A lot of us are wondering lately why so many people seem to be displaying all the different types of bad behavior all at once. You might continually find yourself wondering, “What could be causing these people to make the wrong choice so consistently in so many seemingly unrelated situations?” The dishonesty, belligerence, tribalism, brashness, and rule-breaking misbehaviors that many people now suddenly display all at once seem unrelated, so it’s puzzling why they’d all be on the rise at the same time. Yet, there actually is a simple explanation that can tie today’s cacophonous social decline all together into a single unifying picture. This article is my attempt to outline that explanation and paint that picture.
The current unraveling of American/global civil society boils down to one thing: a movement toward shallowness. Yes, it’s that simple. More precisely, it’s all just the result of embracing, dignifying and committing to human shallowness. In past articles, I’ve referred to this as committing to “selfishness,” because selfishness is the main expression of shallowness. But, this article will make it clear why focusing on shallowness itself is necessary for understanding the mechanics of America’s current ethical backslide.
Shallowness in itself is not a problem. In fact, shallowness and depth work hand-in-hand in a healthy human being. But glorifying human shallowness and dismissing human depth is a big problem, especially when it occurs on a large scale in a community. The glorification of shallowness and dismissal of depth is spreading across the US almost as quickly as the last dangerous epidemic did.
For simplicity of wording in this article, whenever I refer to “shallowness” or “shallow people.” I’ll be referring to a shallowness that is embraced, or even glorified, as a replacement for depth. So, it should be clear that what I’m identifying as a huge problem is when a commitment to shallowness is used as a replacement for depth. Whether we are deeper people or shallower people is ultimately a matter of degree. Yet, people tend to fall on one side of the line or the other in the majority of their behavior, so I’ll speak of people as “deeper” or “shallower” in this article for the sake of simplicity. Hopefully, it will be clear that I’m essentially just trying to point out the urgent need for people to stay on the “deeper” side of that line.
There are 9 key problems that accompany such shallowness and make it easier to recognize:
1) Selfishness: trying to fulfill oneself through one’s personal conditions, not through one’s deeper identity. Shallow people will choose feeling good over being good, if they can’t have both at once (I’ll elaborate on this later in this article).
2) Double Standards: selectively applying ethical guiding principles in order to improve one’s personal conditions, which actually just amounts to not really believing in or embracing ethical principles.
3) Poor, Absent, or Misleading Reasoning: failing to apply the principles of reason, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Shallow people will choose the good feelings that bad reasoning offers, rather than the bad feelings that good reasoning offers, if they can’t feel good from good reasoning. When the truth hurts, deeper people are more likely to accept it anyway, while shallower people are more likely to avoid it or seek an “alternative” truth. Shallow people are also much more likely to unhesitatingly embrace claims that they want to be true, without scrutinizing the reasoning behind those claims. They may innocently fail to see their lack of reasoning, though, because our faithfulness to the principles of reason arises only from our deeper level, so shallow people may simply not sense when they are departing. From reason.
4) Willingness to Deceive or Embrace Falsehood: misusing language or reasoning to persuade others to believe something that is false (because one’s personal conditions will improve if others believe that falsehood), which is an anti-social abuse of the trust of others.
5) Seeking Unity through Hatred or Exclusion: selfishness is debilitating, isolating and antisocial, and is therefore accompanied by feelings of weakness, loneliness, and vulnerability. So, shallow/selfish people feel an unconscious urge to connect with others for support. Yet, their lack of principles makes them unappealing allies to principled (deeper) people, and that lack of principles offers nothing deep to bond them with other selfish people either, so shallow people can only bond together through things they have in common like a common hatred (or a common love of something superficial, like their skin color).
6) Hostility: identifying/posturing as a threat to others. When one has abandoned the principles that could have enabled them to defend themselves against opposition, they try to scare off opponents instead.
7) Never Apologizing. Apologies are our way of acknowledging that we acted upon the wrong principle and that we will embrace the correct principle in similar future scenarios. It’s how we show that we actually do know what principle we should have acted upon, and that we are indeed committed to that principle. This reassures the other person that they can trust us to behave better going forward. We should expect others (and ourselves) to not apply to right principles in decision-making on occasion, but when someone shows that they feel such decisions need no apology, they’re showing that they don’t think they have any obligation to adhere to the right principles. That’s a sign of a commitment to shallowness.
8) A Fierce Sense of Freedom. Having rejected the guiding principles that should constrain their actions, shallow people feel very free, and fiercely guard that feeling of freedom against the constant threat of being shackled by the ethical principles that ought to constrain their behavior and decision-making.
9) Divisiveness. Ethical principles are what hold a community together, in our actions and in our feelings towards each other. Shallow people don’t subscribe to such principles, so they have no goal of preserving the cohesiveness of their community. This means that when they lose their fear of punishment or censorship for their lack of principles, they’ll act without any concern for preserving the social order.
Before going into more detail in this article, I’ll just give a simple overview of how shallowness supports unethical behavior, and then I’ll also summarize how too much shallowness leads to social collapse. Afterwards, I’ll lay out the actual mechanics of that shallowness in the remaining sections of this post.
How Shallowness Leads to Unethical Behavior:
a) The laws, ethics, and social rules of healthy societies (both Christian and non-Christian, past and present) tend to center around the basic principle behind the Golden Rule, “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mathew 7:12). This principle just says that we should behave towards others in the ways that we would want them to behave towards us, if we were them, in their situation.
b) Successfully applying the Golden Role requires empathy. The Golden Rule asks us to imagine ourselves as another, in their situation, which is exactly what empathy is.
c) Empathy requires depth of thought, or a deeper orientation in ourselves.
d) Shallowness doesn’t allow that depth of thought or that deeper orientation.
e) So, from shallowness, we can’t be guided by empathy, and therefore, can’t apply the Golden Rule, and therefore, don’t feel morally obligated to follow most laws, ethics, and social rules.
