How does an entire culture maintain a false idea about the nature of existence? How is that illusion hurting us?
Many people in the West internalize the idea that each of us is an individual—an entity separate from others and our surroundings. Philosopher Alan Watts claims that this “ego illusion” manifests in Western society through paradoxical cultural expectations for each person to be an individual.
Keep reading to understand Watts’s take on Western individualism and to learn three ways it harms people and the environment.
How Society Reinforces Western Individualism
Watts explains how Western society perpetuates the ego illusion through underlying community expectations for each person to be independent. Society reinforces the mandate for Western individualism by using expressions like “Be yourself,” or “That’s not like you.” Watts writes that everything about a person is transferred to them from society—our genetics, our cultural beliefs, our language—yet Western society tells people they’re separate individuals.
(Shortform note: The concept of being your most authentic self is a common ideal expressed in Western culture. Although Watts frames this idea as an impossible goal with a false premise, many authors present it as a solution to feeling inadequate. For example, in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown argues that presenting your authentic self to the world fosters a sense of worthiness—the idea that we are enough as we are. On the other hand, in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith suggests that being too committed to your idea of your true self can cause you to be inconsiderate of how your behavior might negatively affect others.)
This creates a paradox where society demands that everyone be an individual, but the fact that the mandate comes from society means that people are inherently linked to society and defined by it. When Westerners go along with society’s idea that everyone is an individual, they become simply a product of society and thus not fully independent agents. Therefore, Western society is based on a contradiction—a situation Watts refers to as the “double-bind.”
This situation is like when people tell you, “Don’t care what other people think of you—do what you want.” It’s a paradox because if you follow the advice, then you’re actually doing what someone else wants and showing that you do care what other people think.
(Shortform note: In contrast to Watts’s emphasis on how language contributes to the ego illusion, some researchers theorize that the period of settler colonialism in the US during the 1800s contributed to its cultural emphasis on individualism. During this era, settlers entered new, unfamiliar environments and wanted to strike out on their own to achieve upward economic mobility. Researchers suggest that this romanticized concept of rugged individualism persisted over time as a cultural ideal.)
The Impact of the Ego Illusion
After explaining the ego illusion and how Westerners fall into the trap of the ego illusion, Watts explores what all of this means for people practically. Watts writes that ignorance of interdependence and the Cosmic Being makes Westerners feel alienated from the rest of the world and constantly in competition with others. (Shortform note: In Lost Connections, Johann Hari suggests that spending more time in nature may help us tap into the feeling of interdependence that makes us feel connected to other beings. Hari writes that seeing a natural landscape reminds us that our pain is insignificant in the grander scheme of things and therefore helps us de-center our ego.)
Because Westerners feel alienated from others, they try to destroy nature and their human enemies, experience dissatisfaction with the present, and fear death as the ultimate endpoint of their existence.
Impact #1: Destroying Nature and Enemies
Watts claims that the ego illusion is a driving force for environmental destruction. When Westerners believe they’re separate from all other beings, it fosters a sense of hostility and competition that justifies relentlessly extracting resources, destroying animal habitats, and killing other organisms for the sake of advancing the human race. Since we are all one Cosmic Being, this unknowingly causes harm to all of existence.
(Shortform note: Other environmental advocates emphasize alternative root causes of the destruction of nature. For example, some people argue that the capitalist economic system drives environmental destruction because it relies on growth fueled by the extraction of natural resources. Others suggest that people are less aware of how their consumption impacts nature because of the increasing distance between consumers and natural resources. However, this concept of separateness is based on physical distance rather than a spiritual sense of separateness.)
Even within the human community, Watts argues that people define themselves in contrast to others. This, he argues, is an inherent aspect of existence. Humans designate certain people as outsiders to bolster their own position as part of a superior community. However, when people ignore the interdependent nature of the Cosmic Being and conflict is taken to the extreme, this leads to war and the destruction of the Cosmic Being in its various forms.
(Shortform note: In Biased, Jennifer L. Eberhardt asserts that categorizing people into groups is an automatic neurological process that helps us sort chaos into order. This phenomenon is particularly powerful when it comes to categorizing people based on race. She argues that this unconscious tendency is rooted in the biological adaptation that allows us to more easily distinguish between people of our own race compared to people of other races. However, when this natural instinct goes too far, it might contribute to the conflicts that Watts describes. He doesn’t specify exactly what kind of conflict he’s referring to, but we can infer that it includes things like genocide and other forms of violence.)
