Out of our Ego Houses, into the Collective Intelligence

Communal life – our tribal past – valued the group over the individual. We left our communal past to put the individual’s benefit (and especially material benefit) before the common good, in the process losing much of our memory of community.

In this time of rapidly approaching limits we need the gifts of both community and individuality to deal with what we’re facing. There’s a taboo against experiencing this, one that consciousness rapidly surmounts.

An artist friend of mine was telling me today about the struggles he’d had over the long winter to finish a major work. He lives alone in the bush. Some things weren’t going well and what should have taken a few months was hard and took too many months to complete. He felt alone.

I know the feeling well, and I know the hunger, the sometimes hour-by-hour trek to the north pole of human connection. I’m sure you know it too!

We humans didn’t evolve and become who we are alone. The solitary individual was an anomaly, often one on the way to becoming a fatality. We evolved in groups for our survival and betterment. The vast periods of our collective history spent in kinship and tribal groups created what we might call an architecture of “groupness” in our psyches. We feel whole and good when connected to a group in which we belong. We feel complete that way. There’s a part of our soul that needs company for us to feel alive and well. (My friend Michael O’Connor coined the “groupness” word years ago, referring to the mysterious sense of being in a group. Dumb as it sounds, no other word since has said it quite so well.)

Many animals are communitarians as well. The lone wolf is a human metaphor for something that doesn’t actually exist in nature. Wolves like to be in packs, and dog behaviour, including dog’s behavior with humans, is the behavior of the pack. “You can take the creature out of the pack but you can’t take the pack out of the creature.”

Like dogs, humans have spent overwhelmingly most of our time in “packs”, in communities with strong shared values. We moved across the land, made our decisions, and formed our identities and our place in the world within that group. For untold millennia we lived close to nature – right in it in what we now call “outside”. We moved about and were continually seeing and being seen by our tribe or kinship group. Our common ancient past was an eternal camping trip in which everyone tracked where everyone else was and what they were doing, all the time. We lived and breathed in that communal web for hundreds of thousands of years. We did it long before we were recognizably human and almost all the time since. It’s there!

But we’ve forgotten. We forget that we know about being part of a community, a tribe, in a deep and visceral, all-the-time way. Even though it’s part of who we are and even though it resides deep in our experience, it moves with us invisibly, like a ghost. It’s not noticed. Yet whatever else we are, we still are that.

There’s a reason we left the tribe though, those of us who did. Tribal community had a serious downside: it emphasized group survival and health at the expense of the individual. We can make a pretty sure bet that within the tribe individuals felt a pressure to leave the group and strike out on their own – to individuate – but that this was suppressed for long periods. We can guess this because when the group’s material and survival needs finally were well met, when the opening was unequivocally there, the movement toward individuality emerged quickly and strongly. The power of its emergence indicates that it was deeply wanted and ready.

In the modern era what we notice and value and explore is our individuality. We live inside our individual ego-identities and see the world from there. This is true for me and for my friends. There’s a maturation and deepening that’s come to us as we’ve become individuated. It’s a step up from submergence in group mind. But there’s a non-trivial downside to our individuality too. It’s that our individual good, especially our material good, is valued over the needs of the group to the extent that we’re oblivious to our group nature.

When individuated individuals move back consciously into a group they can become aware of a group mind, a collective intelligence. The traditional tribe doesn’t commonly experience this, I don’t think. They are in the group mind but they aren’t noticing it because the individuated consciousness that can step outside as witness is needed to do so. The individuated consciousness can interact with the collective intelligence, can nurture and feed it, be fed by it. But the tribal person is submerged in the group mind and identified with it. The collective intelligence is implicit with the tribal person but not explicit.

Why we need the competencies of both the individual and the group
But here’s the thing: we need the competencies of both the individual and the group to respond to the converging crises we’re facing.

Peak oil, climate change, competition for other resources and food are the realities that challenge and will challenge us mightily; for much of the world, that challenge is well under way. The certainty of more worse is – more or less – certain. But collectively we’re not seeing the coming storm except in a dreamy intellectual way, entirely out of sync with its immediacy. We’re isolated in an individuated trance.

Not only individuals are stuck. Tribal thinking is powerless before this challenge too because it can’t step outside it to get a better view; it’s limited to past experience. Both the tribal and the individual perspectives are automatic and conditioned; what’s needed is an integrated consciousness made up of both. This isn’t given by evolution but by a conscious choice.

I’ve noticed that this integrated consciousness is able to see the problem in a powerful way.