How Too Much Shallowness Leads to Social Collapse
People who commit to shallowness will rarely, if ever, feel morally obligated to follow laws, ethics, and social rules. The stronger that commitment is, the stronger their inclination to misbehave is. So, when shallow people do obey laws, norms and rules, it’s not from any desire to be in harmony with others or to play a role in sustaining a healthy society. Instead, they obey out of a fear of punishment or out of a shame of being unlike the rest of the community who seem to obey willingly.
If too many people become strongly committed to shallowness, therefore, the shame that holds back their misbehavior will disappear, as those people begin feel empowered by their community’s acceptance and validation of shallowness. This first leads to the kind of misbehavior that those shallow people can enact without legal punishment. Then, as this disappearance of shame emboldens some shallow people to seek positions of power, even the laws themselves that restrain misbehavior will be destabilized. At this point the entire system that holds society together will start to unravel and collapse.
The dam that has long held back public misbehavior in America is breaking, due to the rise of shallowness
Another big problem resulting from shallowness is that shallow people don’t commit to the principles of reasoning or rational thinking either. When we reason, we use the rules of rational thinking to arrive at the truth, generally with an openness to whatever that truth might be. Yet, this openness requires a self-surrender that can only be found at the deeper level of our identity—the level that shallow people avoid. Since shallow people thus generally lack the self-surrender needed for such openness, they are more likely to selectively use, or “cherry-pick,” the rules of rational thinking. This lets them “prove” a truth that they like or dodge a truth that they don’t like. The more they dislike a potential truth, the less likely they are to engage the rules of reasoning that would prove that truth. In short, shallowness destabilizes reasoning.
Shallow people can be very clever and persuasive, however, in arguing for want they want. It’s just that their arguments will often be full of flaws or incomplete, particularly when they’re reasoning toward something they want to be true oraway from something they want to be false. Shallow people will conveniently misconstrue or mischaracterize situations or rationalize decisions more often than deeper people, for example. Deeper people may still make those same mistakes, but they will be less inclined to do so when making decisions that might negatively affect others, because deeper people are more empathetic, and thus will be more usually moved by ethical principles than by their personal desires, when they can’t follow both.
Because of differences between people, there will always be a wide range of people who are deeper and who are shallower. As I outlined above, shallower people are generally not inclined to follow ethical rules. So, their rule-following behavior will usually be motivated by a fear of punishment, embarrassment, etc., and not by any personal alignment with the beliefs and principles that make deeper people feel accountable to others. If deeper people seem to be in power and in the majority, then the shallower people will feel self-conscious about their natural inclination toward rule-breaking, and thus, will follow the rules from shame. This enables shallow people to behave ethically without being ethical.
Yet, people generally feel anger towards the things that conflict with what they want. So, shallow people will generally hold anger towards those who seem to expect them to follow rules that they don’t want to follow and who make them feel ashamed. In other words, shallow people will resent deeper people. From the perspective of shallower people, deeper people seem to:
a) limit their freedom of action and expression,
b) make them feel wrong or bad,
c) make them feel inferior, and
d) wrongly hold/use power
(among other common grievances).
Until recently, many shallower people sensed that they were missing something, due to the contrast with deeper people, because the mere existence of deeper people continually highlights a better, healthier way of being. This made shallow people feel cautious about their rule-breaking inclinations, or they may have been somewhat aware that their reasoning ability was subpar or unreliable. In any case, shallow people were more likely to sideline themselves on big issues, out of self-doubt or concern about their limitations. In short, they took some responsibility for their own disinclination to follow society’s rules and norms.
How Shallow “Norm-Busters” Legitimize and Glamorize Shallowness
With that in mind, let’s imagine now what would happen if an extreme but shallow norm-buster rose to power and fame in a society like ours, where shallow people typically exercised self-restraint due to shame. The norm-buster’s norm-busting would implicitly challenge the legitimacy of the norms themselves and challenge the authority of the deeper people who promote and support those norms. Thus, shallower people would see this norm-buster as a type of messiah who liberated them from their “oppression” by deeper people. The norm-buster’s rise to power would legitimize norm-busting. This would delegitimize the society’s norms and rules, and instead, legitimize or glamorize the rule-breaking inclinations that shallower people have. It also would delegitimize the deeper people who advocated for obedience to those norms and rules.
Notice how we are not yet talking about political parties here. The deeper people in power can be in any political party, or no political party at all. This is because it’s not their party that’s being delegitimized, but their principles. Norm-busting delegitimizes principles, not parties per se. If a political party has generally lost touch with its own principles as a matter of practice, then the deeper people within that party who still maintain those principles may look like party members “in name only,” because the rest of the party no longer identifies with those principles.
By delegitimizing the deeper people of the society, the norm-buster signals to shallow people that their long-standing resentment towards those deeper people was valid all along. This will make the shallow people feel resentful for having been “unfairly mistreated” by deeper people. If the norm-buster rises to the highest level of power, then this will signal to those shallow people that the deeper people in power, along with their rules, are in fact inferior. If norm-busting and rule-breaking is legitimized at the highest level of power, then the rule-following prescriptions of leaders at lower levels of power will seem unnecessary, feeble, or even malicious. So, the deeper people who prescribe rule-following will look like they deserve resentment, scorn, and even retribution from shallower people, and always have.
Shallow people will then reach a state of resentment, hatred, or even vengefulness toward deeper people. This common hatred will be enough to unite them as a group with loyalty to each other. Even though they’re propelled almost entirely by self-interest, and not by any deeper principles that they share with each other, their shared hatred toward deeper people will bond them with feelings of love and kinship towards each other. Such love and loyalty will be fragile (inevitably shallow people will conflict irreconcilably with each other, too), but it will be enough to enable shallow people to work and plan effectively together.
Notice, though, that what they’ll work toward will likely be fueled by their common hatred of an enemy, because they have no other uniting principle. Thus, their loyalty will merely be to their group itself, and not to any guiding principles shared by the group. So, another type of behavior that can help us identify shallowness is strong group loyalty in the absence of any unifying guiding principle (a common hatred or a common love of something shallow is not a guiding principle). This intense but fragile loyalty stems from inescapable feelings of desperation that arise from prolonged shallowness. The more one commits to shallowness, the more unstable one comes to feel. This growing instability leads to an increasing sense of desperation. Shallow group loyalty then seems to be the only available solution.
