The Mask of the Zealot
On egregores and facial gesture
The Wonderland Rules is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
How do social movements like religions and cults spread? What is the mechanism by which their collective identities percolate through society? How are their egregores transmitted?
To recap for those who aren’t familiar with the concept of egregores, Wikipedia defines the word thus:
Egregore (also spelled egregor; from French égrégore, from Ancient Greek ἐγρήγορος, egrēgoros 'wakeful') is an occult concept representing a non-physical entity that arises from the collective thoughts of a distinct group of people. Historically, the concept referred to angelic beings, or watchers, and the specific rituals and practices associated with them, namely within Enochian traditions.
In more recent times, the concept has referred to a psychic manifestation, or a thoughtform, which occurs when any group shares a common motivation—being made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of the group.
The working encapsulation of the term in the circles in which I travel is “emergent myth.” An example of an emergent myth might be Pentecostalism, or Judaism, or Black Lives Matter. I mean no disrespect when I say St. Floyd is the symbol of the BLM egregore, just as Jesus and the Cross are symbols of the Pentecostal egregore, or the Star of David is the symbol of the egregore of the Jews.
Emergent myths are alive.
But how do they spread? The internet is the most obvious vector for the spread of myths, which in the context of the web are merely another form of information. Outside the internet, though, it gets more interesting.
In the course of getting therapy for my trauma, I came across a remarkably effective form of somatic (body-based) therapy called brainspotting. Brainspotting is accomplished as follows: The therapist induces a light trance using a rapid induction method (binaural music was used in my case). She holds a pointer with a colorful tip steady, and the patient focuses on that while recalling the traumatic event.
While the patient is recalling the event, the therapist moves her own face in such a way as to cause the patient’s face to react differently to the memory of the trauma. This is based on the fact that humans are equipped with mirror neurons, motor neurons in the human face that fire without triggering facial movements, which tell us what it would feel like to wear another person’s facial expression. By deliberately altering the patient’s facial reaction, the therapist teaches the patient’s body to respond to traumatic memories in an unfamiliar way, which rewrites the post-traumatic response to those memories from the outside in and alleviates the patient’s PTSD.
Mirror neurons are the basis of empathy. They are also the basis of egregores.
The facial muscles of the human animal have been categorized and grouped by the recognizable expressions they produce, most notably by Dr. Paul Ekman, who invented the Facial Action Coding System. While there is dispute in the psychological community regarding how to express the complexity of facial phonemes, those phonemes do form a language. And like any language, there are dialects within facial language, which I think of as gesture sets.
These gesture sets are the delineations of an expression—a sly smile or a thoughtful frown—characteristic to a social group. Gesture sets are like a regional accent; they are characteristic of places and cultures. People can have more than one; anyone who code switches, or uses different social languages with different groups, has a different gesture set for each language.
Stepping back to the level of spoken languages like English, or Chinese: As anyone who speaks more than one language will tell you, speaking a different language changes the way you think; the shape of the container dictates the form of the contents. This has been borne out by neuroimaging; blood flow to the language centers of polyglots and monoglots looks different on brain scans. Your gesture set, being how you express social language, is by nature a determining factor in the way you think about the world.
Egregores, then, are contained within the human face.
Anyone sufficiently versed in facial language on a practical level—therapists, con men, performers—can tell with a fair degree of accuracy important facts about a person’s background by looking at their facial gesture set. It is not a huge leap, then, to apply this insight to the egregore phenomenon.
People who live in cities, for example, generally have tighter facial muscles than those who live in rural areas. If they are also explicitly followers of a social movement which gives them identity through belonging (religion being one example), their faces simultaneously have an untroubled quality to them, as is to be expected from those with a source of great social strength. Using the concept of intersectionality of identity, one can use those characteristics and others like them to typify people as followers of a particular egregore.
Social contagion, then, particularly among those in liminal or liminoid periods of their lives, is the mechanism by which egregores spread. People in college, for example, who are especially susceptible to new ideas (which is more or less the point of college), first mirror the gesture sets of those around them, and then later adopt the explicit dogma of the egregore. Similarly, people who move to new places are bombarded with the local gesture sets, and after a time integrate the local egregores into their ways of thinking.
So how do you apply this?
I am fond of the phrase, “Don't use your radio to hammer in tent pegs.” A lot of books on nonverbal communication are by ex-cops or ex-Feds. They are premised on treating your radio as a hammer; one with which you're supposed to whack a Subject on the knee until he confesses.
This is a misapplication of a tool, to put it mildly.
Use this (and all other body and facial language hacks) to find common ground with strangers. Use it to meet girls. Recognize your common humanity, and use it to delight others. It's fun.
This is a very basic description of brainspotting therapy which I have oversimplified to illustrate my point; like any other therapy, there are subtleties and specifics to the method, but they are not relevant to this discussion.
The argument as I understand it boils down to, more or less, “Is it more appropriate to group facial expressions like letters in the alphabet or like vowel sounds?”
This phenomenon is often described as “looking hard,” which I believe is a result of the human animal’s need to enforce privacy boundaries in conditions of high population density, a naturally stressful situation.
That's what I do, at any rate.
Look, I never claimed to be a choirboy.
The word “delight” brings to mind (Okay, okay, fine. This is more or less apropos of nothing—I had The Sandman on my mind, I just wanted to share this somewhere, and I’m shoehorning it in here.) my favorite joke in The Sandman comic book series, which is that the character Delirium of the Endless, who Neil Gaiman based on his friend Tori Amos, was once Delight, but Delight went crazy for reasons never fully explained.
Delirium, to be clear, is like Borderline Personality Disorder took on human form. She’s an emaciated little waif with rainbow-colored hair who can (and often does) make you permanently, terrifyingly crazy at will, for any reason or no reason at all. For my money, she’s easily the scariest character in a series based around the idea that anything can be scary if you look at it the right way.
Years after the final issue of the series in which she was introduced, Delirium finally appeared as her former self in Sandman: Endless Nights. For a personification of the abstract concept of joy, however, Delight is saucer-eyed twee turned up to eleven. You just want to whack her with a rolled-up newspaper until she goes away forever; it turns out that the character’s underlying personality flaws are actually mitigated by her insanity as opposed to resulting from it.
There’s a general principle at work here, but hell if I know what it is.
Most people around me, in rural Normandie, look like they're chewing a hornet. What the fuck is the egregore here?
Probably the most difficult (meaning complex, multidimensional, most easily misread) expression to parse is the human smile. I think that’s where the axiom about the eyes being the "window to the soul" comes into play.
When a smile is on the table in a contentious situation, I find the eyes contain the best clue to meaning. Of course, to lock eyes with someone can initiate some kind of low intensity battle, but even that can be instructive (especially if battle isn't your own intention).