The Group Mind

History tells us, that from the moment when the moral forces on which a civilization rested have lost their strength, its final dissolution is brought about by those unconscious and brutal crowds known, justifiably enough, as barbarians. Civilizations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds.  —Gustave Le Bon, in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence. The decisions affecting matters of general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction, but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles. The truth is, they can only bring to bear in common on the work in hand those mediocre qualities which are the birthright of every average individual. In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated.  —the same guy

All great historical facts, the rise of Buddhism, of Christianity, of Islamism, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and, in our own time, the threatening invasion of Socialism are the direct or indirect consequences of strong impressions produced on the imagination of the crowd. —the same guy again

     One issue that comes up in Q&A videos (and we’re up to 43 of them thus far) is the issue of group karma. According to orthodox Theravada Buddhism there is no such thing as group karma; there is only individual karma. It’s sort of like a debate that has gone on in evolutionary biology about whether groups or populations can evolve through natural selection, or if natural selection acts only on individual organisms—and I’m pretty sure the orthodox doctrine, or at least the majority opinion among evolutionary biologists, has been that there is no group selection. Even so, there are many biologists who feel or opine that natural selection can act upon a whole group or population, and there are also many Buddhists who feel or opine that entire groups or populations can have a kind of mass, group karma.

     One interesting ramification of the notion of group karma is that it would appear to necessitate a group mind for an entire population. Karma or kamma, after all, is essentially cetanā, or will, a mental state. So if karma is a mental state, and groups of people can have group karma, then groups of people are generating a group mental state, which, it would seem to me, would necessitate some kind of group mind. But I’m pretty sure that orthodox Theravada Buddhism rejects the idea of a group mind—hell, it almost rejects an individual one, since Buddhist philosophy ultimately has no use for an individual, there being no self and all that. Other spiritual teachers and spiritual systems also have little or nothing to say about the possibility of more than one person participating in a kind of “us being” or a pool of conscious mentality. One of my favorite recent teachers, Paul Lowe, used to talk about how each of us is completely alone in our experiences.

     But even though a group mind is unorthodox, possibly even HERESY (also known in Buddhism as “pernicious wrong view”), there is much to say for the idea…and the idea of a group mind is more interesting to me than the more limited idea of group karma. And there is some evidence, at least, in support of the notion.

     For example, even an individual human is a kind of colonial organism, made up of a huge number of specialized protozoans called cells. The idea that each of our body’s cells are conscious, and that the mind of a human is nothing more than a group mind of conscious cells, is not exactly scientific; though if we restrict a single human’s group mind to the consciousness of his individual nerve cells or brain cells, then we are getting more into something empirical and scientific. What is a human mind if not the group mind of all our functioning brain cells pooling their tiny individual consciousnesses?

     Also, my own experiences in life seem to include my participation, at least occasionally, in a group mind, and thus lend support to the possibility of a group mind in general. In an intimate love relationship, for example, there is often a kind of shared mentality, for example during acts of physical intimacy. At some point I stop acting of my own volition and begin functioning spontaneously as part of a shared whole, just going with the flow of the “us” mentality. I do think that genuine love (not just animal mating instincts in the human animal) is a function of the individual ego, or Pink Floyd’s wall, opening up to another, breaking down the boundaries of the alienated individual, and thus two people sharing the same sense of “I.” It creates a third conscious entity in addition to the lover and the beloved: there is a third being, the “us,” the combined group being.

     A somewhat similar phenomenon would occasionally occur back when I was a monk giving Dhamma talks to groups of western Buddhists in America. Sometimes if I was teaching Dhamma in a more or less meditative state, and if the audience was receptive to what I was saying, it would form a kind of circuit or, well, a group mind, in which the words would flow seemingly effortlessly from my mouth, with me being as surprised by what I would say as anyone else in the room. It was as though the karma of the individuals in the group, or collective karma of the group, was eliciting the words—and in such cases the talks turned out better than usual. Ram Dass used to say that people would often come up to him after one of his talks and thank him, and he would feel as though a person were walking up to a musician and thanking his violin for playing such beautiful music. He was just the instrument for what people needed to hear to be heard.