This is where “group think” becomes dangerous. Committedly shallow people are driven by self-interest and hatred, not by the ethical principles that ordinarily limit our sense of what behavior can be justified. Dismissing the ethical principles that normally limit behavior, committedly shallow people working together will feel free to do almost anything to a perceived common enemy, particularly as their collaboration is based in hatred of that enemy. This is a stark truth. The Holocaust is just one example of that stark truth. There have been many other examples, and it looks like we’re on the cusp of another.
Committed shallowness on a large scale is disastrous to a society.
Over the last few years, certain groups of people are increasingly embracing shallowness and committing to thinking at shallow levels, to the point that they no longer feel the need to limit their misbehavior. This is being reinforced and accelerated by media platforms that are increasingly dignifying, or even glorifying, serious misbehavior. The long, tight conjunction of Saturn and Ketu in 2019-2020 triggered this mass inclination toward misbehavior, just as a similar long and tight conjunction in 1870 triggered the ruthless Jim Crow movement against African Americans, and another in 1939 triggered the German people’s receptivity to Hitler’s barbarism toward Jews and other perceived enemies of Germany.
So, I think we need to understand just how serious the current problem of shallowness is, and how hard it will be to solve in time to prevent American civil society from effectively collapsing.
The rules of a healthy society, both legal and social, are like a dam that keeps society from being swept into the frothy rapids of anarchy. America is like a town built beneath a brilliantly engineered dam that suddenly starts to show signs of cracking. Since no one has seen a time when this trusted dam did not hold, the townspeople will be slow to believe that the dam is actually just moments away from failing.
The reason why I don’t think we can avoid some type of major social collapse is that we don’t have a viable way to correct these problems soon enough:
1) The Pandora’s box of shallowness has already been opened, and there doesn’t appear to be a way to put shallowness back in the box before it wreaks havoc. Or, to use a better metaphor, the cancer of shallowness has already metastasized at this point, and the factors that are accelerating its spread are stronger than they’ve ever been. People who already leaned towards shallowness are feeling liberated by the message that they finally can embrace their shallow inclinations fully, after always having felt ashamed and marginalized for those inclinations until now. That liberation is so intoxicating that they’ll never want to embrace the principles that previously seemed to enchain them (at least not until they see the hidden poison within their newfound sense of freedom).
2) We won’t be able to convince these committedly shallow people that it’s ethically important or rational to embrace those principles, because you would need to use the principles of ethics and reason to convince them of this, and those are the very principles they have dismissed! You can’t argue that it’s rational to embrace those principles, because they now feel free to ignore the rational principles behind that argument. You can’t argue that it’s ethical to embrace those principles, because they also feel free to ignore the ethical principles behind that argument as well. Meanwhile, their lack of reason and ethics enables them to enthusiastically embrace the storyline that they are the actual heroes of the moment, and the deeper people who oppose their behavior are their dangerous enemies. They’re like five-year-olds who have locked themselves inside the family vehicle and decided that they know how to drive. Well happen, when empowered by the car keys and liberated from the parents’ restraint, they foolishly dismiss the parents’ dire warnings and enter the freeway heading the wrong direction? They won’t understand the seriousness of their folly until after causing a disaster.
3) Millions of shallow people are all getting the message from the large media companies that they’re free to bypass the principles of ethics and reason. In other words, they’re developing into a vast unified community that doesn’t believe it needs to behave itself or think clearly
4) That community is increasingly arming itself with weapons and priming itself with violent feelings towards its perceived enemies, namely, deeper people who are not joining them in their folly.
5) There’s no “middle-ground” between shallow people and deeper people that could provide an off-ramp from their conflict. There’s no reconciliation between unethical and ethical people or between reasoning and unreasoning people. These are not two sides of a spectrum that can be reconciled by compromises in one direction or the other. They are instead like the binary positions of an “on/off” switch. One side wants the switch on, and the other wants it off. One side insists on empathy and reason, and the other side rejects both. So, there’s no “unifying message” that can bring these two sides together, as long as shallow people want to exercise the power of leadership but refuse to make proper use of the place of depth in themselves in doing so. Their shallowness cannot substitute for their own depth. So, deeper people will naturally always work to prevent the pitfalls and dangers of letting shallower people take charge. Many types of political leadership are simply not appropriate for shallow people. Being a political leader generally means applying ethical principles from a place of caring about others equally, without regard for your own personal interests or benefits. Shallow people generally can’t separate their decision-making from their personal interests and benefits.
The only way for these shallow people to see the need to embrace the principles of ethics and reason will be if they see the terrible effects of abandoning those principles for themselves. In other words, only after they crash and burn will they be able to see the mistake of abandoning principles. This is exactly what happened to the Germans following World War II. They were blindly intoxicated by Hitler’s validation of their shallowness, until they were sobered by the defeat of their own nation in war, and they saw for themselves how their shallowness caused so much grotesque and shameful cruelty against Jews and other innocent people. Like children who realize their waywardness only after killing their parents in a drunken revolt, those Americans currently intoxicated by shallowness will likely realize their misguided behavior only after they have destroyed the very home that sustains and nourishes them. They won’t realize that they’re ruining their own country until they behold their country in ruins.
The movement toward shallowness has too much momentum to be stopped by willpower anymore, in my view. Short of a miracle of divine intervention, I don’t see how it can be stopped until the intoxication it offers gives way to the stark sobriety of actually witnessing the destruction it will eventually reap. I’m sorry if this sounds dark and heavy, but I’ve been seeing this brewing for years, and I don’t feel good about not conveying what I’m seeing any longer. Please stay positive and cheerful, and also be prepared for what may be coming soon.
Legitimizing the Shallow Non-Principled Stance on a Large Scale
To be clear, the human shallowness behind the savagery of ugly periods was always there, masquerading in one form or another to conceal the abandonment of ethical principles underneath. The view, “the ends justify the means,” for instance, is really just a way of saying that it doesn’t matter what principles are applied, so long as the objective is achieved. So, this stance simply amounts to denying the legitimacy of ethical principles. One political party is adopting the “ends justify the means” approach almost exclusively now. It’s no surprise, then, that in the last two major elections, this party also did not even advance a party platform to state its guiding principles, in defiance of the longstanding custom before elections.
