In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Peter, Michael, and I spoke about the conceptual revolution that took place 50,000 years ago, and the conscious or enlightenment revolution that could be happening right now. We also talked about new research that points to the emotions as mostly physical, not mental, phenomena; the ego as a concept and a function, versus being a solid entity; and how that changes the way we live and relate to others. Here’s my conversation with Peter Baumann and Michael Taft.
To begin with, Peter, I want to talk about the big picture of the book, Ego, and the big view that you’re communicating here in this book. As I was reading the book, for me, where it began, through your study, research, inquiry, your working with a think tank of people, what you discovered was that 50,000 years ago, a shift took place that you’re calling in the book “a conceptual revolution for humankind.” I want to start by talking about what that shift was, in your view, that happened, and where it’s taken us.
Peter Baumann: Well, yes, I’m happy to talk about that. In the big picture, we go about our daily live, and orient ourselves in what we know and how we move about in our current environment. But if you take a step back, it’s pretty interesting to observe that human beings have been evolving for quite a while, and that possibly the process is not completed. There have been major shifts in our evolution as a species. The one that you’re referring to, the conceptual revolution, happened about 50,000 years ago. It’s indicated by paint, drawings, and by complex tools, and so on and so forth. Until about 50,000 years ago, basically human beings had only one tool, and that was the stone axe. Then suddenly, there was this explosion in complexity in human life.
Most anthropologists and evolutionaries attribute that [explosion] to a capacity that emerged in human beings, and that’s the capacity to conceptualize. What that means is we are able to generate mental images of objects in our environment, and displace them. We can displace them in space and time, so we can imagine. With imagination, extraordinary things are possible. You can see the stone and the stick and say, “Oh! If I put them together, then I have more leverage,” and it becomes a complex tool. That was really the beginning, the very early beginnings, of human civilization. It was a significant threshold in the evolution of our species.
TS: One of the things I read in Ego was that there was an actual thinning of the human skull that’s been discovered, that happened around that time. Our brains actually changed. The physiology of our brains changed, along with this capacity to imagine. What caused that? What catalyzed that?
PB: Well, there are a couple of different theories around. Specifically, there were changes in our climate, and we discovered how to hunt animals and fish, to have a higher protein diet, and that helped us develop larger brains. Possibly that helped us to develop the capacity for conceptualization. It’s not well-known exactly what caused what. The significant aspect, really, is that we’re able to imagine things that do not exist in our immediate environment.
TS: Now, the real point that I think the book is driving at is that, currently, right now (the book is positing), we’re going through a similar shift. The book refers to this shift as “the conscious revolution,” or “the enlightenment revolution,” that there’s a shift happening now that could have a similarly deep change in our society and for individuals. Talk about that. What’s happening right now?
PB: It is, in essence, quite a positive perspective on further human development. Just to backtrack a little bit: The capacity to conceptualize really was phenomenally important for civilization. It brought us writing and culture and complex tools, thinking, technology. All of that was only possible with conceptualization, and our culture emphasized being smart and using our brains that way more and more, and we moved ourselves from a direct, lived experience, and we lived more and more “in our heads,” so to say. Our intention was more focused on ideas and concepts, rather than how we felt in our lived environments.
We’re proposing that a lot of human suffering and the sense of alienation can be traced back to that specific issue: that we are trapped in our minds, specifically identifying with the self-concept, and really feeling isolated from our senses and isolated from our natural environment. The process of human evolution is continuing, and part of that process is that we’re becoming consciously aware of feeling isolated and feeling completely alienated from our natural environment. With enhanced conscious awareness, we’re starting to transcend that identification with our mental self-concept, and finding a way in the larger process, rather than as a thing being separate from other things. That lived experience is becoming more of a process that is embedded in culture and embedded in the human species, and in the universe, at large.
TS: OK, and then [there is] this shift into conscious awareness, where we see the ego for what it is, we recognize it, we can be aware of it. Is that [shift] accompanied by some change now in our brains that can be compared to the thinning of the skull that happened 50,000 years ago?
PB: Well, we don’t know. There has been a lot of research going on into understanding our mental concepts and self-identification. Of course, the wisdom traditions have been talking about “no self” for over 2,500 years, so the issue is not new. What is new is that neuroscience really supports the idea that there is no distinct, separate self homunculus inside our skull, but specifically why and how that evolution towards a bigger and broader perspective is occurring, we don’t know.
You can simply look around and see that as a culture, we’re becoming much more consciously aware. A couple of hundred years ago, it was just a given that women were inferior, and civil rights were just trampled on. We were just not attuned to other human beings. We were living in a separate world of ideas that were disconnected from empathy and really sensing where other human beings were at. Of course we had exceptions, but the general culture was based on domination. There is clearly a shift going on there. There’s much more focus and sensitivity towards other voices and towards vegetarianism, and that just started in the last 100 years.
