Emergence of the Contemplative Shaman: Introduction

feWkU1491004560This is the first of what will likely be a long series of posts for the pan-Perennialism section of Not Two that will go into deep detail about the evolution of our religious, metaphysical, philosophical, and scientific mythoses regarding ontology, the single thread of Truth running through their collective development, and what they say both about us now and where we may be headed as a species. I’m posting the Introduction here as a preview of what’s to come, and will then wait until a significant portion of the series is ready to post before starting construction at N2.



With cognitive skills unsurpassed in the Terran biosphere, humanity represents the local crest of an evolutionary wave of subjective, individuated awareness within the ocean of Life. We are by far the most refined apertures through which the universe can know and study itself, at least in our neck of the cosmic woods.

This wave, however, can and will crash as it rises too high and outstrips the support of its base, which is the vast social network of civilization and the matrix of verbal data preservation it builds. We who have thought ourselves into insular, independent existential units are thus also in danger of thinking ourselves to death.

The social organism called Homo sapiens is both the creator and creation of this verbal matrix –the identity that defines our individuality and holds it in place, after all, is a product of the matrix of language and social institutions that previous generations built, starting with the family that provides us a name. If we do not have this socially-constructed ID badge, we feel oddly orphaned by life, worse than a nameless creature of the wild that never supposed it should have an ID badge, and has adapted just fine to living without one. We, on the other hand, are self-domesticated animals, dependent upon communication to survive, upon language to communicate, and upon social institutions to hold the verbal matrix of language in place.

But social stability and the material prosperity of civilization creates more opportunity to cultivate individuality, which in turn produces individuals who no longer see themselves as products of the society nor, increasingly, as aspects of nature. As the technological envelope of a society is pushed to ever-higher thresholds of complexity and seeming dominion over our ecosystem, this Siamese twin alienation from everything that grounds the individual in its greater social and ecological contexts eventually results in a corrosive egocentric delusion called hyperindividualism.

A society of hyperindividualists no longer functions like a single organism, but as an aggregate of parts each looking out for its own interests, cooperating only as they see fit as means to their private ends –a society of sociopaths, in other words.

Imagine if every cell in your body thought of itself as an individuated being that wanted to do its own thing and “marched to its own drummer,” unwilling to die and be replaced, so on and so forth. This is an extreme but not inaccurate model of how a hyperindividualistic society functions. At a more moderate level where empathy and solidarity of being and purpose are still present, hyperindividualism might manifest as a pandemic of self-concern, in which the “self” is a collective that extends only enough to cover each of the various factions, cliques, and other in-groups engaged in intractable conflict –perhaps, a body where the left hand and right hand are completely at odds and cannot cooperate to perform even the simplest tasks.

Generally a sociological term, it is also important to consider the mutual cause-effect relationship on the psychology and self-image of a hyperindividualistic society’s base unit. We in the Cartesian West, and especially in exceptionalist America, tend to take for granted that our self-image is exactly what we are, and any human archetype, aside from the rugged individualist breaking free from social constraints who is the hero of all our movies, is just a less actualized version of ourselves. Perhaps this was once true, as the history of every emergent manifestation of liberalism suggests and the evolutionary theory behind pan-Perennialism proclaims. But if it is possible to be over-actualized,  as a society full of individuals who are scared to death of dying for lack of any consistent idea of what follows, arming itself to the teeth while suspending every other liberty and yelling “Don’t tread on me!” at each other, 21st century America is pushing that envelope into dangerous territory, and the world is falling over itself to follow suit.

To put it more precisely: the hyperindividuated Homo sapiens is an organism experiencing the nightmare of an imagined alienation from the Nature that (as pantheism teaches us) [1] constitutes its actual body, a schism between the perceptual self (ego) and actual Self (Nature). Eventually, the human reaches a psychological tipping point at which its individuality no longer serves its best interests, and something has to give. There is widespread evidence that much of Western civilization (which increasingly means “global” rather than any place of origin or cardinal direction), with its epidemic of hyperindividualism, is barreling past this tipping point, and falling into an existential panic in which self-annihilation is a distinct possibility.

