personal liberation is not the end: Collective liberation and the integrated ego
Preface: Working with people is dynamic, like the world, and essays are static, antithetical to almost everything. Essays don’t really allow room for nuances in the evolution of how we might choose to refine how we communicate something over time. They don’t allow for the feedback loop that happens as we take ideas out into the world and share them around. However, essays help me structure my thoughts, and I have been very grateful to read other people’s structured thoughts, so I offer mine. I consider this piece to be a Hu/manifesto. May it support the liberation of all beings.
For as long as I’ve been aware of the concept of collective liberation, the concept of personal liberation has raised doubts in me. What I mean by that is that we have a collective belief that enlightenment, or personal liberation, is an ending-point. At least here in the West, we have a layperson's misunderstanding that nirvana is a place we are supposed to arrive - and time on the cushion is what gets us there. The cushion is the car, and nirvana is the destination, the peak, the resting place - where we finally put down the weight of this world, and stop. This story does us a great disservice. It pulls our attention and investment away from this very world, and each other. If we believe that nirvana is like Heaven and our aim is to turn our attention toward that, we lose focus on this present moment and what we have here - which is the actual point. I know this has been spoken by the wise for ages, but it seems to need a bigger platform.
Personal liberation is not the end; it’s the beginning of a whole new super-power, a whole new way of being with each other, and being with the world. It is not a place we end at all; it’s a place we begin. This can be hard to talk about (from the speaker-end) and hard to grasp (from the listener-end) because the concept of samadhi (nirvana) requires us to zoom out very far, to a place where words start to break down. Out that far, they both mean something incredibly specific, to those who understand, and can kind of be made to mean anything, by those who don’t. So it can be a real challenge then, to try and use language to communicate these far-out concepts. For instance, from the most zoomed out perspective, even “personal” liberation is a misnomer. Out that far, there is nothing personal, and out that far, the rising tide lifts all boats. When one person liberates from the human condition, we all benefit -- so everything is collective, because everything is interconnected. This is not false, it’s just not the whole truth - it is unbalanced without it's other half, the very heart of humanity. Whether we like it or not, for these 100 years of selfing we are dual creatures; and instead of abandoning that and throwing it aside, we can draw it in, hold it close, and be more fully alive.
Often this zoomed-out perspective will be used to wrongfully dismiss this mess of pain on this Earthly plane. This is called spiritually bypassing. This perspective is hollow, shallow and confused. Exactly what we cannot do is ignore this Earthly mess of pain. As Rumi says, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” Michael Singer has a whole chapter in The Untethered Soul dedicated to ‘Pain, the price of freedom.” The work of liberation is in the mess. It is the mess. We must be able to both zoom out, and be here at the same time. The widening perspective doesn't take us away from this mess, it allows us to be more steady inside of it. Spiritually bypassing misses the point entirely, and robs us of the true beauty of being a fully liberated human being.
There are two major categories (and innumerable subcategories) from which we need to liberate ourselves. One category is human conditioning and the other category is social conditioning. The human condition is our inability to experience Reality As It Is, because we have a thinking mind. What we experience is Mind, we do not experience Reality As It Is. The Human Condition is the biggest umbrella, under which everything else sits. Social Conditioning is all the ways, under that, in which we see ourselves as separate: race, class, gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Social conditioning uses a tribal lens to say You’re-in-my-club, You’re-not-in-my-club. It is anything that makes a self and an other. There is work for us involved in both. This is why many spiritual masters have also embodied different
systemic -isms. They did not do their social conditioning work. Without doing social conditioning work, we are still promoting forms of dominance, control and harm in our very being-ness. This is not liberation at all.
Liberation only wants liberation in turn. How could it ever want us to abandon this mess? Even after we touch nirvana, we are still chopping wood and carrying water. There is work to be done here. Nirvana exempts us from nothing. This is the whole point.
Beyond this Earthly plane there really is no “before” and “after” but I would still, incorrectly, say: Before and after this Earthly plane, there are eons of non-selfing. We have literally all the “time” in the world to be a non-self. We get a precious hundred years, if that, here on this Earth to learn the gift of being human. We get a precious hundred years to learn the gift of self, the gift of ego. This piece is not to be killed off, ripped away, dissolved, or exorcized. It is a true gift of humanity, and because we see it through our lenses of human and social conditioning, it is misunderstood. This piece can be cherished, loved, and integrated well into its impersonal iteration. It, too, can grow and liberate. We do not need to continue to choose violence against the self, or anyone else. Love is still the answer, when we come to understand in truth what that word really means.
Often the talk surrounding collective liberation centers itself on love. This is probably one of the most confusing things because (as bell hooks points out in her devotional, all about love), love is one of those words for which we don't have a common definition. So the use of this word lends itself to a lot of confusion. We only really invoke the Yin version of love in our society. The Yin version is unconditional love. But it is unbalanced without the Yang of unconditional worth. You cannot love unconditionally until you know your own true value, and therefore everyone's true value. If you don't you risk getting sucked into the trap of self-sacrifice. Love doesn’t mean that we allow harm to continue to come to us, or others. In fact, the most loving thing we can do in a situation where there is harm, is to A) stop the harm, and B) assist the person doing harm in coming out of their delusion that harm is the correct way to solve the problem. Accepting harm is born from trauma just as much as doing harm. It is not saintly to let someone hurt you. This is another common collective misunderstanding. This behavior keeps both parties trapped in a bad pattern. True Love is calling people higher, up out of their confusion. It doesn't always work, but it always tries. True Love has to speak truth to power in order to say, “Stop. I’m better than this, and so are you.” This is the Yang wisdom we are often missing.
