Friday, October 01, 2004

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Self Aware: Ego and Power

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Consider the question first presented in Chapter III: what will become of our individuality, our egos as we gain awareness of the underlying genetic and memetic power-relationships? Do we consist of more than just vectors for power-complexes? Do we have free will and an individual identity, or do we exist as nothing more than a construct of how our genes and memes use us to propagate? Can we resolve the conflict between rationality and ego?

Susan Blackmore, in her book The Meme Machine, advocates acquiescence to our fate as the subjects of our culture.[1] But as already mentioned, our culture, left unrestrained, will ultimately breach the limitations of either humanity or the environment. We should reject such an approach as it leads to the end of humanity, the end of life on Earth, or both. Technology, too, threatens the very essence of humanity. Genetic engineering and nanotechnology may well shift consciousness from the individual to the group, eliminating the very essence of the individual. Francis Fukuyama warns of just such a possibility, but states that “[we] do not have to regard ourselves as slaves to inevitable technological progress when that progress does not serve human ends.”[2] A way forward exists, a path that will lead us to a sane and satisfying relationship with each other, with the Earth and with power. Such a path requires that we first gain a firm understanding of two concepts—who we “are”, and what vision we want to work towards.

What we “are”, what we can best represent ourselves as—the vectors of genes and memes—saw explanation in previous chapters. The difficult question that we must now resolve remains how do we best define the nature of our identity? Does our sense of self—our ego—exist as anything more than an illusion serving the same masters as our bodies? Can we ever identify the true core to ourselves, not just an illusory construct of evolution? Ultimately there remains one inescapable realization: a core of individuality does not exist. We “are” assemblages constructed as tools to benefit entities external to the ego-illusion. As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, our entire paradigm, our sense of self, remains predicated upon the shadows that memes cast on the wall of our consciousness.[3] The honest realization of our nature comes from the confrontation of our perceptions of self and ego. Countless religious, societal and psychological constructs exist to deny or cope with the problems of ego, but the key to escaping delusional constructs lies in acceptance of the ego-illusion. This realization acts as the gateway to enlightenment in the world’s greatest mystical traditions.

Beyond the illusion of ego exists a deeper conceptualization of self: the universe consists of a swirling, dynamic dance of power-relationships, with the black-and-white construct of the individual giving way to the grayer concept of the individual as a nexus of these connections. No true separation between individual and environment remains. Our consciousness has developed as a tool used by other entities, but it has provided the ultimate tool for our use to which no other nexus has access: self-awareness. The understanding that self-awareness exists to serve the meme breaks that bond of servitude—it acts as the realization of enlightenment. Re-read the last sentence. The individual re-emerges as a discrete point of true awareness—not delusional ego-awareness, but awareness of our status as a nexus in the dance of power-relationships. Every atom in our body changes, replaced with new matter through the course of eating, metabolism and elimination—we literally do not consist of the same substance today that we did last year. At death we remain physically the same structure, but not the same entity. These examples illustrate that we exist as much more than a complex assemblage of particles. Our true substance seems to more closely resemble a hub and relay to vast webs of power-relationships. While we exist in a constant state of physical flux, we remain a stable, self-aware nexus. Coming to terms with our existence merges science and spirituality, leading ultimately down the classical path of enlightenment-beyond-ego. This realization will set us free.

Part of the acceptance of our self as a self-aware nexus in a dynamic world remains the acceptance of our genetic ontogeny.[4] We exist, genetically, as organisms optimized to operate in the late Pleistocene era of small hunter-gatherer tribes. Our physical and psychological systems evolved to function optimally under increasingly different conditions from those encountered in the globalizing, industrial world. Any world we wish to create must then act compatibly with the requirements of our genome. As we gain a better understanding of the requirements of our genes, and how they exert control over us, we will have better ability to take conscious control of those mechanisms. Addiction, depression, fear and anxiety can all come under control through our understanding of their neurochemical mechanisms, and why these reactions initially evolved.[5] For example, understanding the triggers and functions of our body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic responses permits—with practice—increased control of these functions.[6] Meditation and breathing exercises, cornerstones of many esoteric traditions, essentially provide means to gain control of some of our body’s autonomic systems. With further research and careful application, there exists the potential to take conscious control of our genetic programming.

Creating a world that provides compatibility with our genes will ultimately require addressing how memes control us. Gaining conscious control of genetically programmed responses prevents memes from co-opting those responses without our permission. By breaking the meme’s control over our wants, needs and actions, we can make choices and act to build a world that provides compatibility with our genome. We can begin to consciously shape memes, to create a set of stable cultural-complexes that concentrate power in the hands of the individual, providing humans with great freedom and control over our environment.


[1] “The Meme Machine”, Susan Blackmore.
[2] “Our Posthuman Future”, Francis Fukuyama, pg 218.
[3] Plato’s allegory of the cave: prisoners are seated in a cave, heads chained such that they can only look at one wall. From behind them, a fire casts light on that wall. Puppeteers use objects to create shadows on the wall. Plato’s point is that the shadows on the wall represent full reality to the prisoners, but the outside observer can easily observe that the shadows “are” not reality—just like the case of the ego illusion and the meme.
[4] Our genetic ontogeny—the course of humanities evolution in the setting of small, hunter-gatherer tribes—is what most defines us. Paul Shepard, in “Traces of an Omnivore”, explores the concept and its conflict with our modern lives in great depth.
[5] For most of us, our formal education never gave us the owner’s guide to our body-mind that we deserve. See “Prometheus Rising” and “Quantum Psychology” by R. A. Wilson, “Mind Wide Open” by Steven Johnson, “The Strucutre of Magic” by Richard Bandler and John Grinder and “The Secret Teachings of All Ages” by Manly P. Hall.
[6] Conscious breathing, in particular, seems to be a pathway to control over the body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Try this simple exercise. Repeat the following four times: breathe in through the nose to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of seven, exhale through pursed lips to the count of eight. After the fourth time, immediately breathe in and out through the nose as quickly as possible for fifteen seconds. Then repeat the initial four breaths. Do this to obtain a relaxed, alert state of mind at a time when you find your body slipping unwillingly into “fight-or-flight” mode. See Andrew Weil’s “Breathing” for additional information.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it's easy to see the web of power when you look "down" at the systems and structures that you've already mastered. I am a conscious, self-aware being who has taken control of a physical body and is allowed complete dominance of it. Why should the body allow this? Because the body wish to survive and propegate itself so it creates and allows consciousness and self-awareness to exist because it helps to ensure the survival of the body: In a sense, the body has adapted to become a parasite riding on the side of a mind, while the mind has become a parasite to ride on the side of a meme.

I think that exploration of memes and memetics is an incrediable important topic in philosophy and spirituality. To think that we are beginning to grasp and understand how another level of existence functions and interacts with our level. I greatly enjoyed you post, thank you :)