TS: It’s interesting, because of course, many people have been talking about a shift that they see individuals in the world going through lots of different directions, but what seems unique about the book Ego is this analysis of the shift from an evolutionary perspective. Talk more about why you think it might be, in evolutionary terms, time for this shift towards conscious awareness to be happening.
PB: The way evolution works is with opportunity and threat. Whenever there’s an opportunity, it expands, and when there’s a threat, it contracts. Clearly, we’re living in an environment today that feels like we’re hamstrung. There’s very little joy and movement, and we’re kind of hitting a wall. There was tremendous progress over the last few hundred years technologically, and we’ve conquered a lot of diseases and so on, but there’s a price that we paid for that.
My proposal, and what Michael and I suggest in the book, is that there is an expanded perspective on who we are as human beings that cannot be seen from a conceptual perspective. You cannot imagine how it feels to relate to the world in a sensory way. That is an experience. Experiences cannot be conceptualized. The magnitude of the shift that appears to be going on in individuals and the culture at large is as significant, we propose, as the one that happened in the conceptual revolution.
TS: One of my observations as I was reading Ego is that this is a book that couldn’t have been written 40 or 50 years ago, that we’ve needed some of the discoveries that neuroscience and other scientific forms of inquiry have made in the last few decades in order for you to really come up with this viewpoint. I’m wondering if you think that’s true, and if it is, what discoveries have been made in the last few decades that have really informed your viewpoint.
PB: The discoveries have been made, really, in a whole range of sciences. You have the hard sciences and the soft sciences—the soft sciences being the humanities, psychology and so on, and the hard sciences being the physical sciences and neuroscience. Across the board, the hard sciences clearly have not located a particular self in the brain. It appears that we generate a sense of self through neural networks that give rise to the sense of being someone. Psychologically, we understand that depression is largely rooted in the fact that we do not feel ourselves being integrated in a larger group, and that really half of our lived experience is determined by our relationships to other people. If those are not fully developed, then there’s a diminishment in our quality of life. That hints clearly that it’s an integrated process. Individual human beings are as much of the culture as culture influences human beings.
TS: OK, so that’s some of the discoveries from the soft science side. Do you want to say something from the hard science side?
PB: Well, as I said earlier, the hard sciences—and this is mostly through brain imaging—demonstrate that a sense of self is really arising out of neural networks. When certain neurons fire in synchronicity, then there arises a sense of self, and a sense of being someone, but that’s not located in any particular part of the brain. It’s distributed throughout the brain, and then our emotional and bodily sensations actually feed into these neural networks. It really underlines the assertion that no separate entity exists in the brain. The ego is not, per se, a thing, but it is a function of the brain. It’s a function that helps us coordinate our lives. It helps us keep track of our autobiographical events, and it helps us facilitate complex behaviors, but the sense of “me” that we experience is literally something that is generated by the neurons. It’s not a thing that is in charge.
TS: And one of the points in Ego is that this optical illusion of the ego has played an evolutionary function over the last 50,000 years, and that’s why it’s benefitted us to have this optical illusion. Can you talk a little bit about that? How has it benefitted us? I mean, people usually associate the ego with, “Oh, that person’s self-centered,” or kind of a jerk, or focused only on themselves first, or self-obsessed, or whatever.
PB: Very simply, if you have an image of yourself as an organism in your mind, you can displace it in time and place, so you can imagine yourself in a different situation, and you can evaluate whether that’s a good or a bad situation. For instance, if you go on a long trip through the desert, you can imagine, “Hey, if I don’t have water, then I’m probably going to run into trouble!” the same way you can imagine to build a shelter for the winter that’s much more stable than just a couple of branches leaned against each other. You can plan for food that lasts you for a long period of time. You can plan for your retirement. You know, every complex tool involves planning, and we plan in order to expand our feeling of safety, so that we, as individual organisms, feel safer in the future. So it was very beneficial to develop a mental concept of ourselves that we could transplant into different situations and feel whether that would be a good or a bad situation.
TS: Then part of what you’re hypothesizing now is that we can still have these beneficial functions of the ego, but not identify and take it so seriously. If that’s the case, what do you imagine human society might look like in the coming decades, centuries, as more and more people participate in this conscious revolution?
PB: Well, I would propose that, as beneficial as the evolution of the ego function was, clearly there are diminished returns, and today we’re hyper-focused on trying to secure our safety and prevent any potential threat. The price we pay is that our attention is trapped in that [idea], and it’s really not available to sense how we feel and how we relate to other people in depth.