As a pan-Perennialist, I propose that the study of philosophical and religious history will show that there is no reason to fear this coming cataclysm, that we are progressing forward as needed despite all indications otherwise, and that, often unbeknownst to us, the tools we need to thrive in the next epoch are forged in the funeral pyres of the old.

Like humanity itself, an ontological philosophy (a category of thought that includes theology and non-theistic spirituality) is both a direct effect of the forces that bring it into existence and a latent cause of its further development. By tracking this transhistorical development of what is essentially, for better and worse, humanity’s looking glass image of itself in a cosmological context, pan-Perennialism offers a  “meta” perspective of the evolution of our self-identity –and, perhaps, an Ariadne’s thread to lead us through the labyrinth of our unsustainable egocentricity.

For if our concept of self –and concurrently of what constitutes the “other,” or our environment– is not in fact shifting arbitrarily but is evolving toward an objective Truth, two likely corollaries would follow: 1) The way out of our current existential conundrum is to continue pressing forward into the not-yet-known, not to retreat into more familiar modes of consciousness (such as tribal identity or religious revivalism), and 2) A knowable baseline of Truth exists –Reality itself– and is with us throughout the labyrinthine journey of evolution even as we are blind to it.

In the words popularized by Carl Jung [2], “Bidden or unbidden, God is present,” and the proverbial cat is out of the bag regarding the assumptions of yesterday about what that means. We mustn’t look back, but courageously forward to a new holistic layer of understanding that only a clarified picture of our past can provide, for we are products of that past, charged with the responsibility of using it to create the humanity of the future.

We cannot halt the tide of “me-firstism” inundating the world’s social institutions and gobbling up its resources. But we can harness its energy and vault forward into a new level of non-dual perception that replants the human self-concept in its pre-conceptual ground, with a shared rhizomatic root that some call God, others call Nature, while others simply acknowledge its namelessness with a variation of “Thou art That.” It is the very fact that hyperindividuality brings us to this reckoning point, where disintegration into madness is possible or even likely, that integration into direct knowledge of the Self is also possible or even inevitable for some, because survival will mean adaptivity to a new kind of self/Self-knowledge, and there is nowhere to go from here but forward to the Source.

An emergent species of human —Homo intuitus— is the theoretical result, and clearing the path for her is the work of the contemplative shaman.


[1] “So then, who are you? The organism is inseparable from its environment, so you are the organism-environment. You are no less than the whole universe. Each one of you is the universe expressed in the place you feel as here and now. So when you feel that you are a lonely, isolated, little stranger confronting all this, you have an illusory feeling because the truth is the reverse. You are the whole works.”–Alan Watts

[2] VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT (bidden or unbidden God is present) is commonly attributed to Carl Gustav Jung but it is actually a statement that Jung discovered among the Latin writings of Desiderius Erasmus, who declared the statement had been an ancient Spartan proverb. Jung popularized it, having it inscribed over the doorway of his house, and upon his tomb.


7 thoughts on “Emergence of the Contemplative Shaman: Introduction

  1. This is interesting. I have the sense that you’re making an observation about humanity that’s real and true to the core, yet some of the ways you’ve labeled and interpreted it introduce too much distortion (I feel). You’re talking about two opposing world-views or modes of consciousness. The current one, which you’re labeling “hyperindividualism,” arose out of the other, more ancient mode of consciousness in which we felt ourselves as part of an indivisible whole. In the book I’m reading, The Secret Teachers of the Western World, our current mode of consciousness is associated with the thinking that’s characteristic of the left hemisphere of the brain. Seeing ourselves as a separate from everything “out there” was necessary to make the physical world our object of study. It gave rise the scientific method and all our technological advancement. Our consciousness today would be defined not so much by hyperindividualism (even though that’s one aspect of it) but by its mental-rational structure. Before the mental-rational consciousness structure, “humankind lived in the mythic consciousness structure, one more attuned to images, feelings, and intuitions, all elements of right-brain consciousness.” We didn’t question our knowledge that the universe was a living, conscious, meaningful being. The development of language, just as you seem to hint, very likely marked the beginning of the shift between the two.

