Ego Consciousness and The Cloud of Unknowing
Once again, I want to pick up the thread of the Seth quote we have been pursuing, having previously left off at the passage where Seth speaks of the stirring of the “unconscious” and the emergence of “unconscious” knowledge in our time. This belongs to Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” energies, and the process has both positive and negative, creative or destructive, aspects. In his The Ever-Present Origin of 1949, the cultural historian Jean Gebser referred to this powerful emergence of “unconscious” knowledge by the term “irruption”, and its coming-to-the-awareness (“waring” or perception) of the ego-consciousness as the process of “diaphaneity” or “translucency”, of which we’ll have more to say, since Gebser is an ideal exemplar of the very process Seth is talking about — an “enlightened and expanded egotistical awareness” that was able to recognise and organise the irrupting “unconscious” knowledge without losing his marbles or falling to pieces (unlike Nietzsche, perhaps).
But for late comers to the discussion, I want to review the road so far traveled, albeit with slight variations on the theme, with a recap of the first part of Seth’s full quote from The Unknown Reality, which we have yet to cover.
“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.”
We have already discussed in earlier posts how the ego-consciousness estranged from its true roots, falls into the situation of the Prodigal Son in the old parable. It begins to feel itself as being alienated, arriving in a “far country” remote from its origins, a “stranger in a strange land”. Having lost the roots of its true authenticity and individuality, it then seeks to anchor its identity, or locate the sources of its vitality, in external objects or processes, and then confuses itself with those identifications, which is the situation of narcissism or, as it was called in the past, “idolatry”.
Idolatry is nothing but this condition of self-estrangement from the roots or “vital centre”. These “roots” are what Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin”. It was against the temptation to locate identity, and the sources of health and happiness, in transient, impermanent external objects and processes that Jesus delivered his message or “good news” — “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you”, “the body is the temple of the living God”. The “Way, the Truth, the Life” is not to be found in externalities or in “signs and wonders”. The condition of “sin” is nothing but the confusion about the authentic sources of the ego consciousness. And people are mightily confused about the meaning of what is called “sin” or even “original sin”, and usually feel guilty about themselves for absolutely nothing at all.
Confusion about the sources of vitality and identity persist. When I attempt to locate or anchor the sources of my identity and vitality in a profession (in work) or in a condition or circumstance, this is still the condition of narcissism or idolatry. “I am a scientist” or “I am a lawyer”, or “I am rich” or “I am poor” or “I am a Muslim” or a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, a communist, a capitalist, a socialist, etc, etc, these are just so many confusions of individuality and role. These are things you do, not what you essentially are. And to confuse what we are with what we do is the meaning of “delusion”. We are always more than we think we are (and by the same token, much less than we think, too). And the fact that we are always very much more than we merely think or believe we are is why self-overcoming or self-transcendence, in fact freedom itself, is possible at all.
For the ego consciousness entrapped in the confusion of individuality and role (or “doings”) is in a very unfree, suffering, and ultimately unhappy condition. Narcissism, like idolatry, is slavery, which is why it is often cultured by “powers and principalities”. Much commercial advertising and propaganda not only exploits the narcissistic condition, and the confusion of individuality and role, but cultivates it. The ideal is a “captive audience”. It’s a kind of necromancy and black magic — the attempt of much perception management, propaganda, and advertising being to take the ego consciousness prisoner and to make it permanently captive, to maintain it in a state and condition of constant dissatisfaction, unfulfilled, and estranged from the full knowledge of the truth about the authentic sources of its vigor, vitality, and identity — to maintain a perpetual “cloud of unknowing”.
I have heard this with my own ears from the head of an advertising agency. That the ideal of much ironically called “Free Speech” in the form of commercial advertising or propaganda is to enslave, subjugate, subordinate, and captivate the ego consciousness. And the way to do that is to divert identity into objects or images which “power objects” and images you then control and manipulate. It’s a marketing strategy called “Positioning“, and you can read about it in Ries and Trout’s book on the subject with just that title and the “battle for the mind”. The intents and implications of such practices were studied at length and in depth by Stuart Ewen in a few books, particularly his Captains of Consciousness.
