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  • Writer's pictureCrone


In an interview with Dr. Dave on Shrink Rap Radio, Dan Siegel talked about his new book IntraConnected: MWe (Me + We) as the Integration of Self, Identity and Belonging. I’ve long been a fan of Siegel. In fact, it was his book Mindsight that really got me started in considering psychology and meditation. That book influenced me deeply. In it, he talks about the sweet spot between chaos and integration – too far one side is all disruption and unpredictability, too far the other is all rigid and dead. He stressed in this latest interview that integration doesn’t mean homogenisation but rather the honouring of difference. I like that.

But what really enthused me about this interview was his elaboration of the MWe concept. That’s something he’s been writing about for a while but this book is it seems a fuller exploration of the concept.

One aspect was a bit annoying – he says that MWe is not the interconnecting of me and we – as two separate concepts coming together (which is what the prefix inter- suggests) but something different and he cleverly came up with using intra-, which instead suggests a process in which the beings are always and already inseparable. This is annoying because Karen Barad developed the term intra-action for similar reasons more than a decade earlier.

Intra-action is a Baradian term used to replace ‘interaction,’ which necessitates pre-established bodies that then participate in action with each other. Intra-action understands agency as not an inherent property of an individual or human to be exercised, but as a dynamism of forces (Barad, 2007, p. 141) in which all designated ‘things’ are constantly exchanging and diffracting, influencing and working inseparably. See here.

Enough of that, though, the part I liked was his discussion of ‘SPA’ – how subjectivity, perspective and agency are altered when we move from Me to We. If I am always already part of the whole plethora of life on earth, then my subjectivity takes into account the needs of all other beings.

It seemed to me that it is related to ideas that I have been considering in my (paused) work on animal cultures. Instead of summarising it, because I am lazy, I will just copy here some of the relevant passages.

****WARNING!!! This is long, taken out of context and unfinished!!! It's also written in a seriously awkward and formal style. Must change that....****

While humans, and ethicists in particular, often tend to prioritise the value of each individual alone, as though each were independent and largely in competition with all others for respect, resources and rights, this might be inappropriate – and not just for other animals but for us too.

We appear to carry with us a belief that is akin to the theistic notion that ‘the King of the kings of kings stamped every man with the seal of the first man, and none is identical with his fellow. Therefore it is the duty of every one to say: For my sake the world was created’ (CLARK). Certainly, most ethicists do not restrict this special stamp to humans alone, but spread it more generously to all ‘persons’ or all ‘sentient beings’, for example. But the world, of course, was not created for any individual’s sake. Nor does a vision that seeks to make the world conform to the specific needs and preferences of all individuals simultaneously seem like a project with any realistic chance of success.

Their fixation on individual experience as the only benchmark for well-being causes them to neglect the fractal dimensions of flourishing: the recognition that true well-being can only exist within a flourishing community embedded in a healthy society and a thriving natural world. Although each of the moral rationalists has his own political outlook, they share the conventional Western obsession with the individual pursuit of happiness as the value that trumps all others – the implications of which have profoundly influenced ethical norms in recent decades. (Lent 2021)

Cooperative and symbiotic processes complicate any simple picture of life as the struggle of a self-determining and self-organizing or otherwise bound biological units, regardless of whether these units are thought to function in competition or in sympathy with others. Organisms do not have clear and distinct boundaries that separate them from other living things. They survive cooperatively and symbiotically or in struggle, but not alone. (Willett 2014)

Further, I believe it is unlikely that any other beings consistently approach life with the individual consciousness uppermost. Now, certainly when an arctic hare flees from an arctic fox she is concerned with her escape and he with his stomach – and those of his mate and pups – but such moments are a mere part of experience and may represent a mere part of what consciousness ‘is’ for other animals.

