Group Mind

“There is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. This larger Mind is comparable to God. But it is immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.”
Gregory Bateson

A flight of sparrows swoops into a bush near the bird feeder. From there, they fly to the feeder and to the ground below to collect the seed. Each bird stays near the others. They come in together. They go out together. There is no leader. There are no words spoken. At the feeder, it seems each bird is in it for itself, but in flight, the group mind takes over. It feels better to fly in with the group and take off with the group. Being alone in the big yard makes a sparrow nervous. Sparrows know there is safety in the flock. They don’t reflect upon it perhaps, as we might, but they feel it and react accordingly.

How different are we? We head off to work together in the morning. We flock to the shopping malls together. We coordinate our eating, celebrating, voting, sleeping. We like to think of ourselves as individuals, and certainly we are that, but how aware are we of the group mind? Our level of individualism is set, in part, by our culture, but in even the most individualistic culture, behavior and thinking is affected by the society, the media, the family, the work group, the neighbors, and even by strangers we encounter as we go about our routines. We may obey traffic laws out of respect for the law or fear of punishment if caught breaking them, but more likely it is out of desire to avoid the horn honks and unfriendly sign language of our fellow drivers. While shopping, we want to check out right now, but we wait, if impatiently, in line for our turn. We know it would not be right to take cuts. We could do it, but it wouldn’t feel right. The social feedback would be unacceptable to us. Our behavior is influenced by the group norms, which we arrive at by consensus.

How does a flock of sparrows move? One bird has a perception of danger or opportunity or just a sense that it is time to go, and it acts. The flock moves when one bird moves, or maybe two or three respond simultaneously. We can imagine a sparrow recollecting, “I didn’t see a cat, but everybody was acting like there was a cat around, so I took off.” Sometimes the individual sparrow is the leader. Sometimes it is the follower. It benefits from the group’s perception, and the group benefits from its alertness as well.

Humans like to think of ourselves as independent, but we benefit from closeness and connection with others. We are part of a group mind, though we are not usually inclined to think of it that way. Rather than individuals cut off from each other and not mattering in the scheme of things, we are each part of something bigger than ourselves. Our simple expression of kindness may save a life that saves another life that changes the world. We would never know. Our culture and people close to us influence us, but we also affect the people around us, and in mostly subtle ways affect the culture and society. We may feel small and insignificant. We may think that what we do doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but we are not alone. When we feel uneasiness about the way things are going in our world, we are probably not the only ones. When we feel an impulse to act, we are probably not the only ones with that impulse. If you are feeling the need to fly in a certain direction, there’s a good chance that some other members of the flock are feeling the same thing. When you take off, you might be starting something that changes the direction of all the rest of us. If a whole lot of us choose to be awake and kind and honest and we all take off in that direction, what might the rest of the flock do?

Take some time today to contemplate how the consciousness of all of us is connected.
How do other people’s thoughts affect you?
How do you affect other people by your thoughts?
Assuming that the “group mind” benefits from awareness among its members, how can you become more aware?
When danger comes, how will you know which way to fly?

May we walk in harmony with our brothers and sisters.
May our souls fly with angels.
May our thoughts be wise and our acts kind.
May peace flow from us.
May our so-called leaders divine our will.
May we find balance upon our planet.
May wisdom guide us.

“And can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singing a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may think it's a movement.”

Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week


© 2002 Tom Barrett