Beyond the Cult of Me – or: Transcending Individualism

Each of us is unique[1]. Fortunately, many of us dwell in times and places where this uniqueness can be acknowledged, nourished, expressed, and honoured in manifold ways without us having to fear threats to our happiness, well-being, health, or lives[2]: We can be left-handed, red-haired, or blue-skinned; we can drink red wine with fish, water with steak, or white wine with porridge; we can wear miniskirts, burkas, or tiger skins; we can write letters, type text messages, or send smoke signals; we can read newspapers, social media timelines, or tarot cards; we can watch movies, consume novels, or observe ants on grass blades; we can love men, women, both, or neither; we can believe in capitalism, in communism, or in caffeinism; we can pray to Shiva, to Allah, or to The Great Nothing; we can get our dead bodies buried, scattered as ashes, or pressed into artificial diamonds.

This sounds like Elysium – or, if not, at least like a place where men and women have courageously emerged from their self-imposed nonage and claimed an enlightened state of existence as self-authored individuals[3]. So everything could just stop here, we could lean back, relax, and enjoy the bliss of being who we are.

Each of us is unique. Unfortunately, however, many of us seem to dwell in times and places where this uniqueness is constantly challenged by circumstances around us: We praise ourselves for the unique cleverness of getting a super-cheap air ticket online – only to then blame the airline for not allowing us to change it when we change our minds; we painfully figure out the unique diet that keeps our body in balance – only to then sue the restaurant for not serving gluten-free, organically grown liquorice; we carefully choreograph our unique opinions on politicians (saviour or scoundrel), corporations (creating wealth or corrupting mankind), or species (saving bees or hunting slugs) – only to then abuse those who accidentally happen to not share those opinions; we vocally express our unique dislikes of forms (“Fat!”, “Thin!”), sounds (“Shrill!”, “Quiet!”), smells (“Roses!”, “Smoke!”), tastes (“Olives!”, “Sugar!”), or textures (“Soft!”, “Hard!”) – only to then rebuke those who do not dislike what we dislike; we travel far and wide to discover our unique true north, inner meaning, or real selves – only to then get mad at our significant others for squeezing the toothpaste the wrong way.

This sounds like hell – or, if not, at least like a place where men and women are constantly exposed to the nagging, bitching, and torturing of others around them (and of their own inner voices) who belittle, limit, and outrightly destroy their carefully groomed uniqueness[4]. So everything could just stop here, we could lean back, cross our arms, and give up on trying to be who we are.

How could this happen? Didn’t so many wise beings tell us that becoming who we really are would make all suffering go away[5]? Didn’t so many wise beings even claim that societies need to take into account each individual’s worth, interests, and well-being in order to function well and prevent violence as much as possible[6]? Yes, and yes. And that, I believe, is exactly the root of the problem: Our[7] collective enthusiasm about individualism has solidified it into an -ism of equal standing with other ideologies or belief systems; what was once intended to be the triumph of “me” over the bondage of systems has morphed into a “cult of me” – and therefore become as difficult to step out of as any sect or subconscious conviction.

Let me elaborate – and, please, do let me know where you disagree:

Logically, developmentally, and (most likely) also historically, individualism comes into play as an antithesis to collectively shared, adopted or inherited, conscious or subconscious patterns of thinking and acting in the world: The single being that is never a complete instance of all characteristics of all the groups it belongs to, the person that emerges from family traditions, tribal rites, peer group customs, or gender stereotypes, the revolutionary who sheds off the rule of tyrants, dictators, and authoritarian oppressors. Individualism, as such, is not only about being “me” but always (also) about not being something else.

Now, “not being something else”, logically, developmentally, and (most likely) also historically, can take two very different forms: On the one hand, a triangle can be red, a son can be a father, a yogi can be a meat-lover, a man can be an executive[8], and a communist can turn into a capitalist (and vice versa); on the other hand, red triangles can become geometry, fathers and sons can become dynasty[9], meat-eating yogis can become mahasiddhas[10], men in executives suites can become new working environments[11], and capitalist communists (or vice versa) can become new world orders. In other (more abstract) words: “Not being something else” can mean changing from one affiliation to another, pretty much like using a pacifier instead of a thumb; or “not being something else” can mean moving to a vantage point that encompasses the different affiliations and coordinates them in a completely different dimension, more like replacing both pacifier and thumb with the ability to self-soothe through thoughts or words (maybe gently supported by some fairy’s intervention)[12].

