Ego and Evolution
I want to turn, once again, to the powerful and profound remarks by Seth from The Unknown Reality which I have been exploring over the last few posts, (and which will require many more postings to come before I have concluded with them). When I first read these words, they had an impact on my mind akin to an asteroid strike on the Earth. That which is touched by the spirit of Death acquires power, and Seth’s warning that the human species may perish unless it undergoes a revolutionary change in its functioning is something that struck me as being all too likely.
Up to this point, I have largely focussed on the first, introductory sentence to the excerpt: “Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else.” I’ve examined how this warning is also reflected in the works of Nietzsche, Einstein, Blake, Gebser, and many others who I have not mentioned, but also including the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son (which is the ego consciousness symbolised). We’ve also examined how the estrangement or alienation of the modern ego-consciousness from its roots is being reflected and played out in the socio-political and socio-psychological events of the day, through institutions and personages which have become symbolic representatives of the condition, enacting the roles of the collective psychic drama as if in and through a dream — or a nightmare.
For how could the ego consciousness (or cogito) otherwise shape its social and historical world except as a reflection of its own self-understanding or Weltanschauung, even if it does so without consciously knowing it does this, that is, through “projection”?
I want to remain focussed on this problem of the ego consciousness as Seth describes it, also its past and possible future mutations, but now in the context of the thought or paragraph which it introduces. (Readers who don’t know the full quotation we are discussing are invited to read it at “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature” first). For we must come to understand in what way the multiple crises and existential emergencies of our time are, at root, a single crisis of the ego consciousness and the problem of “knowing”.
“Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else. You are in a position where your private experience of yourself does not correlate with what you are told by your societies, churches, sciences, archaeologies, or other disciplines. Man’s “unconscious” knowledge is becoming more and more consciously apparent. This will be done under and with the direction of an enlightened and expanding egotistical awareness, that can organize the hereto neglected knowledge–or it will be done at the expense of the reasoning intellect, leading to a rebirth of superstition, chaos, and the unnecessary war between reason and intuitive knowledge.”
These words, uttered over 40 years ago, were spoken in a time when the inherently creative possibilities of the so-called “Counterculture” or of the “Greening of America” seemed to hold out the happy prospect of avoiding the “unnecessary war between reason and intuitive knowledge” that also concerned even Einstein. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” rapture and music seemed to attest to an ego consciousness expanding to include “unconscious knowledge”. In the Paris student uprisings of 1968, graffiti on the walls attested that “Imagination is seizing power!”. The possibility of “transcendence” was on the lips. Jean Gebser, who died in 1973, approximately the time Seth was speaking these words, probably saw in the events of the day the “irruption” of the incipient new consciousness he had anticipated decades earlier, and in his last essays he addressed his thoughts on “the integral consciousness” to the youth of the unsettled era.
But by the end of the decade, the sociologist Theodore Roszak, who had coined the term “counterculture” and had written optimistically in Where the Wasteland Ends about the end to what is now still termed “the desert of the real”, was already calling it “the flash of light before the bulb burned out”. The inherent potentialities in the counterculture, the apparent “irruption” of a new consciousness structure, and the incredible generational energies of that time, simply failed to ripen and mature. “Culture” ended in “cult” after cult, religious and political — Jim Jones and People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate, Raelians, New Left, New Right, Neo-Liberal, Neo-Conservative — as Seth had anticipated it might. The counterculture splintered, fractured, and finally dissipated, and its revivifying energies failed to penetrate to the core of society. The “counterculture” was followed by escapism, “cocooning“, or “the culture of narcissism“, the “Me Generation“, of the self-indulgence of the “Me Brand”. What happened?
I would suggest that the potent possibilities of the “irruption” of that time failed finally to emerge for the reason Seth gives — the absence of an “enlightened and expanding egotistical awareness” able to organise the emergent unconscious knowledge and insights into persuasive and compellingly meaningful cultural patterns — in either art, poetry, politics, literature, everyday life, or “new science” (such as The New Alchemists), although brave attempts were made to do so. In the face of this vulnerability, it succumbed to media trivialisation and hostility, commercialism, and mercantilism, its last vestiges of transcendent meaning emptied by “counter-counterculture” propaganda or into the cash nexus, the “rebel sell” and the “commodification of dissent”. The energies unleashed at that time simply could not be creatively organised or “concretised” (to use Gebser’s term), and they either dissipated or turned destructive and nihilistic.