    In each of several phases of human consciousness identified by Jean Gebser, there is a point at which that mode of consciousness stops being beneficial to us and starts to get in our way (just like the tipping point you mention). That tipping point sort of heralds the next mode of consciousness to come after it, and the one that comes after this one is expected to be “integral.” It will integrate both ways together. I love that your phrase “contemplative shaman” represents that marriage of thought so well.

    I quibble with the term “hyperindividualism” because I think individualism is not really the problem, or at least, using that word confuses the issue. In some individuals (not all of us, and that’s exactly why I like to preserve “individualism” as something good or at least neutral, because we are not all lumped together), the pronounced separateness of their ego has led to a feeling of scarcity and therefore the need for control. The illusion of separateness from society and nature has caused an intense fear that can only be quelled by dominion over other people and the planet. Mere self-interest is NOT a bad thing – in fact it’s the engine that makes everything work to everyone’s mutual benefit and increasing quality of life. Individual people can be acting out of self-interest, and yet, still, without even being aware of it, function perfectly as a cog in the beautiful, well-oiled machine of society/nature. Relatively few humans – compared to the numbers of the rest of us – are so power-mad that they are risking the annihilation of the human race. *Their* self-interest becomes a huge problem for the rest of us – but using any form of the term “individualism” to describe that seems to taint something that can be our most potent self-defense against the power-hungry. They often appeal to and exploit our collectivist natures in order to control us en masse.

    I can only resoundingly applaud the conclusion you’re leading to – that everything is in fact progressing inevitably to a re-discovery of true Self, as dire as things may appear. I couldn’t agree more.

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  2. Thank you so much for that extremely in-depth comment! What a treat 😀

    I think you will be very pleased with the overall arc of the series as it unfolds, starting with Part One which will explore in great detail that cause-effect factor of verbal language, which was only hinted at here. I don’t see hyperindividualism as a mode of consciousness, but an inevitable product of the mode of consciousness called dualism.

    In a nutshell, Part One will argue that language-driven left brain shift you mention (spot on observation btw) is not harmful by itself, but Left Brain + Dualism = Trouble (You might like the article “Ego and ‘The Ghost in the Room'” at Not Two https://noestaaqui.com/2017/02/06/ego-and-the-ghost-in-the-room/ ). I’ll then go on in further installments to outline how a paradigmatic shift away from Dualism toward Aspect Monism will help bring about the more integrated left/right balance we need. Certainly they also can cause-effect each other too, but my experience suggests that unlearning dualism, an aberration of Nature, is the easier shift to address within a particular person and one lifetime.

    I’ll have to write more tomorrow. We talked too long 😉


  3. OK I’m back…I just wanted to address your concern about the term “hyperindividualism” (which, unlike some of the other terminology in coming installments, I didn’t create; it’s a sociological term, the most recognizable name I saw associated with it on a short search was Bill McKibben).

    I am mostly in agreement with you about the evolutionary value and simple natural truth of the benefit of individualism. As you know, I still hold on to a vestige of socialist sympathies (and I know I haven’t given up hopes for a miniature version of a Great Society because I get viscerally excited when I read about, for instance, the idea that blue states should embrace anti-Federalism so as to retain the right to maintain and develop their social safety nets, protect their diverse populations, attract the world’s best and brightest with progressive policies for education etc etc). But I know we are not trending that way as a whole, and that collectivism ultimately means an unnatural, unsustainable kind of factionalism. 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.

    Hyperindividualism, then, can be seen less as a disease and more of a symptom, or an early warning that one of these tipping points is nigh. It will seem like a disease to those like me who, for various reasons, are attached to social structures that served us well in the past and helped bring us to where we are, and perhaps processing and writing about this is my way of doing some self-therapy while reaching out to others like me who might be fearing the Reaper.

    That said, there are three main reasons why I used the word “crisis” in the subtitle, and why I believe the phenomenon of hyperindividualism is too much of a good thing for our times and needs conscious meliorative attention.
    If the individualism that made America prosperous and relatively sound morally could be symbolized by a kid eating a single scoop ice cream cone in a public plaza with no compulsion to share it equally with everyone –but the majority of people around him have the resources and the option to obtain their own– then what we have today is more like a kid trying to balance a five scoop cone in one hand and a holding a gun in the other, 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), 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 three distinguishing characteristics here that I would call problematic are:

    1) Unchecked consumption. Collectivism has been our means for assuring that resources are allocated not just fairly, but in moderation, in part due to 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.