The change, I think, that’s going to occur is that we’ll realize the limitations of ego identification, and we will start to take things less personally. Whether it’s an insult or some mishap that happens, it’s not something that is personal, but it’s simply an event that happens. We will not say, “I am a bad person,” or “I am a great person.” The sense of winning or losing will diminish, and we will sense that we are part of a larger process—primarily of our families and our culture—and we will be even more interested that the culture, as a whole, flourishes. It is less of a competition, but more of a cooperative focus.
TS: May it be so!
TS: Now, Peter, I’d like to ask you a couple questions of how you came to have this deep interest in the topic of evolutionary development and the ego, itself. I mean, in reading your bio, here you are, in your late 40s, asking a question: “I have 10,000 days (let’s say) left to live. How can I make the most of them?” How did asking that question lead to this study of the ego?
PB: Tami, let me say the rest of that in a second. I just want to backtrack to when you said, “May it be so.” I’m going to point out that actually, a lot of it is so, already. If you look at new corporations that are emerging now, whether it’s Google or Facebook, they function in quite a different way. There’s much more of an integration, on all levels of the organization, that cooperates. If you go back to an old Exxon Corporation, or the old Rockefellers, or the steel barons, there was a complete, stiff hierarchy, a dominance hierarchy. Those dominance hierarchies are really starting to fall apart, and new corporations are functioning much more integratively than ever before. That shift is already actually occurring.
I’m not a pure optimist trying to imagine a better future, but I believe that a lot of what we’re saying in the book is rooted in things that are actually observable, and that includes the uprisings in the Middle East against dominance hierarchies. I just wanted to make that point.
TS: Well, yes, sure. I think the “may it be so,” where it comes from—just to talk about it a little bit more, and we’re going to get back to “10,000 days left” in just a moment—is yes, we can see evidence for positive shifts of human collaboration all over the place at an increasing rate, but we also still experience ourselves on the brink of extinction as a species. And so, “May it be so,” will this conscious revolution happen at a pervasive enough level quickly enough that there will really be a shift into the next centuries? I think the word would still be out on whether or not that positive shift will occur or not.
PB: That’s correct, Tami, and you know, we do live in a very uncertain universe. We’re clamoring for safety and certainty, but we’re just in the wrong place. You can look at the universe at large: If it had just a little bit more mass, it would instantly collapse, or a little less mass, it would instantly fly apart. If we had a little bit less oxygen, we couldn’t breathe. A little bit more, and we would starve! The range in which life happens has always been very, very thin, and I would propose that that’s probably going to be the same case in the future. It’s a 51/49 chance that we’ll actually make it, but I think there’s a better than 50 percent chance that we’ll make it.
TS: Once again, may it be so! [Laughs]
OK, Peter, I want to know about you. Here you are, you’re in your late 40s, you have a successful career behind you as a musician running a record label, and you’re starting to ask some deep questions about your life. All of this is a precursor to the research and writing of the book, Ego. Tell me about that, and how it brought you to this central theory of evolutionary development.
PB: First off, I have to say that I didn’t ask any deep questions. Actually, it was a pretty lightweight question. I was in my late 40s when one morning I woke up and realized I have 10,000 days left to live. That’s the average life expectancy in your late 40s for a male. I said, “Well, how am I going to spend that time?” I’d had pretty good success, I was in a great relationship, and I had really no urgent issues that I had to deal with. Given the fact that I had 10,000 days to live, I started to investigate what makes a life that’s fulfilling, that’s satisfying, and that’s productive. I started to say, “Anything’s on the table.” I went into the deep wisdom traditions, into New Age spirituality, and then into the soft and hard sciences—into genetics and neuroscience and psychology and happiness set points, all of that together.
It took me about five years until I realized that there are pretty clear patterns that emerge. One that is more important than any other is: How do we make decisions? I realized that decisions are always driven by the desire to have a pleasant, positive outcome and avoid a negative one. With pain and pleasure, that’s pretty obvious, but that’s also true for higher emotions and behavior. We want to be liked in a group. We want to avoid being rejected, we want to be accepted, and all of our behavior centers around that. I realized that emotions and feelings really evolved to indicate whether we’re succeeding in doing something positive for ourselves as an individual organism, or whether it gets us close to some threat.
When that became clear, the next step was that [pattern] happened not only when I was experiencing something in the immediate environment, but also when I thought about something. When I thought about succeeding at getting another gold record, or thought about somebody panning the next record so it wouldn’t sell well, that generated emotions as well. Then, with what I learned from science, it was pretty obvious that what happened was I [was using my] imagination, and I was fantasizing about a positive or a negative potential future. At the center of that imagination was the concept of myself, and that’s really the ego and the ego function. That happens all day long, but it happens mostly blind. Unaware of this process, we’re trapped, constantly trying to imagine a better future and avoid a worse one.