The biggest norm-buster perhaps in American history is the current effective leader of that party. Many followers applaud that norm-busting style, as if it offered some kind of social progress or improvement. Yet, norm-busting amounts to rejecting the principles that underlie the norms, so those followers also do not uphold those principles either. The more norms and rules that are broken, the more underlying principles are rejected. This is only good if those discarded principles are bad.
If the principle behind a norm are good, then busting that norm is bad. Like crazed children in mutiny against their parents, people are committing to shallowness and abandoning good principles.
As shallowness is increasingly embraced, ever more shallow people are calling for killing people in the other party. This is an example of rejecting good guiding principles and applying the crudest principle of all to solve a problem: kill your opponent. That principle requires no reasoning or understanding. This shows how the most committed shallow people now feel that their shallowness is valid and dignified, and that it even trumps the most basic principles, like that of respecting human life (i.e. killing as a last resort)
Listening to reason, or exercising the patience to reason one’s way through a problem, is an example of adhering to the principles of sound thinking. Another expression of adhering to principles of sound thinking is being willing to admit that one simply doesn’t know the truth when one doesn’t have enough information. If one doesn’t know that an election was stolen, for instance, it’s not a reflection of sound thinking to insist that the election was stolen. One can certainly raise the question and seek proof of such a theft, but without that proof, there’s no rational justification for insisting that a theft definitely occurred.
Why Norm-Busting Messiahs Make Huge Social Conflict So Hard to Avoid
A huge problem is that, as long as a norm-buster like the one described above is seen as noble and good, shallow people will fiercely defend his image. The norm-buster reflects the inner nature of shallow people, so if the norm buster looks noble and good, then shallow people will feel that their shallowness is noble and good as well. They’ll also feel that their rule-breaking inclinations and their level of reasoning were valid all along, and this will give them a euphoric feeling of liberation and vindication. It’s as if, after feeling inferior, wrong, and enchained for so long, they finally get to feel dignified, free, right, and validated. They’ve witnessed that deeper people commonly seem to experience such feelings, but now they get to have those feelings. Although it’s nice when people have such feelings, it is a huge problem in this case, because those shallow people will see that norm-buster as like a messiah who gives them those feelings. They’ll never want to return to their prior worse-feeling state, so they’ll fiercely fight for the norm-buster’s honor under the mistaken belief that if the norm-buster turns out to be bad, then so will they. They’ll also see deeper people as having wrongly deprived them of their dignity and validation, so they’ll see deeper people as not entitled to dignity or validation, now that the roles seem to be reversed.
This is why it’s very difficult for shallow people to see their norm-busting messiah as anything but perfect, honest, noble, and invincible. Their newfound feelings of freedom, dignity and validation seem to be inextricably tied to the fate of the non-buster. If he turns out to be bad, so too will they, by extension. If their devotion to him turns out to be a mistake, then their improved self-image will seem mistaken also.
Another huge problem is that, since government is the primary administrator of rules and norms (because rules and norms often get codified into laws), if shallow people fully embrace the norm-busting inclination in themselves, the government will begin to look like their enemy. Once government and law enforcement itself have been identified as the enemy, shallow people will see them as justified targets of their anger. But, again, they’ll no longer see any limits on their behavior toward their enemies. That’s why I’ve been feeling for few years now that shallow people are likely to cause violent civil turmoil in the US, although I have been holding off in saying so. At this point, I feel it’s a disservice to hold my tongue any longer. We all need to stay continually at peace with ourselves, yet it’s also helpful to see what challenges that inner peace may face in the near future. Be ready for shallow people to become increasingly violent over the next few years. Nothing seems to be limiting their movement in that direction at this point.
Yet another major problem is that the only way to reach these shallow people and show them why their commitment to shallowness is a mistake would be through sound reasoning. However, the commitment to shallowness itself makes shallow people reject sound reasoning, if they don’t like the truth to which that reasoning leads. Shallow people need to see that there’s a deeper way to think of themselves, and they need to see how deeper thinking offers all the good feelings that norm-busting seems to offer. They need to understand how operating from a deeper level makes people feel stable and dignified both in themselves and in their relationships with others (because others naturally appreciate our ethical and rational decision-making). Yet, such learning would reveal their current mistaken orientation, and their shallowness makes them avoid reasoning when that reasoning will reveal an embarrassing or uncomfortable mistake that they have made. They’d rather feel good in a protective bubble of untruth than reason their way to the solid ground of a painful truth.
The only way I can see a sane path out of our current problem is if the media outlets that are reinforcing the shallowness movement were to somehow reverse course and increasingly start promoting depth and discouraging shallowness. Of course, those outlets could never do so explicitly, but their coverage could do so implicitly. But, I just don’t see that happening. Those outlets are driven by financial profit and it’s extremely profitable to promote shallowness to those who want to validate their shallowness. Conversely, if your audience is primarily shallow people, then a message of depth will not be profitable.
Now, let’s dive into the inner mechanics of how such a mess arises…
The 2 Basic Levels of Every Person’s Identity
People effectively have two primary levels of thinking, or two levels that we can identify with, and most of us continually switch between these two levels every day without realizing it. We can call these the “individuated” level and the “non-individuated” level (I believe a similar notion is found throughout human psychology, although it’s not obviously tied to the same insights and explanations posted here).
The individuated level is the shallower level. In short, it’s the level that distinguishes us from other people. Identifying with the individuated level is natural and not bad in itself; it’s just the shallower way to think of yourself. Some people lean more towards this level and others lean more away from it.
The non-individuated level is the deeper level. Some people lean more towards this level, while others lean more away from it. Identifying with the deeper non-individuated level is a bit more complicated to describe, but this kind of identification is also natural and is critical for human well-being on many fronts (e.g. psychological health, societal health, sound reasoning, ethical decision-making). I’ll explain why in a moment.
Shallowness occurs in us whenever we identify with the individuated level. There are many characteristics that make you appear and feel different from others, and when you identify with those characteristics, you’re identifying with the shallower level of yourself.
