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The Unconscious Roots of Conspiracy Theory

Recently, I wrote about some of the deepest root causes of the Lahaina fires. But opinions vary, have you noticed?

I have to admit, I was surprised when I heard the conspiracy theories, and then I was surprised that I was surprised. I’ve always had a kind of naive optimism that I’m sure was necessary to stop me from suiciding (seriously) a long time ago, but anyway…

As we continue to digest the devastation of the Lahaina fire, we should not be surprised by the conspiracy theories. During the decline of a civilization, where chaos, meaninglessness, and powerlessness are increasingly felt, conspiracy theories are an entirely predictable tool for the protective self in us.

We humans have a deep, inalterable need to make sense of our reality. At essence, it’s the soul-level desire to experience meaningfulness. When this is not possible, our protection mechanisms distort reality to make sense of things; that is, a comfortable explanation is more important than truth, especially when that truth is unknown and/or challenges our existing beliefs.

In the case of the Lahaina fire, there is no direct and single cause. It was a catastrophe that was a product of many factors, including:

  • Incompetent leaders often under-qualified for their positions
  • A poorly planned, congested town with only one major two lane road going in and out
  • Historical and acute mismanagement of water on the day of the fire
  • Lack of emergency preparation response and poor communication among relevant departments
  • A culture of laziness that avoids work and accountability, tending to wait until things break before fixing them
  • An electric company behind on their infrastructure retrofitting

I can understand how dissatisfying it would be for some people to see this list, because there’s no one clear to blame. The state of Hawaii has a contribution, as does Maui county, as do land developers, as does Maui Electric, as does anyone who contributes to the culture of incompetence. What’s called for is for all concerned parties to investigate their contribution and own it. There is direct, observable evidence for everything on the list above.

Or, we can make up that it was the result of an experimental energy weapon fired from space, planned by a few billionaires intent on buying up all the land at a discount and creating a “smart city.” These are both being talked about. JP Sears promulgates the second one. He’s brilliant and seriously talented, but since COVID, his paranoia and authority issues have gotten the best of him.

So why do people prefer conspiracy theory over critical thinking? It’s not necessarily because they lack intelligence, it’s because their unconscious emotions (upstream of mind) override their conscious thinking. Conspiracy theorists tend to have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • A chronic feeling of disempowerment, living beneath their potential, and/or undigested hurt from childhood
  • Lack of leadership or management experience
  • Control issues that prevent ambiguity tolerance and willingness to not know
  • Authority issues from childhood that create an a priori mistrust of people in power
  • Repressed fear of the inherent chaos in life
  • Tendency to overestimate their perception of reality, especially in domains beyond their understanding

Let’s expand on these. A chronic feeling of disempowerment causes our protection mechanisms to look for something outside of us to blame. This is what “playing victim” is. Responsibility means taking total ownership for how our choices lead us to where we are in life, and very few people embody this because it’s painful, shame-triggering, and takes immense and soulful fortitude. The vast majority of people live as if life is “happening” to them and blame their worst outcomes on other people, situations, the human condition, etc. rather than looking at the lesson before them that they drew.

The lack of leadership experience causes people to not appreciate the immense difficulty of coordinating a conspiracy. For example, faking the moon landing would have required thousands of people to keep a secret. Also, experienced leaders know that power reveals weaknesses and causes mistakes, so well-meaning people can and do make serious messes unconsciously; for example as Elon Musk is in the process of destroying Twitter right now. I’m sure changing the name to X will help, though! It worked for Meta, right?

Musk isn’t doing this consciously and on purpose, it’s simply the lesson he needs as he dead-ends his relationality and living in his mind issues. Trump does the same thing, dead-ending his value of power above all else, compensating for deep insecurity. Power is like putting more water through leaky plumbing: it reveals weaknesses that were always there. When we pay attention, we can learn from those mistakes. That’s the point.

Control forms in us at an early age as a way of not feeling our emotions to the degree we don’t have parents to help. Chaos is the base nature of reality and is meant to be swum with. It takes an enormous amount of work to accomplish this: to minimally experience the existential chaos of reality and still function. One of the things they don’t tell you about the various spiritual awakenings is to the degree they put you in the Now, your memory is never the same. It takes years to get used to.

