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Beyond Identity - The Roots of Polarization

Updated: Jan 19

Originally used in 1940’s America to define a state of mind that was awake to racial injustice, the term woke, in its contemporary form, describes those who champion progressive values, such as racial, gender and sexual equality, along with environmental awareness. In its degraded form, it is increasingly used to disparage and dismiss progressives with the accusation of moral posturing.

On the face of it, it is hard to understand why one would oppose values that promote greater freedoms of expression for more people, and a respectful relationship to our planet. In this essay, I want to explore the distinction between woke and awake, with the intention of illuminating some of the unconscious dynamics that are generating opposition and cultural bifurcation. First, I will define my terms and make some qualifications about my particular perspective.

In the context of human development, awake is a term often loosely employed to describe someone who has become aware of the spiritual dimensions of reality, whatever that means to them. Rarely defined precisely, it is usually associated with woolly new-age sentiment. In this essay, I will be using it to signify concrete developmental stages, beyond the contraction of ego-consciousness, that are fundamentally integrated and whole. In brief, this means that one’s sense of identity has expanded to include the personal unconscious, and in rarefied cases, even elements of the collective unconscious; all the scary and unpalatable stuff we don’t like, but also powerful and expansive energies and states of consciousness. For the remainder of this essay, I will follow Jung by using the capitalized ‘Self’ to denote this unified state of consciousness.

The degree of awakeness lies along a spectrum, from contracted, ego-consciousness at one end, to an open, selfless ground at the other end (you can find a visual representation of this here). As the sense of ‘I’ expands, it also thins out, and is ultimately extinguished such that the realization of selfless agency dawns; doing without a doer. This denotes a state of being that is awake to how things actually are beneath the layers of identity and conditioning that are a necessary adaptation to society. It is not another abstraction to speculate about. It is the visceral experience of an open ground at the core of one’s subjectivity, and it is registered by the body.

As this is potentially such an incendiary topic, I will start with a few things that I’d suggest be kept in mind as you read. As a psychotherapist, my perspective here is limited to the lens of developmental psychology, with a strong dose of philosophy thrown into the mix. I, of course, have certain biases as to why this should be a starting place for any conversation about cultural trends, but that does not mean I underestimate the serious ‘real-world’ consequences of political and economic policies that encourage inequality and nepotism. That these things require a radical rebalancing is so gravely obvious that I won’t waste too much time restating this, other than to acknowledge the righteous anger and helplessness that ordinary people are feeling in response to the unrestrained concentration of resources in the hands of so few. My goal here is to address the developmental factors, specifically our collective stage of consciousness, that make ever-increasing inequality inevitable. Being related to stages of consciousness*, which include but transcend pure psychology in the ways we normally think of it, these factors are prior to categories such as race, gender or sexuality. As such, while social activism, in its contemporary form, undoubtedly elicits pleasant feelings of moral certainty, and can occasionally initiate positive change, it appears to be, in large part, a manifestation of the very stage of consciousness that is the origin of the inequality that it seeks to overcome. In the words of Einstein - we cannot solve problems with the same state of mind that created them.

*For an in-depth look at stages of consciousness, Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory and Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics are excellent starting points.

If you’re like most people, you probably feel a combination of frustration and confusion, or maybe even righteous indignation in response to current socio-political rhetoric. So, what is actually going on here, and why are we becoming so polarized? The quick answer is to blame the internet and social media, which, no doubt, play an important role by hacking our vulnerabilities, but I sense that this is coincident to, or symptomatic of, a deeper transition that we are living through. More on that later, but to start I want to explore a psychodynamic interpretation of polarization.

One way to make sense of this is to consider a basic tenet of analytical psychology, namely that the psyche’s structure is comprised of conscious ego and unconscious shadow. Psyche refers to the totality of mind; conscious and unconscious, personal and collective.

The ego contains all of the ‘good’ qualities that we identify with and display to the world; our self-image. In Western societies these are usually things related to rationality, objectivity and positivity; traits that are Apollonian in nature, after Greek mythology. Apollo was the God of the sun, whose contemporary representatives are the numerous supermen of pop culture. On the flipside, the shadow is the repository for the ‘bad’ or scary things we deny and repress in ourselves; all the things that are in opposition to the values we identify with. This has traditionally been the realm of instinct, passion and intuition. Represented by Dionysus, Apollo’s brother, and the God of wine, dancing, irrationality and chaos. As a disruptive and chthonic force, it rubs against the values of polite society and threatens our place in the tribe. For this reason, the shadow’s qualities are disowned and unconsciously projected outwards onto others in society whom we now feel are deserving of our disdain. Drug addicts, criminals, and the homeless, all embody the shadow for Western culture. People who are highly sensitive or empathetic, artistic and unconventional are also frequently the objects of our projected shadow.

