Godless recovery: “What’s Left?” October 2018, MRR #425


The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – it is shining.

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

I stopped drinking on January 1, 2010. I did so under the guidance of Kaiser’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program. Right off, I went to meetings—physiology of addiction classes, AA meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, and appointments with counselors, therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists. But once my body started to detox after 30 days, I got depressed. Real depressed. Clinically depressed. I did cognitive behavioral therapy for another eight months until I felt comfortable enough to call myself sober.

I was an atheist when I was a drunk, and I remain an atheist now that I’m sober. I crafted my sobriety out of various elements from the above list of recovery programs, not out of convenience but from what felt true. And the idea of a “higher power” never felt true. I could admit I had no power over my drinking, and I could surrender to my powerlessness. Just not TO anything or anyone. I was able to surrender to an impersonal universe, to my situation, to existence itself. I was able to say “I give up.” And that worked, without having to invoke a deity or “higher power” or any object/subject to which to surrender.

Actually, the act of surrendering works, with or without a “higher power.” The psychology behind this was clearly described by Gregory Bateson in his essay “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism.” Our Enlightenment definition of “self” equates to the conscious mind, which we believe controls us, our body, through our will power. But it is absurd to argue that consciousness—a part of the mind that functions through ten percent of the brain, generously speaking—can possibly comprehend let alone control the remaining ninety percent of the mind/brain, not to mention the rest of the human body, and thus constitutes the true “self” capable of controlling the whole individual.

Little wonder then that the fictitious Cartesian duality of mind versus matter causes problems. In the case of alcoholics the disastrous assertion that “I can resist drinking and stay sober through sheer will power” can generate a dangerous alcoholic pride that in turn engenders suicidal risk taking. To repeat myself, it is ludicrous to argue that consciousness, which comprises considerably less than one percent of the individual, can control to any significant degree the rest of the individual. The act of surrender then is more than an acknowledgment of this lack of self-control and will power. “Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender,” Bateson wrote. “It is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.”

Giving up the illusion of will power and self-control allows the individual to begin the process of recovery. That means embracing the act of surrender, of no longer resisting, of giving up. It doesn’t mean believing in god, or a “higher power,” or some external authority. The Black Panther Party pioneered a type of drug rehabilitation in which the heroin addict would “exchange the needle for the gun,” thereby substituting the revolution for god. Unfortunately, when the guns fail or the revolution is inevitably delayed, relapse is more than likely. Surrendering to something external means there’s still something out there to rebel against. Just to surrender however—to give up the “self”—is to start finding yourself.

In rejecting this dichotomy between mind and matter, Gregory Bateson had a simple definition of what constitutes a single unit of mind based on the biology of the human brain. (1) A brain cell, a single neuron, is autonomous, capable of processing blood sugars into the energy needed to sustain itself and electrically fire. (2) The neuron operates on the basis of difference, the fundamental difference being firing or not firing, on or off, yes or no. (3) The neuron is connected via synapses with other neurons into circular or more complex firing patterns to form neural circuitry. Voila, mind! We have thought at its most elemental. From there we can take thought to the biological level (the body with its myriad cells), the social level (comparing how neurons operate in the brain to how humans operate in a social network), and the level of human consciousness (where neural circuitry evolves feedback loops to monitor other neural circuitry).

This model of human consciousness—of a limited self-awareness feedback loop monitoring the vast and immensely complex circuitry of the human brain and body—means that we are aware of only a very small part of our mental and biological totality. “From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness may have evolved as a sort of gate-keeper/librarian/manager/search-engine metaprogram to help organize and harness our vast mental capacity,” according to author J.D. Moyer. “If there’s a lot more ‘in there’ than we’re capable of perceiving/utilizing with our tiny spotlight of consciousness, how do we get at the rest of it? How do we ‘unlock’ the ideas, solutions, connections, emotional strength, and otherwise untapped capacity of our subconscious (or superconscious) minds? […] How do we communicate with our own brains, thereby become a bit more conscious and a bit more free?”


Queue up a couple of mental practices that I’m loathe to call spiritual. Zen is as close to atheism as a religion gets and from my limited experience sitting zazen I’ve benefitted from simple mindfulness, dhyāna (observing the breath), and shikantaza (observing the mind) meditation. I’ve mentioned I’m a recovering Catholic so part of what I’ve tried to recover is what good can be found in my upbringing. Marx called religion not just “the opiate of the masses” but also “the heart of a heartless world.” There’s something to be said for stripping god from prayer and making prayer into a deep form of talking to yourself. Paying attention to your mind and engaging in a conversation with it are the essence of a greater self-awareness.

Meditation, especially of the Soto Zen variety, is well understood. The same can’t be said of atheist prayer. How can something like prayer, which purports to be a form of communication, work when what is being communicated with (e.g. god) doesn’t exist? Against the original Cartesian fallacy—Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”—Bateson disciple Anthony Wilden proposed we use “We communicate, therefore we are” to account for both human individuality and sociality. If our individual and social identity is the product of communicating with others, then the “other” is crucial to that process. According to Lev Vygotsky, talking with our parents becomes talking with the “other,” which becomes “self-talk” and eventually “inner speech.” And while inner speech no longer resembles spoken language, it means that human thought evolves socially. Inner speech is learned through communication with others. What starts out as a communal conversation between people remains a social experience even internally because of our tendency to externalize our internal realities as a constructed “other.” As a constructed externality, a fictive “other,” it is intended to recreate our primal communal conversations so essential to our identity. We use this illusion of the “other” to talk to ourselves, for our conscious mind to interact with the non-conscious mind, for “me” to converse with “all-that-is-not-me” through prayer.

