Ego and Its Discontents: Michael Pollan & Thomas Metzinger on Consciousness and Society's Problems

 
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In a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, Michael Pollan made a remarkable statement: 

The two biggest challenges we face as a culture are the environmental crisis, and tribalism…Both of which are functions of ego-consciousness.”

Striking on its own, but what made it noteworthy was that I’d heard it before, from Thomas Metzinger: 

In the end, and in the face of serious existential risks posed by environmental degradation and advanced capitalism, we must understand that citizens’ collective level of mental autonomy will be the decisive factor.”

What I hear both of them articulating, in their own terms, is a root cause to society’s largest issues: that the majority of us possess only a superficial relationship with our own minds. 


Ego

Pollan’s latest book (which thoroughly rocks) explores the psychedelic study of consciousness; it’s a first-hand account of his immersion into the varieties of conscious experience. Through it all, as with so many psychedelic-users, he experiences a falling out between his mind and his ego — a felt experience that there may be more to consciousness than the ego’s vantage point. Elaborating on ego’s relationship to societal conflicts:

The two biggest challenges we face as a culture are the environmental crisis, and tribalism…Both of which are functions of ego-consciousness, in that what we do to nature has a lot to do with the fact that we objectify nature, and that we think of ourselves as the only subject, and everything else is an object, and therefore for our use. Same with tribalism. That too is a sense of an ego patrolling a border, and that everything on this side is us, and we will protect it, and everything on that side, we’re in a zero-sum contest with. These drugs [psychedelics] offer an antidote to both those ways of thinking.”

Though so many forays into the penumbrae of consciousness end with impotent diatribes against ego, or some mystic psychobabble, Pollan’s approach is remarkably grounded; he emerges with a plan: psychedelic research should be free to resume at full speed. He doesn’t let the reader leave, however, without a final gift of insight, however vague it may be: “…the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began.” 


Mental Autonomy

Metzinger’s mirror claim comes from an essay in Aeon Magazine. In it, he makes the case for both an individual and societal focus upon his key term, mental autonomy (psychedelics also play a role in Metzinger’s vision). In short, mental autonomy is the agency we have over our own conscious experience. Metzinger draws from neuroscience and philosophy to argue that ego-consciousness is but one, shallow neighborhood of the vast and murky depths layered beneath our familiar mental landscapes.  

Echoing Pollan, he writes:  

What is clear by now is that our societies lack systematic and institutionalised ways of enhancing citizens’ mental autonomy. This is a neglected duty of care on the part of governments. There can be no politically mature citizens without a sufficient degree of mental autonomy, but society as a whole does not act to protect or increase it. Yet, it might be the most precious resource of all. In the end, and in the face of serious existential risks posed by environmental degradation and advanced capitalism, we must understand that citizens’ collective level of mental autonomy will be the decisive factor.

Both Pollan and Metzinger have policy in mind, a pragmatic grounding both unusual and refreshing in philosophy. 

Pollan advocates the psychedelic study of consciousness, while Metzinger looks more towards education: 

As a working concept, mental autonomy is an excellent new candidate for a basic value that could guide us in education, policymaking and ethics.”

He envisions the study and practice of meditation as one of multiple vehicles towards this end. Meditation, like psychedelics, enriches the relationship between attention and awareness. It introduces a quality of conscious experience less contingent upon self-reference (perhaps due to decreasing the default mode network’s neurological dominance), and in this unfamiliar space of awareness, a more enduring sense of well-being may be on offer.


Altruism of Introspection

What both Pollan & Metzinger affirm, to my mind, is that the first-person study of consciousness is a profound form of activism. This idea was not unfamiliar to Walt Whitman, who writes: 

Is reform needed? is it through you?The greater the reform needed, the greater the Personalityyou need to accomplish it.”

Meditation and psychedelics have long gone hand-in-hand. But the intimacy between introspection and activism, this partnership remains blurry. We don’t have many Allen Ginsberg’s left, who get on stage at rallies and lead hoards of activists in meditation with long, infinite drones of Om. 

Allen Ginsberg Ego

But Ginsberg was a man of his era, and we must have champions of our own times. Metzinger and Pollan may or may not play these roles, but they’re certainly setting the stage, and setting our pragmatic sights inward. 


An Impetus of Freedom

In Pollan’s book, he remarks upon the curious fact that psychedelics offer therapeutic benefit for a wide range of mental afflictions: addiction, depression, obsession, anxiety, to name a few. Rather than turning to view psychedelics as a panacea, he asks if perhaps this suggests we don’t quite understand the nature and roots of mental health. What appear as separate, distinct problems may in fact be various symptoms of a single wound. 

Perhaps similar logic applies to societal health. The largest problems facing society — take your pick from economic burdens, environmental degradation, tribalism, partisan gridlocks — may not be as separate as they seem. They may also arise from a single wound, the remedy for which both Pollan’s inquiry into ego-consciousness and Metzinger’s development of mental autonomy are synonyms: meditation. 

Not meditation in any strict sense. Rather, meditation understood as the individual cultivation of intimacy with our own minds. Each of us inquiring into the habits, blockages, and possibilities of our awareness. 

It’s from this ethic of collective introspection that prolific diarist Anaïs Nin imagines society would blossom: 

…it is this [individual] development which I believe will influence history from within, rather than systems. If enough individuals had worked at their own development, history would be formed as natural things are formed, organically, from the impulse of quality and maturity.”

If the natural formation of history relies upon individual development, society and its politics still play a vital role. The structure of the economy, medical systems, and educational institutions — all of which derive their operating instructions from political (or market-based) grounds — serve to either inhibit or encourage degrees of liberty and health requisite for development. 

In this sense, it might be our dual-responsibility as individuals and participants in a democracy, to advocate for political ideals and policies that support this development, and to do so from a place of first-hand experience, of practice with our own development. To nudge our inner, and thereby national, constitutions towards the unfolding of freedom, rather than compulsion.