|2007-06-19, by John Ringland|
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Ego and the Denial of Complexity
This began as a comment to an article by
Flemming Funch on
Denial of complexity, but it grew too large for that format.
The comments that he made strongly resonate with my own ideas so I feel
inspired to share some of those resonances in the hope that it may add something
to this discussion. I'll extemporise on his comments and quote them extensively,
weaving my own ideas around them...
" "The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity". -Jacob Burkhardt
What a great quote! "
It is a great quote. I've included that quote right at the start of my latest
e-book on the subject - thanks for bringing it to my attention. It sums up the
essence of the issue in 9 words but to explain the implications of those 9 words
takes a few more words.
It revolves around "the basic idea of being able to study and describe
different periods as a whole" because the system that we are a part of
functions as a 'whole' even though the "simple mind" only perceives it as
separate parts. That is why I apply system theory to conceive of the functioning
of the whole and some very startling ramifications come from such an analysis -
which he also hints at in his article.
"Life is complex, biologically, socially, culturally. The most awesome
stuff that exists is complex. The universe, evolution, eco-systems, art,
adventure, human culture in general, and the human mind."
People too often neglect this most important fact and our traditional
discourses simply cannot comprehend that complexity. They create a simplistic
context that gives rise to simplistic agendas and simplistic rationalisations.
They speak of left-wing, right-wing, politics, economy, human rights, society
and so on. These simplistic discourses lead us to believe that these are simple
phenomena that are fully defined by the simplistic ideas associated with those
words and that the reality can be comprehended and engineered by merely
manipulating those simplistic ideas. We too often don't recognise that these
ideas are just symbols that refer to cultural interpretations of minute aspects
of a much deeper and more complex 'whole'. When we think only through the narrow
channels of traditional discourses and we act from that narrow thinking. We may
seem rational in the narrow context of those discourses but those discourses
cannot comprehend the reality so in reality we are in fact being dangerously
irrational and our actions are destructively out of alignment with reality.
The "human mind is at a crucial point in its evolution. We can consciously
think abstractly. But not very well. The part of our mind we're conscious of,
and that we usually identify with as "me", typically has an extremely inflated
idea of its own worth and its own independent existence. That despite that it
can only solve extremely simple problems, and it doesn't even know how. It
over-simplifies everything, and it tends to think it is in charge."
This is the ego and it has been known by the wise to be the root cause of all
suffering and dysfunction in the world for exactly the reasons that Flemming
mentions, i.e. it has "an extremely inflated idea of its own worth and its
own independent existence... it can only solve extremely simple problems, and it
doesn't even know how. It over-simplifies everything, and it tends to think it
is in charge." This means that when the ego reigns supreme our understanding
is distorted, our agendas are out of alignment with reality and our actions
create disturbance in the wider holistic context.
The most interesting bits are yet to come...
"That simple mind is also the wonderous faculty for paying attention and
appreciating life, and for consciously discovering the mysteries of the universe
and of human existence." The conscious mind does serve a vital integrative
function - the wise say that it makes an excellent minister but a tyrannical
ruler - such as "when the simple mind gets stuck in the idea that it is in
charge, and one of those simple minds end up commanding armies of millions of
men, and huge economies, guiding the lives of billions, we're quite a bit in
The ego is a construct of illusion, it is not the reality of the situation,
it only perceives the organism, succumbs to commonsense realism and then
identifies with its perceptions, then the ego uses the organism to pursue its
agendas. It is unstable and prone to delusion, and it uses the underlying system
without understanding it so it continuously abuses it. But this doesn't just
apply to individual egos! It is systemic parochialism to focus only on human
egos as the measure of all things - but that is what human egos tend to do -
that denial of the systemic complexity is the cause of much of our ignorance
that brings us into conflict with reality.
The universe functions on all levels, from particles to galaxies and beyond,
and not just at the level of human egos. So to really understand what is
happening in reality we need to see beyond the distorted view created by the
ego. We don't just live in a world of human egos engaged in power struggles, in
reality we are complex adaptive systems living within a complex adaptive system,
there is complexity on all levels within us, between us and all around us.