    2) Protectionism. This is that dark side of individuality you talked about. 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 (the violent types you mentioned) to offer protection to the majority who are adverse to the job of protecting themselves. 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 results now in what Trump and Bannon are trying to build: 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 it to increase 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-con centrists who would preserve the deep state and keep us satiated a while longer until ecological crisis mode commences), but I propose that we hold out hope that we don’t have to fall backwards off of a towering inferno into the new paradigm.

    3) Key decisions increasingly made not even by individuals, but amoral, unnatural “corporate persons.” In my mind, 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 Chance and Community Chest cards. They are what our most rapacious hyperindividualists would be if they could just shed their damn bodies and rule over us from the heavens. It is no accident nor surprise that America’s dalliance with fascism (and I’m going back at least as far as 9/11, not just the 45 era) coincides with skyrocketing prosperity for corporate America and stagnation for the rest. Closing this Pandora’s box seems as likely as putting toothpaste back in the tube, so like #2, I feel like we are stuck adapting to a world system ruled by corporate persons and the disasterous consequences that are likely to result with blind psychopaths at the wheel.

    The kneejerk reaction 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 look to democratic socialism, maybe the next New Deal, and it is probably a fair criticism to say that we sequester ourselves in the liberal fiefdoms we call cities and lean on the wealth generated by our necessary evil corporations to not care about the erosion of the hinterlands.

    Whether the introduction showed this adequately or not, I am confident that the rest of the series will put forth the notion that regressive solutions are neither feasible nor, ultimately, though they may bring moments of comfort, what we really need. The answer, unfortunately, is probably as vague as the idea of space travel before the airplane was invented, but one thing seems clear: the direction to go is forward, and the dimension to go is inward.

    “Inward is not a direction. Inward is a dimension.”
    Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev


  4. Thanks for the thoughtful expansion on your response. 🙂 What follows may be a disjointed collection of my mental reactions to your points, with questions for clarification.

    I didn’t know for sure if “hyper individualism” was a pre-existing term, but my Google search has turned up its use in a number of different contexts. 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 the book by Bill McKibben, whose name you mentioned from your search, “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 pretty arbitrary interpretation.

    One definition that seems to fit the way you mean it, is “A tendency for people to act in a highly individual way, without regard for society.” However, that is very short on detail. The way that is stated so simply, it doesn’t even sound to me like such a bad thing. A better definition that seems to fit your thesis a little more closely is: “While individualism prioritizes individual rights and pursuits before the group’s, hyper-individualism sets the individual against the group.” But there are no examples to flesh it out, so it’s still an incomplete definition.

    Reaching an agreement on definition of terms can be tricky but is oh-so-important when people of different ideological bents are having a discussion, so on that note, I have some more clarifications…

    My associations with the word “collectivism” wouldn’t quite match your statement “Collectivism has been our means for assuring that resources are allocated not just fairly, but in moderation…” so I had to get myself up to speed on a variety of other connotations so I could understand your context. In that instance, it seems you mean “collectivism” in the sense of collaborative, democratic decision-making with regard for the “common good.” When I think “collectivism” I think of the primacy of group identity, when individuals primarily define themselves and others based on their belonging to this or that group. This seems like a recipe for a host of ugly -isms – fascism, racism, totalitarianism, nationalism, etc.

    While I understand the concept of a collectively-oriented mindset ensuring fair and moderate allocation of goods, I believe that in practice this is problematic because it almost necessarily implies force and coercion. People who want to live in socialist communes through completely voluntary association, I have no problem with. That may or may not work, depending on the make-up of the personalities of individuals in the group.

    In my view, a better way to allocate resources fairly and in moderation, would be a truly free market (in saying this it is extremely important to note that we do not have a free market, nor have we had anything resembling a free market in our lifetimes, or even several generations of lifetimes back.)

