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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Communizing Moments: “What’s Left?” May 2018, MRR #420

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We wanted to communalize our politics, our friendships, our minds. We were five anarchists who, having read Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism, decided we were an affinity group that wanted to take matters to the next level. We drove into Los Padres National Park and hiked a day into the Sespe Wilderness. Our plan was to camp, fast for three days, and then drop mescaline together. It was 1971, and even back then real mescaline was rare. It was probably LSD. It wasn’t just the times; we were a little nuts.

One of our company had to hike right back out due to medical issues, but the rest of us stayed bivouacked in a grove of shady trees near an icy mountain creek while we drank only water and avoided doing much else. The collective psychedelic trip was typical. Ego death. Oneness with all things. Direct communication with the collective unconsciousness and group mind. Seeing without eyes, talking without speech, traveling without the body. Becoming one with the transcendent. Oh yes, and lots of brilliant colors and mystical patterns. I never hallucinated independent visuals, but the drug made the unmediated kairos pushy, fiery, as if electricity raced through my veins. Much of what I felt was familiar thanks to a non-drug spiritual experience I’d had a couple years before. After what we considered were profound revelations culminating in collective consciousness, we broke our fast with Dinty Moore Beef Stew over a sparkling campfire in a percolating night. The next morning, we hiked back out.

Experimenting with drug-induced group mind was all the rage in the day, from the Trips Festivals of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the Weather Underground’s acid fueled criticism sessions. But the unmediated all-one spiritual experience of various New Age religions and communalist cults was just as prominent. Harvard professor, LSD guru, and psychedelic pioneer Richard Alpert believed it was possible to achieve the psychedelic moment without drugs, through spiritual means, and he wrote a famous book Be Here Now as Baba Ram Dass about the possibility of staying all-one all the time without the benefit of LSD. Even Dr. Bronner promoted the All-One mystical experience through his magic castile soap.

Beat poet and anarchist Kenneth Rexroth wrote a book, Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century, which circulated in manuscript form before being published in 1974. In it he laid out various examples of the libertarian communal tradition. For the pre-modern era he covered the neolithic village, early religious communities like the Essenes and early Church monasticism, the beginnings of open class warfare in various rural rebellions and peasant wars, and the apocalyptic/millenarian/quasi-communist religious movements of Münster, the Anabaptists, and the Diggers. The Russian peasant commune, early American utopian communes, and the beginnings of overt anarchist and communist political experiments completed his survey of the modern era. Rexroth nicely linked up the spiritual and political roots of communalism, and it wouldn’t take much to extend his analysis to the insurrectionary/communizing politics of today’s anarchist/left communist milieu.

This will be yet another essay critiquing Leftist practice and politics, except what I’ll be talking about are the promises and problems of what might be called the propitious communizing moment. Whether the experience is political, spiritual, or drug-induced, this is one polarity of the human experience that has been around for a long time, perhaps as long as there have been humans. I hate to use words like “trans-historical” or “human nature” because, first and last, humans are social beings. And to argue that such unmediated communizing moments are merely the product of human biochemistry is misdirected because all human experience is biochemically based. But what of the insistence that any such experience be made universal, all-encompassing, and 24/7?

Perhaps my most disturbing moment came when I once scored weed from a hippie house where the goal was to remain dosed on acid morning, noon, and night. They kept a bottle of non-chlorinated mineral water laced with LSD in the refrigerator and everyone drank from it throughout the day. The memory of the tranced-out zombie residents haunts me still. I remember both Ken Kesey and Wavy Gravy talking about the gaping holes in their memories where data and recollection simply disappeared from prolonged acid use, a black hole, a dark star, the “smokin’ holes where my memory used to be” in “the train wreck of the mind.”

I occasionally sit zazen at the San Francisco Soto Zen Center. Communally organized and hierarchically structured, the goal is to remain present here and now at all times even while profound incidents of immanence and transcendence are considered rare. Everyday mindfulness as opposed to perpetual nirvana. That the highly organized communalism of such spiritual institutions often degenerates into kool-aid cults organized by and around crazed gurus bent on mass murder or collective suicide is not at all surprising.

Which brings us back to politics. The demand in the the ’60s was not only for permanent revolution but REVOLUTION NOW. Raoul Vaneigem and the Situationists talked of the “revolution of everyday life” and Daniel Cohn-Bendit argued that “the reason to be a revolutionary in our time is that it’s a better way to live.” The manifesto for libertarian communism however was Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism. And his post-scarcity, post industrial, post Marxist anarchist communism was nothing if not utopian. He proposed decentralized, autonomous communes where divisions between theory and practice, freedom and necessity, individual and collective, town and country, industry and agriculture, nature and humanity, technology and ecology are merged into a revolutionary synthesis, an unmediated totality, a political all-one. From the decentralized communism of self-contained communes, Bookchin’s social ecology eventually broke with post-scarcity anarchism for a more practical, communalist libertarian muncipalism based on democratic citizens’ assemblies in towns, cities, and urban neighborhoods linked by regional democratic confederalism. That in turn has become the basis for the revolutionary Kurdish politics in Rojava.

I understood early on that daily psychedelic use was not advisable, but it took me longer to realize I preferred workaday mindfulness to everlasting nirvana, or practical libertarian municipalism to utopian post-scarcity anarchism. I would rather my propitious, unmediated communizing moments be less awe-inspiring and all-encompassing. I’ve mentioned the tendency in such spiritual experiences to degrade into authoritarian cults of personality with a propensity for murder and mayhem. Consider that the politics in question also have an affinity with fascism’s unmediated collectivism. To the old Soviet precept about the politicization of aesthetics, where art is subordinated to politics a la socialist realism, Walter Benjamin contended that the key element to Fascist regimes is the aestheticization of politics. Life and politics are conceived of as innately artistic, to be structured as an art form, and thus imbued with eternal spectacle. In turn, Fascism’s utopian fantasies are of an unmediated poetic space where direct communication is the howl of the dog that goes silent. Life, politics, and art can only be redeemed from fascist degeneration, according to Benjamin, by making them truly dialectical, a concrete form of praxis.

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