Watts writes that Westerners irrationally try to destroy the enemies that their community fundamentally depends on. For example, Christians might reinforce their identity by disparaging the behavior of non-Christians. However, if they violently eliminated all non-Christians, people would feel compelled to make a new distinction to define themselves in comparison to others. If those new groups then fight to the death, this pattern of destruction would continue endlessly until nothing is left.
(Shortform note: The Crusades, a series of wars between Christians and Muslims during the 11th and 12th centuries, are one of many examples that illustrate the catastrophic impact of conflicts that escalate to war. During these wars, 2-6 million people from Western Europe were killed. However, Watts makes a broad generalization here by implying that the ego illusion inevitably makes Westerners want to violently destroy their enemies. Statistics indicate that the homicide rate is higher in the Americas compared to other global regions, but Watts doesn’t present any concrete evidence that links the ego illusion with violent tendencies.)
As an alternative to the destructive, competitive model of conflict, Watts proposes the idea of de-escalating conflicts so that people can still have opposing views without wanting to kill each other. In this paradigm, groups can (and should) fight with each other while keeping in mind that both groups depend on each other, and all conflict is a game of push and pull where no one group should ultimately win or destroy the other. He also suggests that a deep sense of interconnectedness will naturally lead to more harmony with others—a love that comes from knowledge and not from guilt or duty.
(Shortform note: Watts doesn’t go into much detail about the practical aspects of how to practice restrained conflict. One potential strategy for individuals is to use nonviolent communication, a conflict resolution technique that is rooted in compassion. In the book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg explains that nonviolent communication avoids causing physical or emotional harm to the other person by focusing on a sense of shared humanity between you and the other person. It includes four steps: observe, identify feelings, identify needs, and make requests.)
Impact #2: Dissatisfaction With the Present
In addition to the destructive tendencies associated with the ego illusion, Watts explains that it also causes Westerners to experience a constant sense of dissatisfaction because they’re always trying to advance their own ego and emphasize practicality over simply being. He argues that only children in the West can fully enjoy the bliss and magic of every moment before they’re indoctrinated into the ego illusion. But, if Westerners embrace the idea that they’re one with the Cosmic Being, they can then appreciate the miracle of existence without feeling anxious about the future or comparing themselves to others.
(Shortform: Based on Watts’s argument, it’s unclear how Westerners try to advance their ego, or what exactly they’re working toward when they’re anxious about the future. However, we can infer from his use of phrases like “rat race” that he means Westerners generally strive for financial success and social status. Overall, Watts’s recommendation boils down to the idea of being present in the moment rather than worrying whether you’re doing what you think you should be doing. Some people recommend breathing techniques as a practical method to help you stay grounded in the present moment.)
Impact #3: Fear of Death
Lastly, Watts claims that the ego illusion causes Westerners to fear death because they’re so attached to their ego and the seemingly finite time each precious ego has to live. By observing the way that Western adults react to death and behave during funerals, children internalize the idea of dreading death.
However, Watts argues that if Westerners truly embrace the idea of the Cosmic Being, they would realize that there’s no entering or leaving the world because we are one with all of creation. He suggests that death is a spiritual opportunity for a person to finally release their attachment to the ego and remember that there’s no “self” and no beginning or end of life.
(Shortform note: In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande suggests that Westerners’ relationship with death has changed over time. Gawande writes that modern changes to the way Westerners age and die hinder their ability to cope with death in a positive and accepting way. For example, Americans are less likely to live in multigenerational households, so younger generations are less exposed to the realities of aging and dying, making them ill-equipped to face mortality.)
Exercise: Identify the Ego Problems in Your Life
Watts asserts that the ego illusion causes three major problems in Western Society: destructive tendencies toward nature and other people, dissatisfaction with the present moment, and fear of death. The first two problems in particular stem from a sense of alienation caused by the ego.
- Describe an occasion when you acted destructively toward nature or other people. This could include a time when you accidentally did something damaging, like walking on plants, or when you intentionally did something harmful, like lashing out at someone in frustration.
- How would you have behaved in this situation if you felt more connected to your surroundings and other people?
- Describe an occasion when you felt discontent with where you are in life or felt anxious about the future.
- What are the ego-associated triggers that make you feel dissatisfied with the present? For example, these triggers might include comparing yourself to others on social media or feeling like you’re not part of a certain group.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Book summary:
- Why the concept of humans as separate beings is an illusion
- Why Westerners must release their egos to end some of society's biggest problems
- How people can escape from the ego illusion