     It has also occurred to me, while pondering the unorthodox theory of group minds, that a raging mob may also be a rather negative manifestation of a group mind. In this case the entire group may be more stupid than the average individual participating in it; though there may be synergistic effects, much as there are synergistic effects in the combined function of trillions of living neurons in a person’s brain.

     Sometimes I have considered the possibility that a society or a civilization possesses a kind of higher consciousness unimaginable to the individual citizen, much as the entire personality of a man or woman could never be known by an individual neuron in that person’s brain. That one is somewhat of a mind-blower, and although ex hypothesi I fail to see how modern American society could be a massive being far more conscious than I am, considering all the rampant pettiness, stupidity, and selfishness, I really can’t rule out the possibility. Maybe there is a group consciousness working at a much higher level that is simply invisible to us individual social neurons.

     But the possibility, even the inevitability, of group consciousness is clearly implied in my own favorite theory of everything, the Simile of the Block of Marble. I accept as a rather elegant working hypothesis (if I do say so myself) that Ultimate Reality is infinite and formless, and that it contains all possibilities within it, much as a block of marble contains within it, in virtual or potential form, every possible statue, each superimposed upon all the rest. So not only would the nameless uncarved block (as it is called in the Tao Te Ching) contain every possible individual statue, it would include every possible group statue too, each with its own form of consciousness. So my sweetheart sitting in the chair is one potential statue, me sitting on the couch nearby is another, and the group of us together (with or without the dog) is yet another—all equally real or valid, though still conditional and “empty” within the context of that particular version of samsara.

     So anyway, if a group mind is possible or even certain, then group karma becomes more possible, since, as I said before, karma is a mental state, it is essentially Will, and if the group mind has a group will, for example as a unified society or a howling mob seem to do, then there would be group karma…though this would be in addition to the karma of the individual, and presumably working on another level.

     Bearing all this in mind, though, and considering the No Self doctrine of Buddhism practically doing away the reality of an individual mind, I am not surprised that Theravada has no use for group karma, and as far as I know is silent on the very possibility of shared consciousness—except, as I say, the ability of an adept to know the mind of another. And the mechanism of that, the way it works, is never fully explained. The texts just say it happens and leave it at that (if I remember correctly). And even if group consciousness does exist, it is not the level at which one works out one’s own salvation. It’s at a level that a mere individual can’t grasp anyway.



  1. Pannobhasa, have you ever read Yockey's IMPERIUM? Also, Nichiren has much to say on this subject.

    1. I've never even heard of it. I have heard of Nichiren though.

    2. Francis Parker Yockey's work explores the idea of dominant civilizations such as ancient Rome as super organisms which experience distinct life cycles, like individuals writ large. He was also a holocaust denier and considered Hitler "the hero of the 20th century".
      Nichiren believed that Japan would coninue to suffer karmic consequences such as invasions and earthquakes if she did not adopt his teachings about the Lotus Sutra.

  2. Good essay. Starting at the point in the article you wander off the Orthodox Theravada reservation, the "group mind" phenomena you describe is something very well attested in western occult lore. A group mind is usually referred to as an "egregore." Rather than a sentient being, it's a sort of psychic aggregate that exercises autonomous mental functions and "downloads" thoughts, ideas, emotions, and impressions into its human participants.

    In the aforementioned lore, all sorts of things can end up having egregores; including nations, cities, races, religions, ideologies, sports team fandoms, hobby groups, ect. Some of the minor pagan gods were probably egregores (like the "patron god/ess" of a city-state, for example). In the traditions I've studied, a national egregore of a fallen state or civilization can end up reincarnating in a future culture. It might not be a stretch to speculate that Rome's group mind reincarnated here in the US.

    In one book I read, a violent mob is described as a very temporary, short-lived type of egregore; it forms as the mob forms and dissipates once the ensuing orgy of violence/chaos runs its course.

    So by all of that, I agree it's logical that a group mind would accumulate karma and this karma would affect the karmas of individual participants.



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