Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Group Egoism

Like the personal egos that enclose our hearts, minds, and spirit, but even more destructive, a group of people can create an illusory boundary around themselves. Combining their individual egos, group members strengthen the illusion of separateness by layering the group identity onto their own or, even worse, substituting the group ego for their own. History offers too many examples of large scale, horrible manifestations of group egoism: rabid nationalism and tribalism, predatory corporatism, and violently zealous religiosity. Every major religion has at times fallen prey to this malignancy, causing abject misery, with the extreme examples ranging from massacres within and by the early Hebrews, to Christian crusades and the Inquisition, to the Hindu-Muslim conflicts of South Asia, to recent Islamic terrorism. Surely God must weep to see such evil committed in the name of religion. Extreme nationalism leads to the carnage of war, dictatorships, and untold suffering. Corporate predators defraud their stakeholders, pollute the Earth, and buy undue influence over governments, all in the name of the corporate good.

Most groups, however, do not succumb to the extremes of violence and immorality. Religions typically refrain from violence. Nations usually keep their identity without making unjustified war on others. Many corporations restrict themselves to ethical business practices. Even so, milder, nonviolent group egoism still divides the world into “us” and “them” with an absolute, uncaring wall in between.

That wall belies our complete interdependence. Outwardly, humanity shares closer connectedness than ever with the increasing complexity and globalization in the arenas of economics, politics, culture, and impacts on the Earth. Inwardly, an even more remarkable unity unveils itself as our perceptions develop. But all of this shared humanity splinters before the onslaught of egoism, whether individual or group-based.

As participants in the great enterprise of seeking spiritual completion and because of our need to share our search and to worship in community, we depend on having a clear vision of what is and what is not spiritual, of the pitfalls of group spirituality. The overriding principle may be formulated as follows: the degree to which the religion or group emphasizes a difference between members of the religion or group and non-members, between “us” and “them,” is a direct measure of its lack of true spirituality. We are all children of the same God. No religion can rightfully claim exclusivity of God’s beneficence and compassion. The rain falls equally on all plants.

One illustrative example is the Judaism of the Old Testament. In the first five books, God appears as a partisan for the Hebrews, favoring them over other tribes. But later developments in the Hebrews’ understanding of God overcome such partiality. By the time of Isaiah, the Bible says that one day all nations will flow into the mountain of God, walk in His paths, and beat their swords into plowshares — all this not by violence or coercion, but by voluntarily being drawn to the truth of the One God. Clearly, Isaiah recognized the Divine as the God of all humanity, welcoming diverse religions and modes of worship.

Today we look for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to tolerate and accept each other, to be able to pursue their faiths and lives in peace and freedom. We hope that ordinary people of all faiths will not allow ourselves to be drawn into blanket condemnation or vilification of other faiths or nations.

When we first enter a spiritual path, we can be amazed by its power, beauty, and truth. We become true believers, thinking that ours is the only way to salvation. Again, it is not so. Gradually, we outgrow our limited, exclusive view to see that other true paths exist and that no one path has a monopoly on the spirit.

Group egoism endangers us in ways that individual egoism cannot. Because we adopt the group identity, perhaps even born into it, and because the group interest seems more objective than our personal agenda, we tend to believe unquestioningly in its validity. The division into “us” and “them” appears natural, appropriate, and true. The delusion of separateness, of being special, seems so right that we cannot even conceive of the need to escape our bondage to it. Compounding the problem, groups naturally wield more power than individuals, so a group ego gone astray can create a dangerous, even evil force.

True spiritual practice loosens the bonds of both individual and group egoism, helping us become both more independent and more connected with others.


     

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