Janice Lin/MiC.

Limitations are broken. Barriers and boundaries fade away. And in a euphoric and ephemeral instance, we advance into an ethereal plane of existence. It’s like a spell that quells any fear and anxiety. In the midst of the collective art-making experience — whether it be the synchronous rhythm of a dance, the communal harmonies of a choir or the cooperative unison of an improv troupe — each elicit a certain kind of forgetting of the self, which in turn, allow us to transcend our very being. Today, the self, as a transcendent spiritual entity, remains widely ignored as we stay stuck in the clutches of a capitalist society. Indeed, on the stage of late-stage capitalism, the theatrics of performance from the professional to the interpersonal are characterized by that of individualism. In other words, the essence of capitalism — with its fixation on commodity fetishism and persistence on privatized property and resources — robs us of cultivating a collective experience of daily living founded on artful expression, spiritual sustainment and a dismantling of dominant hierarchies of oppression. 

Even in creative fields in which collective art-making is paramount to prosperity, our penchant for individualistic modes of thought and action still persists. The professionalization, specialization and commercialization of arts entertainment industries under capitalism promote a culture of elitism and competition, rather than collaboration between artists. The sanctity of the art-making process is neglected in pursuit of profit. Artists become brands and market themselves accordingly. A hyper-fixation on appearance and aesthetics emerges, eschewing any authentic content creation. Yet this corrupted creative climate is only a mere symptom of a major systemic problem. Under capitalist hegemony, societal institutions, especially universities, play a massive role in maintaining our individualistic personas.

Our entire higher-education experience is highly individualized. Under intense duress, we’re pressed to put our energy into earning good grades and passing classes for our own self-benefit rather than gaining intellectual insight for the good of humanity. In group projects, our main concern is always our own good marks. We’re career-focused on ourselves rather than collectively focused on our society. And at this school, especially, making money is our main goal. We maintain a facade of favoring equity and striving for liberation, while simultaneously striving to live lavishly in service to oppressive corporatized systems, and see no problem with this whatsoever. Many of us might espouse anti-capitalist agendas or say we hold socialist sympathies but how often does that translate into our real labor practices and lifestyles? We may justify our journeys into the corrupt corporate substratum, claiming that “we’re working to make change within the system,” but how often is this truly the case? How often do we delude ourselves under the impression that we’re working towards a collective good while in reality channeling most of our energy and efforts towards our own individualistic material gain? How long must those most affected by the blood-thirsty, super-exploiting extravagances of imperialism wait while we “work within the system?” 

Operating within these oppressive systems not only has harsh material consequences, but yields dire, direct impacts in the metaphysical realm as well. Our current grind culture creates a spiritual deficiency with such efficiency that many of us don’t even bother to construct any form of relationship with divinity or that which is beyond our own sensory experience. In today’s time, we’ve forgone the act of caring for and cultivating our own souls and instead choose to embark on an endless search for sustainment in material possessions. 

In order to free ourselves from the shackles of our self-centered chains, we must cultivate what Christian author Timothy Keller deems as “self-forgetfulness.” In this forgetting of the self, we exemplify the true essence of “gospel humility,” which, as Keller claims, “is not thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” In his book, “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness,” Keller puts forth the idea that much of our pride is predicated on judgment. Our ego is inflated when we make value-judgments of others. But, to Keller, these judgments are easily rendered void when we remind ourselves that it is only The Lord who judges us and that as Romans 8:1 proclaims, “there is … no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In this vein, via Christ — who paid the ultimate price for our salvation — we are able to position ourselves firmly in the jurisdiction of non-judgment. Through the mediation of our messiah, our superiority complexes and inflated ego fade. We need no longer worry about our worth since, through Christ, we are connected to our Creator. Coincidentally, in this connection to the Creator, we find the unification of all of Creation. In this unity, we can opt to lead a life in service of divine love rather than lethal domination. Keller likens this kind of living to a skilled skater who wins silver, “yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did.” He tells us to “love the way you love a sunrise … just to love the fact that it was done.” 