The individuated level arises from, and consists of, all the ways that we learn to think of ourselves as an individual. Any attribute that can be used to separate us from at least some other people is part of our individuated identity. We can be separated from others by our sex, our age, our language, our group memberships, our skin color, etc., and the collection of all these differentiating attributes gives us our individuated identity.
The individuatedidentity is a helpful part of us that keeps track of our individual qualities, and we often must react to our environment based on those qualities. We remain aware, for instance, that we’re a woman, a vegetarian, a member of a certain family, a Yankees fan, an alum of a particular school, etc. Then, this awareness helps us make choices, like what food to order at a restaurant, which bathroom to use there, or which table to join after using that bathroom, or when to cheer at the game after dinner.
It really is as simple as it sounds; every quality that can potentially distinguish us from others is part of our individuated identity. Again, it’s normal to have an individuated identity. It’s just not the only possible way to think of ourselves, and it’s an incomplete way to think of ourselves.
The non-individuated level of our identity, on the other hand, is just the place in our awareness, or the way of thinking of ourselves, that isn’t affected or constrained by the factors that seem to separate us out from others. This is a place in us, or a way of thinking of ourselves, that is prior to the feeling of individuation (I’ll further explained that idea below). We feel very comfortable and centered here, but just not characterized by any individual attributes. The qualities that characterize this level are universal to humans, and we only experience them at this level. These are qualities like a feeling of unity and equality with others (which we then manifest outwardly as innocence, respect kindness, and fairness), a serene tranquility and centeredness, a steady joyful contentment, and a general sense of well-being (these are also, not coincidentally, the qualities that we experience when we are in what psychologists call, “the zone”). When we are identifying from this non-individuated place, there’s a tangible feeling that we are somehow deeper in ourselves, so describing the non-individuated level as the deeper of the two levels should help readers develop a sense of when they are actually identifying with this level.
To put it another way, each of us has an individuated kind of identity that makes us the unique and interesting individuals that we are. Meanwhile, we also have a deeper way of thinking of ourselves that ignores the things that seem to differentiate us from others, makes us feel contented and stable, and allows us to recognize what we have in common with all people. This non-individuated level may sound esoteric, but most people actually spend many parts of their day in that deeper level of identity, without even realizing it. In fact, during deeper thought or imagination we often unknowingly slip into this level. Whenever we leave behind any of the qualities of our individual identity consciously or unconsciously, we automatically must slip into the non-individuated level in order to do so.
It’s as if we just put in the clutch on the individuated identity whenever we dis-identify with any current attribute. And this makes sense, too. If we’re able to spontaneously drop or adopt attributes that we identify with in the moment—like we do in deep thought or as actors do for a living—then we must be able to access some layer of our identity that is something like a “blank slate” in order to do so. This is the base level of each person’s identity, upon which we layer our individual attributes. The non-individuated level of identity is this blank slate, and we use it often without even realizing it. When you imagine yourself as older, skinnier, richer, wiser, or as becoming part of a group, etc., you’re operating at least momentarily from this blank slate level in order to modify your identity. We can all recall instances where we were so deeply immersed in thought that we were not thinking of our own personal attributes for that time. We may also reach the non-individuated level in that way or in meditation or prayer as well.
Perhaps the most familiar way of accessing the non-individuated level is to “put ourselves in another’s shoes.” In such instances, we might momentarily adopt the conditions and attributes that we see in another person in order to experience what it may be like to be them. This is empathy.
To bring this all back to the focus of this article, when we apply the principles of ethical decision-making and rational thinking, as we continually must do in our daily lives, we inevitably must think from the deeper non-individuated level of our identity. Recall how I said in #3 above, “Empathy requires depth of thought, or a deeper orientation in ourselves.” A commitment to reason requires the same depth also, as I’ll try to explain in the next few sections…
How the Location of Our Identity Can Shift Between Levels
Why is the deeper non-individuated level of identity such a big part of ethical decision-making and sound reasoning? To understand why, we need to look at how our identity can shift between levels and what it even means to “identify” with something. Understanding these things will somewhat awkwardly require us to deeply discuss things that we usually don’t even think about…
Whenever we experience anything at all—a visual image, a sound, a thought, a feeling, or whatever else—three things always happen:
- We observe or “witness” the experience we’re having, whatever it may be
- We observe it from our vantage place, wherever that place may seem to be
- We observe as ourselves, whatever we may take ourselves to be
To understand ethical decisions and reasoning, we’ll only need to address 2 & 3 (although interesting things can be said about 1 as well).
At every moment, our attention is focused towards something, like an object we are seeing, a feeling we are having, a problem we are contemplating, etc. But, at the same time, our attention is also focused from somewhere. That is to say, we can focus our attention from more than one place in ourselves. Not only can we focus our attention from different parts of our body (as we might do in moments of physical pain or during sex, for instance), we can also focus from different levels of our awareness. More specifically, we can focus from the shallower individuated level or the deeper non-individuated level. This is why we have expressions like, “apologizing deeply,” or “coming from a very deep place.”
We are generally very aware of what we are focusing towards, but we are generally far less aware of where we are focusing from. We don’t realize that we can focus on the same thing from different places or “levels” in ourselves. For instance, if you first focus on a breakup decision from your feelings of resentment that your partner routinely embarrasses you with your friends, but you then focus from your compassion for the childhood trauma that made your partner so insensitive, your observation point may have just transitioned from your individuated level to your non-individuated level without your realizing it. Conversely, if I’m lost in deep thought about solving world hunger, and then suddenly feel excited about a way to personally profit from a solution, my focal point just transitioned in the opposite direction.
What I’m trying to make clear here is that we are all very capable of shifting our focus between the deeper and shallower layers of our awareness, even if we don’t realize that we routinely exercise this ability.
A Deeper Look at How We Identify with the Two Levels
Let’s look more deeply now at what our identity even is. Just as I mentioned above, we’re always focused towards something and from somewhere, but we also focus as whatever we take ourselves to be. This is the identity part of our experiences.
