V. The Truths We Live: The Abstract Ego
The false sense of self that divides humanity to dysfunction
Humans live on ideas; the configuration of those ideas determines the directions we attempt to channel our power. But underneath our ideas are our drives, the gravity of our egos, the far more powerful forces for which our reasoning, our science is often just pretext.
Generally speaking, the ego is a layer of human motivation that operates in our unconscious, clouding the things we do with its general strategy of increasing perceptions of our value, potentially to the detriment of the ostensible goals of our actions.
This is not something we can ever know for sure with others, but we can develop the ability to see it in ourselves.
To what end?
Part 1: The Idea Self
Einstein called the subjectivity of human consciousness an optical delusion because we are parts of the universe, but subjectivity leads us to a restricted sense of self-interest.
It is important to think of this discussion, the whole project really, within the context of what is passed down into future generations, the result in human lives of ongoing adjustments to reality. In this case, does having a subjective experience as opposed to a collective consciousness work better in terms of survival? That might depend on if you’re looking at genes passed down by a particular individual as a success, or the survival of the group as a success.
People alive today are descendants of people who, at some point down the line, did whatever it took to survive. That is, potentially harming others of the group, the species, and not necessarily passing down any adaptive quality other than ruthlessness.
As far as the species would be concerned, whether Randy or Dan survive is irrelevant, its how each person lives and how the group, overall, functions that determines the quality of life of people who come after.
Though we experience the effects of our common behavior patterns as a species, and so, to an extent, our individually is as Einstein implied, an abstraction, we act as individuals. So let us back up a bit to focus again on subjectivity, and what it is turning in to.
Briefly, the experience of hunger, thirst, pain, perspective, and thought is immediate, total and private. That we only experience the needs of one body creates a priority towards satisfying it. In this sense, our individuality is a mechanic that forces us to survive, at least on a singular level. This is the rift Einstein referred to, what could be called “the biological ego” that, in survival situations, “you or me” situations, makes it easier to privilege ourselves over another–even of the same species.
We share this deadly capacity, but also share the innate human characteristics like the capacities to feel pain, to suffer, and the desire for happiness. It is these points of connection, these common vulnerabilities that ordinarily lead us to not harm others except in situations of biological necessity. We devise moral systems and refrain from doing harm not because someone is good at math, but because we know it hurts. Respect for what we share has critical implications for survival, of the group.
We do not evolve, appear on earth with names, with mirrors to see our own faces. These are the first incremental steps in a process of imaginary separation, things which deepen a sense of difference but which do not correspond to differences in fundamental needs or core human characteristics.
This is the beginning of “the abstract ego”.
Usage of the term ego usually refers to someone seen as too full of themselves. But for the purpose of this discussion, consider it a naturally arising duality: “I am this, because I am not that”.
So there is the biological dimension, our subjectivity, and the abstract dimension, all of the ideas we come up with to prove we ‘are’ different.
Because our name and our face are our contact points with society, the arbitrary and abstract forms of difference they represent are the target of almost constant attention. And so through our social identity, the abstract self is exacerbated. And then came Instagram.
The abstract-self is a distortion of the biological dimension but mirrors it as a process of self-preservation. Preservation of what, though?
In short: An idea.
Part 2: How it Functions
In the same way the body’s internal processes change in dramatic ways when one experiences a crisis of survival, our psychological framework shifts according to a sense of threat to our idea-self, our personal or “our group’s” image.
The abstract ego is extremely volatile because it is not stable. Something that exists only as a duality has no existence on its own. Furthermore, the differences that the ego uses to create idea distance between you and others, are all abstract, they don’t pertain to differences in fundamental needs or vulnerabilities.
We are therefore often confined to a sort of reactive state of well-being because it constantly seeks to articulate comparisons to clarify, to elevate, itself, to “survive”.
Part 3: Expressions of the Abstract Self
Lines we draw in the air to create a fixed sense of cause and effect.
An identity is an idea. It is not fundamental to who one is because a person exists prior to and independently of any ideas of ‘who I am’. The abstract ego clarifies itself by leading us to associate ourselves with or against imaginary ‘types’ of people based on how we will then be valued. Thus, who we supposedly ‘are’ is the result, in our minds, of a motivated process and not, then, something fundamental.
The Abstract Ego utilizes identities, social categories to clarify itself: I as opposed to You, American as opposed to Iraqi, White as opposed to Asian, Straight as opposed to Gay, Human as opposed to Nonhuman. The cultural differences that often overlap with these terms creates the sense that they reflect something fundamental, something responsible for us being the way we are.
Our ideas are what divide us. That is, in the sense that we are literally looking at our own ideas, and not individuals living in the historical aftermath of them. Underneath our conditioning is something we all share, but we cannot usually see it, because we are looking from our ego, at someone else’s.
War is the outcome of believing differences we have with other people are inherent. If people do what they do because of “what they are” the only solution for our problems is for them not to be.
This logic is baked into social categorization. If there was not an inherent sameness, a cause from within, they wouldn’t be used. Why they are wrong is because they misinterpret the origins of behavior correlations. They cut people out of time and define them from the surface of their actions, while we, the observers, always have reasons for what we do.
Violence, exploitation, hatred are not so much human nature as possibilities. One of the variables that is not controlled for in the record of what societies do is that of: the overarching context of a mindset of “us” and “them”. The abstract ego and its eternal corollary of creating distance.
The story of human peace and conflict is the story of which ideas which thoughts we believe, and what they lead us to do.
The problem with understanding the world through labels isn’t that “oh well we’re sometimes wrong”. Its that: in relating to generalized meanings assigned to groups rather than people, we create the conditions that push us further apart.
Identity is an unconscious attempt to solve the insecurity that believing you are one or more ideas, creates. In order to make your self feel better, you selectively believe things that make others worse. What seems like describing reality when categorizing people is often motivated by unconscious ego-politics. It only seems necessary because if something imaginary is your foundation for who you are, as opposed to your real foundation, you exist in a perpetual state of needing to reinforce your meaning.
But the meaning of any social category, and this is where Black Lives Matter failed in its conception, cannot be controlled, it cannot even be defined. People do not relate to dictionary definitions of social categories, they relate to associations they have with that category, associations that are the results of history, which don’t correspond neatly to every person who supposedly ‘is’ that.
Based on our conditioning, ordinarily, there are no gaps in the torrent of mind activity wide enough to realize there is an expanse underneath it, a place from which you can see what the mind is doing in a more detached sense, from where you can see that your thoughts are not you, just a result of social conditioning in progress.
Elsewhere there are traditions of turning our awareness to our own mental patterns, expanding it to encompass the processes that operate unconsciously, which we ordinarily see the world through. To access consciousness beneath thought allows us eventually to shift from living by default, to a place where we can see how we got here, and from there where we can go together.
The point of this chapter was twofold:
1. Expose a deeper layer of cause and effect, not ‘who we are’ but the dynamics of being trapped in an abstract version of it. Abstract in the sense that none of the differences that are used as signs of a different type of person actually make them any less human. But, our belief in these divisions is so strong we actually treat others like they are less human.
2. To highlight a direction, not outward to understand the world, but inward.
This indictment could have gone on much further but there is a lot here that would probably be worth re-reading, to see the connections between the results, at the end, with the cause: an unconscious process of creating divisions. Something that looks like human nature only from a particular historical perspective lacking a tradition of exploring that nature from the inside.