We see similar notions of self-forgetfulness in the practice of Zen Buddhism. As Japanese Buddhist philosopher Dōgen Zenji once said, “To study the Way is to study the self, To study the self is to forget the self, To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.” The immaterial nature of our souls and a non-permanence of our minds leads authors like Joseph Bobrow to believe that the experience of a separate self is simply an illusion. In his book “Zen and Psychotherapy,” Bobrow asserts that we are all comprised of one another, much like the Jewel Net of Indra, a Vedic metaphorical illustration of the interconnection of all entities. The metaphor, according to Bobrow, maintains that “each of us is a point in a net in which there are mirrors at each knot of a vast web and each point reflects and contains every other point of the web.” Our conscious existences are so fundamentally intertwined, yet our individualism prevents us from realizing this.

As Zenji delineates, “Mind is none other than the mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun, the moon and the stars.” It is this dissolution of our self as a separate subject and everything else as an otherized object that enables us to understand the communal calibers of our existence. Only once we achieve this understanding can we witness the multifaceted nature of our consciousness, which then gives way to authentic collective experience. By doing this, we reconcile with our own physical transience. The uneasy thoughts of our own ephemerality — the anxious realization that one day we will die — are only alleviated by recognizing the divinity existing with/in all of us. Why focus your efforts on a material form that is fleeting when you could alternatively funnel your energy towards sustaining a collective Soul that is immortal? Of course, in our spiritually-deficient society, this is easier said than done. We are, instead, indoctrinated with subject-object dualism and the desire to dominate others for the inflation of our ego and preservation of our pride. 

Pride (the opposite to the aforementioned (gospel]) humility), according to author C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity,” “is the greatest of all sins.” Pride always exists in relation to a lesser-perceived other. As Lewis claims, “(Pride) leads to every other vice.” Capitalism preys on our pride by placing us in a parasitic colonial system that operates via dualistic modes of thought (propagating false binaries between Black and white, gay and straight, male and female) and deliberately seeks to establish an other (through racialized, sexualized and gendered identities) as a rationale for domination and super-exploitation, both of which are the reciprocal cause and effects of an inflated ego.

With our inflated egos, we can feel at ease, but only temporarily. Keller likens the inflation of our egos to that of a balloon. Fragile. Easily inflated, but just as easily deflated. This inflation of ego goes in tandem with an equally-expanding superiority complex within the oppressor to the detriment of the oppressed, who in turn, develops an inferiority complex. This inferiority complex, as Paulo Freire explains, often leads the oppressed to emulate their oppressors. We see this substantively today: students of color will attend elite universities which funnel them into the same colonial corporate spheres that have been oppressing their ancestors for centuries. They pride themselves as “the ‘firsts’ in their families,” or “the ones who made it out.” What is being conveyed in the elitism and egotism exemplified in these individualizing statements? First in our family to do what — benefit from capital exploitation? Made it out of what — the very communities which imbued us with the cultures we claim to celebrate? For students of color, particularly, we must become more cognizant of our own oppressive emanations, which occur at the most subtle level when elite school spirit possesses us and inflates our egos. We cannot, under the guise of “providing for our families,” forfeit our principles. How much longer will we endorse mantras of mass death as a means for our own financial sustainment? Why must the deliverance of the dispossessed be put on a timetable? Be placed on hold for a later date? Who are we to subjugate their fate for our fortune? Indeed, it is time we stop seeing ourselves as individualistic icons, “the leaders of our community,” and symbols of “Black Excellence,” especially when we embark on corrupt career paths and aid corporate endeavors that exploit, hurt and harm our peoples. 

Self-forgetfulness and the forgetting of the self are only two of the many transcendent tools of faith which allow us to forgo the individualism we’ve been indoctrinated with since birth. When I think of self-forgetfulness in action, I think of the sacral sensation that comes about from gathering our voices together in my gospel choir, the tones in tandem which touch us in such a profound way. I think of my improv team cultivating our collective consciousness in every scene, synchronizing and melding our immaterial minds so that each member of the troupe transcends themselves through our mutual love and faith for one another. I think of the movement of my people, prancing about and dancing joyously to the spiritual styles of Hip-Hop, Gospel, R&B, Soul and more. I think of the persisting poeticism inherent in the harmonizing of the musical rhythms and repetitions which produces an effect so meditative that it harmonizes the left and right portions of our brains and places us in an enriching state of abundance. When we forget ourselves, we forget about all of the limits, barriers and boundaries which obstruct our path … but perhaps they never existed to begin with.

MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at kariscl@umich.edu.