can to fortify itself and secure its market share and growth potential, by whatever means it is allowed to employ, and that includes making self-serving friendships and forming alliances that weaken and diminish one’s competition. The libertarian solution –to weaken and diminish the state’s capacity to be used in this manner– seems to assume that the state is the only mechanism by which businesses can collude and engage in cronyism. In a republic like ours, the state, at least in theory, is still a transparent institution that answers to the public, and one of its tasks is to regulate business practices and inhibit the formation of competition-stifling monopolies. If that oversight is removed, what is to stop businesses from exercising their freedom to align and consolidate in self-serving ways that effectively mimic the problems of governmental cronyism?

Two, the ideal that suggests the cumulative outcome of all free and voluntary transactions will reflect the best interests of the public is specious in all settings given how myopic we can be about even our own self-interests, but especially so in a hyperindividualistic society. This view draws from a naively reductionist and nominalist belief that a society is merely the sum of its independent, sovereign parts, dismissing as irrelevant the question of whether such a herd of cats can think integratively about immediate private and public interests, let alone about future generations of its body politic. To reuse an apt metaphor from the first chapter, imagine if each cell in your brain operated from a motivation of self-interest rather than performing its simple service to the nervous system. Yet we are led to believe that a thousand egocentric choices about, say, water use in a desert climate will be equal to the public interest rather than the symbolic death of that interest by a thousand paper cuts or swimming pools.

If I seem to be contradicting earlier statements about the benefits of individualism and slamming libertarian philosophy into the ground, rest assured that the best possible society, according to this thesis, is made up of empowered, ecologically-minded individuals, and independent yet interdependent holistic systems thinkers. But our efforts to cultivate such awakened citizens runs headlong smack into the most nefarious of the challenges of hyperindividualism in a free society…

4) Key decisions increasingly made not even by individuals, but amoral, unnatural “corporate persons.” Corporate personhood is the epitome of hyperindividualism, an even more bald faced fiction than the ego, given unrestrained, transnational power no mortal human could ever claim. They are legally required to operate from no conscience and act only to increase shareholder value (see problem 1). They are fictional organisms playing Monopoly with real people as tokens, real resources as properties, and real events as dice rolls and Chance and Community Chest cards. They are what our most rapacious, power-willed  hyperindividualists would be if they could just shed their bodies and rule over us from the heavens.

And yet curtailing their power seems almost sacrilegious in a free society, because it is perfectly rational for individuals to seek protection for their private assets from business debts through incorporation. And it is rational for corporations to offer their stock in the public market in order to increase capital. And public investors necessitate another layer of security…

But we did not need to take the extraneous step of giving a corporation the same legal status as a person. The human person is at least a derivative aspect of a sensitive organism with, in most cases, an inherent moral orientation that a corporate person does not have. It is as though we created a legion of intelligent robots to serve as our protectors, and then, without the moral restraint of conscience, they learned how to outflank us politically and usurp our power, and thus became our ultimate competitors and overlords as well.

It is neither an accident nor surprise that America’s dalliance with corporatist fascism coincides with skyrocketing prosperity for corporate America and stagnation for the rest. Closing this Pandora’s box seems as likely as replacing gas-guzzling cars with the horse and buggy, so as with protectionism, it seems that we are stuck adapting to a world system ruled by corporate persons and the disastrous consequences that are likely to result with blind psychopaths at the wheel, and hoping there was an unseen reason why it furthered our development as a species.

3.3

It seems reasonable to conclude that free market capitalism is a useful mechanism for elevating the individual will and shaking us free of the mere survival instinct of hypoindividualistic alliance to warlords and despots. Once a certain level of democracy and self-determinism is reached, however, it also makes sense for a society to tap the brakes on vertical growth of individualism, so to speak, and build mechanisms for social safety nets that allow our sense of self to grow horizontally as well, to reconnect with the interdependence of our personal sources of wealth as it were. There are definitely shades of this in the New Deal programs and later in the “Great Society” idealism of the 1960s, but free enterprise is the closest thing we have to a monolithic state religion in America, so anything short of full throttle economic growth and frontiersmen’s independence is disdained here as a kind of Old World heresy. We seem almost Calvinistically predestined to become the world’s experiment in arriving at wisdom by way of hyperindividualistic excess.