It was really a whole series of logical and theoretical perspectives on this, but more profound, as I really understood that from a conceptual perspective, a shift happened internally that was very, very visceral. I remember clearly one evening—it was, I think, 2006—I was sitting in our living room, and I was reading and writing, and I just jumped out of my chair, and I told my wife, “I’ve got it! I don’t exist!” It was just a flash of lightning: My God! I’m making it all up! The “me” that I’m running around with, the “me” that I think I am, is nothing else but generated in my mind to function in complex environments. It had a really profound impact on how I felt, physically. It was like a big rock was thrown off of my shoulders, and there was a lightness and an ease that followed from that that really was quite liberating.
TS: Yes, let’s talk about that: “I don’t exist.” So the concept of yourself is what you discovered didn’t exist.
PB: That’s correct. I mean, obviously I exist as an individual, living organism, but the “me” or the “Peter” is a concept made up in the mind, and the same is true, for instance, if you look at society. “Society” is a concept, and we use it. “American” is a concept. We generate these concepts to organize our world, and we use the self-concept to organize our individual world, but it still is just a concept that is a place holder to organize your world around. It has no existence in and of itself.
TS: So after this moment where you saw this, did you start to recognize changes in the quality of your life?
PB: Yes, quite dramatically. I was fortunate enough that I always had a pretty happy predisposition, but in stages and different degrees, from then on, it seemed that I took things less and less personally, and when mishaps happened, it was more funny than dramatic. Unless there was an imminent physical threat or danger to myself or anybody close to me, all other events lost their significance. You know, when I was accepted or rejected somewhere, if somebody liked me or not, it became far less significant. If I embarrassed myself, it was more funny than anything. When I felt guilty, it was more like a curious sensation that I could learn from, rather than, “Oh, I’m a bad person! I did something wrong!” The relationship to all of the emotions and sensations that I experienced took on a very different and much lighter tone.
TS: After that moment (which sounds a little bit like a “lightning strikes” moment), when you would see the ego rise and take hold of a situation, would that still happen to you, but you would have conscious awareness, “Oh! That’s the identification with the self-concept coming on the scene”?
PB: Absolutely. It happens all the time. You know, I still do silly stuff that I get embarrassed about. I can feel the sensation of embarrassment, but how I relate to it internally is a way that it can dissolve much more easily. There’s no hanging onto it or ruminating about it. Yes, of course, the ego is there constantly, and it is more seen as a function, expanding and contracting and solidifying and becoming transparent. But it certainly is not something that I see as a solid entity that should be improved.
TS: Explain that a little bit more, the expanding and contracting and being transparent. I get the “being transparent” part, but the “expanding and contracting” part is not clear to me.
PB: The contracting part is, when there is a threat that is perceived—again, you’re exposed to a large group of people, and you have to make a presentation, and you could potentially mess it up, then there’s a little bit of fear, there’s a little bit of anxiety that happens, and that’s a contraction. Then, when you’re in an environment where you feel accepted, then you relax and your sense of self dissipates a little bit, and it expands. It includes your family. You lose a sense of ego when you’re with people that are your loved ones.
TS: OK, Peter. We started talking about how there was this conceptual revolution 50,000 years ago, where the human ego came on the scene as an evolutionary function that was obviously needed, evolutionarily, to accomplish certain things. Here we are, 50,000 years later, experiencing what (maybe) we can call a “conscious revolution” or an “enlightenment revolution.” In order for something to really be evolution, meaning enough people are participating in it that an actual change—we cross a mark. There has to be enough humans that are participating. Do you have some idea that there is some percentage of the population that’s needed, that this will happen over however many years or centuries? What’s your view of this conscious revolution or enlightenment revolution that qualifies it as a “revolution”?
PB: Well, there is no simple answer, and a lot of speculation is involved. But you can look back and actually, first there was a handful of people that thought women should have voting rights, and today we don’t discuss it anymore. Civil rights, half a century ago, were hotly debated, and now they’re marginally debated, and it’s mostly accepted, as are gender rights. I propose that this is no different, but the important thing to keep in mind is that it is intergenerational. It is not that all of the human beings suddenly get struck by lightning and realize, “Oh my God! I’m just running around with a mental concept!” I believe that this will play itself out in culture and over generations—that the generation that’s born now and is growing up now will grow up with far less ego identification than the last generation. There’s social media and the way they relate to each other, and they grow up with a far more integrated and open society than we did and our parents did. I think that this revolution is not something that is within a couple of years, but within a couple of generations.
TS: Do you have a sense, Peter, when you meet people or interact with people, a way to tell what level of ego identification they’re operating from? You talked a little bit about your own experience and the shift you saw in yourself. I’m curious: When you interact with people, do you think, “Oh, that’s somebody who’s not very ego identified,” or, “Oh, that person is quite ego identified,” a sort of litmus test that you use?