Prayer facilitated through a constructed “other”—whether a personal yet parental “god” or a more democratic pantheistic spirituality or even an impersonal, aloof universe—lets us feel less isolated, alone, and lonely. Prayer allows the conscious mind to query the non-conscious mind for guidance, inspiration, forgiveness, solutions to problems, improvements to life, and the fulfillment of emotional needs. Prayer permits us to express thanks and experience gratitude, letting us feel greater personal well being while sometimes “having our prayers answered” by the non-conscious mind in the form of innovative ideas and remedies, emotional fortitude and resiliency, and greater individual and social connectedness. Prayer without a god, without any spirituality is not an oxymoron.

The symmetry of denying the existence of a god while constructing an externalized “other” doesn’t mean slipping into a Cartesian solipsism, into denying the existence of the real world. Me, I surrender without a god to maintain my sobriety. But I also forego the need for constructed externalities. I frequently talk out loud, talk to myself, ask myself how I might help, how I might do better, or be better. According to Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I have no doubt that reality exists, albeit without a god or a spiritual dimension.

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Attached to non attachment: “What’s Left?” July 2009, MRR #314

Ask yourself why you practice zazen? If it is to reach some specific goal, or to create some special state of mind, then you are heading in the opposite direction from zazen. You create a separation from reality. Please, trust zazen as it is, surrender to reality here and now, forget body and mind, and do not DO zazen, do not DO anything, don’t be mindful, don’t be anything – just let zazen be and follow along.

Muho Noelke

Of all the whacky religions people believe in, I’m kind of fond of Zen Buddhism.

Maybe it was because of my proximity to the Beats when I lived in San Francisco between three and six years of age. Or because of my dad’s interest in all things Beatnik during my adolescence.

Or maybe it’s because Zen reminds me of Unitarianism. The local Unitarian church offered draft counseling when I lived in Ventura and was facing conscription for the Vietnam War, keeping me sane if not saving my ass as I confronted the US government during the ‘60s. Unitarianism, like Zen, doesn’t demand that its adherents believe in anything really, not even god.

Perfect for an agnostic like me. Except that I’ve always lacked the personal discipline to pursue any type of spiritual practice, even the bare bones, anti-formalist, anti-scriptural, purely experiential immediatism of Zen. I mean, I can’t even fucking sit and meditate for fifteen minutes a day when I have no job and all the time in the world. And Zen requires a lot of self-discipline, contrary to popular belief.

It’s one of these popular misconceptions that I want to take on at the moment. The common perception of Zen is of a rarified, somewhat cerebral, comfortably pacifist, tolerant religion of robed, head shaven monks who spend all their time ensconced in monasteries engaged in quiet contemplation. This image has been fostered by western appropriation of certain Zen concepts, principle among them the notion of mindfulness. Popularized by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn, among others, mindfulness has spread from the realm of New Age spirituality and entered the mainstream medical and psychiatric communities. The practice of mindfulness is now touted as being able to alleviate depression, anxiety and stress, reduce pain and suffering, and help people to be happy.

All well and good, except that this medical extraction of mindfulness out of the general framework of Zen Buddhism, much like the pharmaceutical purification of a particular chemical from a complex herb, tends to make mindfulness into a kind of drug. Instead of understanding mindfulness as a means of awareness sufficient unto itself, it becomes a cure for various ailments, something to be used to achieve an end. In the process, this reinforces the passive, peaceful stereotype of Zen Buddhism, when nothing about Zen could be further from the truth.

Kaiten Nukariya’s aptly titled 1913 work Religion of the Samurai first advanced the understanding of Zen as a warrior religion, something that para-fascist Julius Evola reiterated in his 1981 monograph Lo Zen. It was Evola’s controversial contention that all Buddhism, at its base and when not bastardized by popularization, is a warrior religion, given that Gautama Buddha was by birth a member of India’s Kashatriya caste. Brian Daizen Victoria wrote his book Zen at War in 1998, which claimed that Zen was instrumental to the rise of Japanese militarism from the Meiji Restoration to the Second World War. Victoria’s thesis is not without its critics, but the links between Zen Buddhism and military practice are hard to discount. Nor are they difficult to appreciate.

Zen mental training has a number of direct applications to warrior preparation, beginning with intense concentration that allows for the perfection of fighting skills. The powerful moment-to-moment awareness cultivated by Zen is an ideal state of mind for the warrior, permitting appropriate action to arise spontaneously, which is crucial to anyone in the heat of battle. And the settling, or clearing, of the mind, the standing apart from thought employed by Zen certainly facilitates the standing back from any moral qualms that might arise from fighting and killing. No doubt, western practitioners of mindfulness as a form of therapy would be appalled to learn of the easy application of this technique to the art of war. Yet its historical reality is incontrovertible.

The singular western focus on mindfulness also tends to limit the qualities of mindfulness itself. Or, as Muho Noelke, abbot of Antaiji Monastery, once said:
We should always try to be active coming out of samadhi. For this, we have to forget things like “I should be mindful of this or that.” If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation (“I – am – mindful – of -…”). Don’t be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk (Dogen Zenji says: “When we open our mouths, it is filled with Dharma”). Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.

Easier said than done.

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