That identity—your identity at any given moment—is simply whatever the word “I” means to you in that moment. This really merits repeating:
Your identity is whatever the word “I” means to you at any given moment.
What’s important to note here is that the meaning of “I” will be different for you in different contexts. When you say, for example, “I’m an average height,” the word “I” refers to your sense of yourself as a human body. By contrast, when you say, “I can see how I hurt your feelings,” the word “I” may refer to the deeper level of yourself where you can imagine yourself in another person’s shoes. These are just 2 examples of how we can easily shift our understanding of what “I” means for us.
In short, we easily can and do shift our identity.
Again, we’re always focused towards something, and we are always focused from somewhere inside us. We also identify somewhat with the place we are focusing from, as if that place were somehow sustaining our very existence. We don’t actually need to do this, but if we don’t deliberately refrain from doing so, then we’re likely to identify by default with whichever level were focusing from.
Notice, then, that if we generally feel that our environment is sustaining us, the feeling of stability and safety of our own identity will depend on how stable and safe that environment feels, regardless of what we take ourselves to be. If you’re identifying with an environment that feels unsafe, you’ll reflexively feel unsafe also.
If we’re focusing from a place that somehow feels unstable, therefore, we will also feel unstable ourselves (unless we can deliberately dis-identify with that place). The individuated level, or the individuated way of thinking of ourselves, feels like an unstable place. The “9 key problems that accompany shallowness,” which I mentioned above, all amount to different expressions of selfishness, and selfishness is debilitating, isolating and antisocial. So, the individuated level feels unstable, unsafe and lonely.
Thus, a problem naturally arises for anyone who doesn’t dis-identify with the individuated level. People who are committed to shallowness are choosing to not dis-identify with the individuated level. They are choosing instead to avoid the non-individuated level, which is the always-available alternative to the individuated level. This choice makes them unable (unwilling, really) to access the non-individuated level.
The non-individuated level, in contrast to the individuated level, naturally feels stable. We feel safe, comfortable, and connected with others when we focus from this level because that is the level of our awareness where those feelings originate. Just as we can’t help but feel the warmth of the water when we dip into a hot tub, we can’t help but feel these feelings when we dip into the non-individuated level.
The non-individuated level gives us feelings of safety and stability about the outer world as well, because operating from the non-individuated level provides the grounding for ethical decisions and sound reasoning, as I will explain next. Ethical decisions and sound reasoning make us feel stable and safe because well-reasoned decisions yield largely predictable results, and ethical decisions generate goodwill from others towards us, which makes them see us as allies and not as enemies. People generally support and don’t attack their allies, but they do attack and don’t support their enemies.
So, let’s look at how the non-individuated level provides the grounding for ethical decisions and sound reasoning.
How Ethical Decisions and Reason Arise from the Non-Individuated Level of Our Identity
Let’s take a moment to think of the world in which our dreams take place. That world does not exist anywhere outside of you, and yet you experience it as a vast expanse within which virtually anything can appear to happen. This lucid inner world is often referred to as your “consciousness.” It is the animated realm of experience that is sometimes also referred to as your “awareness.” We’ll use both terms
Notice that even when you’re awake, there still seems to be such a world. It is, for instance, the world within which you create daydreams, where you envision the future, relive the past, contemplate potential outcomes of choices, do math, get lost in music, or construct hypotheses, among countless other mental activities. To put it simply, your awareness is the familiar expanse or mental universe within which all your thoughts, visions, and feelings happen and are experienced by you (by “mental world,” I don’t mean the entire inventory of all your thoughts, but rather, the seemingly vast space within which those thoughts and mental images seem to occur and exist).
What’s most important to notice about the mental expanse of our awareness is that virtually anything can appear to happen in it. That is, our awareness is like a blank slate upon which anything can be drawn or written. In your awareness, a microscopic epileptic rhinoceros can refuse to yodel, an invite-only tropical picnic for prime numbers and vowels can be crashed by all the punctuation marks, and a pair of levitating napkins can bicker with each other all day in Pig Latin. Our awareness is like a sea of possibilities, or a universe of potential, that we can tap to mentally accomplish virtually any mental objective that we decide to accomplish.
I’m highlighting the infinite potential of our mental universe in order to illustrate an extremely important, but little understood, feature of our awareness, namely, that the infinite potential of our awareness allows us to imagine or experience ourselves as virtually anything. You can imagine being a rock, a tree stump, a locomotive, one of those bickering napkins, etc. Many readers may even be able to recall dreams in which they experienced themselves as being someone other than the person they are in waking life. I, myself, have dreamed a few times that I was someone else. In fact, the experience of being someone else in one of those dreams was so realistic that I very briefly still identified as that other person even after I awoke. Perhaps some readers can recall similar experiences in dreams, but for those who cannot, past daydreams or deliberate thought experiments may provide similar experiences instead. The simple point I’m making is that, because we experience our awareness as an infinite realm of potential, we can experience ourselves as virtually anything within that realm. We can identify with almost anything.
One of the things that we can identify with is any other person that we’re aware of. To do this, though, we have to go to a deeper level of our awareness. We have to pull away from the individuated level, where we already have a detailed identity, and we must go to the blank-slate level of our identity underneath.
The point here is that, in order to identify with others, we need to be able to go to a deeper level of our awareness than the individuated level. This is why empathy only occurs at the non-individuated level of our identity.
The reason why it’s a problem to be stuck in shallowness, therefore, is that we can only feel empathy from our deeper level, and not from shallowness. Yet, empathy is an absolutely crucial part of maintaining civil society, because this ability drives nearly all truly healthy social behavior, and even plays a key role in healthy inter-personal communication and fully understanding others. Without depth, empathy is inaccessible, and inter-personal relationships quickly deteriorate (or don’t even develop).
Most of us have a sense that putting ourselves in another’s shoes is a good idea at times, but as I suggested earlier, few people recognize that the ethical rules of nearly all societies are essentially founded upon this basic exercise behind the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”)
To know if something is what “you would have them do unto you,” you need to be able to envision yourself in another person’s circumstances (or in their shoes) and imagine what it would be like to be them and have that thing done to you. In other words, you must withdraw from your individuated identity and imagine being that other person. You have to imagine yourself as them in their circumstances, not you in your own circumstances. To do that, you need to be able to disconnect with the individuated level.