The kneejerk reaction of partisan collectivists on all sides is to retreat and devolve into something that seemed to work in the past. For the right wing, this clearly seems to be the restratification of society based on all the familiar divisions, with white Protestant males back in charge. Lefties, as mentioned, look to government to function as an inalienable collective smoothing the rough edges of nature with an admirably egalitarian safety net (though it is probably a fair criticism to say that they also sequester themselves in the liberal fiefdoms we call cities and lean on the wealth generated by our necessary evil corporations to not care about the economic erosion of the hinterlands.)

I’ll be getting ahead of myself if I continue with many details as to what I see as the better way forward from here. But I should take a moment to clarify that I am not going to make the simplistic argument that, since we depend upon collectives, we need to do all we can to preserve the ones we have. (In fact, spoiler alert: I’ll actually be making the opposite assertion –that hyperindividualism means we need to simplify our collective identities down to the most essential.)

For now, I hope we can glean from all this a simple definition of hyperindividualism –an advanced state of egotism that causes the individual to lose sense of connection with the collective that creates him– and let it suffice to be repeated that I am not suggesting a regression to collective identities of any kind. Once we have passed the threshold into hyperindividualistic personhood, collectivism ultimately means an unnatural, unsustainable kind of factionalism. All the monstrous “isms” of recent human history are a result of this effort to violently stuff the toothpaste of individualism back into the tube of collective identity.

The individual human being, on the other hand, is a natural nexus of experience capable of fully, seamlessly integrating with its environment, and that is vital to our ability to adapt to the Next Age paradigm. The work of the contemplative shaman is open a new portal for the isolated individual to journey forward into the only real collective there is –Reality itself– and find his identity in That.  

I don’t deny that ownership of self helped us take large leaps forward morally and ethically, I have no doubt that it has produced the most “advanced” and sensitive human being yet seen in that regard…but that doesn’t mean it continues to serve us best. That doesn’t mean it’s the optimal way to be an individual, and that we aren’t using it to prime ourselves for the next Great Leap Forward.

Ownership implies separation, which results in a sense of self that is invested in its welfare and, if intelligent, in the welfare of others, but with the tradeoff of a pervasive feeling of existential isolation.

Imagine what can happen if the sense of investment is retained, but the separation is not…


FOOTNOTES

[1] Vegans, deep ecologists, animal liberationists, and any others crying “speciesism:” I hear you. Be patient. Your time will come.

[2] “The map is not the territory” is another common analogy used to describe the relationship between ego and the natural self. It is an especially constructive one in this way: We know that there is no reality in which the physical details of the territory we call “Michigan” are compressed to fit onto an 8-by-11 inch page and crisscrossed by multicolored lines. But we also know that if you intend to travel from Detroit to Marquette, a map of Michigan will be much more useful than one of Maryland or Montana, and one printed last year is better than one from 1965. Even when dealing in fiction, accuracy and authenticity matter, and “Know thyself” is still the supreme imperative for the self-aware human being. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the actual journey will be six inches long, that the green land of Michigan is isolated in any way from the yellow of Ohio, or that putting your toes on the blue ink of Lake Superior will get you wet.

[3] and [3a] It is important to remember that individualism does not have a fixed location on the simplistic liberal-conservative linear political spectrum. The term “progressive” here is not meant to indicate a partisan, pro-active, liberal government as in popular use, but more in a sociological context –the idea that a society is or should be progressing toward the eradication of undesirable social conditions, where we feel compelled to assure that our children will “have it better than we did,” etc. the opposite is not political conservatism (which can also be progressive in this manner), but a more traditional culture in which the patterns of life were established in time immemorial by ancestors and are not meant to evolve. Change is thought of as a constant, but a cyclical pattern rather than a linear progression. Likewise, “libertine” is not to be confused with “libertarian,” but is an adjective for that culture that gives a long leash to the individual person to exercise his volition as the simplest unit of being. (As such, it will correspond in most ways to values that people who identify as libertarian often hold.) It is interesting that Western political science lacks even a place on its more complex biaxial spectrum for a traditional communitarian mindset. If a society is not libertine in orientation, we automatically assume that it is authoritarian and oppressive of its people. 

RELATED READING

Living the Questions: Why change the narrative now? by Daniel Christian Wahl, http://www.medium.com

The Gift of Death by George Monbiot, published in The Guardian 11th December 2012 (and getting more relevant every year). A snippet: “The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population. The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth are diminished.”

Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot’ by Eric Anthamatten, from The New York Times Opinion page, 12 June 2017. An absolutely amazing summary that could very well be a companion piece for this whole section of the Contemplative Shaman series. Apparently, idiots were hyperindivdualist before hyperindividualism was cool.


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

About Waldo Noesta

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