When we cannot bear not-knowing our way through life and feeling the existential fear that we all have, we employ control to screen out aspects of reality, and make up things in their place. This is why conspiracy theorists tend to be so resolutely certain, rather than merely positing what might be possible. It’s driven by control, not curiosity, and functions to replace more vulnerable emotions like anxiety and hurt with rage, judgment, and victimhood as a form of armor.

Because our parents are our first authorities, most of us grow up with some amount of mistrust of authority. Authority projections are stronger for some adults than others, depending on what happened and how they compensated for it (Enneagram 6s have the most pronounced). Children who felt significantly disempowered by their parents will often unconsciously form identities as adults as victims.

Generally, Occam’s razor applies: the simplest explanation is usually the best one. Incompetence and unconscious greed is responsible for most of the injustice in our world. COVID 19 made many new billionaires and distributed wealth disproportionately to the wealthy, increasing class divide, and creating more inconvenience and suffering for the less wealthy.

Does that mean it was planned? Correlation is not causation. Those who value power above all else, who mostly run our world, are quick to seize opportunities to gain more. That’s how they got where they are. But it’s far simpler and easier to seize the opportunities of crises, than to create them. Why bother orchestrating a crisis, when they happen on their own? The power-hungry usually don’t need to create crises. The size of conspiracies people theorize aren’t cost effective. How much money would it have cost to silence all NASA employees who helped fake the moon landing?

Conspiracies do happen, on occasion, like Hitler’s burning of the Reichstag, but that caper was done on a shoestring. Anyone can set a building on fire, and you don’t need an energy weapon in space to do it!

Isn’t it interesting that the conspiracy theory is about an energy weapon setting the fire, when it obviously would be far easier to do that with a gallon of gas and a match? Theorists imagine Bond-like villains who take joy in experimenting with new gadgetry. Have we ever seen such a person in history? People who love money and power do things the simplest and cheapest way possible, and it works.

It’s also more attractive to our protection mechanisms to assume that world leaders know exactly what they’re doing rather than to feel how we’re all making it up as we go.

To truly accept this fact requires us to look at how every assumption, value, and belief we have is only a hypothesis that we test through the experiment of our lives. This triggers confusion, disorientation, loneliness, and despair so deep that it can render us non-functional. This is why over five billion people in our world subscribe absolutely to a neat and tidy, “ages seven and up” explanation of where we came from and how we should live. Only child-level consciousness subscribes to that kind of unsophisticated certainty.

In this way, conspiracy theory is a black and white, absolute truth in a world filled with unconscious, wound-based motives that make big messes and cause immense suffering without any easily observable purpose. As previously said, it’s far more comfortable to have a fabricated set of reasons than to not know.

As I’ve watched the aftermath of the Lahaina fire, I’ve experienced a wide range of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. How can we fix a local government that’s systemically incompetent and can’t admit it? How do we incentivize better leaders to run for office when the private sector is so much more profitable and the government is nepotistically stuck in its ways? How can I help when my voice isn’t heard? How do I need to change so that it is?

This has brought up loneliness, powerlessness, despair, frustration, depression, anguish, and anger. And I’m not a victim to any of it, because all of this was already in my unconscious from my childhood. It also makes me feel how deeply I care about humanity, which sounds noble, but 1) I can’t help it, and 2) it’s very difficult to bear because it challenges my own protector who wants to keep my heart comfortably closed, which is the very thing that makes my voice less heard in this world.

Only love-based wisdom makes a real difference in this world and that is what I’m here to learn…or so it seems, I can’t really know for sure. Will having the courage to live with an open heart make that difference or only make the difficulty of being human worse? I can’t know that in advance, but it’s what makes sense.

I think we all have the challenge of living with an open, hurtable, not-knowing, and curious heart. When things are particularly bad, that’s when it’s most important. The temptation of conspiracy theory shuts this down, insulates us from the chaos of reality, and divides us as a species, because the truth is that everyone is doing the best they can, and it’s just not very good.

But perhaps in the next moment, knowing this, we can do better. One critical way we can do better is by exploring our unconscious motives that cause us to distort reality. That’s the subject of my next course, Revealing Your Unconscious which begins September 7, 2023.

The existence of the unconscious is a relatively new concept for humanity and we are only beginning to appreciate how much it drives us, creating the myriad undesirable outcomes in our beautiful world. It is, I’d offer, the only way for us to see ourselves, through the negative outcomes we unconsciously create. That’s the assumption I test with my life, and some days I don’t do it well. But tomorrow, perhaps I can do better.

What are you working on in yourself?