Our guilt-ridden relationship to alcohol is a tangible example of how we disown instinctual aspects of Self. We enjoy the exhilarating freedoms that alcohol gives us, while using it as a convenient scapegoat to absolve ourselves of responsibility after the fact. A sheepish and familiar phrase comes to mind – It wasn’t me, it was the booze! Similar denials are trotted out to justify shadowy eruptions during times of stress or conflict, where we might have said something, or acted in such a way, that directly contradicts our curated self-image.

A useful insight into the current fractious public discourse can be gleaned from an understanding of how ego and shadow interact. Being mutually dependent, they work together to maintain the balance of the psyche; the shadow acting as a compensatory and humanising force for the ego’s tendency towards hubristic inflation. If we define ego as the separation, or movement away, from the body as its ground, culture is the collective form of a similar movement; in this case, the ground is nature. As such, culture is subjected to the same kinds of ideological inflations and compensatory eruptions of the shadow, in the form of instinctual and destructive forces.

It is the ideological movement away from the ‘undesirable’ elements of life, the naïve wish for purity, that inflames and brings forth that which is feared or despised. History is replete with the horrifying reality of compensatory forces. As such, ideological inflations, without exception, give way to barbaric cruelty. Those possessed by such inflations identify absolutely with, and are blinded by, the righteousness of their ideals. Consequently, any opposition is necessarily evil and should be treated as such. In this way, the individual unconsciously becomes the very thing that they despise, condemning and dehumanizing in the name of moral purity. Fundamentalists of all stripes, whether religious, scientific, or political, are guilty of such dehumanizing rhetoric. Being largely synonymous with moral righteousness, wokeness is a contemporary manifestation of such ideological inflation, and it has summoned, from the depths, its ugly twin, in the form of reactionary populist movements that further appeal to instinct and tribal thinking.

In obeisance to the unrelenting pursuit of progress, the only acceptable political stance has become one that effectively lobotomizes traditional conservative values, which, now excluded from the conversation, are in danger of mutating into violence and unrest as the only means of being heard. While there are oppressive elements of traditional conservativism, it also contains hard-won wisdom, essential for the stability of our societies. As one among many examples, monogamy correlates with less violence and crime in society, as men have less need to compete with each other. It also results in better outcomes for offspring in terms of lifespan, mental health and economic success. Without an appreciation for such wisdoms, the baby goes out with the bathwater, ostracizing large sections of society who cannot deny such facts, but are now conveniently blamed for our problems. This familiar dynamic is known as gaslighting and scapegoating within family systems, and serves a similar function of distracting the scapegoater from their own internal splits and conflicts.

As an antidote to such polarization, it can be helpful to separate the individual from the forces that they find themselves compelled to represent. Being archetypal* in nature, these forces are impersonal and will use or possess individuals as a means to find expression. With this in mind, it is useful to consider that woke ideologues and populist reactionaries are victims of shifting currents within the collective unconscious, and actually arise together as mutually dependent forces. As with all things, we see these poles start to invert as they move further apart. Woke ideologues on the left become oppressive, and populist reactionaries on the right champion liberty and freedom of speech. Go far enough East and you’ll find yourself West. By depersonalizing these movements, we can begin to reframe them as a relational dynamic, rather than, simply, the actions of bad people who should be silenced.

What, then, might be motivating these shifting undercurrents?

As touched upon earlier, it certainly appears as though we are living in the midst of something like a paradigm shift in how we understand our place in the universe. Western culture rests upon Enlightenment ideals, such as liberty, tolerance and progress, and its emphasis on rationality and empiricism as tools for engaging with the world. You may notice in the previous sentence that the word ‘tools’ comes with certain connotations that suggest a detached stance peculiar to Western culture; a stance that is less about relationship and more about manipulation. Enlightenment values have encouraged a dissociated consciousness, and justified an exploitative relationship to our planet, and its most vulnerable inhabitants. While being a necessary developmental stage that has brought incredible advances, it has also outlived its welcome.