PB: Well, again, it’s not a hard-core measurement. When people have experienced a lot of stress and so on, ego identification can slip a little tighter. When they’ve had success, then it can be a little bit more loose. But generally, it plays itself out in how people move, how they laugh, how lightly they take events that occur, and in general, it’s a lightness. I mean it’s called “enlightenment!” The word “light” in there is very significant. It’s not something that you hunker down and you’re defending yourself, but you open up. Openness and lightness are clear indicators.
TS: Finally, Peter, our program is called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious what people’s personal edges are. Here you’re coming out with this book now, after many years of research and writing. What questions are still burning, if any, or [are] still active inside of you as the book comes out to publication? What edge is there for you, both personally and around this work?
PB: I would say that human evolution is mirrored in individual development. Individual development has no end point. It keeps going and keeps going, and you always find a new edge. Basically, it plays itself out in [asking,] what kind of stress can you stay open with? What is the threat that triggers you to shut down? With higher degrees of conscious awareness, you’re capable of handling more threats and more diverse perspectives without attacking them, without defending your own ones. There’s more flexibility with viewpoints, and that can expand consistently. I can’t see an end to the capacity to understand and sense and empathize with other human beings, so I don’t think it’s a hard edge, but it’s a moving expansion.
TS: Wonderful. I’ve been speaking with Peter Baumann. He’s the coauthor of a new book called Ego: The Fall of the Twin Towers and the Rise of an Enlightened Humanity. Coming up, I’ll be speaking with Peter’s co-writer, Michael Taft, and we’ll talk more about this fall of the Twin Towers, and how that relates to the rise of an enlightened humanity, in part 2 of this week’s Insights at the Edge.
Peter, thank you so much.
PB: Thank you, Tami.
TS: It’s wonderful to talk to you, as always.
PB: As always!
TS: We’re now going to continue our conversation about the book, Ego, with coauthor Michael Taft. Welcome, Michael.
Michael Taft: Hi, Tami.
TS: It’s always wonderful to talk with a friend here on Insights at the Edge. We’ve known each other a long time.
MT: Indeed we have. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, as well.
TS: OK, so here we go. The subtitle of the book is The Fall of the Twin Towers and the Rise of an Enlightened Humanity. Help our listeners understand what the events of 9/11 have to do with the findings and the theoretical framework of the book.
MT: You know, it’s always interesting to look at outliers, because outliers give us deeper insight into the unadulterated version of something. If you really want to understand what a golf pro is like, you’re going to look at Tiger Woods. If you really want to understand about how billionaires work, you’re going to look at Warren Buffett or at Bill Gates. Right? These are extreme cases, and they give us the purest view of something.
What’s interesting about 9/11 is that some of the characters who are responsible for this tragic event are really outliers in terms of the ego and some of the other features of human experience that we wanted to describe. It’s one thing to talk about how the ego works in your next-door neighbor, who is a regular, nice, average person, but it’s much more instructive to look at what the ego is like, or what these other features are like, when they really go off the rails. I think one of the things that piqued my interest and Peter’s interest in 9/11 was just how extreme some of the people who did this event were.
TS: Can you give me an example or two of what we can learn, from the September 11 tragedy, about how the ego functions, and then specifically about this idea that it could be part of the marking of the rise of an enlightened humanity? How do we see any of this in the events of 9/11?
MT: Well, first of all, let’s talk about how the brain deals with symbols and concepts. One of the interesting things that happened 50,000 year ago, as you spoke with Peter about, is that there arose a new capacity in the human brain to really imagine the future and the past, to generate conceptual representations in the mind, and to really do this at a very high level, and to use this to predict behavior and to help us in planning. Great!
This brought humanity a lot of gifts, but it also brought us some interesting inadvertent difficulties—one of which is that animals are afraid of things that are physically present in their environment. But human beings can be afraid of things that are not physically present in their environment, [that] are just images in their brains. If you’re ever lying awake at night, worried about work tomorrow, you’re doing something no animal can do. You’re imagining tomorrow and sitting there worrying about it. This is a consequence—an unintended side effect—of our capacity to imagine. Another unintended side effect of our capacity for generating these conceptual constructs is that you can become deathly afraid of something that’s an idea. For example, if you’ve ever gotten angry because someone didn’t like your ideas, or they criticized your religion or your country, you’re getting angry about somebody attacking a concept—which, of course, cannot be attacked. There’s no way to hurt a concept, so you’re having a real emotional reaction to an imaginary threat.