The move then, towards collective liberation is a movement of collective love. It is a fight - but not from the traditional lens. It is a fight for us all. We aren’t fighting against each other, we’re fighting for each other, and against the violence that comes at us from the collective agreement about power distribution that we tend to call The System.
The System doesn’t really exist. It’s not a person, place or tangible thing. Not animal, vegetable, or mineral. It isn’t an entity. It is a collective belief, which has become a silent collective agreement - a terrible secret contract that we have with each other. For as long as we continue to uphold these collective agreements in our interactions with each other, The System will continue to exist. Additionally, for as long as we continue to attempt to use The System’s methods (or the master’s tools) against The System itself, it will continue to exist. This is why collective liberation requires of us the ability to employ a new paradigm. We must be willing to break the secret contracts of The System inside of our interactions with each other. This means speaking truth to power, standing tall, learning when to lead and when to follow, becoming stable in the mess, developing the muscle of compassion, learning how to hold a container that includes all the emotions, pointing out to people what they cannot see for themselves, and listening when people are pointing out those things to us. Collective liberation is being willing to take responsibility for not only our selves, but each other, and each others’ liberation. Collective liberation is giving each other the choice of growth. We can’t do that when we are keeping ourselves caught in bad patterns, asking others to be caught in patterns with us, or supporting others in staying in their patterns. We have to practice bravery. We have to practice True Love.
The opposite of calling people out of our cages, is using fear to stunt each other. This is not uncommon, particularly in parental (or adult) relationships with children, and also not hard to understand. But that doesn’t make it right, or true. Teaching our children to obscure their light is unspeakably dangerous to them. Even adult to adult, we believe it’s better to be alive and small, than big and dead. This is a false equivalency. Staying small never kept anyone safe – as it is, in and of itself, a form of harm. Keeping oneself small, obscuring your light, means you are doing the master’s work for him. When we keep ourselves in cages, we are perpetuating the desires of The System. It is a seductive and easy way to believe that everything is copacetic when it is not.
The point I’m making is that we need an ego to make things better. We need an ego to want, and the integrated ego wants something better for the collective (which includes itself). We need an ego to fight, and an integrated ego fights for each other. When it comes to fighting for the soul of the collective, an integrated ego is the lynchpin, an integral part of the toolkit. An integrated ego helps us to effect change, to direct power, and thus influence systemic power dynamics. When the ego is integrated properly, we can fearlessly, boldly, and lovingly, course-correct each other on this Earthly plane. Integrated ego is rocket fuel for getting us to that other world, that is not only on her way, but present right now. It is also the constant, soft refrain of accountability in interpersonal connections: “I'm better than this. You’re better than this. We are all better than this.” It is the steady walk, through acceptance of the pain of the present, powered by belief in ourselves, each other, and the future.
One of the fundamental fallacies of the human condition is that we believe that the world is made up of humans selfing. Based on that fallacy, we believe that if we can rid ourselves of that piece, we can rid ourselves of the problem. But in reality, because the premise is flawed, the answer, it follows, is flawed. Wanting to exorcize the ego is confusion born from this fallacy.
Society is not made up of humans selfing, but rather society is made up of the interactions between those humans. The ego is not the issue, it’s that we still see everything as though it begins and ends with the self. In reality, society begins and ends, quite literally, with interactions between the selves. When we can learn to free our minds from conditioning, we will liberate ourselves. When we can learn to free our interactions from conditioning, we can call other people into liberation with us. Not everyone will be ready, but when we begin to love each other in such a way that our love calls people higher, we will be creating a future world that is bigger, brighter and freer. We will be investing in, not turning away from, this worldly plane. The precious hundred years we spend here could be truly worth something. We could spend them loving ourselves and each other, rather than attempting to repress, suppress or escape the very thing that makes us so gratefully human.
Another world is possible. But it takes more than meditation. It takes more than going away on retreat. It takes more than time on the mat, though it involves those things too. It takes a paradigm shift - from me to WE. It takes personal practice as devotion to the collective. Not personal liberation for samadhi’s sake, but personal liberation for the sake of this very world! Personal liberation for the sake of the collective, all of us, right here and now. Personal liberation as a beginning, not an ending. When we are in that place - a new beginning where we have slowed down enough to observe the thoughts and feelings as they come in - we are mastering our selves, which puts us at the height of our compassion and at the height of our power. This is what collective liberation is all about, mastering our selves as a gift to the collective, not in spite of it. Mastering ourselves to be able to turn more toward each other, not away. From that place, unwinding from the delusions of this world, we have no choice but to love each other more deeply into freedom. Sometimes that love is soft, and sometimes it has bite, but it is always the only thing that truly makes sense. When our way of being sets people free, we are building nirvana right here and now.