By intention and by aspiration, promoters of the various forms of individualism have usually equalled the emergence of the “me”[13] with the second type of “not being something else”, i.e. a qualitatively and categorically different way of being in and with the world, others, and ourselves: Realising the divine in us[14] is (and has to be) qualitatively and categorically different from shaving (or growing) our hair[15]; becoming a self-authored person is (and has to be) qualitatively and categorically different from leaving (or joining) the army[16].

Now, by whatever accident, fate, or coincidence, our ongoing excitement about individualism and its benefits has unfortunately resulted in it, more often than not, being understood (and “realised”) as the first type of “not being something else”, i.e. a way of being in and with the world, others, and ourselves that, although – sometimes belligerently – different from others’ way of being in and with the world, others, and ourselves in its specificities, is not qualitatively or categorically different. In others words: Individualism has become an -ism that we subscribe to with the same eagerness and anticipation with which we (or previous generations) signed up for hippieism, yuppieism, or appleism. The “me” that was once a hard-gained victory over the tyranny of systems has fallen into the trap of becoming a system itself – the “cult of me” was born.

This is even more dramatic as so many (if not all) tried-and-tested approaches to pulling ourselves out of the mud of -isms used to be built around strengthening a “me” (which was supposedly suppressed, enchained, and smothered by whatever -isms it was – consciously or unconsciously – exposed to). So, sadly, trying to use these approaches makes us sink even deeper into the mud we’re trying to get out of. Becoming more of a “me” cannot be a cure to separate us from the entanglement with the “cult of me”; becoming more of an individual does not free us from our allegiance to individualism[17]. Quite the contrary: Trying to use these approaches can even make us more edgy when it comes to perceived transgressions into the realms of our “me”, because we’ll (wrongly) feel entitled to make the rest of the world responsible for maintaining our individualism.

The only way out is to force (or: conjure) ourselves to move beyond of the “cult of me” in this solidified form – which is as hard as any coming-of-age story of the past, only with opposite signs. To borrow (and modify) Robert Kegan’s words[18]: Only when we realise that 1. we are not made up by our individuality, 2. the other is not made up by our individuality, 3. we are not made up by the other’s individuality, 4. the other is not made up by our individuality – only then can we enjoy the bliss of being who we are while not feeling bad about not being who we are. This, however, as Kegan cautions, cannot be taught or learned – but (this is the good news) they can be developed.

If you followed me so far, and if you’re curious about life beyond the “cult of me”, try out the following experiments:

Embrace discipline – Pick 1-2 things you know would be good for you to do and stick with doing them on a regular basis – meditate for 5 minutes every morning, run for an hour every weekend, drink a litre of water every day, call a remote friend every week, read a book every month – don’t pick things to not do, don’t worry about any reluctance to do what you commit yourself to – enjoy what you’re doing, regardless of whether it feels like you’re being you or not.

Remember manners – Recall 1-2 things you were brought up with as: “This is how you do it!” and (re-) adopt them – say: “Good morning!”, “Good bye!”, and “Thank you!”, answer when you’re asked a question, eat sitting at a table, using knife and fork (or chopsticks), use a napkin – pick things that are easy, beautiful, and elegant, don’t worry about any weird feelings that come up while you’re doing what you’re doing – watch your feelings, regardless of whether they seem to reinforce or contradict who you are.

Listen to Kant – The categorical imperative with regard to individuality would read something like: “Express your individuality only in ways the underlying logic of which you would want to be applied by everybody who wants to express their individuality”. Whenever you feel strongly about expressing your individuality in words or deeds, take a minute to wonder whether you’d want everybody to follow the logic that yourself subscribe to by doing so – don’t worry about the outcome of your reflection – stay with the momentary separation from your intentions, regardless of whether your conclusions increase or diminish your urge to express who you are (or who you are not).

Experiment with not being you – Occasionally, try to do the opposite of what you’d do if you were totally convinced that you are who you are – if you’re an early riser, sleep in; if you like the mountains, spend time at the sea; if you’re a talker, be silent; if you enjoy structure, don’t plan your day – make sure you pick habits that you’re really fond of (not the ones you want to change anyways), don’t worry about the awkwardness of doing the opposite – observe who is you when you do what you’d never do if you were who you are, regardless of whether you enjoy being who you are (or who you are not).

Each of us is unique. So noone can tell what your experiences will be as you run these experiments – they might be heaven, they might be hell, or they might be something in between. Don’t get excited, don’t get upset – but, in any case, don’t give up.

And don’t worry too much. Chances are that there’s another me waiting for you just around the corner. And where there’s a me, there’s also a Bobby McGee[19].