This can go much further. In fact, it can go way too far, as it does in the case of Mohammed Atta, one of the chief architects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was an Egyptian, and he was trained as an architect, and then went to Germany to do further work in architecture. What’s interesting with him is that he wrote his master’s thesis for his architecture degree on skyscrapers, and what did he write about skyscrapers? He felt that the skyscrapers in Egypt were symbols of Western domination and contempt for Muslims, and that the skyscrapers in Egypt were actually a kind of threat to his society, and that they symbolized, for him, everything negative about Western, non-Islam, modern culture. These buildings—which are, in fact, conglomerations of brick and steel and concrete—to him became a symbol of a threat. Emotionally, we did not evolve to distinguish between an actual physical threat in our environment and a conceptual threat in our minds. It’s very fascinating that, for him, large buildings were an existential threat, and in fact, threatened his whole society—which is another concept. He was willing to fly a plane into a skyscraper to almost “slay the dragon.” To him, it was as if it were a windmill, and he was Don Quixote, trying to take it down. The threat was entirely imaginary, you know. Those buildings, themselves, were not somehow going to destroy his culture, or kill his family, or debase his religion in some way. Here you had a person who was not clearly distinguishing between actual threats in the environment and symbolic threats in that mind, and was willing to kill himself and a lot of other people in order to take down a symbol.
TS: OK, so it’s relatively intuitively obvious to me how we could look at the events of 9/11 and understand the ego gone haywire, gone awry.
MT: Particularly in the case of Osama bin Laden. His involvement in removing the Soviet army from Afghanistan was very minor, yet in his mind, he was God’s servant on Earth, smiting the heathen Russians. He actually compared himself in many ways, scripturally, to Mohammed, and felt that he was this holy warrior sent by God to rekindle the flame of Islam in the world. He was definitely a megalomaniacal egomaniac.
TS: OK, so I’m with you. I think the part I’m curious about is: Here this is broadcasting very near the 10th anniversary of 9/11. How might we understand the events as signifying a rise of an enlightened humanity?
MT: I don’t think, necessarily, that 9/11 was some kind of trigger. It’s more symbolic. You can just see. It’s such a clear case of so many outliers, where here’s really an example that there’s many good things about an ego—we need one to function in the world. But here’s [also] how this stuff can really go wrong, and what’s really going to be overcome, or potentially overcome as humanity continues to evolve. I see it more as something to reflect upon, and deeply imbibe the understanding, like, “Wow! In what ways do I react as if symbolic threats are real threats? In what way do I react as if these things that are impersonal are somehow personal to me?” That’s how I understand it, anyway. I think, in 100 years, we’ll look back on these events and be like, “Wow! These people were crazy!” [Laughs] They really were crazy, and yet, even though the 9/11 terrorists are bad people who are really outliers, everyone had a tiny bit of that real, personal, egoic craziness.
TS: Now, I know, in the writing of the book, that you spent quite a bit of time reviewing and gathering research from many different fields, including neuroscience and genetics, and I’m curious what some of the research studies were that you found that were the most important to you, impactful to you, that really created life change for you.
MT: There’s a lot of them, Tami. It’s so fascinating, and they just continue to come in, day by day. I think, for me, one of the most interesting features is something that I first encountered in the first person, in my own meditation experience, and then began to notice a lot of research coming up about it: the fact that emotions are experienced in the body, and not in the mind. Of course, our mind, our brain triggers emotions, and we need the brain to be consciously aware that we’re having an emotional experience. But the actual experience itself is happening in the physical body.
The core of this, the origin of this, is the James-Lange Theory. William James, the seminal American genius [and] the founder of American psychology, came up with the earliest version of this theory, which was a little off. He understood that [experiences] happen in the body, but he didn’t understand what modern cognitive neuroscience shows us, which is that, of course, the brain has to first trigger the emotion. It has to evaluate the situation—for example, something dangerous, a truck, is bearing down on me. It’s the brain that recognizes that, but what we are learning more and more is that the emotional reaction itself is bodily. This is something that Charles Darwin also wrote about in his book called The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. He, too, understood that it’s a physical expression.
One of the first modern people to really get some science on the ground about this was Paul Ekman, a famous emotional researcher. He was a grad student in the late 60s and early 70s. Coming from the work of Margaret Mead and the general theory at the time, he believed, like everyone else, that emotions were entirely socially constructed. If you went to a very different culture, you would find that they had emotional expressions, of course, that they felt emotion, but that what those expressions were was entirely socially constructed. He went to Borneo and started testing the almost Stone Age tribespeople there. He chose that location based on the fact that it was about as different as you could get from Western culture. He found that he had no problem at all understanding their emotional expressions. For example, one day he opened a can of some American food. I don’t know what it was, but imagine, there he is with his Chef Boyardee spaghetti or whatever it was out of a can. The tribespeople were known as the Foray, so can picture this Foray tribesman watching him eat this food, and the tribesman just wrinkles his nose and frowns in just the most obvious expression of total disgust. Ekman had no trouble understanding that expression. That’s anecdotal, but he did do a lot of tests with movies and photographs, over and over and over again, over many years, showing that these people’s emotional expressions and their physical expressions were utterly understandable.