To be sure, islands and oases of what was once called “the counterculture” continue to exist — consciousness studies institutes and societies, “Western Buddhism”, green politics, even new science — but they remain anomalous and peripheral, even almost monastic, with little in the way of influence on mainstream culture or on the unfolding course of events. It is likely that this retreat into a kind of monasticism, however, is also a protective stage and a-biding-one’s-time.
“Everything has changed except our thinking”, as Einstein dismayingly observed. It seems as true as ever — the problem of “legacy thinking” mistaking its own abstractions and habitual thought processes and perceptions for reality. Newtonian thinking in a Quantum world is itself a tremendous problem for reconciling the structure of society and perception with the cosmos, and thus with “truth”. The problem is, a Bygone Era still thinks of itself as current and valid, is therefore in denial about reality, and is resistant to change — called “whipping dead horses” in the common tongue.
So, the central question that Seth puts is not whether the ego consciousness will change or not, but of how it will change — either peacefully, or catastrophically and “apocalyptically”. It seems that the opportunity was missed already for the former, and that attention must turn, now, to the matter of how to outrun and survive the ongoing crisis of the Modern Age, which is, as I’ve already mentioned, essentially a crisis of the ego consciousness. And one of my deep concerns is with what Nietzsche calls the “tyrants of the spirit” who, by methods perhaps cruel and violent, will force and compel the ego consciousness to change.
(Those who know Carlos Castaneda’s work may recognise who Nietzsche’s “tyrant of the spirit” is: it is the “Petty Tyrant“, and I highly recommend that you read up about the petty tyrant, as it may be your key to survival). It is best to become one’s own “tyrant of the spirit”, in that sense, and follow Nietzsche’s advice: “In times of peace, a warrior goes to war against himself”, and to accept, as principle, that “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. For if we do not assume the responsibility ourselves for our “self-overcoming”, we will then have to accept it in the form of a real and terrible “tyrant of the spirit”! This is the very essence of Seth’s statement: if we do not assume ourselves the responsibility for changing our own ego consciousness internally, we will have to face it externally, in the form of wars, revolutions, decadence, and all manner of new terrors and old barbarisms. The “revolution within” is no trite slogan. One must, as Nietzsche points out, be hard, ruthless, and pitiless with one’s own monkey mind or we will end up with a real monkey on our backs! And, alas, I’m afraid that this may have become a fate for us now.
Speaking of “ego consciousness” is somewhat distorting. Consciousness or awareness just is. It doesn’t change or mutate or anything of that sort. Our language is so muddled and a Tower of Babel when it comes to understanding “consciousness” that I don’t blame people for being skeptical and thinking its a rat’s nest of bafflegab. It is. “Faculty of knowledge”, or “knowledge” or “mind”, “awareness”, “ego”, “consciousness”, “rationality”, “perception”, are all used interchangeably, as if they all meant the same thing. This represents, of course, confusion about the territory. Even Gebser’s “structures of consciousness” is a bit of a distortion, because consciousness has no structure and does not change — the ego-nature has structure and changes, evolves, mutates, and has many times over the course of human history. In fact, what we call “human history” is nothing but a record of the human ego’s mutations and transformations or restructurations. “Consciousness”, however, is the invariable factor. To speak of “ego consciousness” or “structures of consciousness” is really to speak of the consciousness of the ego’s various mutations and restructurings, which then becomes its particular mode of perception or apprehension.
Ego is not a cause of anything. It is an effect. It is a product and a result of action. Our language makes it seem to us that in the subject-predicate relation — “I think” or “I will” or “I talk” or “I work”, and so on — that the subject “I” is the cause of the action of thinking, willing, talking, working, etc. This is not exactly true. As Seth puts it elsewhere, “action creates identities”, and this is one of the keys to understanding some of Nietzsche’s philosophy, too. “I” does not cause thinking. It arises as a result of this mental activity called “thinking” or in some other psychic activity. The ego is, in a sense, precipitated in thinking and crystallised as a thought rather than itself thinking, and it arises as the “thing thinking” and then weaves fantasies about itself. So when I use the term “human form” in the pages of The Chrysalis, I am speaking of the ego structure.