    Your example of the kid who won’t share his ice cream as being representative of the kind of individualism that made us prosperous? I’d probably tweak that quite a bit to say something like…the kid, motivated by self-interest and profit, literally makes it possible for many people to enjoy ice cream, while others, also motivated by self-interest and profit, create a wide variety of other sources of ice cream for people to choose from, with the net result being that ice cream prices are affordable and available to everyone. Your second example about the kid with the ice cream, representing the system we seem to have now, sounded pretty accurate to me, but I would be VERY quick to point out that the kid’s “gun” can only represent the government’s monopoly on force, and the incestuous relationship between gov’t and corporations. Corporations without government protection and regulation (usually that punishes or eliminates competition) wouldn’t really pose much of a problem. Natural forces of the market would prevent these huge conglomerates from dominating their respective industries. Abuses of power (whether through polluting the environment, not compensating employees fairly, etc) would result in loss of profit and failure to thrive, if people (consumers) had the choice to get that good from a better source.

    That last point also speaks to your critique about profitability rather than sustainability being the measuring stick.

    I’d say that privatizing resources wouldn’t insulate the owner class from its obligation to cooperate with other folks, because the necessity of cooperating with others is an inherent fact of human life, and is a natural incentive of immense power. It’s again, the monopoly of force, that perverts and side-steps those natural consequences.

    Another point on which I’m possibly confused is your use of the term “protectionism.” I’m familiar with the evils of economic protectionism, and Trump is certainly a huge protectionist in that sense. Your reference to America’s dalliance with fascism, though, made me think that you meant the people’s demand for physical protection – whether in the form of a security/surveillance/police state, or in the form of military over-reach and hyper – interventionism. In the mobster/Mafia sense of the word “protection,” government is certainly a “protection racket.” You pay a fee to the Mafia in return for the privilege of not having your legs broken by them, just like you pay tax to the government in return for the privilege of not being imprisoned or having your assets seized.

    A couple of points of agreement: I think the idea of individual states pursuing their own ideas about how to best serve the needs of their region is a great one, too. If blue states set up their own social safety nets, not only would it be a little more fair in that more of the people under that system would presumably be in agreement with it, but on a local scale, it would be more likely to be sustainable. Having 50 different social experiments going on in 50 different states would benefit everyone. What works and what doesn’t? The successful models would be imitated, the unsuccessful ones, avoided. If you don’t like how things are run in your state, you can move to a different one without giving up U.S. citizenship.

    Also, I completely agree that the notion of corporate personhood is bogus. I think it’s affront to civil liberties. I think it was cooked up as a way to expedite business transactions and cut through red tape, but tough shit – if you don’t like red tape, eliminate it through the legal process, rather than jimmying up some bogus rationalization to bestow a collective entity with “rights” that are philosophically and morally reserved for true individuals for damn good reasons.

    I did have a couple of more thoughts, but since this is so long, and I think I’ve already expressed the important stuff, I’ll sign off.

    I like Sadhguru, too. 🙂

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  5. Never let it be said that blog comments are frivolous or have no impact on the author, Kristina. Your polite insistence on clarity and greater precision helped me pinpoint a specific definition for hyperindividualism as I use it here (though in typical INFP fashion, it will be an anecdotal definition), and clear description of the tipping point where individualism goes hyper and calls for a change in perspective.

    (For sake of keeping on task, i’ll refer back to the outline of libertarian principles only as they are relevant to these definitions, although I find those principles fascinating and very worthy of discussion elsewhere.)

    To draw out a proper definition of hyperindividualism, I will call upon the following 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 Hindu cosmology, 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 on 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, I can relate. If life is not being lived for fun, 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’

    In short, the distinction between money and wealth is analogous to that between a person’s ego identity –not the simple “I” experience of perception as a living organism with a complex, self-aware nervous system, but the idea of being something *behind* that experience perceiving the perceptions– and the natural self.

    If you have a million dollars, you might 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 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, not the money. 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 ownership, money and property can be divided and separated 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 even given some 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.