Not just me. People who come together in groups in which they can suspend the exclusivity of their individual focus routinely see the looming problem of our future matter-of-factly as part of what’s around them. They tend to see it as a self-evident feature of our common life. It’s directly evident, obvious. It’s our common existential problem, all around us but not always directly evident. As individuals we overlook it. It’s part of the cost of becoming an individual that we screen it out.

However literate we are about the crisis facing the planet, we can’t really get it when we’re isolated and individual-only.

Why is this?

But why can’t we see the problem in a powerful way when we’re on our own?

Because it’s a system level problem, a relationship problem, a function of the way we’re a community. It isn’t in the purview of the individual.

Only as part of a community can we grasp our plight. Individuals operating as individuals think it’s about them or their families. Both the threat and the solution present themselves to the collective, not just to individuals. There’s no strategy at the level of the individual that can alter our fate; recycling only makes sense when we all do it. It’s not about us or our families . . . or rather, it is but that’s not enough. It’s up to us individually AND collectively, and neither one of these alone will be enough.

What’s needed is the mutual conscious recognition of our common situation – our collective intelligence.

We need others we can communicate with fully because that’s part of how we deeply know things we need to know. We need them because it’s with them we approach our full strength and clarity. In just the same way that we’re not quite all there yet without a family to back us up, we’re not quite all there without a depth family-like connection to a group of others who know our insides as well as our out. We’re richer in all the human ways with this in place, and poorer without.

Much poorer! A physician friend tells me that fully 3/4 or his patients are on psychoactive medication for depression, anxiety, or inability to sleep. I suspect our collective unease about what’s happening is part of what these individuals are feeling and responding too, part of what we’re “out of touch” with. The more vulnerable canaries, those more in touch with being out of touch, aren’t feeling well.

There’s no way back to the tribe which submerges individuality. Groupness, if it’s to be, now needs to offer the individual an opportunity to better grow his or her self within a group setting. The group needs to make room for the diversity and uniqueness of the individuals at every turn. It can do this splendidly but we don’t usually give it a chance.

The taboo
That’s because there’s a small but definite taboo against reacquainting ourselves with this part of our nature. We defend our own individuality and we respect the individuality of others, with the same deference and discretion we display toward each other in pubic washrooms. Raising the possibility of groupness, or moving toward it seems to violate a taboo that protects our identity as individuals-alone. This taboo doesn’t serve us.

Once an individual is invited into the group or is exposed to it for a short time, if the group has some inner coherence and energy, he or she recognizes what’s happening right away and relaxes. The social veneer is quick to be stripped away.

The threat that we’re up against is a threat to the common good. It threatens us all. Of course it threatens us as individuals too, but we can’t address it inside ourselves when we think it’s just us. We think it’s impolite or it can’t be true since no one else is talking about it. Everything seems normal.

We can’t understand and validate our response on our own, or hardly. We need to witness someone else’s struggle with it to validate our own. It’s like when someone says something that you never knew you knew til they said it. It’s like that. Groupness is something that you don’t notice changes everything untill you experience it deeply. Then you realize that you always knew that. Somehow knowing it again now makes it different.

It’s like forgetting how much you love your partner (perhaps she’s been mad at you) and then remembering again as you look in her eyes.

It’s like forgetting what was important till you realize you have cancer and now this moment with this person counts.

What it’s like when people sense a group mind around them
Groupness has a sensuous quality. Things soften and get warmer. We become less watchful and more seeing. Bodies relax. There may be a sense of presence that we suddenly realize others are noticing too. We have no way of checking this but it appears self-evident. We directly apprehend it. There’s an impression that ideas or impressions are coming more rapidly and coming out of the group, not just from this or that individual. Things emerge within the one and the many of the group.

The group is broadcaster and receiver both. Something like presence is unmistakeable though the word may not be there. The groupness can crumple and fall in a moment and flutter fully back to life in a rising instant. Nothing you can do makes it come or stay a bit longer though lots you can do can make it go. It’s mysterious and it’s mysteriousness is an essential part of what it is. It’s more than just not-known-yet. It can be lived but not understood.

Feeling it we’re happy and satisfied. It’s all we want then and we are content. We know there will be other times that are not like this but right now, it’s good.

When an individual speaks it’s as if they speak for all since part of the context is that we’re participating in a common story we’re curious to know more about. We might notice that story is central to how things are and at the same time, that the content of the story doesn’t matter. The story is beautiful and meaningful but mostly because it’s shared. Untold, it fades into the past, like a forgotten teddy bear. It’s a story that needs telling to come alive. It needs the resonance of the group. We emerge as individuals, together, each of us, stepping into this undreamt of arena, realizing as we do that many more like this must await.