It’s in this context of “free speech but captive audience” that the social and political implications of Seth’s statement become clearer: “Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else.” This return to authenticity will necessarily come up against resistances, much like the Buddha’s battle with the demon Mara, the “Architect” or Lord of Illusions. There are, indeed, contemporary lessons to be learned from how Buddha confronted and handled Mara. Mara employed every devious strategy to try to prevent Siddhartha from arriving at his “roots” because Mara’s power and authority over the soul of man rested on diverting consciousness away from its true roots and into delusions and illusions, much like contemporary propaganda and advertising.
Some former marketers and advertisers have realised this, and have become militant and activist as a result — Jerry Mander, for example, and the well-known Kalle Lasn of Adbusters. These are the “whistleblowers” of the advertising industry just as much as Ed Snowden, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake. They are all struggling with the demon Mara.
Thus, the transformative and revolutionary implications of Seth’s statement are clear. The turn to our authentic roots is liberation, is emancipation. And it’s exactly in those terms that both Jesus and Buddha presented their teachings. And that is also the significance of the tree symbol in both their teachings — the cross as World Tree, or the Buddha’s Bodhi Tree. It is the symbol of the unity of the ego consciousness with its “roots”.
The first step, then, in becoming familiar once again with our “roots” is what depth psychologists call “withdrawl of the projections”. Properly understood, that means the first step in liberation or emancipation is to become aware of the narcissistic condition the ego consciousness has fallen into, in seeking the sources of itself in external objects or the “projections”. Once you see that you are not essentially your doings or self-definitions (which are always self-limitations), then you begin to dispel the fog about who and what you are really, the fog called “the cloud of unknowing”.
I like the Buddha’s response to the men and women of his time who asked him whether he was a guru, a god, a man, or something else. He deflected the questions as irrelevant with the simple answer “I am awake”. He had triumphed over the human condition, narcissism. Not this, not that. Neti neti. He was awake. He was free. He was free of the spell of Maya and the deceit of Mara. It is, in fact, the pattern of the Buddha’s own life or death struggle under the Bodhi Tree for his enlightenment and liberation that is implicitly re-iterated in the full Seth quote.
This same struggle is the unsettledness of our own times, the situation of “times out of joint”, of crisis and conflict. There are awesome powers at play in today’s world, whose dynamics are simply not understood as lying in psycho-dynamics, and in the assertion of the “unconscious” of its will-to-be, of its struggle with the inhibiting and repressive ego consciousness for its self-realisation and self-actualisation, that is to say, its will to become manifest reality. This is why Seth insists on the need for an enlightened and expanded ego consciousness that can safely guide and organise the “ancient force” — midwife it, as it were — rather than repress it. Repression will lead to superstition, a kind of paranoid schizophrenia, chaos, disaster, and catastrophe. We’ll see how this is being conducted and handled over the next few posts.
Again, to wrap up this post, for those familiar with Castaneda’s work you will recall that don Juan presented himself to Castaneda as the “teacher of total freedom”. The very first steps in Castaneda’s apprenticeship were practices designed to loosen the bonds of the objectifications upon Castaneda’s consciousness, for Castaneda was quite narcissistic himself. Don Juan mocked him for being a “plugged up fool” and for his clinging to his “precious self” incessantly, joking that he, Castaneda, even kissed his turds good-bye before flushing them down the toilet. Castaneda’s sense of self-importance was the first obstacle to becoming familiar with his real roots, and that sense of self-importance was associated with objects and activities or “doings” — a graduate student, an anthropologist, a “sophisticate” a modern “Western man”, etc. Don Juan’s first, and (as it turned out) difficult task was to show Castaneda that his “precious self” was nothing but a conceit, an empty (vanus or “vain”) self-image only that had no reality — a narcissistic self, and that he was essentially a slave to this image, and, moreover this “self-image” wasn’t even his. It was “the foreign installation”, placed there by others — parents, authorities, or as Seth puts it, “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.”