We have reached peak liberty, tolerance and progress, and as is the nature of duality, are beginning to see these ideals invert as we come up against their limitations. This has played out publicly in response to recent events as growing intolerance of dissenting voices, and the shrinking of liberties we have assumed to be inalienable. Furthermore, our inability to effectively address the rapidly escalating existential dangers of wealth disparity and unsustainable resource depletion, justified by our unquestioned presumption of infinite progress, has invoked tectonic cultural shifts that are asking us to find a new relationship to self and world.

In new age circles, this inversion is appropriately referred to as ‘the rising of the Goddess’, and it corresponds to a rising of the shadow of our collective psyche. All who have been relegated to the fringes of society are being raised up in a celebration of the victim, alongside a revolutionary zeal to find and over-throw the oppressor. Like all things, this inversion will have both positive and negative consequences.

The degradation or blurring of fundamental polarities that we have previously relied on to navigate reality, such as male/female, conservative/progressive, fact/fiction signifies the decline of values that underpin Western civilization, and is arguably the harbinger of a prolonged unravelling. Depending on your perspective, you might view this as a positive or negative development. Some will fear the collapse of familiar structures, assuming catastrophe and chaos to be in its wake, whilst others who yearn for a more enlightened society, will look at this end with hope, believing it to be the necessary death before rebirth. The danger in this time of confusion lies in our inability to integrate those values which run counter to our own.

In admittedly simplified terms, I often see the culture war as a conflict between the primary values of Truth and Compassion; at least as they are represented by those with good intentions. Certainly, there are elements that have hijacked and inflamed this conflict for their own purposes. At the risk of provoking the ire of some readers, I’ll step out on this branch a little further and suggest that these values correspond to masculine and feminine, respectively. By invoking this correspondence, my intention is to convert what might seem like a conflict that is happening ‘out there’ to a very relatable dialectic that is happening within each of us at every moment.

Carl Jung used the Greek mythological motif of the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage, to describe the integration of masculine and feminine energies within each of us. For Jung, this is a necessary precursor to psychic wholeness, or in his terms, ‘individuation’, and the birth of the Self.

Returning to the conflict of values happening ‘out there’, the tension arises where Truth and Compassion begin to impinge on the other’s absolute dominance. Truth cares not for the consequences of its immutable and impersonal logic, while Compassion is concerned only with the alleviation of suffering, now, regardless of the logical second-order effects. Facts don’t care about your feelings; feelings don’t care for facts. Representatives of each feel justifiably appalled that their primary value is being undermined by some deplorable other.

Taking an objective position, obviously these values are of equal importance, and ideally should work collaboratively to temper the extremes of one another. As the cultural fracture widens, we see the compensatory emphasis on compassion degrade into absurdity and intolerance as it denies biological limits; limits that actually work to contain and support us. In this respect, a certain degree of suffering or resistance is actually essential for our development. By seeking to extinguish all that challenges cherished sensibilities, we retard our growth and, specifically, our capacity to contain ambiguity. Narrowing ourselves down so that we can tolerate less and less of reality, our flexible responsiveness to life is inhibited as we solidify and become brittle. As is often the case, we can look to nature for guidance here - Trees grown in enclosed spaces, without exposure to wind, do not develop sufficient root strength to support their weight.

A distinct example of this conflict appears in the public conversation around sex and gender. Whereas so-called conservatives* champion the immutable facts of biological determinism (The idea that an individual's personality or behaviour is caused by their particular genetic endowment) as the ‘truth’ or ground of identity, progressives hope to alleviate the pain of biological limits by decoupling gender from natal sex. Reducing traditional gender roles to simply artefacts of social construction, it becomes possible to bring gender into alignment with identity. This triumph of identity over biology is extended to sex, in the form of gender reassignment surgery, as a solution to the distress of gender dysphoria, or body dysmorphia.

*In the interest of brevity, I use conservatives to describe individuals that find themselves in opposition to progressive values. I recognize that an increasing number of such people do not identify as conservative, in the traditional sense.

To those invested in our current paradigm of scientific materialism (reality, at base, consists of bits of matter) the idea that biological determinism is open to debate is patently absurd. From this perspective, mind is an epiphenomena of brain function that has, in large part, been determined by the exposure to sex-dependent hormones; nature trumps nurture. This is not the end of the story, however. Due to fairly recent research* finally confirming the observer effect of quantum physics, reality, at a foundational level, is what you choose it to be. Furthermore, if you are a curious reader of theoretical physics and contemporary philosophy, particularly related to the hard problem of consciousness*, you will notice that science itself appears to be on the cusp of a radical revision, where the previously excluded, subjective dimension of qualities, is being reconsidered as a fundamental and irreducible aspect of reality.