The ego structure has mutated over the ages. When Gebser speaks of “magical”, “mythological” and “mental rational” structures of consciousness, he is speaking about the mutations in the ego structure — changes in the human mold or human form. Gebser’s “integral consciousness” structure, as a conceived possibility of the new mutation, is what Seth is calling “enlightened and expanding egotistical awareness”. The ego structure must change. It must lose some of its boundaries, its definitions, its limitations by incorporating, as its identity, more unconscious knowledge. Organising this unconscious knowledge is also a restructuring of the ego structure.
Trying to change your consciousness is a futile and self-defeating effort. Consciousness does not change. The ego structure changes. Changes in the ego structure, both individually and collectively (or what David Loy calls “the Wego”) are experienced as catastrophic events, socially and historically. If you doubt that changes in the ego structure or human form have occurred, you simply have to read the literary records of different types of civilisations — mythical, magical, etc — which, to the mental-rational ego structure, seem strange, obscure, incredible. And so will the mental-rational structure of the present seem to the integral structure — strange, incredible, fantastical.
Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism” must be understood, then, as the breakdown of the ego structure that has characterised what we call “the Modern Era” — the breakdown of the ego-nature’s self-understanding. The addition of any new dimension to reality destablises the previous ego structure, as the disclosure of the third dimension of space in the Renaissance destabilised the Medieval ego structure. Einstein’s disclosure of time as the fourth dimension of reality has destabilised the ego structure of the Modern Era — the mental-rational structure. Time has now become the frightening dimension that infinite space was to the medieval mind.
Einstein disclosed the dimension of time by opening his ego consciousness to unconscious knowledge. That is why he insists on the primacy of imagination and the intuitive. It was this, and not so much “Einstein’s brain”, that makes Einstein the exceptional figure he is in the context of the Late Modern mental-rational consciousness structure. As a consequence of Einstein’s disclosures, including the quantum model, the ego structure is undergoing an essential restructuration. This is not a smooth process, because it passes through perplexity and a disintegration of the old structure. For this reason, man’s received “institutions”, which are the products of the self-understanding of the old ego structure, now appear as inhibitors of transition or transformation which no longer correlate or have relevance to the emerging new ego structure, which requires new institutions to faciliate its own restructuration and the emergence or “irruption” of the now stirring unconscious knowledge. There are those, of course, who resist changes to the institutions and the ego-structure they represent. These types are what we call “reactionary”.
The destabilisation of the ego structure is breakdown. This destabilisation is “dis-integration” — fragmentation, atomisation, dissolution are other terms. It is what Erich Kahler means by “breakdown of the human form” or even “destruction of the human form”. It manifests, today, as the epidemic of hypocrisy — of double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and ultimately double-bind which is, as noted in an earlier comment, psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s definition of the roots of schizophrenia, with good reason. This is the madness that Seth is warning us about, in the absence of new models of logic for the organisation of this new “unconscious knowledge” into new cultural patterns.
We can anticipate, given the trends, that the new integral consciousness structure, should it emerge successfully, will be an organised psychic ecology — an ecology of selves and faculties, currently in disarray. These “selves” correspond to William Blake’s “Zoas” — the warring aspects of the fallen, dissolute Primordial Adam.
In Nietzsche’s terms, the “Dionysian” corresponds to what Seth calls the “unconscious” or “ancient force” and is Gebser’s “archaic” consciousness now become, in relation to ego consciousness, the “unconscious”. The organisation of this unconscious knowledge into new cultural patterns is what Nietzsche calls “the Apollonian” function or Apollonian light, and is the proper function of the ego consciousness. This is the meaning of his chapter from Zarathustra called “Despisers of the Body“. The “Self” here is the Dionysian self.
Again, for those familiar with Carlos Castaneda’s writings, the “Dionysian” is called “nagual”, and the Apollonian is called “tonal”. The interplay of the nagual and the tonal, and the attempt to balance them (ie, the balance of terror and wonder which is the warrior’s path) is the secret of Castaneda’s apprenticeship and of don Juan’s tutelage. The incinerating “stare into the abyss” that was Nietzsche’s experience of the “abysmal”, is the tonal’s stare into the nagual. And with each encounter with the nagual (the formless), don Juan also had to systematically reconstruct Castaneda’s “tonal” or form, which he called “making solid again”. This “making solid” is what Gebser calls “concretion” of the new reality as a result of the ego’s incorporation of unconscious knowledge or encounter with its roots.
It all hangs together. But more on that later.