Our individual egos arise from the functioning of a civilisation of trillions
of cells and they merge together to form collective egos - these originate from
family and tribe and are institutionalised as government, corporations and
organisations of all kinds up to nations, civilisations and humanity as a whole.
When we are bound by our individual egos we focus only on the level of human
egos and we fail to see the collective egos in operation. The level of
complexity is too vast for simple minds to comprehend.
The ego "actually believes that its simple ideas are facts, and it tries
to act accordingly" This is commonsense realism (also called naive realism),
this is the root illusion that causes the ego to arise in our minds and to "give
itself life" and thereby become a tyrant in our own lives. But these individual
tyrants create a culture of subtle tyranny that we fail to notice when it only
oppresses the anawim (those without a voice such as animals and the
environment). We only recognise it as tyranny when it turns upon us directly and
we suddenly see it for what it really is.
I agree that "tyranny is when powerful rulers decide that the complexity
simply is unacceptable, and it tries to control it, deny it, wipe it out."
This happens in our own lives when the ego denies the complexity of the body and
the mind and it uses them as a vehicle with which to pursue its simplistic
agendas and treats them like a machine when they breakdown under the weight of
constant abuse. It also manifests when our egos merge to create a collective ego
that objectifies society and the planet as a human resource and a natural
resource, and then tries to homogenise and simplify things in order to control
them and use them to pursue its agendas.
Power structures arise on all levels from cells to the whole planet and the
human ego is just one example of one of those kinds of power structures. So it's
not just the case of "When a small group of people agree on a small list of
small ideas as being the correct ones" - this is how the situation seems
when we interpret the complexity only in terms of human egos, but the real
situation is far more complex.
The ego arises from a confused discourse within the mind and it permeates and
controls the entire body/mind - so too the collective ego arises from a
confused discourse within the culture and it permeates and controls the entire
society/culture. It's no more a case of a small group of people than our own ego
is a case of a small group of cells. The ego is an emergent phenomenon that
doesn't exist on the level of cells and the collective ego doesn't exist on the
level of people. The collective ego arises from our cultural discourse and it
permeates the entire civilisation so we all play some part in its evolution.
When the ego holds unquestioned power it is true that "life is in danger.
Doesn't matter much if their ideas are religious or moral or economical or
political. It is the denial of the fundamental complexity of things that turns
it into tyranny." And to challenge that slide into tyranny we need to
comprehend the holistic situation - we need to step out of our traditional
discourses, which only fuel the ego and worsen the tyranny regardless of our
intentions. The idea that there is some 'they' who must be controlling things is
a part of a limiting traditional discourse; there is only a 'we' because we all
take part in it in our own ways. Some wield more obvious influence than others
but the corrupt discourse dwells in all our minds and passes from mind to mind
via all forms of communication. The collective ego is a memeplex and it is the
real entity that is driving the dysfunctions in the world. Hence we must all
change ourselves to change the world - if we locate some small group and
overthrow them the collective ego will only manifest some other group to enact
its will. So long as the corrupt discourse remains tyranny will continue to
arise in all kinds of forms.
The stakes are becoming high... "What saves us is often that those simple
minds make many mistakes and miscalculations, so eventually their schemes fall
apart. But it might take a while, and it is hard to predict what they take with
them on the way down." Through technology the collective ego or "culture of
simple minds" has acquired great power - it has virtually no wisdom in
holistically assessing its agendas but great cleverness in enforcing its agendas
- given this great power and the move toward globalisation (the formation of a
global ego) it is possible that "what they take with them on the way down"
may be all life on Earth or at least all chance of human survival and future
Flemming says "It hopefully sorts itself out in time, before it is too
late." but the ego clings to power and domination until the dying breath of
the underlying organism - the ego doesn't realise that it is the cause of
disintegration, it thinks it only needs to try harder to fix things but in doing
so it only worsens things. If left to its own devices, through its ignorance, it
crushes the life within and destroys the web of life without until death is its
only release. Unless it opens up to wisdom it is doomed. Wisdom cannot be forced
on it, the ego is a master of denial and self-deception - it must open up to it.
