Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tracing the Rise of Ego and Materialism

I want to gain an understanding of the history of ego. My guess is that ego didn't exist, or only barely existed, in hunter-gatherer and tribal groups. The more egalitarian and interdependent a group, the less need for individual ego. With the rise of agriculture and permanent settlements, we started to have specialists and an elite caste. That's probably where ego first began to evolve significantly, especially among the kings and pharaohs. The commoners likely still lived in a collective mindset, but the elite were beginning to individuate and thereby develop egos. They were the first to have the luxury to do so.

The pyramids and other monuments to the elite were massive structures of self-edification. The pharaohs were announcing, "Look, I'm somebody!" Eventually, ego (and a sense of self) spread from the elite to, well, just about everybody nowadays. Today, we're all building massive structures to the self --what else do you call these hideous gargantuan things we're filling our suburbs with? "Hey, look at me, I'm somebody" we all seem to be announcing.

James Howard Kunstler, in his book about peak oil and other imminent catastrophes (The Long Emergency) said something that got my attention. He was talking about how fossil fuels allow each of us (in the West) to live as if we had hundreds of slaves at our beck and call. In other words, we live today like little pharaohs. Fossil fuels elevate all of us into significant somebodies (or so it would seem).

But what exactly is this connection between ego and materialism? As you become a separate somebody, what happens that makes you start grabbing for things? As you're separating from a tribal identity, you're also separating from Nature. Where once you were an interconnected part of the whole, now you are separate and just an insignificant dot. You can't go back to the old way once you have an awareness of self, yet there must remain in you some glimmer of tribal memory and a yearning for that kind of connection and belonging. Grabbing at stuff --it's really an infantile maneuver. We heap up all of this stuff around us as if to reassure ourselves that we're really somebodies, not insignificant dots afterall. We want to stand out and be noticed because ultimately we want to belong again. We can't fuse back into our collective unconscious; we know too much. We're human sapiens sapiens after all --we "know that we know". There's no going back.

Stuff becomes an extension of self. It makes us look bigger. It makes us seem powerful. Think about what happened when the horse was first domesticated. A warrior on horseback was "bigger", he was more powerful. His self expanded to include self+horse+(usually) bronze weaponry. That bigger self could command far more resources than those smaller selves who didn't have horses. The horsemen could dominate and thereby control more wealth and resources. Obviously as individuals they were no more special or powerful than anyone else, but by using things outside of themselves as artificial extensions of themselves (horses and weapons) they made themselves look bigger than they were.

And, in a nutshell, isn't that what ego is? Simply making yourself look bigger than you really are? It starts to seem really ridiculous that after all these thousands of years, we're still doing the same childish thing. I guess in the whole sweeping span of our evolution, a few thousand years is nothing, though, so long as we're not stuck here forever.

Why should we want to look bigger than we really are? Here's the trajectory I think we're on: as we've moved from tribes to city-states to global civilization, we've been moving from a mythic collective identification with the cosmos to the individual isolated dots we now are to (our next step) a supraconscious return to Oneness. This is a theme I'll be returning to in greater depth as this blog evolves because it's so important. This egoic stage, this grossly materialistic stage, while very dangerous is also vital and necessary. We needed to become isolated dots in order to recognize what we had always been immersed in. We needed to become Subject and Object, Self and Other ...to condense into separate dots out of the collective soup from which we were born in order to see ourselves and to know ourselves for the first time.

Making ourselves look bigger is our childish attempt to get at our True Identity. Our True Identity is huge; I think we know that intuitively. But we make the mistake of thinking that our identity is only a physical one, so we heap up physical stuff. These external things are not us, unless you look at it all spiritually and then everything is us. But that makes us all one being , all equally powerful. And then there is no point in egotism because who are you going to boast to, and about what? Once we evolve into the next paradigm, we will have shed that childishness.

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