The concept of the individual, which is key in Western philosophy, seems to arise from the sense of the ‘self’ as an independent unit of being. Neil Evernden, quoting John Hanson, writes: ‘Descartes created “a philosophy of solitude”, and we suffer still from his success in “drawing a set of rigid boundaries around the cogito, [and] in withdrawing the ego from the world and body”’ (Evernden 1985, 45). But what if the sense of ‘self’ is taken to be more variable, porous, fluid and expansive? If you watch a flock of geese grazing in a field, at various points a few geese may raise their heads and start looking around. If other geese do not respond, they will resume grazing. Then, at a certain point, when some geese look up, their fellows do respond. The effect ripples through the flock. When some number of geese have stopped grazing, a few will begin to increase their energy – flapping wings and calling, perhaps. This increased excitement also flows through the flock and when they take off, they will do so simultaneously. No ‘leader’ has issued instructions. Rather, it is as if the flock is ‘of one mind’ – they share awareness, they are attuned: there is a group consciousness.

Humans can and do experience something like this – there is an expansive literature on the subject, much of it drawn together in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: a history of collective joy (Ehrenreich 2007). While such experiences may have played a large part in earlier cultures, they seem to have been subordinated in favour of the limited consciousness of being an independent individual self. Yet it is important here to acknowledge that while some (many) of us may not value group awareness or group consciousness, it may in fact be vitally important and even meaning-giving to other animals. As it once was, plausibly, for us.

This argument is explored by historian Morris Berman in The Reenchantment of the World. He writes that up until the eve of the Scientific Revolution, those in the west still experienced nature as a place of belonging:

A member of the cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to his life. This type of consciousness - …’participating consciousness’ – involves merger, or identification, with one’s surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness that has long since passed from the scene. (Berman 1981, 16)

One might well be sceptical: how can we know what they experienced? There is support for the view in anthropology, as suggested in earlier sections. The sceptic might still argue that even if this does suggest that Homo sapiens does or did experience this merging, why believe it of other animals? Bidirectional inference, as described above, offers a solid foundation for so doing. There is also some evidence in ethology.

In my experiences with wild animals, mainly birds, I have become increasingly aware of their constant and vibrant alertness as they maintain their awareness of others. Emotional signals flow unimpeded through a group, which responds as one to threats, opportunities and, beyond that, to some sense of ‘it’s time to move on’, as with the geese. Pairs and group members are in constant contact with each other. Knowledge and information are continually shared, both inter- and intra-species. They are a bird-wide web of information about their surroundings. David George Haskell, in considering black capped chickadees) writes:

Their intelligence resides both within individuals and societal relationships. A Chickadee therefore lives in a dual world: a self and a network… Chickadee memories… live within societal relationships. The birds are keen observers of their flock-mates. If one bird should happen on a novel way of finding or processing food, others will learn from what they see. Once acquired, this memory no longer depends on the life of any individual; the memory passes through the generations, living in the social network. … regional traditions colour this cultural knowledge… (Haskell 2017)

This is, it seems, the case not just of group-living animals but of those traditionally considered solitary, like bears. Livingston argues, for example, that bears are not strictly independent individuals. Female bears usually have young (cubs stay with their mothers for three years) and males interact with females to mate and in groups when there are salmon-runs, for example. But even though they forage widely alone much of the time, they seem to have an awareness of where other bears are. He quotes from The Sacred Paw, written by Paul Shepherd and Barry Sanders:

If socialization is defined by living in packs or year-round mate association, then bears are solitary. But perhaps the net of bear sociality is cast so wide that primate observers like men, with their poorer senses of smell and hearing, cannot appreciate its subtlety and scale. If bears have in their heads a constantly revised map of the locations of other individual bears, should we not consider them as truly socially oriented? (Livingston 1994, 109)

For Livingston this ‘net’ suggests a group awareness, if not the same intensity of group consciousness as seen in the geese, but a relevant factor nonetheless in the lives of bears.

Barbara Smuts believes that she came to experience ‘participating consciousness’ when she spent every day, from dawn to dusk, over a prolonged period with a troop of baboons:

I had never before felt a part of something larger, which is not surprising, since I had never so intensely coordinated my activities with others. With great satisfaction, I relinquished my separate self and slid into the ancient experience of belonging to a mobile community of fellow primates.(B. Smuts 2005)

That it was the first time she had felt like that should not be surprising – meditators sit for 10,000 or more hours to experience the blurring of the ego’s separation from the other and psychedelic explorers engage in ritualistic traditions with psychotropic substances. But that she could experience it at all is suggestive: ‘being-in-community’ may just be what it’s like, much of the time, if you don’t have the ongoing chatter of the monkey (or rather, all too human) mind going on in the background. Maybe our loss of group awareness or group-consciousness is a devolution rather than an evolution.