"As the world becomes more complex, it gets harder to control big chunks
of it without some understanding of complexity." It is this complexity and
diversity that is our hope of survival. We humans dwell within the mind of the
collective, our thoughts, words and deeds are the neural signals within the
collective nervous system. As a whole the human collective ego is closed to
reality and wisdom; it is hell-bent on pursuing its agendas unto death, but
there are vast growing communities of progressive open minds - these are the
conscience and higher self of the collective being. As the crisis unfolds and
the egoic tyranny becomes undeniable these communities will explode in numbers.
It is we who are able to open up to wisdom, to receive, share and scatter the
wisdom, to shed light on the true nature of the situation and gradually erode
the "culture of simple minds" and the simplistic culture of denial and delusion.
Only by creating a discourse of reason and holistic awareness can we create a
civilisation that can overcome the egoic existential hurdle and continue on to
higher levels of growth and evolution, "complexity has a life of its own, and
there will inevitably be a certain evolutionary natural selection that takes
place. The stuff that works will out compete the stuff that doesn't work, given
enough time." And progressive minds must look back at history and see the
many cycles of civilisation that have arisen and decayed for essentially the
same reasons. Are we going to step out of this rut and stop repeating those
cycles? Are we going to rise to a higher level of awareness and understanding?
Or are we going to make the same mistake again? If so it will be perhaps for the
last time because the risk is that this catastrophe may destroy the capacity of
this planet to support another cycle of civilisation.
Only systems that attain holistic harmony can survive, the stars evolved and
one point and they created all matter beyond hydrogen, they have become a
permanent foundation of further creation. Just as the stars condensed out of the
universe when the conditions where right, so too organic life has condensed into
being and it too will become a permanent foundation of further creation. Just as
the stars appeared throughout the cosmos, so too does life appear where the
conditions are right. The question we need to ask ourselves is, are we going to
participate in future creation? Are we going to align with reality and create
upon a firm foundation and thereby become a firm foundation ourselves? Or are we
going to dwell in simplistic ideas and weave fragile delusions that will only
disintegrate when put to the test by reality?
I agree with Flemming, that "rigid structures are subject to entropy. They
fall apart over time, turn to dust. Wheras complexity, of the type that life is
made of, regenerates, re-configures itself, it evolves, it transitions to higher
orders of organization. I think I'm gonna place my bets on life."
The overcoming of the tyranny of the ego, liberation of the organism and
alignment with the holistic reality is the true purpose of all spirituality.
This has become very obscured in many cultures where the corrupt discourse is
particularly strong and spirituality has been co-opted for political purposes
but it is resurfacing as our dire need shatters our delusions thus laying bare
the underlying reality. The liberating power of spirituality is particularly
strong in the path of yoga/meditation but all spiritual traditions, no matter
how distorted they may have become, carry the seeds of liberation in their
innermost core. One needn't even have any external assistance because all life
carries these seeds of liberation within because they are just the roots of
reality that nourish us even in the depths of our delusions. Any who sincerely
go in search of reality find it so long as they are willing to let go of their
My latest e-book discusses these issues at length, I preview it in the NCN
news blog article
The Gaian-Ego Hypothesis, in the hope of inciting some interesting
discussions on the subject. The full book will be available soon. I also discuss
many of these issues at length in the earlier e-book
Information Systems Analysis of Mind, Knowledge, 'the World' and Holistic
I'll leave you with some words from Eckhart Tolle that are particularly
“When faced with radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of
interacting with each other and with the realm of nature doesn't work any more,
when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual
human - or species - will either die or become extinct or rise above the
limitations of their condition through an evolutionary leap. This is the state
of humanity now, and this is its challenge.” (Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth:
Awakening to Your Life's Purpose) [FR]
"Millions are now ready to awaken because spiritual awakening is not an
option anymore, but a necessity if humanity and the planet are to survive.
Everything is speeding up – the madness, the collective egoic dysfunction, as
well as the arising of the new consciousness, the awakening. We are running out
of time. From the perspective of the ego, that’s bad news and will give rise to
fear. From a higher perspective, the running out of time is exactly what is
needed for the new consciousness to come into this world." [FR]
Eckhart Tolle speaking about the book "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's
Best wishes : )
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