Another poorly understood but crucial role that empathy plays is in inter-personal communication. We can communicate just fine at a basic level without empathy, and such communication happens all day everyday without issues. However, empathy, or being able to put yourself in another’s shoes, can dramatically enhance communication, because good communication obviously revolves largely around having a correct and full sense of what another person is trying to convey.
Think of all the examples of miscommunication that occurred because the intention behind one person’s words were misconstrued. People who can readily tap empathy will habitually listen to others from the deeper level. This enables them to, not merely hear another’s words, but also get a good sense of the intent behind those words. This ability also helps in understanding what someone is trying to convey, when there may be multiple potential interpretations of their words. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of a speaker can greatly enhance your ability to understand them and avoid miscommunication.
This means that our ability to identify with the non-individuated level plays a key role in everything from just understanding each other better, to successfully mediating conflicts or understanding an opponent’s actual position in an argument. This is why people stuck at the shallow level are generally not as good as deeper people at understanding others, resolving conflicts, and treating opponents fairly in arguments.
This last point unfortunately means that it’s extremely difficult to resolve differences with shallow people. They are generally more inclined to misconstrue communication, perpetuate conflict, and not even acknowledge another person’s point in a disagreement. If enough people get “stuck” at the shallow level of their identity, then healthy and honest communication in their community can become increasingly rare.
At the non-individuated level, what it means to be “good” is to simply be identified with that level itself, because the principles that ground the non-individuated level are themselves good, so when we act from our identity with those principles we identify with goodness. Plus, identifying with the non-individuated level makes us feel that we are caring, healthy, safe and noble.
By contrast, at the individuated level, what it means to be “good” is for the characteristics or condition of our individual identity to be good. That is to say, since we identify there with our individual characteristics, if those characteristics do not seem to give us a good status at a given moment, then we won’t feel that we ourselves are good at that moment. If all you can identify with is a list of characteristics and conditions, and you can’t go to the deeper level where you always feel whole and content regardless of those characteristics and conditions, then your identity will not feel good whenever your list of characteristics and conditions doesn’t feel good to you. This makes your sense of your own goodness unstable.
In short, there is no sense of well-being for committedly shallow people outside of their list of characteristics and conditions. That’s why they’re extremely sensitive to criticism at any level.
For example, if a shallow person has white skin, then they will identify with their white skin and rely partly on that attribute for their sense that they are good. But, if they’re reminded of historical moments when people with white skin did awful things, they’ll be likely to feel that, since white skin is being associated with bad people, they themselves are being portrayed as bad. So, their sense of whether they are good or bad will change, depending upon how their list of attributes looks at an given moment.
Similarly, if a shallow person belongs to Political Party X, and some members of Party X are portrayed as having done bad things, then that shallow person will reflexively feel bad about themselves. Since they rely upon their membership in Party X to feel good about their identity, and membership in Party X is being associated with bad behavior at the moment, they’ll feel that their own goodness is in question. If that shallow person only knew how to reach the deeper non-individuated level in themselves, then they could easily feel at peace despite their membership in Party X (they could, for example, point out that the wrong-doer wasn’t behaving according to the principles that they adhere to from the deeper level of their identity). But, sadly, as simple as this solution may be, it is not easy for shallow people to understand.
So, shallow people will feel bad about themselves if any of their characteristics or conditions doesn’t feel good to them. They’ll routinely try to find characteristics and conditions that make them feel better, or at least make them feel “better” than others. This is especially common for strongly committed shallow people because they’re stuck at the individuated level and thus fully identified with their characteristics.
Another big problem of identifying with the individuated level is that the self-surrender needed for applying the principles of reasoning is only accessed from the non-individuated level. Self-surrender is necessary whenever the reasoning process leads you to a conclusion that you dislike. Applying the principles of reason and accepting that conclusion requires surrender. You can indeed still apply the principles of reason from the individuated level at times, but you can only surrender to the discomfort of those principles if you are operating from the non-individuated level. If applying those principles leads to an undesirable conclusion, it will be hard for anyone stuck at the individuated level to carry out that reasoning. Shallow people, therefore, have much more willingness to circumvent the reasoning process.
When we’re identified with the individuated level, it feels like we need the conditions of that identity to be good in order to be good ourselves. If our conception of our individuated self doesn’t provide us with a self-image that feels good in the moment, then we’ll feel that something needs to change in order for us to feel better. So, to feel better, we’ll either need to let go of our individuated level itself, which amounts to identifying with the non-individuated level, or we will need to find an alternative to reasoning. Those who are committed to shallowness, and are thus committed to the individuated level, therefore frequently seek “alternatives” to reason. They can still make use of some of the steps of rational thinking in order to appear to make a sound argument, but they will often not be reasoning properly because they’re simply not committed to proper reasoning.
An unfortunate side effect of failing to reason properly is that it can also lead to feelings of instability. Committedly shallow people feel unstable, because they will often sense on some level that they are not actually reasoning their way through many tasks that require reason. It’s also worth noting that, when a shallow person loses an argument, this makes them unhappy with the conditions of their individuated identity. Yet, they’ll still refuse to drop that uncomfortable individuated level for the more comfortable non-individuated level, so they’ll feel stuck with their unhappiness (at least until they manage to forget the lost argument). Over time, the accumulating history of such failures and painful experiences creates a repository of wounding for the shallow person, which is inescapable without going to the non-individuated level. This conundrum is a constant disturbance for shallow people.
Fortunately, we all can instantly divest from whatever qualities have caused us pain at the individuated level. The more we live at the non-individuated level, the more we will feel healed and untouched from our past pains. Going to the deeper level of our identity is therefore healing, and thus is a crucial part of our individual and collective health and well-being.
This is why our ability to disengage from the individuated level at will is so critical to our sense of well-being. It’s also why many people instinctively engage the non-individuated level in managing pain.