We might take this further. The freedom from metacognition is also a key element of ‘flow’ - ‘the wholistic sensation present when we act with total involvement’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1975). In his 1975 exploration, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined the flow state as a state that merges action and awareness; in which attention is centred; where there is a loss of the ego (here he refers to the loss of self-awareness); where one in control of one’s actions and environment, or ‘[r]ather than an active awareness of mastery, it is more a condition of not being worried by the possibility of lack of control’ and where there are demands for action and clear feedback (Csikszentmihalyi 1975). He also comments on the autotelic nature of flow – actions are done for themselves, not as a means to an end.

I will address that final point in a moment, but before I do, I will add that Csikszentmihalyi goes on to stress that flow cannot be found in situations of anomie or alienation: flow demands certain rules or limitations (the rock climber is constrained by foot and hand holds and by the drive to go upwards, for example) and demands a sense of belonging in the environment. Behaviour within a culture conforms to this requirement: there are rules and each member belongs. The sense of being a part of a culture doing what it does – like foraging together, hunting together, grooming each other - may confer the merging of action and awareness, the focussing of attention, the loss of self, the sense of control and so on. While we may see the instrumental need to get food, say, that may not detract from the experience of being present and truly being. For more solitary animals, like a hovering kestrel or a cheetah in her electric chase, the ‘rules’ are still there: given by the animal’s physical abilities. As for alienation, that would appear to be an alien concept to attempt to impose upon an animal who is not group living. In addition, the sense of belonging in that environment would confer a powerful at-home-ness that too few of us mobile, displaced humans enjoy.

Val Plumwood suggested that instead of focusing on the self-determining freedom of the individual, humans ‘need to see ourselves as more limited beings, constrained by the ecological needs of the larger biospheric community’ (Plumwood 2013). But it seems to me that this way of putting it privileges the consciousness of the atomised individual, when, in contrast, it could be seen to be limited and detrimental to our (and the environment’s) future. If one experience’s oneself as part of a process, inseparable from the rest of life, dependent, vulnerable and entangled, then we may be able to find greater value outside or beyond the mythical units we take ourselves to be and free ourselves from the neurosis of individual supremacy and environmental destruction.

Indeed, rather than looking at animal cultures from some neutral, disconnected standpoint, perhaps we could realise that we are entangled in all of them – reliant, as we are, on the boreal forests; parasitic, as well are, on the tuna communities; destructive, as we are, on the cultures of most free-living and all domesticated animals with whom we share this biosphere. The process, described above, of attending to animal cultures may assist in this psychological transition. In her work on Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil, Elise Aatola investigates what she describes as ‘attentive love’:

The aim, therefore, is to “unself” by resisting imageries that we create and project from a self- directed position. We are to acknowledge that others may be utterly dissimilar from the definitions we have created, and to recognize that we ourselves may be quite distinct from our inflated self-image.(Aaltola, n.d.)

As an example, I put out food for the birds in my garden. I could say that they have become part of my personal cultural unit. But instead, I see myself as an aspect of theirs. They register a correlation between me going into the garden in the morning and the food appearing. I might project an image of myself as a ‘provider’; but the starlings and pigeons do not see me in that way – they see me as a potential predator and wait until I have gone inside before they eat. I accept their cultural projection, and comply with their need for me to absent myself, without feeling that I have been put upon or disrespected. I do not expect gratitude. The robins, blackbirds and tits see me as a potential but less daunting predator who has the benefit of scaring the larger pigeons and more boisterous starlings away. They like me to be in the garden for that reason, but prefer me not to move about and not to look at them. By conforming to their cultural views of me and being conciliatory I can have a benevolent impact on what has become part of their inter-generational cultural practice – feeding in my garden.

Well, I did warn you... but I can hope you can see how 'mwe' might work in this context.

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That's helpful - the scope of the MWe concept is hopeful . Well explained. Have bookmarked the Siegel interview. And I recognize some of your other references :-)

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