We have a lot of new research that backs this up. For example, if you take judo athletes at the Paralympics, who are blind: They’re blind from birth, they’ve never seen another human being, and yet, when they win, they puff out their chests and they throw up their arms in a physical display of pride and joy that anyone can understand, and yet they’ve never seen another human being do that. When they lose, their shoulders slump and their heads hang. Everyone can tell that they feel bad about it.
This really brought home the idea to me that in our culture, we feel somehow that emotions are concepts, that they’re ideas in our heads. Cognitive psychology really tries to put this forth as an agenda that we decide which emotions we’re going to have in this almost conscious, rational way, and then go ahead and have them, but that is absolutely not the case. They’re physical, and when this became stunningly clear to me, both through my own experience and then through the research that I’m describing (and a lot of other research), it gives you a new relationship with your emotions that is so powerful. They’re not somehow a thing that you’re necessarily thinking of as intensely personal and intensely indicative of who I am as a person, as an identity. Instead, they are almost mechanical reactions, programmed by evolution, that are intended to guide my behavior.
This understanding takes away the sting of—well, as Peter was saying, lately he doesn’t feel as embarrassed. If it does come up, it just doesn’t stick in the same way. I really understand what he means. It arises because that’s the evolutionarily programmed reaction, but it just kind of dissolves, because you’re not experiencing it as “who I am,” or “This is my personal, emotional reaction that I’ve decided to have.” Instead, it’s like, “Well, my lungs breathe, and my liver filters my blood, and my stomach digests, and I have emotional reactions.”
TS: So we could imagine someone, let’s say, getting very angry about something—so angry that their whole body is inflamed. They could even be shaking in anger. Their fists could be shaking.
MT: Sure. Your eyes narrow, and your forehead scrunches together, and your chest puffs up, and your arms move forward. It’s incredible. It’s a huge physical reaction!
TS: Right. I’m with you on that. I think the part where you’re saying it’s not personal—I mean, this organism is going through convulsions of red-hot flames! There’s something happening to that individual.
MT: But when you think of it the way our society does, as a rational decision that you’ve made, or at least a decision—rational or not—that you’ve [made] come to in your mind and decided to move forward with, you take responsibility for it in a way that is not helpful. It is your responsibility in the long run, the actions you make when you are angry, but to see that it’s just, “Hey, that’s what happens.” Someone violates your boundaries in some way, and you have this physical reaction. We have a romantic idea that it’s somehow this profound indication of your spirit, of who you are, that you would be reactive to one thing and not another, and instead, the understanding here—and it’s a very visceral, in-your-body understanding—is like, “You know, these things come and go all the time. It’s just part of being in a human body, or being a human organism.”
TS: Yes. I think the phrase that you used, that “there’s not as much stickiness,” that made a lot of sense to me. There’s a sort of physical processing that has to run its course. It just runs its course at the physiological level.
MT: Yes, you’re aware of it, and yet it’s just no big deal. I found that very personally helpful and profoundly life changing. It’s not the most obvious idea. As I go around talking to people about it, they’re usually almost stymied at first. They’ll go, “What! My emotions are in my body?” That was my reaction, as well. I think it’s one of the new things that we’re learning.
TS: I wanted to read a quote to you from the book, Ego, and hear you respond to it. This comes in a section of the book towards the end. Here we go: “As more individuals begin to see beyond the confines of their own cramped ego-prison, society as a whole will evolve one of the most exciting shifts it has ever made, giving up the illusion of control as the most adaptive way forward.”
MT: And you want me to just respond to this?
TS: Yes, to this idea of giving up the illusion of control, that this would be one of the most exciting shifts that we’ve ever made. What does it mean, to give up the illusion of control?
MT: This is coming from a study that was done in Germany in the mid-60s, where they discovered a thing called Bereitschaftspotential, which I’m mispronouncing, but it means “readiness potential,” and it showed that the brain sends a signal before the body takes action, and the signals vary. It doesn’t look like any other signal. They can see the signal, readiness potential, and they know that in a few hundred milliseconds, the body is going to do something. Then a famous researcher named Libet took that readiness potential signal and started testing people about when they said they decided to do something. He was comparing those two events: when their brain signaled that they were going to do something, and then when they said they had decided to do it. What he found was that the signal that they were going to do something occurred quite a bit earlier than when they said they had decided to do it. That was a controversial finding, but in the 30 or more years since that original finding, they have refined it and refined it and refined it with much more research, and the original conclusion remains: The you who thinks you’re deciding to do things is not really who’s deciding to do them. It’s the brain itself. It’s still you, as an organism—your organism is deciding to take action—but the self that thinks it’s deciding to take action is an illusion generated many milliseconds later, or the decision is generated many milliseconds later, the illusory decision.