    Having thoroughly illustrated that, I shall bring it back to the topic at hand…

    Individualism, you could say, is the recognition of the property rights of the ego identity over the wealth that is a corresponding 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 possessions). 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 card. This is your identity in the social context, a conceptualized self as distinct from the experiential self-identity which is more intimately connected to the mental perceptions and physical sensations of the organism, and thus a more direct connection to the natural wealth of your human experience, your actual “I” that in reality is inseparable from “Not I.” The social identity of names and numbers, 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 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.

    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 anything but natural or self-evident.

    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 (think of the classic examples: the bee hive, the ant colony, the wolf pack etc), and Homo sapiens has followed the same 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. 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.

    A fascinating symbiotic pattern of evolution emerges when you look at human history as the interplay of collective and individual identities. After many thousands of years fending for itself in hunter-gatherer packs, a surge in mental capacity probably nudged Homo sapiens over a threshold that completed an emergent neural feedback loop and gave us the new dimension of observing our observations, making possible abstract thought and symbolic language, and the ability to preserve and share information vital to maintaining life. 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. This led to the emergence of local collectives we know as civilizations, each with its own recipe for survival based on adaptation to its bioregion.

    As a civilization stabilizes 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 even fully developed yet because one’s self-identity is the collective, like an ant in a colony. 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 left-brain activity as your reference surmised). 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, thus making a vaulting leap forward in self-conceptualization and actualization of the human person.

    With ego identity comes the 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…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 (like the social convention that says your factory is worth one million dollars), is so convinced of its independent existence 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. 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 (always at the expense of other property owners) 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. Why meekly inherit the earth if you can amass enough money to buy it?

    I’ll be getting ahead of myself if I continue with what I see as the way forward from here, but for now, I hope we can glean from all that 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. 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 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.


  6. Glad to know my comment was useful and led you to a clearer definition of “hyperindividualism.” Something in me really craves lots of specific examples and supporting evidence.

    It’s an interesting observation you made, and probably true, that –see if I even paraphrase this correctly– a rise in collectivism (societal structures of civilization) make the way possible for individualism to arise, and then individualism, in turn, advances civilization to a point where hearkening back to an emphasis on interconnectedness would serve us better…and maybe it goes on like that, back and forth, like a pendulum.

    But I think individualism is just as primordial and endemic to human nature as is collectivism. Maybe one is emphasized more than another at different times, but both are always present, as one can’t exist without the other. The claim that collectivism is the predominant identity pattern in the animal kingdom isn’t necessarily iron-clad. In bee and ant colonies, okay, for sure. But in most animal social groups (as, I’d argue, with humans), there’s always a concurrent interplay between individual self-interest and group identity. Like, in a wolf pack, or even a group of chickens, there’s a “pecking order.” In most animal species, especially those that are most similar to us, like other primates, there are dominant individuals. Individuals strive and compete to become dominant so they can enjoy higher social status which translates to practical, individual survival advantages like better food and choice of mate. So in that way, individuality matters even to animals. More fundamentally, the survival instinct of an individual is ancient and I’m sure it pre-dates modern civilization or even the agricultural revolution. At the same time, there are also many examples of animals whose behavior is self-sacrificing for the good of the group. The same can even still be said of our own species, more commonly for the sake of the family group and ensuring our continuing genetic lineage, but also there are those who sacrifice themselves for the sake of the larger society.

    Likewise, I can’t accept uncritically the claim that humans owe “all” of their survival to their social nature. It’s true that infants can’t survive without care from others, but does that mean they’d survive without any sense of an individual identity? This hasn’t been satisfactorily proven. It seems to me that both of these focal points of identity (individual and collective) are necessary for survival. One’s not better than the other…and I think you agree with that, so here I am probably quibbling over semantics again.

    It’s true that conventions like the concept of ownership, and money, and language, are just that: conventions – but they are very useful ones! The concept of self-ownership, in particular, is very near and dear to my heart. Although I can concede that this is, on a deeper level of reality, just a mental construct, it is such a vital concept to take to heart for the humane treatment of people, so vital for creating a society that will eliminate human suffering, that I am quite uncomfortable with any language that may be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as undermining it. It’s perfectly true that an individual is inseparable from its environment, but it’s of paramount importance to always recognize that this does not, cannot, and should not preclude the principle of an individual’s sovereignty over his/her physical body and the fruits of his/her labor. Even if it is “mere convention.”