Given everything I’ve said above, it should be understandable why the non-individuated level of our identity just feels better than the individuated level. The non-individuated level offers a sense of peace, well-being and freedom from danger, which makes us feel comfortable and contented. When we are at the non-individuated level, we are minimizing (not eliminating) all the reasons why we might be vulnerable to painful events (i.e. from mistakes in our reasoning, or from some kind of retaliation by those whom we hurt from our unethical decisions, etc.).
On the other hand, the individuated level offers a sense of “freedom” that just ensnares us in discomfort. We’re free to abandon the principles of good behavior and reason, but we‘re not free to decide what the consequences of that abandonment will be. In fact, those consequences are rather predictable, and they’re not pleasant, as I hope I have shown now.
Twelve Telltale Signs of Shallowness
Nobody wears a sign on their back identifying them as a shallow person, but there are a few fairly reliable ways to pick such people out of a crowd. Here are twelve such ways. Look for people who make a habit of:
1) never apologizing or admitting mistakes
2) not answering questions that have unflattering answers or that reveal their mistakes
3) exhibiting poor, absent, or misleading reasoning
4) flip-flopping on issues, changing their story, or showing an unwillingness to repeat something they said earlier, when there are now penalties for lying.
5) employing double-standards, or moving the goalposts on the standards they first set
6) urging loyalty to themselves or to specific other people instead of loyalty to principles
7) displaying selfishness or self-centeredness
8) only showing concern for “unfairness” whenever they claim to be the recipients of it
9) displaying a lack of empathy or lack of caring, or exhibiting cruelty or ruthlessness
10) attacking the messenger and not the message: distorting the image of a messenger in order to undermine the message by extension, rather than addressing an unpleasant message itself
11) hiding, misrepresenting, or clouding information, when that information would otherwise be useful for reaching an unflattering truth about them or their allies
12) uneven valuation of things: setting a low bar for accepting things that support what you want to be true but setting a high bar for accepting things that support what you don’t want to be true. Similarly, over-valuing things when they legitimize one’s self or one’s allies, but under-valuing those same things when they legitimize one’s opponents (i.e. a double-standard).
When we apply ethical principles, we often see our ethical obligation to do things that are of value to others. A commitment to depth automatically brings a commitment to applying ethical principles. This commitment, therefore, is a service not just to ourselves, but also to others (that’s partly why deeply ethical people are appreciated by their community).
Being deep is thus a hidden service to all.
So How Do We Go Deep and Stay Deep?
How does one reach the non-individuated place and come to identify with that level habitually? Because we routinely operate from the non-individuated place without realizing it, most of us are not familiar with how to access that level at will. Occasionally, however, people are “forced” into identifying with their deeper level through intense suffering, and thus, learn to access this level at will. Because we’re only vulnerable to suffering when we identify with the shallow level, prolonged intense suffering can drive us to stop identifying with our shallow level. This is why deep suffering often accompanies extremely noble lives or sainthood. But, this way of becoming habitually deep is not common, so we need another way.
The best way to access the non-individuated place in us is to consciously reach directly for it. This is an internal effort that can be made at any moment. When it’s done systematically, it’s often called “contemplation,” “meditation,” or sometimes even “prayer,” although it is known by other names. Many people even practice it instinctively, without having any name for it whatsoever.
There are countless meditation techniques, and they seem to differ from each other dramatically, but on close inspection they’re all just so many ways of accomplishing two simple things:
1) inducing us to let go of our identification with the individuated level, which largely amounts to resisting our natural tendency to attend to our sensory input (thatt’s why we close our eyes in meditation and tune out the outside world). Attending to sensory input makes us aware of the body, and this keeps us aware of some individuated characteristics, which keeps us identified with our individuated level. So, it’s harder to disconnect with the individuated level and connect with the non-individuated level when we’re attending to our senses. Meditation should thus steer us away from our senses.
2) directing our attention away from our mundane thought content, which mostly revolves around our individuated identity. Instead, we try to direct our attention towards content that characterizes the non-individuated level (e.g. recalling how it feels to be at the non-individuated level, or thinking of the caring, fulfilled, changeless identity that we enjoy at that level). To bring us to our non-individuated level, for example, a meditation technique might have us somehow visualize or merge with a gentle candle flame or a lovely flower in some mental exercise. In such an exercise, we are meant to become mentally absorbed in the qualities of that flame or flower, because these are also the qualities that we experience at our non-individuated level. Visualizing the flame or flower thus becomes a way of directing ourselves to our own non-individuated identity.
Some explicitly spiritual or religious meditation techniques may have us envision a perfect being, as with our personal conception of Jesus Christ, Mother Mary, Rama, Buddha, or any such being that we might hold in highest regard. This exercise can take us to the non-individuated level as well, because when we identify with a perfect being through feelings of love or devotion, we accordingly identify with the set of qualities that such a being implicitly represents. That set of qualities will always contain the content of our non-individuated level, so when we identify with a perfect being, we identify with our own non-individuated level. Envisioning a perfect being means, at least in part, envisioning someone who resides in the non-individuated level in themselves, and the non-individuated level is the same in all of us). When we identify with a perfectly caring, noble, contented and calm being, we also identify with the non-individuated level in ourselves, where we experience those same qualities in our own being.
After practicing such techniques for an extended period, we’ll eventually become so familiar with our non-individuated level that we can access it at will and stay there when challenges arise. I believe our challenges are increasing in frequency and intensity, so developing some comfort with a method for accessing your non-individuated identity is a very good idea now, if you haven’t already.
The main way to combat the current ethical backslide is to be deep in ourselves. To do that, meditation, prayer, etc. will provide a way of reaching the non-individuated place and will help us learn how to remain there. This is where we need to be when challenging circumstances threatened to pull us into the shallower non-individuated level, where we are less effective and happy, and where the conditions of our place in the world seem to dictate how we must feel. The current political/social environment may soon offer us more discomfort if we’re identified with the shallow level of ourselves, so we all would do well to have a technique of going deep that works for us. That way, we won’t need to be driven to our deeper identity by suffering instead, and we’ll be an example to others of how to find stability, comfort, contentedness, and sanity in a troubled world.
May we all go deep, thrive in ourselves, and heal this world…!