[1] For a reasonable overview of the scientific background for and the practical limitations of this statement see [retrieved Aug 20, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[2] Unfortunately, there are also many times and places when this is not true. Next to our embarrassing inability to put an end to famines, plagues, and violence, this might be one of the biggest challenges mankind is facing. Being among those fortunate enough to enjoy the freedoms of movement, expression, and personal development that allow us to indulge in our uniquenesses, the least we can do is to respect and, if possible support others’ desire to do the same as much as we can.BACK TO TEXT

[3] See an English translation of Immanuel Kant’s classic description of enlightenment here: [retrieved Aug 20, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[4] For a nice reflection on Jean-Paul Sartre’s corresponding line “L’enfer, c’est les autres” see [retrieved Aug 21, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[5] Across times and places, there are many variations on this claim. You could cite the Delphic γνῶθι σεαυτόν, Buddhist or Hindu ideas around acknowledging and awakening the divine being we already are (“Namaste!”), Immanuel Kant’s (and other philosophers’) thinking around enlightenment (see above note 3), the ideas and methods of modern psychoanalysis and its cousins – all the way to postmodern marketing claims to “be yourself”, regardless of whether this is realised through yoga, fast food, or use of social media platforms.BACK TO TEXT

[6] Unsurpassed reflections on this can be found in Karl Popper’s monumental opus “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945). If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do so. Among many other insights, you’ll get the best overview of why and how disregarding individualism becomes a threat to societies.BACK TO TEXT

[7] I’m very conscious of the fact that this might be a Western perspective, as Eastern societies, by and large, have been defined by a collectivist attitude for a longer time. However, indicators like the use of social media in China (regardless of the specific platform) or the tendency to go and study at Western Universities across many Asian countries seem to point towards at least a partial opening towards individualism in the younger generation.BACK TO TEXT

[8] If in doubt, read this.BACK TO TEXT

[9] I was stingy on music this time around, so here are two pieces to compare and reflect on what it means to be different: Look at this [retrieved Aug 21, 2015] and at this [retrieved Aug 21, 2015] .BACK TO TEXT

[10] Read more here [retrieved Aug 21, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[11] Read more here.BACK TO TEXT

[12] For an excellent illustration of this difference, read chapter 3 in Robert Kegan’s “In Over Our Heads” (1994), in particular the latter part of the chapter (although, I admit that as a European, I tend to disagree with the stick shift vs. automatic example that Kegan uses – but you can make up your own minds).BACK TO TEXT

[13] There is, by the way, an important distinction to make between individualism and egoism: In its practical form (as used throughout this article), individualism is a construction of a “me” as a self-generated value system, built from elements of other value systems, among which “egoism” or “altruism” can or cannot play a role. Beyond that, in its ideal form, individualism could even be seen as a self-generated independence from all pre-defined value systems, so, in a way, a transcendental “me” that does not know any other me than the me that knows at any given point in time – which, by definition, cannot be egoist.BACK TO TEXT

[14] I realise that it might sound weird to subsume “realising the divine in us” under the header of “individualism”. Apologies if this offends anyone’s views or convictions. If you carefully read the last paragraphs, however, I believe you can see how the original aspiration of individualism – breaking free from constraints, inhibitions, and limitations, and developing towards higher levels of insight – does indeed match many definitions of realising whatever divine nature we have. If you’re interested, I’m more than happy to explore this further.BACK TO TEXT

[15] Which, of course, does not imply that shaving (or growing) our hair can not contribute significantly to reaching that qualitatively and categorically different vantage point.BACK TO TEXT

[16] Which, of course, does not imply that leaving (or joining) the army can not contribute significantly to reaching that qualitatively and categorically different vantage point.BACK TO TEXT

[17] How hard it is to think about the shift from an allegiance to -isms towards an allegiance to a coordination of and abstraction from -isms as a shift away from an idea of “me” can easily be seen by reading the corresponding chapters in Robert Kegan’s outstanding work on development. There’s already a remarkable change in tone from his “The Evolving Self” (1982) to his “In Over Our Heads” (1994) when it comes to describing the transition from the third to the fourth order of consciousness (as he calls the different stages), but even in the latter, a lot of the language still hoovers around an emerging “me” as the coordinator of the -isms that are overcome. Try, e.g., reading his chapter 4 (“Partnering”), all the while replacing what is being said about the other person with an individualist idea about ourselves, and you’ll get what I mean. The underlying theory, however, remains undented, strong and convincing – I felt it even grew on me as I read it with the above question in mind.BACK TO TEXT

[18] Taken from chapter 4 of “In Over Our Heads” (1994), p. 128.BACK TO TEXT

[19] Here [retrieved Aug 21, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

Respond to Beyond the Cult of Me – or: Transcending Individualism

Leave a Reply