*Research group led by Francesco Vedovato and Paolo Villoresi of the University of Padua in Italy 2017 *The hard problem of consciousness is the impossibility of explaining the subjective experience of qualities, such as the taste of an orange or the feeling of love, in terms of neurological processes or chemical reactions.

This signifies a paradigm shift at the very core of our collective worldview. You may find this to be a speculative tangent, but I’d suggest that our foundational assumptions about reality are the unseen filter through which we either consider or dismiss new ideas. If, as new theories suggest, consciousness or mind is primary, the wish to free identity from biological limits, either through technology or gender fluidity, is the expressed intuition of this truth.

However, while the source of individual minds might arguably be a transpersonal mind, the new-age belief that we can manifest the reality of our choosing is a conflation of these two dimensions of mind. Our intuitions of omnipotence stem from a shared universal ground of mind, which cares not for the will of our personal minds. While embodied, we are undeniably dependent upon, defined and thus limited by our biology, and yet, in some way that is not clear to us, we are also, and simultaneously, not reducible to biology. Within certain immutable constraints, we have the capacity to remould self and world with the power of imagination.

The point I am hoping to convey here is that there is validity in both conservative and progressive positions. Rather than warring camps, their proper relationship can be a collaborative one where each brings to the conversation a partial truth reflective of different levels of reality. The intuition of our basic freedom as consciousness, does not negate the limits of our physical form, nor should our form absolutely determine identity and expression in the world.

I remember some time ago having an amicable conversation with a friend who identified strongly with progressive values. I was surprised to hear that she felt a desirable future would be one without conservatives. You can probably already see the many ways in which this statement is both logically absurd and profoundly unwise. Conservatism here is being confused with specific policies or traditional attitudes, and not realized to be something that is ever-present as the very thing that defines progressivism. Just as night and day define the boundaries of each other, conservative and progressive values work to constrain each other such that dangerous extremes of either can be avoided. My friend’s conception of utopia was unrestrained cultural progressiveness. Compassion without the tempering discernment of Truth; freedom without limits. I don’t think I need to spell out why the pursuit of such a reality would be undesirable. Like all utopian projects, including the ultra-conservative religious kind, it will inevitably manifest its antonym - The road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions.

I recount this story as an example of the implicit wish of individuals who identify exclusively as either conservative or progressive. Recalling stages of consciousness, it is the kind of developmental blind spot that is characteristic of ego-consciousness, whose integrity is dependent upon maintaining an antagonistic relationship to everything that it is not, which becomes the shadow. The very act of resisting what lies outside the boundaries of the ego-self is what maintains the sense of being a separate individual, closed-off and isolated from the rest of the world. The individual at this stage of development correctly identifies that something is ‘off’ or incomplete about reality, but incorrectly assumes the problem to be located outside itself in a ‘bad’ other, or internally, as a bad self. Caught in a bind, the individual is not yet conscious that the dissonant feeling is the product of ego contraction, and its reliance on conflict (either internally or externally) for its very existence.

There is an unpalatable philosophical truth here as well. Our dualistic reality (the normal everyday physical world of things; this and that) is dependent upon, and arises from, the creative friction generated by polarity. If one’s authentic desire is to create more harmony, as opposed to identity confirmation, then tolerance and appreciation for the dialectical tension of opposites should be cultured, as the mechanism that keeps us on the narrow path of dynamic stability, and away from either entropy and chaos on one side, or stultifying conformity on the other.

This is where an awakened, as opposed to woke consciousness, is sorely needed. Recalling my definition of awake as the expansion and thinning out of identity, wokeness and its sanctification of identity is antithetical to post-egoic stages of consciousness, that are characterized by the capacity to contain polarity and paradox, without collapsing into identification with any particular pole.

The remedy, then, is not to defeat the bad other, whatever form that victory might take, but to become conscious that the bad other ‘out there’ is recognizable only because it represents a disowned or feared aspect of Self ‘in here'. Healing this internal conflict must take priority as the only suitable response to cultural polarization. While giving lip service to ideals of peace, love and equality, actions stemming from a fragmented self will inevitably perpetuate fragmentation and dissonance in the world.

Encapsulated succinctly by Rene Descartes’ famous dictum - cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), the mind/body split is the primary wound of Western consciousness, and the origin of so much suffering. Just as the earth is the instinctual, feeling ground of culture, so the human form is the ground of identity. The integration of mind and body, or identification with the body, is the journey from head to heart to gut, where the fundamental sense of wholeness is registered - the seat of the Self. Our personal integration is the necessary precondition for a collective integration of culture and Earth. From this holistic perspective, our personal human bodies, and our collective earthly body, are no longer objects to control and manipulate, but the very ground of our being.