This is important to understand: don Juan’s strategy for loosening the bonds that the objectifications held over Castaneda’s ego consciousness, which kept his ego consciousness captive to these objectifications, was to “blast” him with power plants precisely because he was such a “plugged up fool”, as don Juan put it. The power plants were unnecessary. Yet Castaneda initially, in his first couple of books, confused them with the essence of don Juan’s “sorcery”, and this foolish mistake (he later corrects it) is proof enough to me that Castaneda was not hoaxing his experiences. His initial naivete about this in his first couple of books could not have been hoaxed. When I first read the books, I felt don Juan’s frustration with the “plugged up fool”, and often wished I could reach into the books and slap some sense into him. But it was precisely because he was, initially, a plugged up fool that I never doubted his experiences, just his way of accounting for them. And, of course, Castaneda’s early foolish narcissism was emulated by a lot of other fools and narcissists, who thought that blasting your ego consciousness to smithereens with powerful drugs was the key thing, and who invaded and harassed Indian villages looking for peyote, devil’s weed, or other “don Juans” who could blast their ego consciousness for them.
But apart from “power plants” (which were actually a last resort), don Juan’s method was, first, to have Castaneda think constantly on his personal death. He was pretty good at that, and it was somewhat effective in undermining his self-importance and his narcissism, but it was mainly to set up the proper “mood” for the real practice, the practice of what don Juan called “Not-Doing”, or “Stopping the World”. This “Not-Doing” or “Stopping the World” is not different at all from what Buddhists call “No-Mind” and “Stopping the Wheel of Time and Space”. It’s remarkable to me how many of Castaneda’s critics and detractors seem to be ignorant of these things.
How the ego-consciousness sustains its confusion of self and self-image and its bondage to the objectifications or “foreign installation” is a matter of the “internal dialogue”. Buddhists, of course, call this “the monkey mind” — the chattering mind — in fact, “mind” itself. As don Juan explained it, the internal monologue or dialogue is what sustains the world as we see it. We go to sleep at night telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like, and we awake in the morning telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like. It is hypnotic auto-suggestion by which we define ourselves and our relationship to the world, and therefore how we perceive or cognise reality. Therefore, you can see why certain power-seekers want to control that “internal dialogue” to their advantage, which is, in current terms, the aforementioned practice of “positioning”.
In any case, there are, in these terms, two ways to break the narcissistic bondage of the ego-consciousness (which is called “the tonal”) to the objectifications leading to the restructuration of the ego nature. One is to change the internal monologue, and the other is to drop it or stop it completely. “Not Doing” or “Stopping the World” stops the activity of “the foreign installation” and therefore of misplaced identifications, which you might call the “false consciousness”, or narcissistic mind. When “stopping the world” is achieved through Not-Doing the world appears as it is without the “camouflage”. And, of course, the practice of “Not-Doing” is the cleansing of “the doors of perception” exactly as Blake described it,
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
So, cleansing the doors of perception is this “Not-Doing” or “No Mind”, and is a matter of stopping or suspending the internal monologue (or Monkey Mind) which incessantly tells us who we are and what our world is like.
And so, there you have the answer (if you didn’t already know) to how one cleanses the doors of perception. Dismantling the “foreign installation”, the occupier or false self, and dispelling the cloud of unknowing that it sustains is connected with stopping the internal monologue. This is also the formula and aim of Nietzsche’s self-overcoming, “Become what you are!”
This practice is the disciplined and organised approach. It may also happen in cases of trauma, as it did with Jill Bolte-Taylor, if you know her memoir My Stroke of Insight where her speech centres were disabled by a rare form of stroke. It was also trauma — psychological trauma — that “stopped” the monkey mind of Eckhart Tolle, as he recounts it in his book The Power of Now.
How we cognise and therefore perceive ourselves and reality is contingent upon the internal monologue with ourselves (consequently with others) and, therefore, the nature of language. Given that, you can see why the control and manipulation of language would be of interest to those who want to dominate and control cognition and perception — Mr. Ewen’s “Captains of Consciousness”. But this insight into language will have important implications when we begin discussing Seth’s “enlightened and expanding egotistical awareness” and its very critical and crucial role in organising the “irrupting” powers, energies, forces of the so-called “unconscious” that is the basic event of our time.