As people begin to expand beyond the understanding of a personal ego and into what we would call a “post-personal” understanding, you see the ego function as just something that is a naturally occurring thing in your body, in your organism, but not “you” as an identity, as an entity. As that occurs, as more and more people in society have that experience—this kind of grim, overwhelming angst and pressure about the decisions you’re making—[they’ll] begin to lighten up and open up. It will potentially begin to [happen] in society, as well, where we just understand, “Look, we’re making decisions here, but it’s not such a fretful, tense, difficult thing, because actually, the self isn’t doing it, anyway. The organism is doing it.”
TS: Can you help me understand, when you say, “the organism is doing it,” what that means?
MT: Yes. It’s simple, Tami. It’s you, Tami Simon, the body, brain, animal thing that’s standing there, rather than you, Tami Simon, the ego, which is a mental construct occurring. It’s the difference between the person playing the video game—you know, the body that eats and is playing a video game—and the three-dimensional representation of a character in that video game. There’s a big difference. It’s just that our language doesn’t support making that distinction very easily, so we have to keep using this odd term, “the organism,” but we just mean you, the animal, you, the body-mind system.
TS: But the body-mind system makes decisions?
TS: But the value of distinguishing that from the ego making the decisions—can you help me understand that?
MT: Well, yes! It’s a big value! First of all, it’s well-known in creativity research. What’s the best way to get a new creative idea? Is it to sit there and try to come up with one as hard as you can, or is it much better to just let go and go do something else, and the idea will pop into your head? Again and again, the conclusion is, “Let go, do something else, and the idea will pop into your head.” Why? Because creative ideas are not coming from the sense of working real hard to come up with a creative idea. It’s the brain, the parallel-processing full brain that has the massive computing ability to come up with that stuff. You’ve just got to get out of its way and let it do that.
One of the big benefits [of getting out of its way] is we can be much, much more creative. Another one is what would be called, in spiritual traditions, the “wisdom mind.” What is the wisdom mind? The wisdom mind is nothing else but letting the ego completely get out of the way of that huge background brain doing its processing, which comes up with ideas that are, you might say, spirituality creative—insights into who you really are and what’s the nature of your experience.
TS: Just one final question, Michael. It seems that, in the research and the writing that you’re doing, you’re right now living in the nexus of so many new fields that are coming together for the first time—new fields of both soft and hard scientific inquiry into this function of how we work. What is it that’s most exciting for you, personally, in the inquiries that you’re doing? What is it that’s really driving you?
MT: I think it’s my personal experience with these understandings. It’s one thing to read all of this research, and it’s very fascinating, and it gives us tremendous traction—you can really do some things with these ideas—but as long as they remain just ideas or concepts, there is a kind of an almost junk-food quality. You can just eat a bag of potato chips, and you can just sit there and read endless research about how the brain is like this, or human beings evolved like that. But when you really start to get how it affects your day-to-day experience—what it means for your relationship with your partner, what it means for how you work with other people, what it means for your health or your experience of walking outside and looking at the trees and feeling the breeze in the air—or even what it means for your own experience of what we feel is the most intimate parts within ourselves, our spiritual being or what it means for my (you might say) soul, that’s where it gets really exciting. It’s the application to my own experience that really turns me on.
TS: And just on that note: You’ve spoken [about it] a little bit, but I’m curious what application would be the most intriguing to you right now, in your own life, in terms of what is important to you right now.
MT: There are many. I’ve mentioned one that comes up constantly, and that’s the emotional one. Emotions can run our lives. In fact, they’re intended to, but when you understand, when you have this different understanding and physical experience of where they’re coming from, it’s a very different kind of relationship.
Beyond that, the one that I just never get over is the understanding that the ego is not an entity, that there is not a little person inside you. It’s a construct. We can have that understanding very early—it’s an easy idea to get a hold of. But once you’re having the experience of that in your body—in your own processing and experience of thinking and emotion and bodily sensation and external sight and sound—and seeing, moment by moment, the ego being constructed and then, in a new moment, being constructed again, and then passing by and in the next moment being constructed again, and then passing by… and having a functional reality, but not a solid, reified thingness to it—that experience is not something I would say is trivial. That’s a very important, deep, and for me, a very fulfilling and amazing and endlessly fascinating experience.
TS: Wonderful. I’ve been talking with Michael Taft. He’s the coauthor of the book, Ego: The Fall of the Twin Towers and the Rise of an Enlightened Humanity. It’s a book from Natural Enlightenment Press that’s being distributed by Sounds True. Michael, thank you! Thanks for speaking with us.
MT: Thanks, Tami Simon. Always a pleasure.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.