Healing the mind/body split requires one to make peace with the sensate and emotional life of the body, its instincts and destructive energies. Embracing the monsters in one’s shadow, ideas of what constitutes good and bad are no longer so absolute. In place of premature certainty, there is a counterintuitive sense that apparently ‘good’ things can be regressive and lead to destruction, and what looks bad or wrong can, in fact, be generative of greater well-being. Death and catharsis are examples of this, without which there would be no life or healing.

The significant sacrifice, here, is the relinquishment of moral certainty, and its age-old, cosmic battle with evil. It is useful to consider what happens when this compulsion is seen through, and can no longer be played out as a primary source of meaning. What happens to identity, to ego, in the absence of an enemy, or a bad internal self, against which to define itself? This is a serious and fruitful question that life demands we answer, just as soon as our identity projects begin to release their compulsive grip on our attention.

I invite you to entertain, for a moment, the radical proposition that however messed up you or the world appear to be, this is largely a perceptual distortion generated by a particular stage, or kind, of consciousness whose perspective is partial. The fact that we experience some degree of pain, confusion and discomfort on a regular basis does not mean something is fundamentally wrong with ourselves or the world. Of course, there is unnecessary suffering that can and should be alleviated where possible, but there is also enormous amounts of self-created misery from resisting dark and destructive aspects of reality, whose presence undermine cherished and, often, infantile ideals about how things should be. While we can do our best to mitigate their influence on our lives (usually by honouring them in symbolic form), reactive catastrophizing is a choice that we make, and it has a pay-off.

Resistance to what is, as the mechanism of identity, is a defence against encountering a more imposing foe that lurks just below the surface. The loss of meaning gleaned from resisting the ‘bad’ is experienced as a death to the limited ego-self. However, it reveals, in turn, a greatly expanded sense of self; a self that is paradoxically surrendered to, and large enough to contain, the disorienting dance of chaos and order, now realized to be the cosmic drama unfolding exactly as it should.

I admit that this can be a hard thing to swallow given the misery that humans are adept at creating for themselves and others, but it is possible to register and be with the felt-sense of dissonance without spinning a story about what that sensation means. Absent a narrative, it is simply a feeling of contraction that, when embraced with sufficient courage, will open and expand to reveal a previously hidden ground of being. Although this may seem like apathy, it does not exclude wise action to alleviate suffering. The difference is that this action no longer comes from a split-off identity, or fragment of Self, but is now the will of something much larger, and beyond simplistic ideas of right and wrong, as seen from our very limited human perspective.

In the words of Paul Kingsnorth – ‘Activism is a staging post on the road to realization. Dig in for long enough and you see that something like climate change or mass extinction is not a “problem” to be “solved” through politics or technology or science, but the manifestation of a deep spiritual malaise.’

Finally, the root of this malaise, without doubt, lies in a confusion of identity about who and what we are. The good news is that we can awaken from this confusion, and thus begin to collectively act to create a fairer society. A couple of caveats, however. As long as we exist in this physical dimension, we are subject to its limits and its suffering regardless of what kind of consciousness we inhabit. I am not advocating for some utopian ideal, just the basic conscious recognition of our non-separateness. Secondly, as this is a natural stage of human development that is built upon prior stages, there is no way to by-pass the awkward and necessary pains of ego-consciousness. Paradoxically, one must first fully become that which one wishes to transcend.

Such development takes hard work and, to a large degree, requires favourable external conditions. Historically, stages beyond the contraction of ego-consciousness have been associated with a certain mystique, and thought to be the sole purview of extremely rare and talented individuals. This is most certainly a myth that functions in both helpful and unhelpful ways. As an archetype of human perfection, the myth of enlightenment is a symbol for psychological wholeness, and an attractor that pulls us beyond ourselves. In its unhelpful form, its symbolic function is lost to literalism as our natural potential is projected onto some flesh and blood human saviour sitting in a cave somewhere, or commanding large audiences with authority and ‘enlightened’ wisdom. In both cases, such figures are conveniently protected from the penetrating gaze of scrutiny.

The point I’m making here is that ego transcendence, as a permanent stage shift in consciousness, is both natural and achievable for ordinary people. The more important question is how, or even if we can, as a species, move our collective centre of gravity beyond the contraction of ego.



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