    Is there really even one individual, anywhere, who can even make an attempt to say “Thanks, society, but I’ll take it from here”? What would this really look like, in practical, real-life terms? My take is that since this is physically (or maybe cosmologically?) impossible, this is not an actual threat. I don’t know how literally I should take you, though. Your musings are part allegorical flights of fancy and part something else, and I’m not sure where the dividing line is.

    Just as an aside, the convention of property rights CAN continue to be useful even in the face of these “tragedy of the commons” situations where what someone does on their own “property” has a detrimental effect on the wider world. Property rights are the best filter through which to “regulate.” Instead of establishing the dangerous premise that the group can override or negate the concept of private property altogether by dictating how that property is used, how about instead, defend the environment from pollution on the grounds that it is a violation of the property rights of others? This is consistent, works, and doesn’t invalidate one person’s rights in favor of someone else’s.

    I can’t post this comment without saying the following very important thing: While I realize that this is just a difference in the way we use language and not necessarily an actual divide in the way we see things, this whole sentence made me shudder: “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 card.” God, that sounds horrendous! I’m just teasing you a bit, because the context around that sentence makes it understood that you are just referring to a person’s “identity in the social context.” In case you’re not sure why that sentence with your current wording gives me a heart attack, let me try to break it down…to me, names, numbers, vital statistics, birth certificates and most of ALL, social security card, are de-humanizing methods the government uses to catalogue and track what it deems its “property”: us. Obviously, we need some of that to function in society, but the compulsory aspect of being catalogued and tracked is downright sinister. The idea that those documents are a “deed of self-ownership” instead of being the complete opposite (which they are) strikes me as perverse.

    So, while I have all these bones to pick, I can assure you that I do understand and agree with the essence of all you’re saying! At least I’m pretty sure I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, just as I am wondering if I’ve piled up too much by way of details to reach this point in the exploration, you come back to show me that in haven’t compiled enough. I hope you realize what a valuable service you’re providing toward the completion of the end product at Not Two.
      First, having brought up what we can call the “hive mind” collective identity that is common throughout the animal kingdom, I should have added this essential ingredient of the thesis: individualism arises from this 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. I take for granted that we are all products of evolution and natural selection. So the neural processing capacity to observe sensory input –the characteristic trait of the natural self) is found in some degree of development in ALL organisms. And then 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, though it produces a feedback effect that, for reasons to be detailed later, we mistake to be an ego self). 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 –a continuum of development of the feedback loop that produces the effect of 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 (and in a spooky new way, of experiencing itself as a thing that HAS a body).
      This should answer the question about why there are varying degrees of individualistic behavior exhibited in complex species, and why I called hive mind the predominant phenomenon in the animal kingdom –not merely by population, though the vast majority of are on the hypoindividualistic identity side of the continuum, but because in every possible way the individual is an emergent aspect of something else: a family, a species, any number of construed collectives. Even a theoretical red-breasted wuzzle, hatched alone in thicket, able to feed and fend for itself from day one, is a product of two wuzzles who mated and passed on generations’ worth of refined DNA to make those survival skills possible. And even if our theoretical birdie collaborates with no other creatures to obtain its sustaining diet of worms, it is entirely dependent on the success of a local ecosystem to keep producing sufficient numbers of worms! In truth, there is no such thing as a self-made wuzzle. So how much more so can that be said of a species whose survival skills are almost entirely learned behaviors rather than instinctual?
      This is NOT to make the simplistic argument that, since we depend upon collectives, we need to do all we can to preserve the ones we have. 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 (which is why I think you do agree with me without being sure, haha). The whole point was merely to put the individual in its proper place as an emergent quality of various layers of collectives, because that sets the stage for us to ponder what needs to emerge from *us* next.
      (I hope this is all raising a yet-unanswered question: from what did all these collectives emerge? Because perhaps the way forward involves remembering that the true Self, of which our emergent self is a part, is that?)

      Because 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” 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 aren’t using it 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…


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