I would like to begin this article by an act of meditation, and would also like to humbly ask you to participate in this process by allowing your mind to freely explore the depth of your imagination and to make links, connections and associations between the following words. Please allow the following words to gently hover in your mind as you are reading this article:
chaos, order, uncertainty, self-discovery, death, rebirth, transcendence, the ego, your grounding, metamorphosis, culture, creation
As human beings, we are all struck by existential problems—we do not know where we come from, we do not know why we are here in this mysterious world, and we also do not know where we are going. All the advances in knowledge should not lead one to be deceived about how much we don’t know. Far too often we like to claim knowledge or understanding because certainty keeps us sane and helps us in our survival. If we all wake up in the morning and start questioning our lives and our choices really honestly as we go through our days, we will be held suspended in a state of inertia and existential angst. There is a point where we act on our beliefs even though we are not sure about them. And, herein lies the conundrum of our lives: we all know that we don’t know but we act as if we know. What is the solution? Or a question to be asked first, is that, why is it that most people from the learned to the unlearned, from the sane to the insane, from the poor to the rich, often act and behave in a manner as if they somehow know the ‘truth’?
As animals, human beings are part of the fabric of the evolutionary processes, and as such, much of what we refer to as ‘me’ is simply the by-product of the evolutionary processes. Specifically, in the cortex of the human brain, even though we don’t understand it fully, there are a few observations we can make. Firstly, that in its process of evolution, the two hemispheres of the brain have been both specialised for certain specific functions, with the right hemisphere being the one that is involved in the acts of exploration that opens us up to possibilities, and the left hemisphere being the one that seeks to tie itself down to certainty (see The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist). And, the constant interplay of these two hemispheres can be understood as the brain trying to balance between chaos and order. With chaos being that which is beyond our understanding, or that which we do not understand; and order being the polar opposite, that which is within our grasp, or that which we do understand.
Already we can see from evolution’s point of view that it would be overwhelming for the human mind to perceive all the realities surrounding it, and just like the importance of forgetting, it is also important that we only receive certain sensory data from the world in the form of perceptions. And, as evolution is concerned with our survival, the brain also evolved such that it only perceives realities that concerns it for its survival, and as we have already observed, the left hemisphere, and indeed about 25% of the entire brain’s context acts as an inhibitory mechanism. In other words, the brain as observed by Huxley (see The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley) blocks off much of the sensory data produced by the surrounding environment. Now we have addressed the first question, which was that, why do humans act as if they know the truth—simply because our brains give us a very convincing illusion of reality (an incomplete picture of reality, not inaccurate!). Here also lies the problem of the ego, as much of the ego is the result of complex evolutionary processes which formed for a multiplicity of reasons such as self-defense, survival, dominance, self-identify and many more factors.
Thus, from the very moment we are born, we are inhabited by the spirit of our ancestors, so to speak - a metaphor of this long evolutionary process. The brain of a human child is then nourished and developed through one’s upbringing into his family, society and above all into his culture. This is where the biological foundations of the ego are then built on by the culture. A simple example is the universal thirst for economic prosperity; once a biological drive for survival, it is now transformed to a culturally ego-driven desire to consume with ever-more new products being created for such desire, and with much emphasis being placed upon the acquisition of objects, and sometimes people for that matter! In fact, most aspects of culture are about the creation and maintenance of boundaries and order—and what is the driving mechanism that fuels culture? — The ego of course! It is as deep as the dawn of humanity, it is ancient and present in every single human being. The ego is self-centered, it advocated for its own growth at the cost of everything including nature herself—no reference is needed in the current ecological disaster where man cannot stop himself from constant exploitation of the environment. In short, as Terence McKenna once said, “The ego will become like a cyst if left untreated”, and I actually think that the ego is more like a tumor, that if untreated, it will lead to collective seizures which gets manifested in forms of natural disasters, human bloodshed, exploitation of others, and ultimately, the destruction of our world. And, culture far from balancing this toxic order as fuelled by the ego with the feminine spirit, it further strengthens the ego and advocates for the continuation of its survival. Only after the times of major collective disasters (eg: global pandemics), will we see major change in our attitude towards each other and towards our environment.
But parts of the ego is necessary. In the book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche explores the necessity of the first stage of human metamorphosis, which he represents as the camel. He writes: “the weight-bearing spirit takes upon itself all these heaviest things: like a camel hurrying laden into the desert, thus hurries into its desert”. Understanding the camel as human beings and the weight that is being carried as tradition and culture, it is a natural stage of man’s development where we acquire our self-identity and become a slave to our cultural values. However, the solution as advocated by Nietzsche’s character as represented in the second and third state of man’s metamorphosis is that of the lion, and then the child. Once we have nourished and developed our ego and learnt the wisdom of the past, it is time to doubt them with a spirit of courage (the lion stage), and then, finally, we must participate in a process of self-discovery, self-exploration, and above all to create one’s own values (the child stage). Thus, the act of creation, and constant death and rebirth of one’s values and beliefs is necessary for the final stage of man’s metamorphosis. But Nietzsche’s abstract ideas can also lead to the re-growth of the ego as one is in total freedom to create one’s values, so why not to create novel ego-driven values? This is where man’s true and complete act of metamorphosis must be in direct harmony with the spirit of nature.
So far, I have delineated the history and the origin of the ego and its processes of development within culture, and explained how the ego becomes not only toxic to ourselves but also to nature herself. But, I also indicated why the ego is necessary and inevitable, it need not be destroyed but it requires to be treated through acts of metamorphosis. Now a question which we asked in the beginning, what is the solution? All these abstract ideas of self-transformation seem all well and good but none are of any practical use. And, that is why the practice of ego-dissolving activity in shamanism is necessary if the ego is to be treated. The other solution as we already alluded to is to wait for major disasters so that the ego can observe the effects of himself, and in an act of pathetic self-preservation, mutate and change course, but don’t be fooled, this is only for the short term. Whereas, activities like community, love, caring and connecting to nature and each other, connection and the bringing together of people on the internet, the use of psychedelic plant medicines all act as a cure for the toxic elements of the ego. Particularly, the proper use of psychedelics in its shamanic context with right intentions can bring about a shift in consciousness and a dissolution of the ego such that our values become aligned with planetary values—that of care and love for nature and one another. The chaos that psychedelics introduce into the cultural machinery is one reliable way to bring the ego to equilibrium. But, as I have already indicated, the ego need not be completely dissolved but only treated, as we do need our personal identities and we should be grateful for some of the achievement of the ego like our advanced civilization, or my act of writing this very article until 5 am in the morning for a girl that I have a crush on.
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